Person-to-Person: The 4th Appaloosa Festival Gets Underway

Music, family, and fun can touch places in the human heart that arguments fail to find.

(photo: Photo Credit: Craig Spiering, via

“At this point with the milieu out there, there’s no dialogue between anybody.”

The observation comes from Daniel Fedoryka, one of the founding members of the band Scythian.  We’re nearing the end of our conversation about the annual festival that his band, Scythian, holds in west Northern Virginia, around the area where Dan and I both grew up. The low-key Catholicity of the festival, “Appaloosa” (this year Friday, Aug. 31 through Sunday, Sept. 2) is always a worthy topic; but this year it has fresh urgency.

For one thing, as Dan observes, “Thinking from the beginning of Appaloosa to now, the external climate is so much more aggressively anti-religion.”  Some of the things Scythian takes for granted—wearing crosses, saying “God bless you” at the end of a show, and donating to the Little Sisters of the Poor—may no longer seem like quaint customs, but have the potential to offend.

“Especially now,” says Dan, “with the terrible abuse dossiers coming out, the atrocities committed by the Church, it’s going to be an interesting climate.”

But that doesn’t mean backing off from external demonstrations of faith, Dan adds.  “I think this is a time where Catholics have to realize how much they have to offer, by the way they live their lives out.  We have to actually acknowledge the terrible things and be there with the people that are angry with the Church.  But I think we can be confident that there is something beautiful here, [and tell these people,] ‘Our family is messed up, but we want you to see the parts of our family that aren’t messed up, and I can introduce you to people.’  A lot of [good] just comes from the person-to-person interaction.  And that’s the way Scythian has always operated.”

At the 2018 Appaloosa Festival, one of the places where Dan hopes for interaction is the Sunday Mass which will open the festival’s final day.  This year the Mass will be celebrated by Arlington’s Bishop Michael Burbidge, with the requisite smells and bells.  Ben-David Warner, a former Scythian member who left to pursue sacred music, will be leading a schola in the parts of the Mass; the meditation hymns will be polyphonic; and traditional hymns for the entrance and exit will encourage Mass-goers to join in.

“We want everyone singing together,” Dan says.  “It’s a music festival; we want to show [people] the old music too, the Mass music, the beautiful things that the Church has to offer.”

This includes, of course, the obligatory coffee and donuts after Mass.  At Appaloosa, a percentage of profits goes to the Little Sisters of the Poor, and they commandeer the coffee and donut collection as well.

Sunday Mass, however, is the only overtly Catholic event at Appaloosa—which is after all primarily about quality music, performed in a fun, family-friendly atmosphere.  (As in previous years, family packages ease the cost for parents with children; and there is lower pricing for kids and teenagers 13-17 as well.)  Last year the focus was on improving the stages; this year it’s on the vending and camping: making sure that the food trucks are top notch, bringing in more artists who craft on the spot, etc.

The music itself needs no improvement.  This year’s lineup continues the solid tradition of bluegrass, folk, and old-fashioned rock that Scythian and their fellow bands perform.

The headliner early Sunday evening will be Mandolin Orange, a husband-wife duo whose style Dan describes as a good foil for Scythian’s.  “It’s just really good song-writing and haunting voices.  We’re kind of more of an upbeat party band; they’re kind of more like just come and sit down, relax, and have a good listen.”

Saturday will feature Gaelic Storm, the Irish band that first came to public attention through the movie Titanic. (Remember that third-class dance party? Yep, the steerage band was Gaelic Storm.)

And the band of Dominican friars, the Hillbilly Thomists, will be back, fresh off the success of their album last year (it made top ten of the bluegrass charts for multiple consecutive weeks).

Scythian’s work bringing topnotch music into the Blueridge area has received recognition for a few years now.  This year, the reception of a Virginia Is for Music Lovers grant and sponsorships by Merrell Shoes and Eno Hammocks mark the festival’s artistic success and help it continue to grow (as well as—in the case of the sponsorships—giving attendees a chance to have fun with their products for free). 

As Appaloosa attracts more fans, Scythian works to spread its music beyond the festival.  Their nonprofit, the Appaloosa Blueridge Arts Foundation or ABRAF, will sponsor workshops throughout the festival, and Mandolin Orange will hold a workshop on how they write songs.  The presence of children’s bands and bands including children will encourage young people to see musicianship as personally achievable.

The festival also involves performers with special needs.  This year it will host musicians from A Place to Be, an organization that uses arts therapy to help people overcome their challenges.  Having special needs people perform in this type of venue, Dan says, is not only good for them: it can be transformational for other attendees.  “A lot of festivals are like ‘come to this experience, what’s it going to do for you.’”  In contrast, performances by musicians like those from A Place to Be help fans to realize that “music is not just about what I can get out of it.  It really grabs people by the heart; it shows the communal aspect of the festival. … And then [the special needs performers] stick around the festival and they’re just the happiest attendees on the planet—I mean, they just rock out!”

This kind of personal encounter is one of Appaloosa’s reasons for being.  It’s also the sort of contact that will become increasingly important for Catholics seeking to evangelize in the coming years.

“[Dialogue] just has to be person to person,” Dan says.  “And it has to be out of love.” 

A case in point is a story from last year’s Appaloosa Festival.  It began like so many other big-Catholic-family stories: a mom of half-a-dozen encountering a couple with two. At the grocery store, these meetings rarely result in more than the side-eye and maybe a nervous are-they-all-yours; at the festival, the two families struck up a conversation. The couple with two were curious: How was the mom of six not tearing her hair out?  As she told them what her life was like and they listened, understanding slowly grew.  Maybe, the couple said, they needed to have more kids?

That’s Dan’s idea of what Appaloosa can do in a world where ideological conversation seems stalled.

“We’re trying to create the environment where these dialogues can happen,” he says, “but we just leave the rest up to the Holy Spirit. And it really is about providing a music that opens people’s hearts. [If people are hearing] music, they can let go of the things that keep their fists clenched or their hearts covered … This is my mom’s philosophy; she said: ‘Beauty is the entry point of the Holy Spirit, and if you play beautifully and you play from your heart for people, then their hearts will be opened and they will hear more.’”