Mass at an American music festival is unheard of. Almost.
The decision did not come blithely.
Danylo Fedoryka, who founded the band with his brother Alexander, explains that they didn’t want to “preach” at attendees.
Being Catholic, however, “is who we are. … [Having Mass] is one element of the Irish festivals that we love, and I thought this was really something that I want to have: I want to have the Eucharist at our festival.”
It was a standing-room-only event, one of the highlights of Appaloosa 2015.
For Fedoryka, “It was like God’s way of saying, ‘You have to get a bigger room for next year because when I’m here, you can’t contain me.’”
The band’s fans already knew of its Catholic roots. Scythian donates 10% of fundraising campaigns to charity — specifically, to the Little Sisters of the Poor. The generosity has become part of Scythian’s shtick: At Appaloosa 2015, their donation announcement raised audience cheers of “Yeah, Little Sisters!”
‘Upliftment of the Human Spirit’
Now in its 13th year, the band (Alexander, Danylo and Larissa Fedoryka; Timothy Hepburn; Josef Crosby; and Nolan Ladewski) plays a flexible style that Fedoryka describes as “old times, good times” — the name of their latest tour.
“We tend to say that we’re more of a feel than a genre. We’re very broad musically — we’re basically an incarnation of who we are as people,” said Fedoryka. “We have Eastern European music; we have Celtic. I grew up in the Shenandoah Valley, so we have blue-grass elements and old-time elements, as well.”
Described as “Celtic rock” and “roots” music, Scythian’s sound morphs from song to song.
Some pieces recall klezmer (folk music of the Ashkenazi Jews), while others are indebted to Irish music. Their eclectic style even has room for a lyric by 17th-century poet Edmund Waller (Go, Lovely Rose, from their 2014 album Jump at the Sun).
Initially less noticeable is what Scythian’s songs don’t include. Despite touches of dark humor (e.g., My Son John, Cubicles and Tylenol), they eschew the sex-and-violence-saturated tone common in contemporary music. Appaloosa 2015, including some 20 additional bands, reflected the same tendency.
Fedoryka said, “I think these days that so many people are afraid of offending people that they go to the lowest common denominator. … But we decided this festival is an incarnation of who we are, so we’re booking bands that fit our spirit.”
Marie Miller, one of the headliners from Appaloosa 2015, who will be returning this year, said, “The Appaloosa experience celebrates and promotes the purpose of art in accordance with St. John Paul the Great as the ‘upliftment of the human spirit.’”
Calling it “a uniquely joyful experience that honors the family by offering entertainment that all ages will enjoy,” she says it’s an honor to perform at the festival. “I know they look for artists who are not only family-friendly, but joyful and excited about using their gifts.”
This family-friendliness of Appaloosa extends beyond the music played.
Recalling that their family of 10 couldn’t afford such events growing up, the Fedorykas made Appaloosa free to children age 12 and under and provide a kids’ area.
Prayer Pays Off
Getting the first festival off the ground wasn’t all smooth sailing. Several locations fell through, and the town council hesitated awarding a permit.
But Scythian’s nonstop novenas to the Infant of Prague paid off. The permit arrived one month before the event, and the festival garnered attention from NPR, The Washington Post and the “Virginia Is for Lovers” website, Virginia.org. Despite truncated ticket sales, 3,200 people attended, including 500 children.
Fedoryka credits Front Royal, Va., residents with much of Appaloosa’s initial success.
Having grown up in the town — which is home to Christendom College — he knew the festival would be appreciated by locals and bands alike. “It was really like all these awesome people had a sense of ownership: ‘This is our town; we want you to have a good time.’ So many of the bands commented [that] they had never met so many nice people.”
Appaloosa’s other secret ingredient was its volunteers.
“That was basically the lifeblood of the festival. … I remember realizing: ‘It’s like what Pope Benedict talked about as an alternative to capitalism: an economy of generosity, where people give of themselves, and then, in turn, you’ll give to others.’”
Fedoryka’s enthusiasm for Appaloosa is shared by many of the other bands that have joined the festival.
Kevin Heider, of Kevin Heider & The Honest Stand, says he is “exited to be returning for year No. 2, which is already shaping up to be bigger and better than the first.”
“Speaking strictly as an artist, the diverse talent on display at Appaloosa is inspiring and challenging. … When you see Scythian perform live, you see seasoned performers playing their hearts out with big smiles on their faces, as they bring so much joy to their audience. If my music can help bring more of that joy to the Appaloosa community, that’s my hope. My music is personal to me, obviously. But when I share it, it becomes something more, something communal. And when a community gathers and the music compels its members to lift their glasses and sing along as one, that’s a beautiful thing.”
This year — mark your calendars for Labor Day weekend, Sept. 3 and 4 — Appaloosa’s bands and anticipated audience have doubled. Three stages have become five.
The festival site links to Scythian’s Appaloosa Blue Ridge Arts Foundation, a 501c3 for children involved with music. Several bands with “kids’ projects” (including Scythian’s “Cake for Dinner”) will perform, with headliners offering free workshops.
Fedoryka hopes Appaloosa will eventually provide opportunities that weren’t available during his childhood, including scholarships for instruments and music lessons and perhaps a permanent school in Front Royal.
Even without the school, Scythian and its fellow bands provide something increasingly rare and valuable: art not branded “Christian” that nevertheless advances culture by celebrating the best of ordinary life.
And this comes in a venue that includes a children’s musical.
Yet the average hipster escaping D.C. need not feel discomfited.
There are children, and the occasional religious habit — the Little Sisters enjoy visiting their fans; and there are those Hillbilly Thomists, whose members play in their Dominican habits — but for the rest, Appaloosa is simply solid, pro-grade music.
And music, moreover, in lovely outdoor weather.
Fedoryka is confident in the forecast — Scythian has been praying novenas again to their “festival director,” the Infant of Prague.
Sophia Feingold writes from Florida.