"When you say 'We're going to do this music festival, and it's going to be this outdoor camping thing,' the first thing that pops into people's minds is, 'Oh, it's like a Woodstock-y kinda thing.' They assume that it's a hippie kind of thing,'" explains Jordan Puryear, who started Shakori Hills GrassRoots Festival eight years ago just outside of Pittsboro. "Now, there's Bonnaroo, and everyone thinks that's a young people's thing. There's not many models of what we try to be, which is an everybody, all-ages thing."
In light of the rise of corporate-sponsored mega-festivals across the country, Puryear's attempt to add a strong sense of community to a music festival could be tilting at windmills, sure. But the former bass player for Donna the Buffalo is successfully fostering a community-centered notion Puryear inherited at an early age. During the festival's lifespan, Shakori's annual crowd has grown to just shy of 10,000 fans—and is holding steady.
When Puryear was in high school in the late '60s, his father took him to the Union Grove Old Time Fiddler's Convention, toward North Carolina's Sandhills: "When we first went there, a lot of people were just camping next to their cars and playing music in this big field. It wasn't something that was at all pop or hip. It was just this thing that people did that really loved music." Puryear started playing in a fiddle band with his brother, and the pair eventually became bandmates in the folk-rock band Donna the Buffalo. When the band put on a benefit concert for AIDS research in 1991, Puryear found his calling. That concert turned into the annual Finger Lakes GrassRoots Festival in Trumansburg, N.Y., which continued long after Puryear left the band in 1996.
Puryear had become friends with Robert Mitchener at various fiddler's conventions over the years. When Puryear decided to look for a new seasonal festival site, he visited Mitchener in North Carolina, and they found the site of Shakori Hills. He put on the first Shakori Hills festival with Mitchener in April 2003. It rained.
But Puryear remembers when zydeco musician Keith Frank took the stage with his accordion. "All the people that were there in this rainy festival all gathered in the dance tent and started dancing to Keith Frank," he says. "I could suddenly see that this was definitely going to happen."
And it has: With a Shakori Hills festival every fall and spring, and a festival at Finger Lakes in the summer, Puryear now plans to host a festival in Miami this coming winter. "That will kind of finish up the original dream to have one for every season," he says.
Weathering the storm with everyone else was Tara Nevins, singer for Donna the Buffalo. Puryear's former band comes to every festival at Shakori Hills for a reason. "It's a lot more intimate," she explains. "There are no sponsors or anything like that. It's just very grassroots, homegrown. MerleFest and Bonaroo are just huge, huge, huge." Like these larger festivals, Shakori Hills can pull in some big names—the festival recently hosted Béla Fleck and Ralph Stanley. But the focus is often less on the headliners and more on the community experience. "You just know a million people there, and it's an incredibly social time. It's a wonderful, big family feeling."
This sense of inclusion extends to the stage. At the end of every weekend, Nevins says, "We invite all the musicians that are still there at the festival, they come up and play, and we back them up and we collaborate. That's always a highlight because you never know what you're going to get." It's an old-time jam of sorts, hearkening back to the fiddling conventions of Puryear's childhood. While the format is not unheard of in the bluegrass world, it makes for a special kind of festival.
The familiarity between performers exists among festivalgoers as well. Tents filled with musical instruments lead to impromptu jam sessions. Paul Hammond has been attending Shakori Hills since its start. "Back in the fields, we can play music until 3 or 4 in the morning, and that's what we usually do. We cook out and play music and have tunes." Hammond camps out with a dozen or so close friends, alternating between catching performances and picking out his own. He also takes part in the open mandolin contest.
"Its just kind of fun to get up onstage," says Hammond. "I pretty much have done that every year except for maybe one. Being able to play in front of a bunch of people and see how they respond to your music is really what it's all about for me." It probably helps that Hammond has placed in just about every competition, winning first place last fall.
But he's not looking to turn pro; music is just an avocation, a diversion. "It makes me feel good and it's a good release. I think it's good for the soul. It's something that will always be there for me." By taking part in the festival, Hammond says he takes part ownership of the festival. He has even helped set up tents alongside Puryear, volunteering for his ticket to the festival.
That feeling of shared ownership over the festival has helped Shakori Hills evolve during its first decade. Participants have pushed sustainability efforts to the fore, sponsoring solar power and biodiesel shuttle projects. About half of the bands are locally sourced, too. Will Hackney, co-founder of Trekky Records and current member of Midtown Dickens, has noticed more rocking local bands entering the lineup recently. Hackney has been a constant at Shakori Hills since the beginning, estimating that he's played with six or seven different bands while only missing a few festivals over the years. Like many, he's drawn back by the people there.
"One of my favorite things about the festival, actually, is that there's not really a type. If you go to an indie rock festival like Coachella, there's a stereotypical fan that would be there, but Shakori is such a catch-all," he says. "There's families, high school kids cutting up and being rebellious, and indie rock types from the Triangle."
What's more, the place keeps getting better at being a festival grounds.
"In terms of the infrastructure, the stages are nicer, and the tents are nicer, the sound is better," says Hackney. "They really have a commitment to keep it growing and making it a good experience for everyone." With every festival comes some incremental, often community-led improvement.
The question Puryear seems to have answered in a manner different from most revolves around what a music festival should be—a mega-show with nameless audience members? Or something more?
"We want the festival always to be not just a multiband concert, but the experience of a community event," he says. "People really come here to spend time with their friends and their family. I think that's probably the unsung part of the festival of what really brings people in."
What to hear this year
Twice a year, Shakori Hills brings a lot of bands to Silk Hope. We've sorted through them and offer these as this season's must-sees.
Sounding like a sextet of rail-riding hobos-turned union organizers, SPIRIT FAMILY REUNION delivers ramshackle, sing-along melodies and hope for a better future. Guitar, banjo, fiddle and bass help songs chug forward with a new sincerity. An institution of the festival, DONNA THE BUFFALO helps kick things off with upbeat folk-rock influenced by Cajun and reggae music. Hooks have abounded for more than 20 years, and the band has a deep catalog to draw from for their first of three performances.
MIDTOWN DICKENS explores the space around its lo-fi core of Kym Register and Catherine Edgerton. Tempos and instruments bend and grow organically, keeping the music gentle and fun while occasional darkness keeps it from becoming twee. Playing like a man possessed, LANGHORNE SLIM spins around the stage with his acoustic guitar and the whirlwind energy of punk. In quieter moments, his soulful vocals reach for the sky, hushing even the rowdiest crowds.
OLD SLEDGE preserves traditional music with fiery virtuosity and the rush of old-time field recordings come to life. With death, lust and fiddle, the group leads a square dance today. While they each have their own set during the festival, THE LEE BOYS and THE TRAVELIN' MCCOURYS come together tonight for a joint performance. The funky gospel of sacred steel meets bluegrass, as Ronnie and Rob transform the music made famous by their father, Del.
The husband-and-wife duo of SARAH LEE GUTHRIE AND JOHNNY IRION play serene, country-tinged folk with intimate vocal harmonies and notes of psychedelia. The pair lead a songwriting workshop in addition to their performance today. Maybe some hints from father Arlo or grandfather Woody? TIFT MERRITT performs one of the last shows of the weekend. Beautifully crafted songs combine alt-countrypolitan with a jazzy, indie rock coolness.