It is not easy to be in charge of a large-scale annual event. Just ask the folks who make the Laurel Festival or the Coal Festival or the Barkpeelers’ Convention happen. When it came to Hickory Fest, that joyous musical happening at Stonyfork Creek Campground celebrating old-timey bluegrass, newgrass, and just-plain-excellent tunes and players, the go-to person was Sue Cunningham. Fiddle player extraordinaire, she was one of the festival’s founders and had been its producer for thirteen years. Her exuberant, flawless mastery of the fiddle was a perpetual festival delight.
Sue died last fall after a three-year war with cancer, a war that she waged, for the most part, privately and without fanfare. So, too soon, when it was time to decide “will there be a festival without her?” her long-time life partner and musical collaborator, Frank Serio, took a deep breath and said, “Yes, there will.”
And it will be in her honor, because it was an event she loved, in a place she loved, surrounded by people she loved and who loved her.
“She was this angel genius who came down and hung out with us,” Frank says. The problem then, for him, has been how best to put aside his own grief and loss and honor a person who was never a self-promoter, who was humble and even a bit reserved but who, when she had that fiddle tucked under her chin, became something almost otherworldly.
And, oh yeah, she really was a rocket scientist.
Sue came from a dichotomous family of engineers and musicians. She was classically trained on the violin and piano; her music in those early days was structured—she, in fact, missed the whole rock and roll/pop era. But then there was that auspicious day, the day her older brother played her an album by the late, great Vassar Clements. Sue had her bluegrass awakening and, without any trouble at all, fell in love with the free-form style.
Her violin morphed into a fiddle.
Meanwhile, she earned her undergraduate degree in materials science and engineering from Cornell, her masters and doctorate in mechanical engineering from Carnegie Mellon, and her MBA in management (Sloan Fellows Program) from MIT. She specialized in jet engines (thus the endearing “Flying Sue Cunningham” name her brothers gave her when they played music together) and worked as an engineer, manager, and business developer for companies in Pennsylvania and Florida. Throughout those years, she and her brothers played music as The Flying Cunninghams; she collaborated with Peter Rowan, The Harris Brothers, and Verlon Thompson, to name just a few; and in 2000, she formed The Hickory Project, where her bow dipped and skimmed and raced over shimmering fiddle strings and her singing voice came into its own. Her last and most recent musical project, “Find Your Angel,” was a Civil War story of love and loss, conceived and brought to fruition by herself, Frank, and Verlon.
Sue lived in Florida but made a second home here in Tioga County, where today she is conspicuous by her absence from her own beautiful house, a house that is a tasteful and subdued testimony to the woman who designed it, where her grand piano gathers dust, and where her Caribbean-blue eyes and familiar smile peek out at you from the dozens of pictures Frank has taken of her over the years.
She’s there, but she’s not—much as she will be there, but not, at this year’s Hickory Fest. In the scramble of final festival preparations, Frank is envisioning an event that will be a testament to Sue, to what he calls “this beautiful, brilliant presence,” to her love of music and performing, and to her desire to mentor, to pass something meaningful on to someone who might not otherwise have opportunities as she did. To that end, he and Sue’s family established the Sue Cunningham Music Scholarship at the Dreyfoos School of the Arts in West Palm Beach, Florida. The first recipient, Matthew Barnes, a sixteen-year-old classically trained violinist, will be at the festival to accept his award and play some tunes.
And, as they have for the past two years, portions of the festival proceeds will benefit the Tioga Chapter of the American Cancer Society.
And the bands for this celebration? Festival-goers will be treated to performances by some of Sue’s musical colleagues: Donna the Buffalo (a local favorite at Trumansburg’s Grassroots Festival), the Claire Lynch Band, Verlon Thompson, Driftwood, Billy Gilmore and Friends, Dan Shipe, the Cherry Flats Ridge Pluckers, and Sue’s Brothers.
Not long after she died, Frank wrote a love song to Sue. “I love you more than anything, I love you more than everything...” goes part of the refrain. This Hickory Fest is, at its heart, about that love, Sue’s love for her music, her music family, and that family’s love for her.
“Sue would take all my crazy ideas and make them work,” says Frank. is one is not so crazy, but Sue is there, making it work, her love as palpable as the notes soaring from her ddle into the ether.
So join us at Hickory Fest, August 19-21, to celebrate Sue Cunningham. For ticket and event information visit www.hickoryfest.com.