STUART — The music doesn’t happen just on the stage of the Wayside Bluegrass Festival.

“They come here to pick. A lot of them come here to listen – probably about 50-50,” said Homer Boyd, who is a festival organizer along with his wife, Mary Boyd, and Danny and Patty Hazelwood and Steve and Carolyn Shivley.

Many of the attendees camp on site, and when they aren’t in front of the stage, they get together in bunches, Homer Boyd said.

“A lot of them to from one jamming party to another to another, and some of them pick all night long and then some.”

Said Steve Shivley: “A whole lot of this is because of a family atmosphere. They come to see their friends and enjoy the music together.”

They were among dozens of people eating a potluck supper Tuesday under a picnic shelter. The Tuesday supper over the years has evolved into being the kick-off event of the festival, which officially begins Wednesday but really gets going with scheduled bands today.

The Wayside Bluegrass Festival, Stuart’s biggest event, will draw thousands before its 4-day run ends on Saturday night.

“All these people come every year,” Hazelwood said, waving to indicate her fellow diners. She said the dinner was started for volunteers but has come to include early arrivals and neighbors as well.

Ben and Sheila Shank of Boones Mill have been coming every year since the festival’s revival in 2000 except for that first year — they had the tickets, but he didn’t have enough vacation time from his new job to go, Mr. Shank said.

They stay in a camper at the park and have their seven cats with them, they said.

Around 70 people had arrived by Tuesday, and around 2,000 to 2,500 total are likely to come, Hazelwood said. Some 150 campsites already have been reserved.

The earliest campers arrived a week ago, she said. One family from Roxboro, N.C., camps there for a week each year. Since Sunday, they have been to DeHart Park in Stuart and Fairy Stone State Park.

The bluegrass festival is a big deal for Patrick County tourism, Patrick County Director of Tourism & Marketing Sandra Belcher said.

It is the county’s biggest festival, she said. Front Porch Fest also is big, but it has different types of music, whereas bluegrass “means everything. Patrick County is bluegrass, pure and simple. ... The bluegrass festival is our anchor. It defines Patrick County,” Belcher said.

Floyd Fest is within the Patrick County borders, she added, but it is closer to the town of Floyd, which is in Floyd County, and those localities reap the benefits of its tourism spending.

In its early days, the site was Wayside Speedway, and its 5-acre pond once was a race track.

Danny Hazelwood’s father, Homer Hazelwood, started the park in 1972, and his newly created bluegrass festival then was called The Country Gentlemen’s Festival, the organizers said. “This was a world-class festival back in the early days,” said Shivley, but it died down in the late 1980s and early 1990s.

About two decades ago three couples took over the park, and in 2000 they brought back the Bluegrass Festival.

They have brought in such modern-day big names as IIIrd Tyme Out, Daily and Vincent, Lonesome River Band and Doyle Lawson and Quicksilver.

“The Bluegrass Festival is right costly. It’s not cheap by no means” to host, Homer Boyd said.

It usually costs about $35,000 each year to put on, with between $25,000 and $30,000 just to pay the bands, he said.

The Wednesday night musicians are cheap – they are paid in trade-off, with free admission to the festival, he said. That was the case with Mountain Highway last year, a group of young musicians who “didn’t even have instruments until two years before that.”

They were so good that “they get paid to come back this year,” with shows Friday at 3 and 8 p.m., Boyd said.

“We love to see the young kids come in here playing,” Boyd said, “12 to 15 years old, a lot of them playing a whole lot better than the grown-ups.”

The festival grounds have Virginia Tourism’s large “LOVE” letters in honor of that department’s 50th anniversary of the “Virginia is for Lovers” campaign, “50 Years of Love.”

Patrick County is participating in the 50 Years of Love’s 50-Day campaign. Patrick County’s 50 days of observance started in early June with the Hot Fun in the Summertime Beach Festival, also at Wayside Park. It includes promotions from many local businesses, Belcher said.

At the potluck supper, Patty Hazelwood unveiled a “Virginia is for Bluegrass Lovers” banner she had gotten from the state tourism department. She had to go through quite an involved process to get it, she said, and as part of the deal she had to buy T-shirts that matched the banner. She gave away 50 of them through raffle that night and would have more during the festival.

Holly Kozelsky is a writer for the Martinsville Bulletin; contact her at 276-638-8801 ext. 243.

Holly Kozelsky is a writer for the Martinsville Bulletin; contact her at 276-638-8801 ext. 243.