The following is an op-ed guest post submitted by Bob Everhart. Bob is the producer of the National Old Time Music Festival and would like to share his thoughts on the current state of live music festivals, as well as his experiences as a veteran festival producer.
What’s it like to create and direct an old time music festival for 42 years? Good question, and one I can answer. Some of it is good, some of it is bad, but most of it is incredibly thrilling. The music business itself is difficult no matter what genre of music you are in. Primarily because ‘money interests’ usually take precedence, and because of that it eliminates some incredibly talented artists They simply do not have the money to participate, much less get involved. The doors are firmly shut on those kinds of talents all across America. Can you imagine how high the numbers must be in each state?
My passion has always been the music of ‘poor’ America. The music that came out of the Appalachian Mountains by poor rural people who created their own entertainment. Can you imagine those early artists that could play a musical instrument, and write about their hard times. They could also write about happy times, but they were always, without a doubt, writing from their own experiences, good and bad. That in itself was enough to draw me to their plight, especially when ASCAP slammed the door in their faces, proclaiming “that music is not fit for humans to listen to.” So where did the human ‘music spirit’ of the poor go when that happened? It stayed within the confines of their own perimeters.
In some areas of rural America, even today, you can find that original ‘spirit’ that moves an artist to write down his or her thoughts on a piece of paper, and create a musical melody line to go with it. The exception being today, especially with the music we hear on radio and television, it is all done behind closed doors and the creators write what they are told to write. Period, end of story.
Well not quite. There are still a few independent individuals that have the fortitude to try to keep that ‘spirit’ alive. I may not have done as much as I could have, but I started a music festival devoted to the very music that had the doors slammed in its face so many years ago. Today it’s called the ‘National Old Time Music Festival,’ and it’s in its 42nd year.
Wow, that’s a long time for one individual to maintain the integrity of a musical art form. You’d think that would somehow be interesting ‘news’ to music makers and media outlets, but alas it has not, at least not today. That same closed ‘door’ is still very much intact, with accusations that “Everhart wants to live in the past.” Well, not quite. The bottom line is, I want the past to live with me. That’s why the National Old Time Music Festival has survived for 42 years. Certainly with some delightful ‘good’, and certainly with some uncomfortable ‘bad’, and we’ll get to that, but the question remains, WHY is it so difficult for incredibly talented artists in this genre of America’s very real rural music get a break in the business of music?
Classical music has all kinds of financial support (it has since the founding of America), but finding that same assistance for any other genre, especially ‘rural’ music is pretty much non-existent. Makes it even more peculiar that a festival that does not approve of alcohol or illicit drugs even still exists and, it has been in existence for 42 years. Even more interesting is the fact that electrical musical instruments, amplifiers, electronic music imitating machines, electronic perfection changing devices, and such, is denied entrance. Whoa, this really upsets the ‘progressives’ that insist we are living in the past, refusing to allow ‘progress’ to have its way. Nope, not so, we just want the past to live with us, please keep that in mind. Progress tends to ‘erase’ the past, but tearing down statues, removing paintings, burning books, altering history, and denying the past is merely a very thin ‘cover’ of refusing to accept the past as it was, and also refusing to allow the ‘truth’ of the past to exist.
Getting back to an event devoted to one of those erasures, namely the ‘rural’ music of America’s past in all its many colors, is the focus of this story. It was fairly easy to do the first festival, it was during the 1976 Bi-Centennial in Council Bluffs, Iowa. I was pretty much on my own, although being a recording artist for the Smithsonian Institution helped a lot. The first one was a huge success, but then when it was over, no one, I mean absolutely no one, on those many planning committees, those fairboard members, even the music makers did not want to take on the responsibility of doing it again. I did.
I certainly couldn’t do it by myself, obviously, so I had a lot of volunteer help. It was, and still is, the major basis for the success of the event itself. Without volunteers, it would not and could not exist. With only low-cost ticket sales to pay for the cost of making it happen, the event required a lot of helpers, including music makers who have also volunteered their time and talent to the cause of saving some of America’s great ‘rural’ music, especially the rural music of the upper Midwest. Both myself and my wife Sheila are unpaid volunteers. Sheila has helped do this festival for at least half of its 42 years. In the early years, I managed to get a 501(C)3 non-profit status from the IRS. This helped a great deal by being able to give anyone who volunteered, a tax write-off. That worked, it kept us going. And we’re still going.
We’ve moved a few times, from Council Bluffs (they demanded we sell beer, we would not) to Avoca (we were there for 21 years and discovered an amazing amount of money disappearing and a take-over attempt underway) to Missouri Valley (the city and fair shared property, instant problems), and finally to LeMars at the Plymouth County Fairgrounds. None of the moves were easy, but we wouldn’t change anything, it was either move or quit. Neither Sheila or myself are ready to quit yet. There’s still a huge number of artists, not just in Iowa or the upper Midwest, but from all around the world, that not only appreciates America’s very real ‘rural’ music, they perform it.
I just made a survey of the performing acts that are going to be on the festival this year (2017) for the 42nd festival. It’s amazing, here’s the numbers. Ia-86. Ne-38, Mn-24, Mo-17, Tn-13, Ca-9, Tx-8, SD-7, Wi-6, NC-6, Ks-5, Ar-4, Va-3, Co-2, Or-2, Pa-2, Mi-2, Il-2, Fl-2, Ok-1, Ga-1, Al-1, Md-1, Oh-1, ND-1, WV-1, Ma-1, and Vt-1 (and still counting). You can see that it’s Iowa and Nebraska that help the most to keep this event going. It’s also interesting to note the performers coming from foreign countries. Canada-4, New Zealand-2, England-2, Ireland-1, Newfoundland-1. That’s amazing isn’t it? We aren’t able to ‘bring’ this many performers to LeMars, they have to find their own way. Can you imagine how much it must cost someone from New Zealand just to fly to America, let alone find their way to Iowa? Amazing huh? And we can’t pay them all either, that’s totally impossible, but we do the best we can.
All of that is still happening at this amazing festival now referred to by some media outlets as “Vintage Americana.” I suppose that ‘title’ means what the music we promote sounds like in young minds and hands today. I have to admit there are some incredibly talented young people not chasing the foolish ‘be a super-star’ ideology, they just want to play good music. God Bless them!
I need to go back where I started this missive…’some of it’s good, some of it’s bad.’ The ‘good’ part of this festival is enormous. All 42 years of them. Every single one of them has been an unbelievable production of incredible talent and a brotherly love kind of feeling I’ve never ever seen at another event of any kind. The ‘good neighbor’ feeling is abundant, at every single one of these events we’ve produced. That in itself is remarkable, especially in an America today that seems so full of hate and outrageous behavior everywhere, especially in high places.
One of the ‘good’ things about our festival is the huge number of young artists that have been with us and grown with us, from the beginning, that have gone on to national and international success and recognition. Another neat thing about what we do is the recognition we’ve received from the media. When the BBC came to America to do a complete show about us, it thrilled us no end, but it has also been local, regional, and national media attention that has kept us alive. Without that I’m sure we would flounder. In 1985, the National Geographic Magazine selected the festival as “the one most representative of traditional values, entertainment and educational interest.” In 1986 we even got mentioned by Johnny Carson (who spent his boyhood days in Avoca) on his national “Tonight Show” on NBC. Iowa Public Television was very active with us for many years.
The amazing number of actual celebrities that have attended this event is also staggering, there have been so many. I believe my most precious memory in that respect was when pop singer Patti Page made the trek from California to be with us. She was amazing. She came out of retirement to not only support us, but to firmly avow her respect and love for America’s rural music. Her presence with us absolutely thrilled me, it still burns brightly in my heart as one of my most passionate memories. Another very important ‘plus’ is the many many volunteers that help make this event possible. We couldn’t do it without their help. They are indeed, the ‘salt’ of the earth.
Now a little bit about the bad. The first ‘bad’ was the fairboard at Council Bluffs telling us they were going to sell liquor whether we liked it or not. We moved to Avoca and were there 21 years, when we discovered a ‘take-over’ attempt was underway, we had to move, we had no choice. Money was missing from the gate, and they did indeed attempt to take the festival over after we moved to Missouri Valley. The ‘flood’ in Avoca, in 1989, was another really ‘bad’ thing to happen. The water was so high it was floating some of the campers in the campground there. Once we were safely ensconced in LeMars, we began to experience the same phenomenon that has been happening all across America. An ugly presidential election, and a huge increase in ‘bad’ behavior.
One year at LeMars when the temperature was 103 for several days, a man completely exhausted fell unconscious in front of one of the buildings. We pleaded with the caretakers to turn on the air conditioning in that building to help restore some of our elderly visitors. They absolutely refused to do that. We managed to get the gentleman to the hospital in time, and all turned out OK, but we considered that a bad happening. Another time the caretakers insisted on leaving the gate to the RV camping area wide open to allow some building contractor workers free access to the grounds. We couldn’t do that of course. Sheila and I have experienced some difficult events personally. We’ve had the tire on our car pierced with an ice pick. We’ve had the window of our camper shot out with a gun by an unhappy visitor who felt $2 to pay for parking his car was too much. We’ve had someone pull the plug on an ice cream lady who was visiting her sick mother, only to discover all of her ice cream melted. We’ve had another guy call the police in LeMars to report that the Culver’s Restaurant Food Wagon was selling pop in cans from Nebraska instead of Iowa. We were flabbergasted. Culver’s Restaurant never came back again because of that.
We’ve had a disgruntled performer whose thug friend threaten to beat me up and remove my face if I didn’t give this performer more money and more time on the LeMars Festival. Same performer also cost Sheila and I one of our favorite gigs by having the promoter threaten Sheila and I with “if you don’t give my guy more time and money on your festival I’m kicking you off mine.” Wow, that’s pretty nasty isn’t it?
Sheila and I think it’s a reflection of the times. America is very unhappy these days. Most of the ’cause’ is political, but it seems to be a never ending attack. Sheila, Bobbie Lhea (our daughter), and I are Christians. We turn to Jesus always, but more so in these times of stress. We see a lot of ‘religions’ in America turning against each other. Freedom of choice is also under attack. If you have read all the way down to this final appeal, please give some consideration to pray for America. Please pray to Jesus Christ for a resolvement of the many problems that face all of us. Freedom in America is precious and priceless. Please do not let the hate-mongers, so busy in America today, alter your thoughts of goodness. Keep your faith tightly around you. Keep your friendship and helpfulness intact. Come and share old time music with us, we’re still the same today as we were forty-two years ago, even though we have been under attack. August 28-September 3, 2017, at the Plymouth County Fairgrounds in LeMars, Iowa. We have a great deal of love and respect for history, and we don’t want to see it erased. Unlike many ‘events’ these days, we have one of our stages devoted entirely to Christian gospel music in all its many forms. Come and renew your vows to Jesus Christ. And save a friend while you’re at it.
Bob Everhart, President, National Traditional Music Association.