You won't find the most significant difference between this weekend's Shakori Hills GrassRoots Festival and the most recent iteration last October on any stage or in any campground. It won't leap up in the circus-sized dance tent or manifest itself in the popular children's education area. Very few attendees will notice it at all.
But far down the 75-acre site's main access road, past the massive parking lot and the quaint ticket booth, just beside the festival headquarters in an old farmhouse with vinyl siding and cluttered kitchen counters, you'll spy a small, rectangular slab of freshly poured concrete, marked with straight yellow lines and a wheelchair sign. The pad leads to the festival's first-ever handicap ramp, which rises in turn to the offices inside the house. The addition might not seem very rock 'n' roll, but it's exactly the sort of chore Shakori Hills' new landowners are happy to have.
"We just put in our wheelchair ramp," says festival co-founder Jordan Puryear, sitting on the house's aged back deck and smiling sheepishly at the domestic accomplishment. "As soon as it's a commercial business, you have to be more handicap accessible."
Shakori Hills has occupied the same verdant Chatham County spot since the spring of 2003. Even after 20 festivals, they didn't actually own it. But thanks to a nontraditional funding model and a community of sympathetic and enthusiastic investors, the festival finally purchased its site in December. This weekend's four-day event is the first Shakori Hills festival since the acquisition; the organizers now feel like they finally have the chance to do the work they've always wanted to do—build an arts center, host environmental workshops, produce summer camps and, well, build handicap ramps.
"For years, people were like, 'When are you going to buy the land?' That was frustrating," says Sara Waters, the festival's co-coordinator since 2007. She began working with Shakori Hills just as the push to form a nonprofit and use it to purchase and eventually shape the land into a community arts space began in earnest. "We knew what we were doing, but we needed to look good for the people supporting us, too."
A dozen years ago, Puryear took the idea of an eclectic, nonprofit, community-oriented model he'd helped shape at the Finger Lakes GrassRoots Festival in Ithaca, N.Y., and decided to put it on the road. The goal was to build a traveling event for every season. The New York festival is in July, so he headed south in search of hosts for the cooler months. He found a few sites in North Carolina, especially farms, but no one seemed willing to take the risk on a young promoter and guitarist from the north.
As soon as he saw what would become Shakori Hills GrassRoots Festival, a rural expanse with a Pittsboro address and very few neighbors, Puryear knew he'd found the organization's anchor. Still, for a decade, Shakori Hills could only rent its sylvan homestead. Two festival supporters agreed to purchase and hold the parcel long enough for Shakori Hills to purchase it, but the acquisition proved more challenging than expected. Through a series of fundraisers, they'd acquired $75,000 for a down payment. Shakori Hills had been operating in the black since 2007. But would that be enough to convince a bank to provide a $695,000 loan? Probably not.
Puryear considered recruiting a handful of wealthy investors to take on the risk, or even selling the grounds to festival fans one square foot at a time, just as sports franchises sell rights to premium seats in new arenas. Instead, Shakori Hills turned to Slow Money NC, an organization that has helped facilitate more than 115 peer-to-peer loans between investors and largely agricultural entrepreneurs in less than five years. Puryear helped conceive Slow Money NC in 2010; its co-founder and leader, Carol Peppe Hewitt, knew how the model might help, though the situation was outside of Slow Money NC's scope. So she recruited 27 investors, who formed their own corporation and lent the necessary sum to Shakori Hills' nonprofit wing and its parent organization. Over the next decade, they'll repay the mortgage with revenue taken in largely from ticket sales. The festival will become, in essence, a fundraiser for establishing and improving a community arts center.
"I'm very proud that people will step up like this, that people will support something that matters to them," says Hewitt. "We can make things happen in our community that have meaning for us—not just through philanthropy, but through lending."
And now, Puryear and Waters have to add more meaning to Shakori Hills. Though the biannual music festival will continue to anchor the site, those few dozen bands are just the start of the outdoors-and-indoors arts center Shakori Hills hopes to become. Puryear and Waters daydream about immediate plans and more distant possibilities. They'll soon build a dancehall that can double as a space for community meetings. There's talk of summer camps and headlining concerts, family retreats and sustainability workshops. Puryear wants to turn the house that they currently call an office into an enclave for music education, "with a big open space for a grand piano."
"People have an idea of what a community arts center is, but here, they ask 'Now, where is the community arts center?' It's the whole land," Waters says. "Having a building to base it out of will be helpful."
At last, they feel more comfortable raising new funds for on-site infrastructure, too. They'll eventually add more bathrooms that will legally allow for big summer camps. And at this weekend's festival, they'll renew a push for attendees to purchase parts of solar cells that will power the festival, or at least offset its external energy consumption. This initiative has been in the works for years, but it stalled amid the final quest to secure the site itself.
"The goal for so long has been for the group to buy the property, and it was a difficult time," says Puryear. "But now we're able to build on that success. We are working towards something permanent."
Listen for the surprisesIf you've never attended Shakori Hills, you might have, at some point, accepted the preconception that the biannual festival is a domain of banjos and purists, traditions and ballads. Perhaps it's the bucolic Chatham County setting, with few subdivisions or stoplights or sirens in the vicinity, that broadcasts that impression. Or maybe it's the festival's lattice-like Americana framework, which consistently upholds bands that show at least some evidence of country, blues or bluegrass erudition.
Shakori Hills has forever included a cadre of genre-specific bookings: The festival's recurring MUSIC MAKER RELIEF FOUNDATION showcase, for instance, provides blues, gospel and R&B in wonderfully historic contexts. And THE DEL MCCOURY BAND, who return to Silk Hope this year as one of the festival's headliners, is one of the country's preeminent bluegrass acts, with harmonies so polished and solos so bright they could scatter weekend rain clouds. And there's the New Orleans missionary work of THE DIRTY DOZEN BRASS BAND, or their local disciples in Durham's BULLTOWN STRUTTERS. This year's roster also includes the unadulterated honky-tonk of wonderful Nashville singer J.P. HARRIS and the Cuban allegiance of Miami duo CORTADITO.
But Shakori Hills is hardly puritanical. Rather, the festival's booking has embraced bands willing to take adventures across stylistic lines, to figure out how electronics might better wrestle with bluegrass or just how rap might work with folk ballads. Shakori Hills is perennially anchored, after all, by DONNA THE BUFFALO, the long-running New York band that lassoes cowboy songs to reggae, zydeco to the blues, for better and worse. Eclecticism isn't just part of Shakori Hills' mission; it's part of its constitution.
This spring's lineup represents some of the organization's most adventurous and audacious programming choices yet. Congolese emcee BALOJI works inside a lyrical web of references Western and African; his band L'ORCHESTRe DE LA KATUBA crafts a sophisticated patchwork of jazz, rock and soul. North Carolina's KAIRA BA builds a similar backbone for electric griot Diali Cissokho.
And there's MC YOGI, a fascinating California rapper who switches between meditative music that might be labeled new age and beats so heavy they weigh like reggaeton. Miami's SPAM ALLSTARS reach ahead and behind in a related fashion, adding electronic bombast to rapturous Latin themes. The duo AFROBETA offers high-concept fusion, where the sounds of several diasporas scatter and coil into strangely accessible but aggressive electropop. While BEN SOLLEE and LEYLA MCCALLA both play cello, their ends for that mean are wonderfully divergent—Sollee plays dynamic chamber with pizazz, while McCalla reinvents Haitian folk songs and the poetry of Langston Hughes with bravura.
As you plot out your four-day Shakori schedule, or as you decide whether or not to make the drive or the investment, remember that the festival revels in the delight and possibility of transgression. No, there's no heavy metal or big-named DJs, and yes, you could simply stick to the trustworthy headliners, including the INDIGO GIRLS. But especially this year, Shakori Hills is a crucible for interesting, inventive musical recombination. So listen for the big surprises.
This article appeared in print with the headline "Country home"