Do you have to be crazy to start a music festival?
I wondered that after seeing a notice for the second annual Poor Farm Festival in Williamsburg, West Virginia. There seems to be at least three strikes against success: a resoundingly flat economy, declining attendance at music venues (down 20 percent by some estimates) and gas closing in on four bucks a gallon.
So maybe the organizers are munching a bit too much of the local loco weed.
But there’s something to be said for people whose madness benefits musicians and their listeners. The Poor Farm Fest (www.poorfarmfest.com) listed 29 performing bands this year, and organizer Carolyn Stephens was kind enough to offer me a last-minute slot, bringing the number to an even thirty (to keep the ethics tidy, I did not ask for remuneration). The festival was providing work for over 100 musicians. The only act I’d heard of was Nora Jane Struthers, although the sons of two rock stars – Ginger Baker (Cream) and Greg Allman (Allman Brothers) – were billed as headliners.
Besides all that, I could use a good airing out. Website photos showed a terrific setting – mountains, meadows and deep blue sky. I packed up the camping gear, found a bottle of retsina and off I went.
The drive from Richmond to Williamsburg is nice, as Interstate drives go; I-64 provides dramatic (for this part of the world) views topping Afton Mountain outside Charlottesville and re-enters mountainous terrain just past Lexington. Goshen is a beautiful stretch of mountain and valley; if I end up ashes I wouldn’t mind a few spoonfuls being sprinkled thereabouts (heirs take note). The first kiss of fall (the festival opened Sept. 6) had started to turn the leaves around Clifton Forge and an hour or so later I exited at Lewisburg, W.Va. for the final 25 minutes of the trip. The Williamsburg Road covers the final eight miles or so. It is of interesting design: a paved lane with two gravel shoulders; when cars approach it’s onto the shoulder to avoid collision. Eventually you come around a curve and there’s the Poor Farm: 1,000 acres of meadows and forest, some hilly, plus a house, a stage, and a herd of cattle. Atop a distant mountain ridge a dozen or so white wind turbines twirl away.
The site gets its name from its former function. When residents of Greenbrier County were down and out they could go to the farm and work a section of land. The terrain rolls and in some places dips dramatically – the result of limestone cave collapses – but the concert area is fairly flat and the stage – a sturdy structure enclosed on three sides – has a sound system powerful enough to cover the fairly vast camping area, which for my money is nicer than the camping spaces at Floydfest, Clifftop, and certainly Galax.
All in all, a superior festival site. Only one thing was missing: people.
When I arrived Friday afternoon, the second day of the festival, musicians on stage sometimes nearly outnumbered the audience. If I were running things I might have gone hunting for a cyanide pill. But organizer Carolyn Stephens (aided by husband Pete) was unruffled. Her attitude brought to mind the motto of a childhood hero: What, me worry?
Carolyn is tall, slender, and apparently unflappable. On Saturday morning we talked things over during a drive to make a bank deposit. My first question: What on earth possessed you to jump into the festival biz?
Well, she began, she had booked acts during her school days at Curry College, near Boston. She brought in people like Livingston Taylor, who might not have sold tons of records but who knew how to win over audiences. Later, she worked in radio – once doing shows on three stations in the same market. “One of the stations was adult contemporary, one was country, and the third was a religious station.”
But love of music isn’t the main reason she started her festival. Wal-Mart played a crucial role – the kudzu-like retailer opened two superstores within an hour of Poor Farm at a time she was making her living selling plants. Her horticulture business soon shriveled. If she was going to stay in the area she’d have to create her own job. She recalled the good times booking acts back in college, and she did have a nice0 site for a festival.
“When we decided to do this, I had 45 days total to get ready. We had to put in roads. We had to build a stage. We had to get a vendor, and line up volunteers. I had to get permits, including an ABC license.” There was also promotion, and the small matter of finding bands that could be booked on short notice. “I hadn’t been to a festival since 1978,” she said. “I do everything on the fly. I mean everything.” Internet research helped her find talent. She ended up hiring seventeen acts, cutting deals with many that included a promise to book them the following year in return for a reduced fee.
Yet Carolyn was unable to cut a deal with the Weather Deity – it rained off and on during the festival. But the festival did attract around 600 people. “Four hundred of them were my neighbors who wanted to see what the hell we were up to,” she said. “They didn’t like music. They’re farmers.” But the other 200, she believed, might become repeat customers and would also talk up the festival to their friends. “The rule is, one talks to ten, so by our second year we’d have the possibility of 2000 people coming.” Word of mouth seemed to be working. “The first year, our Facebook page had 200 friends. This year, we had 2,000,” she said. She also developed a list of about 20 newspapers she targeted with press releases (which she wrote) and pictures. “Some of these papers ran the releases without altering them,” she says, adding that she studied journalism in college. She eventually took out an ad in Relix magazine, which she said was hugely expensive. I sensed Relix won’t be getting any more of her money.
After depositing a wad of currency, we headed back to the Farm. Like many of this year’s acts, the Rain God made a return appearance. She acknowledged that bad weather can dampen attendance. But she also said that the first two days of the Poor Farm 2012 were improvements over year one, and that she was very enthusiastic about some of the new acts.
“I avoid agents like the plague,” she said, but two of her stronger acts for 2012 came through agent John Laird at the Americana Agency. “John has a reputation for being both good for the artist, and good for the venue. In the long run they both have to succeed. I told him I had a small festival and he said he had some up-and-coming people who were really good, and who I could get for a good price.” One act was Nora Jane Struthers and her band, TheBootleggers. The other was The Steel Wheels.
“Nora Jane wrote a song about Greenbrier County – about the effect the coal mining and limestone industries have on residents of this county,” she said. “It’s a great song – and she had never played in Greenbrier County. I thought, ‘this is serendipity. This girl needs to be here!’” The Steel Wheels, meantime, had been well received at Merlefest. Another acoustic act, Johnson’s Crossroads, had also played Merlesfest, and while now based in Asheville its two core members are from the area (I’ll profile Nora Jane Struthers and Johnson’s Crossroads soon).
She was also very enthusiastic about Friday night’s headliner: Kofi Baker’s “The Cream Experience.” I had liked them as well. Kofi, son of Cream drummer Ginger Baker, could give his dad a run for his money and his band mates left no one pining away for Eric Clapton and Jack Bruce. With a few exceptions (including a cover of Jimi Hendrix’s “Manic Depression”) they stuck to Cream and Blind Faith hits; Kofi also warbled a version of “Pressed Rat and Warthog” – a tune that goes well with retsina and which probably doesn’t get covered very often. Though he has a top-flight musical pedigree he’s very accessible and good-natured. His running joke had it that Ginger Baker actually wrote all the Cream’s music, only to have it stolen by Eric Clapton (Kofi’s godfather, Carolyn tells me). He also got off a good joke at Jack Bruce’s expense: “How are a cup of 7-11 coffee and Jack Bruce alike? Both are best with Cream.”
The audience loved the band. But from what I could tell there might have been 1oo listeners, max. And that was huge compared to the next day. To be fair, the stage talent had declined a bit by then, at least early on.
Carolyn had given me an 11:30 slot; the plan was to play tunes from my new collection of instrumentals (free here: www.daveshiflett.com) and gently draw festivarians from their tents to the stage area in time for the opening noon act. A consummate professional, I rehearsed earlier than morning, sitting on the stage and playing for a woman with three children plus a security guy who had been up until five drinking moonshine.
But as show time approached it was hard not to notice that the lovely meadow in front of the stage was nearly empty. Indeed, had I left my chair in the meadow for the stage when 11:30 arrived, I would have taken the entire audience with me. Yes, I was the only person awaiting my performance. I’m accustomed to playing for small houses so this was no worry. But it raised a vital question. How long can this festival last without bringing in more people?
Carolyn doesn’t seem worried. She said she would give the festival 3-5 years to succeed, and believes that as word gets out – especially about its excellent site and stage – larger acts will want to make the trek down Williamsburg Road. One band she hopes will help put Poor Farm on the festival map is Donna the Buffalo. “I’ve tried to get them before,” she says. “I really want to get them here next year.”
Donna would seem a perfect musical match for Poor Farm, and if the band’s loyal followers — AKA ‘The Herd” – showed up, that should make the cash registers sing as well. Other good fits would be Hot Tuna, Tim O’Brien (a West Virginia boy), and Lyle Lovett (who told me last year he was probably going to go independent) plus returning favorites (Nora Jane Struthers, the Steel Wheels, Johnson’s Crossroads, Kofi Baker). The roster could be rounded out with younger rock/roots/blues acts trying to climb the ladder.
Can Carolyn pull it off? She said she is putting in as many as eighty hours a week to make Poor Farm fly. She seems determined to succeed, come hell or high water.
There was no lack of the latter on Saturday afternoon. Just as Nora Jane Struthers was about to go on, a ferocious rain/wind storm struck. Canopy frames were twisted like pipe cleaners. My faithful chair, parked directly across from center stage, blew away, never to be found.
I know a sign from heaven when I see one and decided to vamoose. Just before departure, Carolyn drove up, surveyed the situation, and declared that the chance of rain was down to about ten percent. “I can live with that,” she said. Later, she filled me in via email about the final day:
“On Sunday, the sun came out and so did the families. We had tons of kids and families sitting in chairs with winter clothes on…We had a full-fledged super light show, smoke, strobes, and covers from the greats like Black Sabbath and Rush, a huge wild show ending with a professional fire dancer on the audience side of the stage who whirled her fire-pots to the music and just made a grand finale for the weekend…I left the festival feeling like a huge success, and I can’t wait to do it again next year!”
Here’s hoping Carolyn Stephens can find a way to make Poor Farm grow and prosper. I’d like to return, maybe even find my vagabond chair.