A Place Out of Time
Virginia's FloydFest Is Where the Magic Pops
by Michael Gallant
Enthusiastic concertgoers at the tenth anniversary of FloydFest in Floyd, Virginia. Photo by Russ Helgren
"Floyd, Virginia is a place out of time," said Kris Hodges, co-founder and producer of FloydFest, the epic, homegrown festival that blossoms in the small Blue Ridge Mountains community every July. "This town creates the opportunity for anything to happen, as long as it's positive and sustainable. And the community supports the roots music scene indefinitely."
It would have been difficult for Hodges -- who created the five-day event a decade ago with his wife and festival director Erika Johnson -- to have found more fertile soil in which to plant the couple's dreams. Steeped in the traditional music and arts of the Appalachian Mountains and sustained by a steady flow of newcomers, Floyd is essentially a Mecca of Americana music, exhibiting an artistic vibrancy and diversity that serves as FloydFest's creative lifeblood. In 2011 alone, the festival's lineup ranged from Oakland hip-hop pioneer Lyrics Born to the second-line New Orleans funk of the Dirty Dozen Brass Band, from the classic blues of Taj Mahal to the mountain tunes of the Whitetop Mountain Band. Beyond the music, FloydFest further channels the unique vibe of its hometown, hosting a wide variety of local vendors, a Healing Arts Village, a family-themed Children's Universe, and workshops for both kids and adults.
The story of FloydFest is inextricably tied to the grit and inspiration of its founders, as well as the identity of its namesake community. Here's what Hodges and Johnson had to say about their evolution as festival planners, the unique character of their hometown, and the process of creating one of the most diverse musical events in the United States.
The Importance of Being Floyd
"Floyd represents a back-to-the-land appreciation of slowing down," described Hodges. "A lot of people from the north move here to get away from the rat race. The community supports people with fresh ideas on lifestyle and living. Since it was first settled, it has had such a strong foundation of creativity that it really affords the opportunity to create your own life."
Local vendors include locally sourced food, regional jewelers, potters, woodworkers, clothiers, and fine artists. Photo by Russ Helgren
For Johnson, the mixture of local farmers and indigenous artists with relative newcomers from Maryland, New York, and New Jersey creates a potent alchemy of tradition and open-mindedness. "With the Appalachian musicians, organic farmers, potters, timber framers, yurt makers, midwives, and even a doctor who does house calls and runs a barter clinic, you really do have a place out of time, where the outside world doesn't dictate how people live, think, or create," she said. "We pride ourselves on having a unique haven from the rest of the world. And we were able to take FloydFest into this mix and represent that."
Since FloydFest played its first note, Hodges and Johnson have been thrilled with the enthusiasm they've received from their Floydian brethren. "Community support for this sort of thing is rare, but the people of Floyd jumped to support what we put together," said Hodges. "We had enough confidence to sell the idea to people, especially with the community aspect, and it caught on."
"It became a self-fulfilling prophecy in a great way," continued Johnson. "Most festivals don't have the town as a namesake, and we were already in deep. There are many artisans that were involved since the beginning, and the vibe of Floyd was just the right sort of eclectic fit for what we wanted to do."
In the Beginning
The couple's journey toward FloydFest began not with an outdoor concert, but with a restaurant. "We owned a small place called the Oddfella's Cantina," noted Hodges. "Given the strong pull of Appalachian arts in this town, we focused on local cuisine and, of course, the local, traditional roots music." The Cantina quickly began hosting artists such as Norman Blake, and packing listeners in to capacity. "We decided we wanted a bigger stage," said Johnson.
Hodges and Johnson transformed an unused cow pasture into a vibrant outdoor music venue, seen here from the nearby Blue Ridge Parkway. Photo by Russ Helgren
Given Floyd's location off of the Blue Ridge Parkway, the couple hoped to funnel existing tourist traffic into their as-of-yet undiscovered festival venue, and an exploration of the road ensued. They discovered FloydFest's future home at mile marker 170.5 -- an 80-acre, unused cow pasture with no infrastructure and no service road. After securing loans and permission to use the land, the planning of FloydFest truly began.
"That first year, we had a huge lineup, huge dreams, and huge money on the line -- and a huge hurricane," said Johnson. "It leveled the whole thing. It was hard trying to dig out and believe enough to forge ahead. But even that first year, as the hurricane was sweeping the festival site, volunteers and Floydians were pitching in and really helping us. That gave us a lot of fortitude to keep going. And that first year, FloydFest was still widely considered to be a huge artistic success, even with the hurricane."
For Hodges, a sign that FloydFest had truly hit critical mass occurred at year three. "That was when a local timber frame company wanted to partner with us to build a massive timber frame main stage," he said. "When that went up in the third year, that really said, 'We're here to stay.'"
By Families, For Families
"When we started our restaurant, we wanted to run an establishment where we would want to bring our children, and FloydFest is no different," said Johnson. "We have a Children's Universe with play equipment and performances for children and by children. The fact that FloydFest is family-friendly is self-perpetuating, and it's something we set out to do from the beginning."
The safe, positive vibe of the festival was tested two years ago, when a site-wide power outage left FloydFest in the dark. "At the time, it was panic for us," described Johnson. "We were afraid people would riot and loot. But as the electrical problem was being fixed, we looked around -- musicians were playing acoustic music to appreciative audiences, bands onstage were still making music, and little acts had sprung up on the grounds around small, contained bonfires. People still hearken back to that as one of their favorite FloydFest experiences."
Roots and Radars
"It's hard not to get caught up in the hype of popular music, but one thing that's always lasted beyond fashionable trends is traditional roots music," said Hodges, who programs acts for each year's festival. "It's been great to explore the ways roots music styles combine to create new sounds."
Indeed, roots music has always been at the core of Hodges' booking strategy. "I've had Taj Mahal, John Scofield, Grace Potter, the Neville Brothers, and also bluegrass legends like Tony Rice and Del McCoury," he recounted. "My booking isn't dictated by who put out a new album. At its core, it's what I like and what my audience likes, and what they request each year. Roots music has been central, but roots music can go anywhere," he added.
In fact, Hodges put his philosophy into dramatic -- and international -- action for the festival's first five years. "I went to West Africa to connect roots musicians there with roots musicians in Appalachia," he said. "I learned a huge amount from the difficulties of bringing musicians over from Africa to perform in Floyd. But it laid the foundation of Floyd- Fest representing truly diverse roots music."
Though he captains the festival's booking efforts, Hodges doesn't go it alone. "We work with the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities and the Virginia Folklife Foundation out of Charlottesville," he said. "They've helped us bring in traditional greats like the Whitetop Mountain Band and Maggie Ingram. Our people love the traditional arts, but they want a rockin' show -- authentic, non-hype music. Stylistically, it can be anything from jazz to blues to go-go to folk."
In addition to their regular booking, FloydFest hosts a series called Under the Radar, which gives talented but undiscovered acts the opportunity to perform in front of the festival's 15,000-person crowd. Audience members then vote on their favorite acts; the winner walks away with a cash prize, 25 hours at the local Blackwater Recording Studio, and, most important, a chance to play on the main stage at the following year's festival. "For many years, I was a musician surviving off of my craft myself," said Hodges. "So I'm proud to be able to support local and regional musicians with this series."
Johnson believes that her husband's own musical background helps him build a vibrant bill for FloydFest. "Believe it or not, having a festival that's actually programmed by a musician is somewhat unique," she said. "Kris isn't stuck in any one genre and he appreciates every aspect of music."
Ten Years and Beyond
For Johnson, FloydFest is about creating a complete artistic experience. "We both believe that arts are deserving of a beautiful venue and beautiful setting, and that the background should be holistic. We like funky venues, homespun locations with creative, imaginative people making art in imaginative places. That's where the magic pops."
A young FloydFest attendee enjoys a sprinkler-induced reprieve from the heat. From the first FloydFest, Johnson and Hodges have worked to make the festival safe and enjoyable for guests of all ages. Photo by Chelsa Yoder
"Seeing all of our volunteers, musicians, and audience members come in to grow the festival each year," added Hodges, "and gathering the post-festival comments we get from our partners and patrons, it's easy to see the power that the arts give to people. It's so important to us to support the arts, and there have been some incredible people who have supported us along the way."
Looking back, Hodges sometimes marvels at the long, strange trip he and his wife have undertaken. "It took so much dedication building FloydFest over the last ten years, but we believed in it so strongly from the very beginning," he says. "I try to convey that lesson to our children -- if you can see it, you can be it, and you can make it happen. That's a reality."
Michael Gallant is a composer, musician, and writer living in New York City. He is the founder and CEO of Gallant Music (gallantmusic.com).