Saturday and Sunday, July 16 and 17, 2011, the Green River Festival will be celebrating its 25th anniversary as the Pioneer Valley's biggest outdoor event and music festival of the summer. Presented by the Greenfield Chamber of Commerce, the two-day festival will be held on the grounds of Greenfield Community College with more than 13,000 festival-goers expected to attend. Featuring three stages of folk, roots and country music, the Green River Festival offers up something for everyone. This is an alcohol-free, family event with lots of food and crafts from local restaurants and artisans, a dance tent, kids' activities, and a colorful display of hot air balloons with option to ride.
I recently had the opportunity to talk with Jim Olsen, president of Signature Sounds and Green River Festival talent buyer, about the Green River Festival, this year's lineup, and his thoughts on festivals and the music industry today. Read what he has to say...
An Interview with Jim Olsen: The Green River Festival
ATNE: Tell us a little bit about yourself and your experience in the music industry.
JO: I'm a lifelong music lover who got into the business through college radio. I was majoring in health care administration at Ithaca College when I was offered a weekly show on the college radio station. I lost interest in health care pretty quickly. After college, I had a number of professional radio jobs that eventually led me to WRSI in 1984. I was the program director for about 12 years and I still host The Back Porch, a weekly show that airs each Sunday from 9 until noon. Starting in 1993, I helped the station put together three fundraising CDs of local music. This led to the formation of the Signature Sounds label in 1994. We've released over 100 albums from a number of notable artists including Chris Smither, Crooked Still, Josh Ritter, and many others. I've also been the music director and talent buyer for the Green River Festival since the beginning.
ATNE: What is the current state of the music industry? In what direction is it heading?
JO: This is a fascinating time in the music business. The advantages of the major label promotion and distribution machine have largely been negated by the Internet and social networking. It's become much less expensive to record and release music which has led to an explosion of independent musicians doing it for themselves or working with small labels and promotion companies. Now it's possible to launch a career with virtually no exposure to traditional media. On the other hand, it's more difficult to monetize recorded music and to launch touring careers. I think the future will bring music to the "cloud" which will give everyone access to virtually all released music for very little expense. It's inevitable.
ATNE: What impact are music festivals having on the music industry today?
JO: One of the changes in the modern music industry is that live music has become much more of a social event. In the '70s, '80s & '90s, live music meant going to an arena or outdoor shed to sit passively and watch one headline act. Music festivals provide a weekend's entertainment and access to many bands for close to the same price. There are often multiple stages and other attractions which keep the experience from getting stale.
ATNE: Tell us about the origins of the Green River Festival. Who is the Green River Festival's founder?
JO: The Green River Festival began as the merging of two events. Back in 1986, WRSI put on a concert at Greenfield Community College to celebrate the station's fifth anniversary and NRBQ and 10,000 Maniacs performed. One week later the Franklin County Chamber of Commerce hosted a balloon festival at the college. It was decided that the two events should merge and it grew from there. Ann Hamilton, Bob Diamond and I were all on the original planning committee and continue to be involved.
ATNE: How has the Green River Festival evolved through the years?
JO: Originally, the festival was focused on the hot air balloons. In July, you can only have two balloon launches a day due to the atmospheric conditions and those fall shortly after dawn and before sunset. This left a lot of time to fill and the music was added to fill time and lend a festive air to the event. The early years featured mostly local bands and the Pioneer Valley Symphony. We started booking national talent consistently in 1993. Over the years, the music has become the primary draw but the balloons make our festival unique.
ATNE: To what do you accredit its longevity?
JO: The Green River Festival has always been a good value and an easy event to enjoy. Unlike most music festivals we are easily accessible, a manageable size and we don't offer camping. I like to think that we're the festival for people who don't like music festivals. We offer free admission for kids which means a whole family can attend for a very reasonable cost. The festival allows coolers, so you can bring your own food and drink, which is pretty unusual these days. We find that we have a loyal core of fans that come back year after year and bring new friends who also become fans. Now I have adults who approach me to tell say that they came to the festival as kids. It's pretty awesome.
ATNE: What kind of crowd does the Green River Festival draw? Describe the atmosphere.
JO: It's a friendly, happy crowd that encompasses a wide age range. I love the fact that parents can bring small children and feel safe. We don't serve alcohol and we haven't had an incident of inappropriate or violent behavior in the history of the event. It's always mid-summer warm and the crowd is there for a good time. You run into neighbors, friends and acquaintances, which gives the festival the feeling of a big block party.
ATNE: Tell us some about the people and process involved in putting the Green River Festival together.
JO: We have a mostly volunteer staff that meets once a month throughout the year. Some of our committee members work on the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival as well as other big festivals which gives us a great pool of knowledge to draw from. We're very lucky to have Klondike Sound Company (based in Greenfield) involved with us providing fantastic sound and expertise in coordinating the logistics of putting the festival together.
ATNE: How do you go about seeking out up-and-coming/new talent and selecting headliners for the Green River Festival?
JO: I'm very fortune to work in music as a full-time profession and get to attend many concerts and festivals. I have a big list of performers that we'd like to present at the festival and each year we get to cross a few names off that list. The musical focus of Green River Festival is to present a great variety of American roots music and to present some of the legends of that music. This year we're very excited to have Emmylou Harris, Toots & The Maytals and Wanda Jackson. To complement the legends we look for exciting young bands that will be great discoveries for our audience. This year's line-up has a bunch of great young artists including Black Joe Lewis & The Honeybears, Carolina Chocolate Drops, Zoe Muth & the Lost High Rollers and many more.
ATNE: What do you find to be the most challenging aspect of coordinating the festival?
JO: With three stages and over 35 artists involved there are a lot of details to coordinate. Putting the music together is a bit like doing a big jigsaw puzzle and trying to make all the pieces fit into a logical finished product. Booking the headline artists is always difficult because they're in great demand and it gets very competitive.
ATNE: What do you find to be the most rewarding?
JO: I do all the music booking in the wintertime. I spend countless hours putting the puzzle together and trying to imagine what kind of show it will be 5-6 months later. Watching the festival unfold and seeing everyone enjoying themselves is always tremendously rewarding. It's like Christmas for me.
ATNE: What is your most memorable Green River Festival experience?
JO: That is a very difficult question since there are so many! I think the most emotional moment came from watching Mavis Staples perform a few months before Obama was elected and sharing her songs and stories from the civil rights struggle and the years she was involved with Martin Luther King. Every festival comes with great memories for me...even the years when it rained!
ATNE: Are there any fantasy/dream artist that you would love to have at the festival in the future? Who and why?
JO: There are so many artists that I would love to have festival and the list grows every year. If I had to choose one artist, it would probably be Stevie Wonder who has given us some much great music and inspiration.
ATNE: So tell us about the hot air balloons at the Green River Festival! Have you been on one?
JO: I'm a total wimp when it comes to heights! I've been on a tethered ride, but not all the way up and away. I still hope to go someday. We have a great balloon meister named Paul Sena who does a terrific job every year. For those who are brave we offer very reasonably priced rides at the festival. Everyone who does it always comes back raving how cool it is to see the festival from up above.
ATNE: How about the food...any recommendations?
JO: We feature great food from some of the valley's best restaurants. I always have the barbecue.
ATNE: What are your thoughts about this year's festival lineup?
JO: I think this year's line-up is our most eclectic to date. We have several great Latin and Afro-pop bands in the dance tent (Grupo Fantasma, Locos Por Juana, Thomas Mapfumo), new bands playing old time soul (JJ Grey & Mofro, Black Joe Lewis), New Orleans funk and R&B (Kermit Ruffins & The Barbecue Swingers, Rosie Ledet & Her Playboys), updated string band music (Carolina Chocolate Drops, Pine Leaf Boys), Alt country ( Old 97's, Eilen Jewell) and lots more.
ATNE: Any surprises in store for this year's 25th anniversary?
JO: If I told you, they wouldn't be surprises! We are very pleased to bring back the latest version of NRBQ since the band played at the very first festival. We hope to have a photo exhibit with pictures of the festival performers though the years.
ATNE: What is the expected attendance? How does this compare to previous years?
JO: It's too early to estimate the attendance, but the festival has grown every year and we expect that to continue.
ATNE: What it the outlook/future plans for the Green River Festival?
JO: We hope to be doing this for a long time to come. It's become a fixture of the summer calendar in the valley and I think we'd have a lot of disappointed fans if we stopped.
Who's Playing the Green River Festival: Lineup
Toots & The Maytals
Carolina Chocolate Drops
Black Joe Lewis & The Honey Bears
Kermit Ruffins & The Barbecue Swingers
Terry Adams Rock & Roll Quartet
Rosie Ledet & The Zydeco Playboys
Locos Por Juana
Zoe Muth & The Lost High Rollers
Rani Arbo & daisy mayhem
Miss Tess & The Bon Ton Parade (featuring Sweet & Lowdown)
Cat And A Bird
Children 12 and under always free!
DAY OF PRICES: $55 per day at the gate.
Advance tickets available now available through July 15: $65 for the weekend/$45 each day
PARKING: $15 for the weekend/$10 a day, or take the FREE SHUTTLE!
The Green River Festival happens rain or shine, tickets are non-refundable, and no dogs, tents, or alcohol are allowed on site. For more information and directions, please visit www.greenriverfestival.com
Written By : Jessica Layne
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