The Cultural Authenticity of Forecastle

Photo courtesy of Forecastle

Photo courtesy of Forecastle

This weekend, Waterfront Park will spring to life in the way it does only once a year. From Friday, July 15 through Sunday, July 17, one of the nation’s premier music festivals, Forecastle, will be taking place, offering the absolute best in music while also entertaining and engaging guests with its myriad cultural and educational offerings.

Louisville native J.K. McKnight founded Forecastle in 2002 and held the very first edition of the festival, which he describes as “a local musician camaraderie kind of event,” in Tyler Park in The Highlands. McKnight had been living in Southern California but moved back to pursue music. “I had been looking for something communal I could put together to get reacquainted with the local music community here,” he recalls. “And I thought the festival was a great way to do that.”

The event was a success, though small in scale. It raised only a couple hundred dollars and focused solely on music. By year two, the activism component, which is now deeply ingrained in the identity of Forecastle, was introduced. This activism, which took shape in the form of the Forecastle Foundation, not only gave an extra layer of significance and meaning to the festival but it also made it an unequivocal, specific brand.

“To me, it wasn’t interesting to do a festival that just had one singular focus – like music,” McKnight explains. “If it was just a music festival, I wouldn’t have been as passionate about it as I am.” The Forecastle Foundation, whose mission is “to find and protect 12 of the most ecologically diverse yet endangered areas of the planet,” is the most central activism aspect of the festival and indeed has the second largest footprint at Forecastle.

There are nearly 20 different revenue streams at the festival that feed back to the foundation, and while some are obvious, some go almost unnoticed. “A lot of people aren’t even aware that they’re buying a drink and that’s going back to the foundation or they’re picking up some merchandise and that’s going back to the foundation,” McKnight relates.

But McKnight also emphasizes how important it is to him and the entire team to illustrate some of the best of Louisville on the grounds of the festival. “I think Louisville has a lot to offer, and part of our goal at the festival is to be a platform to showcase the best of what we have to offer,” he affirms. “And you see that through the whole site. You see it in the Bourbon Lodge that’s representative of the bourbon trail. And then you go to Kentucky Landing, which has all our best microbreweries, our local businesses, our food trucks, our nonprofits, our artists.”

And the response has been overwhelmingly positive with attendees from all corners of the country dazzled by the eccentricity and charm of Louisville. One piece in particular of Louisville’s cultural identity continues to rise in popularity at the festival with each year. “If the brand was ‘Music, art, activism’ for the first decade, it’s ‘Music, art, activism, bourbon’ for the second decade,” McKnight laughs. “The Bourbon Lodge has the biggest footprint at the festival, and it has the best Kentucky bourbon brands in the state inside. And what I love about the Bourbon Lodge is that it’s not just going in and sampling bourbon – we have master distillers there, we have educational programming through the day, we have activities inside, we have a whole culinary program outside – it’s really a whole deep dive into bourbon culture here.”

McKnight contends that it’s the success of the aspects of the festival like the Bourbon Lodge that make Forecastle so singular. Everyone knows the festival offers great music – that’s a given. It’s the creation of the absolutely unique Forecastle brand that has been so important to him. He started this project out of genuine passion, and the festival’s development has been undeniably authentic. “I never built this with a 10-year grand vision,” he asserts. “I never said, ‘OK, let’s make a business with a business plan.’ It was never like that; it was always super small and DIY and grassroots from the beginning. And what would happen is when we got done each year, I would see how it went – and normally, it would be fantastic and beyond my expectations – and then I would raise the bar.”

And that’s what he’ll continue to do for years to come. The focus of Forecastle is no longer being bigger but rather better each year. McKnight may have had dreams for Forecastle success but never expectations. And that earnest outlook and commitment to the components that have made Forecastle one of the most beloved music festivals in the country is what will continue to elevate it on an international landscape for years to come.

“As early as 2005, there was probably part of my head that was thinking, ‘Oh wow, how great would it be to get to the Great Lawn one day and have My Morning Jacket play?’ or something like that,” McKnight admits. “But I didn’t obsess over that – I just obsessed over the details and how to take it one notch higher than it was the year before.” VT

This year’s Forecastle, which will feature The Avett Brothers, Alabama Shakes, Death Cab for Cutie and many more, will take place at Waterfront Park July 15-17. For more information, visit forecastlefest.com.