Back in 1986, a bluegrass fest gave the locals of Conway, Missouri, a way to connect over old-fashioned music and culture. A few years later, a similar festival by the same organizers was added to the calendar. These two events remained an important focus of local life for decades. Even for something so beloved, however, the saying “all good things come to an end” seemed an inevitability…until Aaron McDaris and his family stepped up.
Just as the Starvy Creek Bluegrass Festival was set to shut down last year, these lifelong event fans took up the mantle of keeping it going. When they intervened, there was an outburst of joy that they’d saved something so important to this community.
“I grew up coming to this festival,” McDaris explained. “I grew up about 30 minutes from here.”
The people who had owned the fest for decades – the Day Family – had announced via Facebook that they were closing it down due to the burden of a family illness. The feedback people left in the comments section emitted a tone of communal grief.
“When it shut down, you could just feel the sadness and the air deflating out of everyone who commented,” McDaris said. In reaction to this, he “met with the [Day] family, and prayed…and the rest is history.”
There are two Starvy Creek festivals: One in July and another in September. After reviving it all, a new weekend was selected for July: The second weekend of the month, instead of July 4th when it had always happened. That’s the only big change that was made.
Now is the time to mark calendars for Starvy Creek 2024; it’s a great option for any bluegrass fan who wants to experience this slice of genuine American life.
McDaris said the reason people loved it all so much – and the reason he and his wife and kids decided to pour their hearts and resources into keeping it going – is because festivals such as Starvy Creek are in short supply in this day and age. What makes this one special is how old-fashioned and family-oriented it still is.
“There’s no alcohol. No drugs,” he said. “We fry catfish succotash and have a pie shack. It’s a family-run festival with one stage and a beautiful campground. The stage area has shade…there’s a lot of shade in there. It’s one of the old-school family-style festivals.”
With a focus on the simple things – comfort food, family, and music that enlivens the soul – McDaris clearly has a grip on everything people had always loved about the Starvy Creek festivals. He wants to make sure it retains the same vibe under his watch.
“As for now, I felt it was best to keep it like it was,” he explained. “I think people come there for that very reason because it still is traditional.”
This event sounds quite different from the massive, corporate-owned festivals. Those events fill a need and have their place, but they don’t offer the understated, natural Starvy Creek vibe. The way McDaris described it, the scale and feeling sound oh-so genuine. It’s a community thing. McDaris guesses that 2,500 to 3,000 fest-goers attend each year.
McDaris had a great lineup of notable acts for his first year at the helm in September. There was The Grascals. High Fidelity. Joe Mullins. Lonesome Road. Rhonda Vincent. He promises a lineup of similar quality for the 2024 fests.
Speaking of Vincent, McDaris said the well-known bluegrass musician was a driving force behind him taking the Starvy Creek leap. He said he had always wanted to start his own thing and even still owned land locally he might someday use for that purpose. He’d moved away some time ago to Nashville, but the siren song of music in his home state always called out to him, and the dream of running his own fest never died. He jumped when the opportunity came to take over two events that had shaped his life. It seemed…right.
“God opened that door for me, and I believe he pulled us back to our home state for that purpose,” he said. “Rhonda [Vincent] was truly a big help to me. Her family did festivals,” McDaris explained, of how she gained such a breadth of knowledge about music and event planning. “She basically led me through all this.”
He’s a professional banjo player and knows her well due to pickin’ and strummin’ as a Rhonda Vincent & the Rage member.
He’s also quick to credit the many people involved yearly. Once he took over, that didn’t change.
“The people that attend are like family,” he said. “People are so willing to jump in and do anything to help.”
McDaris said bluegrass and its associated festivals have been near and dear to his heart since childhood.
“It’s my life,” he reminisced. “It’s truly been my life since I was 12.” It all started with his first, the bluegrass festival in Dixon, Missouri. He had just begun to play banjo himself, and seeing all of that happening onstage significantly impacted him. “Other kids my age were playing, and from that moment on, I went to every bluegrass festival I could.”
His experience reflects why he sees his work with Starvy Creek as valuable.
“It keeps kids out of trouble,” he said, “when they have something they can pour their hearts into.”