Appaloosa 2022: A Labor Day Music Festival With a ‘Secret Mission’

The Appaloosa music festival returns full-force to Front Royal, Virginia, on Sept. 3-4.

Appaloosa 2017
Appaloosa 2017 (photo: Craig Spiering, via / Craig Spiering, via

If Americans are politically polarized, recent years have also marred religious solidarity. Besides the pandemic and politics, the past year has also seen the welcome but disruptive Dobbs decision and the complicated implementation of “Traditionis Custodes.”

Reenter Scythian, the eclectic, roots-music-oriented Catholic band that is not about praise and worship. They focus on their music with consummate artistry and professionalism, letting beauty be the seed of a future faith for anyone ready to receive it. Danylo Fedoryka, one of Scythian’s members, acknowledges that American society can feel it’s at “war.” In that context, “Music is a nice way of saying, ‘You know what, I do love you.’”

That’s especially true at Scythian’s annual festival, Appaloosa, which this year takes place on Labor Day weekend, Sept. 3-4. Appaloosa is a music festival, but it’s a bit more than that: it’s a Catholic beach party without the beach, a campout with Mass. This year Arlington Bishop Michael Burbidge will be celebrating Sunday Mass for performers and attendees of the festival. Former Scythian member Ben-David Warner, now studying sacred music at the Catholic University of America, will lead the choir.

Bishop Burbidge told the Register that he profoundly appreciates those dedicated to the “craft and discipline” of music, which can, “when it is created with wholesome and virtuous intent, participat[e] in God’s creative genius.”

It’s not the first time the bishop has said Mass at the festival, an experience he describes as “an honor and a joy,” and a way of giving thanks for the blessings Appaloosa embodies. “[T]here is no better way to express our gratitude to God for these many gifts than to celebrate Mass and unite ourselves with him in the Blessed Sacrament. With the festival not being explicitly Catholic, it also offers non-Catholics a window into the most important and deeply spiritual moments in the life of the Church: the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass. It might even spark their interest.”

Fedoryka too sees Appaloosa as part of the soft evangelization that characterizes Scythian’s brand. He recalls that when the band was starting out, they “used to get emails saying ‘You guys are afraid to be Catholic; you’re ashamed to say it from stage.’” But they stuck to their idea of art as indirect evangelization. Dan paraphrases a line from Rainer Maria Rilke’s Letters to a Young Poet, to the effect that “an entire universe of events needs to transpire in order for a young man to be open to advice. God is the constant gardener, always working on the soul. … When we started this it was our hope to engage everybody with the good, the true and the beautiful and just see what happens, what God would do.”

Like everything else Appaloosa was canceled in 2020, and reentered with a whisper in 2021. This year, given the CDC’s relaxation, they will be back with as much mustard as ever.

Scythian has a horn section now, thanks to the breakup of New York City band (and former Appaloosa favorite) Caricatura. It’s a development that’s enabled Scythian to work out new numbers, and markedly raised the band’s energy.

Molly Tuttle, the first woman to win guitar at the American Bluegrass Awards, will be playing at Appaloosa too, as well as 16-year-old guitarist Presley Barker (a recent American Idol contestant), and husband-and-wife-team Birdtalker.

Angela Dugas, a Scythian fan who’s volunteered for Appaloosa for six years, says part of what drew her is the variety: roots music, Celtic, Americana, Indie folk and bluegrass.

This year Dugas is looking forward to hearing a new country band, Smoke and the Poet. “I’ve found that going to the festival has shaped what artists I seek as I always discover someone new, like the Louisiana born Arbo and harmonious Honeyday. I admit that I've been listening to Humming House and Parsonsfield for years now, thanks to seeing them at Appaloosa!”

Volunteering is about community, too, for Dugas — about celebratory, post-labor brunches with fellow volunteers, and about the festival’s “friendliness and joy” and its “witness to rich family life.” She remembers a favorite moment from last year. When “a downpour temporarily moved the main stage show under the bar tent and a child pulled out a bodhrán to play along, a fellow volunteer bartender said, grinning, ‘This (festival) happens every year?! I’m definitely volunteering next year!’”

Dugas also appreciates the fact that Appaloosa is, though not a religious event, one with an “underlying pulse [that] is definitely infused with the faith. … Priests and sisters stroll among those in tie dye and ripped jeans.” Recently Dugas was delighted to find among the vendors Tamburn Bindery’s Joel Trumbo, an artist bookbinder who is producing an illuminated manuscript of the Gospels in the tradition of the Book of Kells. As Dugas says, “That just doesn’t happen anywhere else.”

John Echaniz, one of the festival’s two MCs, also commented on the mixology (as it were) of the festival. A listener might walk in on a bluegrass act, a virtuosic guitar solo — or on a rapper supported by a flautist. “When you go to Appaloosa,” Echaniz says, “you have an idea of what you’re getting into, but you kind of never know what you’re going to get. … There’s always some surprise, there’s always something unexpectedly awesome, that jumps up and [makes you say], ‘Wow, I didn’t see that coming!’”

Echaniz has been involved with Appaloosa for years, partly for the music, but also for the people. Indeed, the festival has become such a mecca that he and fellow MC Collin Stewart have to be on guard when offstage — the temptation to chat it up with old friends and make new ones can pose a risk to their announcer’s voices.

In the context of current culture war tensions, Echaniz considers Appaloosa a “respite” from a world where, “as the Marxists would try to say, the personal is political; and they were trying to drive wedges [between people]. [Appaloosa] is just an environment where you don’t have to deal with that.” At Appaloosa, tensions are diffused and sublimated into a healthy energy.

That air of wholesome good fun has always been part of Scythian’s brand. Echaniz says they show how one “can have a great time and enjoy great music and be a faithful Catholic in the world, and there’s just nothing inconsistent about that.”

Lizzy Lademan, a longtime Appaloosa and Scythian fan, agrees. She says that “in our polarized world” she’s developed a high regard for “the intentional gift to everyone of those things which Catholics hold dear — such as the beauty of good music and joyful community — without the religious branding. Families of all sorts feel welcome, see the goodness of the things we cherish, and may be moved in ways we cannot see. To be sure, the mission may be — as it ought to be in everything we do — to bring the whole world to Christ, but there’s nothing wrong with a secret mission!”

Besides being a Scythian fan, Lademan, also happens to be a professional violinist and private music instructor serving families around Trivium High School, and co-director of liturgical music at her parish. Posed the question of whether one can enjoy both classical music and Scythian, Lademan asked rhetorically, “Can someone like Aristotle and Calvin and Hobbes?”

Calvin and Hobbes, the intense, goofy, ofttimes philosophical comic strip that appeals to young and old alike, is pretty near a perfect graphic analogy for the experience of Scythian and Appaloosa in general.

It is an experience that, Danylo Fedoryka says, the last couple years have shown cannot be taken for granted. “Live music is what creates a culture. You can put on a CD and create an atmosphere, but you can’t create a culture [that way].” As he sees it, everybody coming to Appaloosa is helping determine whether or not the culture of live music continues. He’s well aware from his own family life that it can be a chore to load up a family of kids for a long drive in the car into the foothills of the Virginia mountains. But he still says, as he has in the past, “I can guarantee you that if you can get in the car, you’ll have a heart-changing experience, or your money back.”