Question: How do you keep a small regional music festival viable?
Answer: Invite top-notch talent, keep your core audience happy and stress the local economic impact of the festival.
That appears to be the path for the Asheville Music Jamboree, a festival that’s moved and morphed over the years but remains one of the most beloved. What began as a small party to mark the death of the Grateful Dead’s Jerry Garcia in 1995 became SmileFest, which evolved last year into the Asheville Music Jamboree (affectionately referred to as AMJam).
The changes haven’t deterred festival organizer Bob Robertson, who says he’s determined to make the festival “a top-quality event with national touring acts and combine that with our great local talent and some up-and-coming regional acts.” To put it another way, Robertson says, “What we’re trying to do is really make this a classy, music-driven event that also touches on a lot of other things.”
Musicians who play the festival often talk about it in terms of family, and have worked closely with Robertson over the years. Larry Keel says he can’t wait to get back to the mountains to play.
“It just seems like there’s such a great scene for music up there—bluegrass bands sprouting from every tree. I like the setting—it makes you feel good when you’re there,” Keel says.
“I like the intertwining of it all. You get to share your music with other musicians, and that’s just amazing.”
The music, obviously, is key, Robertson notes. He says he’s working hard to build a relationship with Asheville-native Warren Haynes of Gov’t Mule, so that Haynes might be a regular. At the same time, Robertson wants to mix the big-name headliners with the local and regional acts.
“I’m hoping that some of our local musicians can take advantage of getting in front of national booking agents and management companies,” he says. “All they need is the right person or entity to see them and get that next break.”
That mix appeals to musicians like Eleanor Underhill of the Asheville-based Barrel House Mamas.
“I can’t say I’ve had a moment when Bela Fleck is leaving the stage as my band takes the stage,” she says. “I find that completely terrifying and exciting. I told my mom, and she said all you can do is light your banjo on fire to top him.”
But there’s more to a great festival than the music, and Robertson says he and his partners in Mountain Roots Management are also working to make stronger connections with local nonprofit groups and connect with Asheville artists. Habitat for Humanity, the Moog Foundation and a group working to establish an Asheville music hall of fame are just a few of the groups Robertson says he’s working with.
As far as the venue is concerned, there have been some minor changes to this year’s festival. The vendors have been moved out of the main stage area and into a nearby location, while still trying to maintain the appeal of Deerfield’s overall landscape—900 acres of rolling hills, ponds and the gnarly trees of an old apple orchard. The festival might eventually grow to 4,000 or 5,000, but this year’s event is selling only 3,000 tickets.
As the festival has gotten bigger, it hasn’t always been a good thing. Growing into SmileFest, the event drew attention from N.C. Alcohol Law Enforcement agents who, in 1993 and 1994, charged dozens of people with various drug and alcohol offenses. AMJam has had no such negative attention, and Robertson says that he’s determined to build a family-friendly event for everyone to enjoy in a safe and secure environment.
Most of all, though, the festival is focusing on local ties and the importance of urging people to put money back into the local economy.
“We really want the citizens and musicians and artists of Asheville to take ownership of this event and make us proud,” Robertson says. ” Our success and continuation is all up to the local citizens.”
who: Asheville Music Jamboree
what: An annual outdoor music festival featuring about 3,000 people and musicians ranging from Warren Haynes and Gov’t Mule and Burning Spear to Keller Williams and James McMurtry
where: The rolling landscape of Deerfields, located about 20 minutes south of Asheville in the Mills River community of Henderson County
when: Friday, May 23, through Sunday, May 25 ($140 for the weekend, with day tickets available at the gate. www.amjam.net or 357-8483)