-JJ Sheffer for Tri State Indie – August 17, 2010

If you close your eyes when talking to Brad Selko, it’s easy to imagine yourself sitting with him in some smoky hole-in-the-wall bar, jawing over a rocks glass full of whiskey. But forget about being his drinking buddy; this week, Selko is all business, and you’re lucky to get a quick phone call with him.

Selko, 60, is the man behind Hot August Blues, the Cockeysville, MD roots rock festival. This Saturday’s event will be the 18th annual installment, and Selko expects it to draw as many as 7,000 people to Oregon Ridge Park. This is a far cry from the modest first event.

Selko was working for a Baltimore-area nonprofit organization in 1993 when a friend suggested having a picnic on Selko’s farm featuring Memphis blues harp legend Charlie Musselwhite. Selko welcomed about 400 people to that first event and donated a portion of the proceeds to charity.

“It was more of a blues-based event back then,” says Selko. Over time, “we threw in some Zydeco, then some other kinds of music,” and when Selko sold the farm, he moved the event to Oregon Ridge, and the audience grew to over 6,000 people. Over the years, they’ve featured acts like Magic Slim & The Teardrops, The North Mississippi All-Stars, Joan Osbourne, Professor Louie & The Crowmatix, Dickey Betts & Great Southern, and The Derek Trucks Band.

“We added more roots to keep the crowd young and old so the whole crowd doesn’t age out,” says Selko. The line-ups still include plenty of acts to keep the blues purists happy, and also feature Americana up-and-comers and acts with regional roots.

The evolution of the festival has its positives and its negatives. In its early years, Selko says things always just sort of fell into place and everything always worked out.

“Now I expect perfection,” Selko says. “Now I want everything to be right on time and ready to go.”

There were years that the acts would be late, either from getting lost or overdoing it the night (or the hours) before, and show up in the nick of time, hit the stage, and play an amazing set. Nowadays, thanks in part to a diversified line-up, things run a little more predictably.

“There’s maybe a little lower risk with behavior,” Selko says, “and more of a risk on weather.”

Weather reports for this weekend have bounced from a 20 to 50% chance of rain and back again. But Selko recalls the year they got 4 inches of rain immediately prior to the one-day event, only to enjoy beautiful weather for the festival, or the year it rained buckets and cleared up in time for Taj Mahal’s set.

“The main concern for me is always weather,” Selko says. “We’re up to date on everything else right now,” thanks to volunteer support from three nonprofit organizations: Young Audiences Arts for Learning, Common Ground on the Hill, and Music 4 More. All three are organizations that help school-age children through music and the arts.

Selko is proud that proceeds from the festival go to organizations that focus on developing underfunded music programs in schools and communities where “some of the kids…would have never had a chance in the world to play an instrument.” He brings great musicians together for the Hot August Blues audience, and everyone gets to enjoy it while supporting a good cause.

“These are all great musicians, and when you can stand onstage and watch them and know you’re doing something good at the same time,” Selko says, “well…that’s pretty cool, man.”

This year’s roster of great musicians includes Black Joe Lewis & The Honeybears, from Austin, TX.

“Black Joe Lewis kinda reminds me of old soul/R&B mid-60s bands with a front man and horn players, but with a young edge,” Selko says. “He knows how to hit both sides.”

The line-up also includes local band The Bridge, who have played national festivals like Bonnaroo and Mountain Jam, and Jackie Scott & The Housewreckers, who won the 2009 Baltimore Blues Society’s IBC Competition and went on to be a finalist in the 2010 International Blues Competition in Memphis, TN.

Headlining this year is Lyle Lovett & His Large Band. Selko says the band is indeed large – 16-piece – and “his band has some amazing players.”

In addition to its stellar line-up, the family-friendly festival also features food, beer, and craft/artisan vendors, and will draw people from hundreds of miles away.

This week, as Selko coordinates the finishing touches for Saturday and keeps his fingers crossed for good weather, he’ll also keep the 2011 event in the back of his mind.

“I’ll take a couple weeks off,” he says, “and then I’ll get started on next year.”  –

For more information, visit the Hot August Blues website at www.hotaugustblues.com.