Big events often have humble roots.
Take the island’s Bluegrass Festival and Family Fun Fair. The event, now in its third year, had origins in a visit to the island by New Mexico’s Foxfire Bluegrass Band in 2005.
Island Music Guild, where Norm Johnson was a board member of at the time, agreed to host this little traveling band at the guild’s Rolling Bay facility.
The audience was standing-room-only.
“It indicated a really strong interest in bluegrass music here on Bainbridge Island,” he said.
An attendee at that concert suggested a summer festival. So Johnson – who went on to form the nonprofit Music Community Resources to bring emerging and up-and-coming musicians to the island – took it on.
That first festival, held in July 2006, drew 1,700 people. And even as he arranged for island and area acts to complete the music lineup, Johnson also understood the importance of community involvement in the event. So he sought an anchor that would connect the festival to Bainbridge.
The key, as it happened, lay right on the grounds of the festival’s intended venue, Battle Point Park. There, the World War II-era Transmitter Building was in the middle of extensive renovations and was in need of a financial boost. Sue Hylen, of the Bainbridge Island Metropolitan Park and Recreation District, suggested that the two efforts might dovetail nicely.
“And I thought, how perfect, that’s exactly the kind of thing I’d like to support,” Johnson said.
So he teamed with Cindy Rees of the Transmitter Building renovation committee, arranging to donate the festival’s proceeds to the Transmitter Building project, while getting help from the renovation committee on the “fun fair” component.
“The fun fair part has really been a draw… it draws the target, the family,” he said.
So while adults are enjoying the mainstage bands, who this year will include The Tallboys, Whisky Puppy and Dewgrass among others, kids can partake of good, old fashioned fair-type activities like sack races and bean bag tosses. There will even be a kids’ stage featuring performances geared toward the younger set, not to mention food vendors, merchandise and for the first time, an antiques dealer specializing in Americana.
While the event has grown since the relatively low-key, low-budget 2006 effort, the spirit remains the same, with Johnson and fun fair organizers relying on a largely volunteer staff and equipment donations, and paying bands enough to make the effort worth their while while still having money left over for the Transmitter Building. That project is largely completed, but Johnson said the festival will continue to put its funds toward future maintenance costs.
One of this year’s biggest challenges has been the economy. Sponsors have felt the pinch, and visiting bands have noted that the cost of fuel has put a dent in their take. For that reason, Johnson has already begun scouting out bands for next year who are a little closer to home.
Which is, after all, what he does all year. Through Music Community Resources, Johnson spends a good deal of time seeking out and bringing promising acts to the public eye through venues like Pegasus Coffee House and more recently, Town & Country Market. MCR’s Hank Williams & Patsy Cline Festival has grown over the years, as well.
But it’s the Bluegrass Festival that he looks forward to the most, that is, provided he can sit down for long enough to listen.
“Watching the bands play is the highlight of the year for me,” he said.
Finger pickin’ good
The 2008 Bainbridge Bluegrass Festival and Family Fun Fair runs noon to 8 p.m. July 26 at Battle Point Park. Admission is $7/person, $15/family. Here’s the lineup:
Noon-12:45 PM Deadwood Revival
1-1:45 p.m.: Blue-Ize
2-2:45 p.m.: The Tallboys
3-3:45 p.m.: Solomon’s Porch
4-4:45 p.m.: The Emmons Sisters
5-5:45 p.m.: Kathy Boyd & Phoenix Rising
6-6:45 p.m.: Whiskey Puppy
7-7:45 p.m.: Dewgrass