Keep on smilin’

It began with the death of an icon.

August 9, 1995: Jerry Garcia’s demise, while perhaps unsurprising given his well-documented bouts with drug addiction, among other health problems, still stunned Deadheads the world over. To crib from Dead-lore, the eyes of the world — or at least their world — had finally closed forever.

In the days that followed, impromptu wakes popped up in locations as disparate as Japan, Texas and, yes, sleepy little North Carolina. After one such gathering in Greensboro, SmileFest’s forefather, muse and still-proprietor Bob Robertson (who lives in Black Mountain) recalls just wanting to get folks together again.

And so through a mailing list collected at that original gathering, invitations to a new celebration of life through music were sent out.

About the first SmileFest, Robertson recently mused to Xpress: “It wasn’t really a festival; it was more of a party. Tickets were eight bucks. There were three bands, camping overnight, that sort of thing.”

About 350 people turned out for the inaugural edition of what’s now a firmly embedded anchor in the increasingly bloated music-festival circuit. It was a decidedly humble start for an event that has, for the last four years anyway, pulled around 3,000 to 5,000 devoted and (mostly) smiling attendees.

Through the years, SmileFest lineups have appropriately emphasized North Carolina’s bluegrass and acoustic-music roots. To hear repeat offenders like the insatiable Larry Keel or his good buddy Steve “Big Daddy” McMurry (of regional band Acoustic Syndicate) talk about the vibe at SmileFest is to hear a lot of one word: family.

“I tell you, SmileFest has a very, very special place in my heart,” says Keel. “To know the whole staff and then to look out in the audience and see all these people who’ve been coming out for so many years and being so supportive … it’s big, big love.”

But also, and as with most any family you’ll find (and, indeed, like Garcia himself and the extended Dead musical family), SmileFest has endured its share of dysfunction — most notably at last year’s installment in Iredell County, just north of Statesville.

“The cops just won’t leave us alone”

As SmileFest grew larger and more successful each year, Robertson sought a larger venue to accommodate more fans and, of course, more music. In 2001, he found that new home at Van Hoy Campgrounds in Union Grove, N.C., the site of the 80-year-old Fiddler’s Grove Festival, the country’s longest continuously running fiddlers’ competition. SmileFest drew some 4,500 folks that first year at Van Hoy, and enjoyed similarly successful attendance numbers over the next three years.

However, with burgeoning numbers came burgeoning attention — and not just from bluegrass and jam fans, but also from state authorities. Responding in 2002 to an ad he saw about the event, Agent Bryan Irwin of the state Alcohol Law Enforcement agency drove up to check things out. According to Irwin, within an hour on the premises he had arrested an attendee with some four pounds of psilocybin mushrooms — a big-time felony in North Carolina.

In his talks with Xpress, Irwin pointed to that first arrest in 2002 as a sign that SmileFest needed further policing. So the next year he came with four other ALE agents. They conducted undercover operations and made about 90 arrests, including “30 to 40 felonies,” he says.

But the ALE was just getting warmed up. At last year’s now-notorious event, Irwin brought “somewhere between 9 and 11″ agents. As before, the ALE personnel worked in conjunction with local authorities, including the Iredell County Sheriff’s Department. Irwin and his men swept the grounds — from individual campsites to concert crowds, and even the usually private backstage areas — nabbing exactly 199 individuals to the tune of nearly 330 charges and about 60 felony arrests, mostly for drug-related offenses, according to Irwin.

N.C. ALE enforces the state’s alcohol, drug, tobacco and gambling statutes. The division conducts operations throughout the state, and any site that has ABC alcohol permits (as Van Hoy does) falls within their jurisdiction. Although nearly three-quarters of 2004’s offenses were misdemeanors — most of them for simple marijuana possession — many of those 140-odd folks with misdemeanor charges were not spared a trip to the local jail, even though state law did not require it.

Irwin says that such misdemeanor arrests remain at the discretion of arresting officers. If, for instance, an officer thinks someone is a “flight risk,” that person can then be detained. But he also notes that nearly 90 percent of last year’s cases have been “disposed of” (in other words, everyone showed up for court), while the remaining cases are caught in continuances and other normal delays.

Nevertheless, for many fans, the normally relaxed SmileFest vibe had obviously taken a sour turn.

During a Saturday-night slot last year, McMurry and Keel’s Big Daddy Bluegrass Band gave an amusingly bittersweet nod to the chaos by plowing through “Veggie Burrito,” a tune McMurry wrote “after a long, long night at Larry Keel’s house.” (Prompting the tune, Keel had jokingly mused: “Do you think Del McCoury’s ever been to a Grateful Dead concert?”)

The lighthearted song tells the story of a few Deadheads who are cooking up the tune’s namesake burrito to sell on the lot outside a show. “The cops just won’t leave us alone,” the song’s fictional music-lovers lament.

History, repeating

In his talk with Xpress about the final days of Acoustic Syndicate — who are, after more than a decade together, calling it quits so members can spend more time with family and pursue other interests — McMurry wonders if Iredell County residents may have fretted that what had happened long ago to the Fiddler’s convention would somehow happen to SmileFest.

A local sheriff at last year’s SmileFest, who had worked past SmileFests for years and had plenty of positive things to say about the festival, shared war stories with this reporter about the Fiddler’s Grove events in the 1970s. Up until then, the competition (begun in 1924) had been held on a local school ground — but the once family-friendly event was steadily drawing a rowdier crowd. By the end, tens of thousands came — most notably biker gangs. Fights, stabbings and even full-on police shootouts ultimately ensued. When the Van Hoy family reopened the event on their own property nearby, it was invitation-only and alcohol-free (the latter rule still holds true).

But by any measure, SmileFest is a far cry from the unlawfulness that characterized the fiddlers’ conventions before the switch. Nonprofit sponsors, kids’ play areas, organic-food vendors and decidedly peaceful music fans of all ages have helped make Smilefest a relatively down-home event.

“We’re not a drug-fest — we’re not Bonnaroo,” pleads an emotional Robertson. “We’re a 3,000-person festival. Last year I think we had over 100 kids. We have families coming, and that’s all we are. We want folks to be safe. We want laws to be followed.”

Still, Agent Irwin, who says he proudly carries a copy of the constitution with him when conducting undercover operations, insists that the small festival was not unfairly targeted. “We don’t pick on people,” he says. Irwin admits that the high number of arrests at last year’s SmileFest “seems unfair,” but he adds that “it’s not out of any grand conspiracy by our agency to target any individual group.” He believes that the escalating drug violations in recent years speak for themselves: “It’s unfortunate that the few people who go there to have a good time have to have their event ruined by the people who go there with the intention of breaking the law.”

“Into the future we must cross”

The above line hails from one of legendary guitarist Jorma Kaukonen’s finest compositions, “Genesis,” a song about pressing on through love, despite whatever hardships have passed. That sense of steadfastness is at the heart of this year’s SmileFest, which will take to the unspoiled lakeside glory of Deerfields, just south of Asheville near Mills River. The new locale offers a roomy, pristine staging ground for what could easily be SmileFest’s strongest lineup to date.

Kaukonen and mandolin maestro Barry Mitterhoff of the current Hot Tuna lineup will join fellow headliners Keel (with his new group, Natural Bridge); David Via of Corn Tornado; Keller Williams; Curtis Burch; and Bela Fleck’s new acoustic trio, which includes standout bluegrass flatpicker Bryan Sutton.

Sutton, who grew up in Candler, may well be the best acoustic guitarist you’ve never heard of. Picking his way across Nashville for the last decade, he has become a hugely sought-after session player and solo recording artist: Sutton was called upon to fill in for the theretofore-irreplaceable Tony Rice on a recent Bluegrass Sessions tour, joining the ranks of Fleck, Jerry Douglas and Sam Bush. Not too shabby for a local boy — one who hasn’t forgotten his roots along the way.

Asked about coming home to play SmileFest, Sutton offers a portrait of a town strikingly at variance with the cutthroat, business-driven edge of Nashville.

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