By Jed Keith
People called to service have a tendency to downplay their invaluable contributions to their community. Denny Fries, the recipient of 2023’s Master Musicians Festival Lifetime Achievement Award, is the embodiment of that ethos.
“Picking me out of the bunch is an honor, but so many people have been instrumental to the process of the festival’s success over the years,” Fries said.
Fries has served MMF, a non-profit festival, for 15 years in a number of capacities: as site coordinator, as a stage manager, and as a member of the festival’s board of directors. However, when he first became involved with the event, he was just a man who wanted to help.
“I was teaching Kids Kollege at Somerset Community College,” Fries recounted. “John McQueary was site coordinator at the time. Back then, the festival was nowhere near the size it is now. (MMF Founder) Gabrielle Gray had two 40-foot flatbed trailers brought in and parked them next to each other in the campus’s plaza,” he said, connecting the trailers with sheets of plywood to fill the gap.
Fries could see that maybe they could use some assistance.
“I knew John and ran across him at the college,” he said. “I asked John, ‘Do you need help?’ to which he laughed and said, ‘We always need help.’”
Thus began Fries’s involvement with the festival, working every summer with McQueary until McQueary moved from the area. Serving as site coordinator is no easy task — coordinators often spend the week prior to the festival fencing, setting up tents, coordinating electricity and stage set-up — but it was a role Fries took on for 12 years at Gray’s behest.
What kept Fries returning to MMF every year were the connections he made.
“There would be people you’d see so infrequently and being at the festival was sometimes the only time you’d get to talk to them,” he said.
Those friendships and working together with friends to make the festival a success was one of the most gratifying parts for Fries.
“Numerous buddies of mine would should up at 8 o’clock in the morning and work in the hot sun all day,” he said. “Behind the scenes, people like John Wilson and Doug Choate, Bob Leidelmeijer and Jeff Wiles — they would just get out there and work. No one was getting credit for it. It was just something we enjoyed doing.”
That enjoyment extended to the diversity of music to which MMF exposed him.
“The bands and singers that I saw for the first time or became acquainted with at the festival are still some of my favorite bands,” Fries said. “I’m still going to see those bands’ concerts.”
In the process, Fries became a booster of performers that not only were talented, but also matched the vibe and spirit of MMF.
“I first saw the Avett Brothers at a festival in Bristol, Tennessee,” he recalled. “I came back to Somerset and said ‘We gotta get these guys [for MMF].’ They weren’t widely known as they are now. They were really good.”
You can clearly tell Fries treasures stories like this as you talk to him.
“Seeing groups like that succeed who you thought deserved to succeed was really rewarding,” he said.
Desiring success for others and a spirit of service are sentiments that have extended outside of the festival for Fries.
Fries worked as a field geologist for 18 years, eventually going back to school to earn his master’s degree in geology and teaching at Somerset Community College and Eastern Kentucky University. He ended up teaching geology full-time at the community college, and still teaches online courses for the college part-time. As he discusses his students, it’s clear how important his role as an educator is to him.
“It’s really nice when students tell me how much they enjoyed my class,” he said. “When someone says that my class is the first time they enjoyed a science course, that means a lot to me.”
And as he discusses the impact of MMF, it’s clear how much the education component of the festival’s impact colors his view of the event.
“For years, MMF was one of the major draws to the Lake Cumberland area during the summer,” Fries said. “It introduced kids to the college. Kids were brought to the festival who didn’t even realize the area had a festival. Kids got introduced to the idea of college, which is a good thing.”
That spirit of broadening the horizons of others is something that Fries applied during his tenure with MMF.
“Even if you haven’t heard of an act at MMF,” Fries said, “when you hear them play, you’re going to love them. The music is always so good. That is something that always sets MMF apart from a lot of other festivals: its innovation and diversity and how it’s incorporated into the festival.”
Fries’s love and appreciation for MMF and his dedication to the event is what led him to being named this year’s Lifetime Achievement Award, MMF Executive Director Tiffany Finley said.
“Denny has a long, rich history with the Master Musicians Festival,” Finley said. “Whether serving as a board member, a volunteer, or a fan, he is a significant part of what makes MMF so special and his love of MMF does not go unnoticed. In fact, that love is a value he’s instilled in his entire family, and as a result, both of his children have served on our board of directors. Denny is the perfect person to talk to if you want to hear stories about MMF’s good ol’ days with a smile on his face. I look forward to honoring him and hearing many of those stories as we celebrate our 30th anniversary.”
Fries is just as likely to humbly wave off Finley’s accolades, but still share what he’s learned and experienced over the years. And that’s just one example of why he’s been picked “out of the bunch.”
Denny Fries will be honored with the Lifetime Achievement award at 5:20 p.m. Saturday, July 15, on the main festival stage at the 30th annual Master Musicians Festival in Somerset, Kentucky.
MMF is south central Kentucky’s premier two-day music festival, bringing a wide variety of multi-cultural, multi-generational and multi-racial music to three stages July 14-15, 2023, on Somerset Community College’s Festival Field. MMF is led by a non-profit, all-volunteer board of directors made up of artists, educators, business leaders, and other community-minded residents dedicated to bringing musical excellence to rural Kentucky at an affordable price. For more information or to purchase tickets for the 30th anniversary festival sponsored by the City of Somerset, visit mastermusiciansfestival.org.