Roots Take Hold in Silver City

Pickamania: Southwestern NM’s homegrown fest for bluegrass, Irish, old-time, country, and Cajun music—basically, anything with fiddles in it.

At the first Pickamania festival, in 1985, Bill Bussmann dragged straw bales and wooden planks across his garlic farm to build a crude stage. His makeshift dance floor was blanketed with leftover garlic cloves. Bussmann had invited a few dozen friends, neighbors, and musician pals to camp overnight at his home near Caballo, a tiny town 14 miles south of Truth or Consequences. The occasion? A celebration of acoustic music. Once the tunes kicked in that first night, couples crushed the cloves underfoot in a dance of wild joy. The smell of garlic was as powerful as the tunes, and listeners so appreciated the music that they whooped and cheered and finally passed the hat. The musicians got $25 each.

When an Albuquerque banjo player heard the story, he told Bussmann, “For that kind of money, I can get you the best folk musicians in the state.”

The next year, 300 people camped out at the garlic farm, and Pickamania was a certifiable southern New Mexico event. Bussmann had to post his two young sons to moderate traffic flow at both ends of the narrow road that stretched five miles: from the village of Caballo, along the Animas Creek, to his farm.

The festival continued to grow, as did its reputation among acoustic-music purists and pickers. But by 1992, things had gotten out of hand. Bussmann expected another couple hundred campers that year, not seven hundred. His place was simply too small to accommodate the mushrooming crowd.

So Pickamania died. Almost.

Bussmann, a playful eccentric from the bygone days of New Mexico’s hippie communes, recognized a good thing when it was camped out on his garlic farm, and had faith that Pickamania could come back even stronger one day—if it could find a more suitable home.

Over the next decade, Bussmann’s musical connections spread nationwide, as he began to emerge as probably the best luthier in the West. America’s finest folk musicians were raving about his Old Wave mandolins. (Bussmann made his 500th instrument this year. He still makes mostly mandolins, as well as archtop guitars, basses, mandolas, octave mandolins, mandocellos, and few fiddles.) And many of his new customers had heard of the strange and mythic festival in the remote town of Caballo. Would Pickamania ever start up again? they’d often ask.

In 2008, Bussmann fielded a call from the Mimbres Regional Arts Council’s shrewd director, Faye McCalmont. The MRAC, a 2013 recipient of a Governor’s Award for Excellence in the Arts (see p. 20), has had a huge cultural impact on Silver City and was already the purveyor of the Silver City Blues Festival, one of the state’s prime musical events. McCalmont had a question: Would Bussmann allow her to give the name Pickamania to a music festival in Silver City, just 60 miles away?

McCalmont knew Silver City had a natural venue for acoustic music—gorgeous Gough Park, just a few blocks from downtown. She also knew that authentic acoustic music sounded better outdoors.

And mid-September weather in Silver City is usually perfect. So, after nearly two decades, Pickamania was reborn.

While acoustic music remains front and center, the festival is still difficult to pigeonhole. Bluegrass? Sure, but also Irish, old-time, singer-songwriter, country-western, Cajun, and native New Mexico fiddle tunes, all in a picturesque setting. And the organizers have stayed true to Pickamania’s roots by keeping it a free festival.

The crowd at Pickamania is a New Mexican tossed salad. You’ll see original hippies, neo-hippies, retirees, academics and students from Western New Mexico University, back-to-the-landers, bikers (motorized and pedaled)—music lovers all.

The emphasis is on acoustic music, so don’t worry about earplugs or the usual drawbacks of mega music festivals. Lawn chairs are lovely, but a blanket is better, especially spread out near the paved dance floor. There’s also a Saturday-night shindig at the event’s beer garden. And Pickamania’s relaxed policy of no assigned seats is kid friendly— it’s more a musical picnic than a formal concert. Need to put the kids to bed? No worries, the show is over at sundown.

But once things get dark, Pickamania takes yet another left turn: Open jams sprout up around the festival grounds. If you bring an instrument, you might find yourself playing tunes with the same pickers you were just cheering, or tapping your toe to Bayou Seco, the local favorite fiddle-accordion duo.

“It’s a testament to how much fun people had two decades ago that they kept the name Pickamania,” Bussmann says. “Musicians get tired of being ignored at bars, but they love a respectful crowd and getting called back repeatedly by standing ovations. And that still happens in Silver City.”

This year’s festival is September 13–15. And you can still meet Bussmann—he’s one of the best double-bass players in the state and seems to be everywhere at Pickamania. Feeling lucky? Buy a raffle ticket, and maybe you’ll win one of his exquisite Old Wave mandolins. Bussmann donates one each year to keep the festival from ever going dormant again.