In Shakori Hills GrassRoots Festival's inaugural year in 2003, rain turned the festival site into a mess of red clay. Volunteers had to pull cars out of the muddy lot, even as other attendees were arriving.
Festival founder Jordan Puryear drove one of the tractors. "I went up to this woman and I said, 'Sorry, but we're going to have to actually pull you in,'" he recalls in his quiet, gentle voice. He was justifiably concerned she would turn around and leave. "And she looks at me—she's just like, 'How exciting!'"
In the first few muddy fests, Puryear says he remembers the Shakori faithful pulling one other out of the boggy lot and helping those who fell. And that woman's reaction, as the festival founder offered to tow her car, exemplifies this event's homespun allure. "I thought she was going to be like, 'Never mind.' Because when you pull somebody into a muddy parking lot ..."
"They're going to stay there awhile," says co-coordinator Sara Waters, finishing his thought.
It could have been a quick end for the young Shakori. Yet the steadfastly grassroots festival has flourished. There's now a community arts center, a nonprofit encompassing itself and the festival, sharing the land and staff. And this weekend an expected 8,000 people—an entire town, practically—convene on a 72-acre spread off Henderson Tanyard Road just north of Pittsboro. Notable names on the bill include horn-heavy soul-funk powerhouse Sharon Jones & the Dap-Kings, Malian virtuoso guitarist Sidi Touré and, on a rare full-band tour, jam-fusion legends Béla Fleck & the Flecktones.
Puryear and Waters are excited about the roster, but the highlights of the festival are offstage, Puryear says. "There's all this stuff going on—kids running around, people hanging out with their friends. That's the real deal." And if Shakori Hills becomes a town on these weekends, as Puryear views it, the attendees are the residents rather than the clientele. Some families attend every festival, setting up in the tent city among Shakori friends. It's a vibe that has led bands to cancel hotel reservations and buy a tent, says Puryear.
"It's really cool to see people who came with their parents when they were young and now they're organizing the Outpost, which is the young adult area," says Waters. Many of the children who came to the first fest aren't children anymore; "We call it growing up Shakori sometimes," she says.
Weddings have been held on the site, and Puryear muses about buying an old chapel and trucking it to the property. Waters laughs, and it's a window into the two's relationship as friends as well as colleagues. "See, this is what happens," Waters says. "He has new random ideas every now and then."
Yet neither coordinator takes a utopian view of the village that materializes on this placid acreage in the rolling Chatham hills two weekends a year. "Any time you have a festival, you're going to attract a certain predatory element, which could be like drug dealers and whatnot," says Puryear. "You have a small city here. People bring their problems with them."
Puryear speaks in terms of statistics; this "predatory element," as he puts it, is present at any public place or event. Bar districts, he says, have similar problems in similar proportions. Yet Shakori Hills is a music festival, which some people view, rightly or wrongly, as anarchic bacchanals. Ten people have died at Bonnaroo since 2002, according to a Huffington Post story, and there have been deaths at other music festivals. And though these fatalities aren't necessarily related to drugs or alcohol, modern audiences and police may fear the worst when narcotics-related problems surface at a music fest.
"We found out, a few years back on a Thursday night, a couple of kids OD'd on something; no one seemed to know what it was," says Puryear. "They left here in comas or passed out and we were worried they were going to die." Organizers and volunteers painstakingly tracked down the dealer, who wouldn't or couldn't say what the pills were, and had him arrested.
"So the next year [the Chatham County Sherriff's Department] started a lot of road blocks and they found a few people that definitely had quantities they were intending to distribute," he says, again referring to dealers as "predatory." Yet he believes "per capita drug use is probably going down at the festival," and he asserts that the family atmosphere at Shakori is stronger than ever.
Puryear recalls festivals in New York where reporters went straight to the EMTs or reported only arrests, ignoring the positives of the event. "Of course there are going to be some problems, there always are," he says. Otherwise, "there wouldn't be police stations." Yet, so far, Shakori Hills has managed to avoid the serious violence, drug crime or deaths that have plagued some long-lived festivals. And unlike most events of this size, the organizers consciously avoid erecting barriers between audience and performer.
Retaining this grassroots personability requires keeping the festival controllable. Waters says they may soon cap attendance. "I'm sure we'll have to do that someday, but we haven't talked about when or what would be the ideal number of people."
A more immediate goal is ownership of Shakori Hills itself. "We started two years ago and we're 75 percent of the way to raising our down payment," says Waters. She wants to have that down payment by the time the current lease expires to avoid having to sign a new one. Once that's done, the festivals will help pay for the land. "It's a situation where originally we signed I think a six-year lease and it was up, but we were able to extend it," she says. "But you don't always know if you'll be able to extend it or not."
Even in fundraising mode, Puryear holds to his principles. He says he could never "hire a famous band for a lot of money" or take on corporate sponsorship: "They'll sell tickets for people who want to see that band, but you lose that festival feeling."
Although the fest is less than a week away, Puryear and Waters don't appear concerned. They sit on the porch of their headquarters—a farmhouse where the door hangs open and Charlie the Festival Cat lounges—talking and laughing. A man with a Sierra Pale Ale wanders by. He grins and sits for a moment; Waters says he built most of the festival facilities. His son got married here, Puryear adds. The electrician is wearing an AC/DC shirt and he walks up with a handful of serious-looking conduits. He and Puryear talk about how many of which thing to get at the next trip to Lowe's.
A cold front is blowing in. In six days, thousands of people, dozens of bands, and numerous vendors and workshops will converge on this property. In what appears to be a regular topic of conversation, Waters says she's checked the weather.
"The 10-day forecast looks good," she says.