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Carrboro Music Festival Celebrates 20 Years of All Kinds of Local Music, All Over Town

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Carrboro is a town with a beat, a rhythm that is equal parts artist, hippie, social activist, good ol’ boy and soccer mom. So, it’s no surprise what happened on a summer Sunday in 1997: There was live music in the streets of Carrboro – all kinds, all local, all free. On that day the Carrboro Music Festival, a celebration of musicians and community spirit, was born. What started as a few dozen volunteer performers on a handful of stages in 1997 has grown to more than 200 local bands (still donating their time and talent) on 29 stages all over town. The 20th anniversary festival is slated for Saturday, September 23 from 1 p.m. till 7 p.m., and Sunday, September 24, 1 p.m. till midnight. There’s even a free, eco-friendly shuttle bus from the Carrboro Plaza park and ride lot on the main festival day, Sunday, compliments of the Town.

The purpose of the 1997 Carrboro Music Festival was to create an event that highlighted as many musicians and genres as possible in just one day. What made the festival stand out was that it was – and still is twenty years later – absolutely free. Festival committee members donate their time, performers donate their talent and local businesses donate the stages. With a diverse range of genres, from classic rock to classical, jazz to gypsy, Bollywood to Celtic, rockabilly to bluegrass, Latin to electronic, the music festival draws thousands of performers, neighbors and local businesses to the streets of Carrboro for what the town does best: laid-back harmony.

But how does a festival like this happen? The more apt question when it comes to Carrboro is, how can it not? In 1997, the Carrboro Arts Committee was a group of citizens who were supporting Carrboro’s evolution from mill town to arts center. Committee member Liz Boisson, who had just returned from ten years in France, had a brilliant idea. She proposed the Committee host an event that was based on the Fete de la Musique, a free music festival in villages and cities across France on the summer solstice (June 21). The proposal jived with the community slogan The Paris of the Piedmont and the committee agreed. Carrboro was an officially recognized Fete de la Musique venue by the Minister of Culture in France, just one of four US cities at that time (including New York and San Francisco).

Founding volunteer, web designer, arts activist and radio/TV host Jackie Helvey will never forget that inaugural June Sunday in 1997 when musician Tim Smith hurried by, saxaphone in hand, grin on his face. He had just finished playing a set on an outdoor stage in a Carrboro parking lot and was dashing to another stage to play with a second band. By the end of that first Carrboro Music Festival, Smith would have played with six groups in six different parking lots. And he loved every minute of it. Fast-forward twenty years and it’s the same story: Tim’s sax is still firmly in hand, the grin is still on his face, and he is still rushing from stage to stage throughout the day … and loving every minute of it.

Founding volunteer, jeweler and musician Berkeley Grimball and long-time CMF coordinator Gerry Williams share the same memory of that first festival. The summer solstice in 1997 was a steamy one, and an uncovered stage on the Town Commons was already shimmering in the morning heat. With a weather forecast in the upper-nineties, they were worried about the musicians who would be playing on the stage under a blazing sun. So they hurriedly cobbled together a makeshift tent out of two paint-splattered tarps they found at their homes. Years later, Gerry found an old photo of beloved, iconic Red Clay Rambler Tommy Thompson singing under that home-spun sun shade. It was one of Thompson’s last performances and a poignant and fitting reminder of what the festival is all about: musicians coming together to do what they love – give the gift of their music to appreciative audiences.

Through the years there have been challenges. In 1997, the biggest challenge was pure, unadulterated fear. Could they pull it off? In the early years, the festival was not in the Town budget, so it took enormous volunteer effort. Recruiting musicians was never a problem, nor was finding stage space or gathering an audience. The eventual affiliation with the Town of Carrboro was a big benefit. Currently, the festival is a coordinated effort by the Carrboro Recreation and Parks Department and the Carrboro Music Festival Planning Committee, with support from the Carrboro Tourism Development Authority. The biggest challenge was weather, which precipitated the biggest change. After just a few years, the festival moved from sweltering late June to balmy late September, effectively ending its partnership with France, but easing the summer heat and boosting attendance: in September, families are back from vacation and UNC is in session, resulting in an exponential increase in both audiences and volunteers.

What does success look like twenty years after that first festival?  “I remember cleaning up the day after the festival that first year and folks driving by, beeping their horns and smiling and waving, and I knew we did it, we had staged a great event,” Gerry notes. “Back then, we wondered how it was going to work with ten people on a committee and a few volunteers. Taking a tiny idea that Liz had and actually turning it into something that is celebrating its twentieth anniversary is what success means to me. And everybody still has a great time.”

To Jackie, the festival is quintessential Carrboro. “On a typical night, you can walk down the street and hear music coming from bars and restaurants. This festival is a typical night times a thousand. To be able to walk through Carrboro and hear music no matter where you are, what’s better than that?” For musician, Music Loft owner and current coordinator Jim Dennis, inclusion and expansion are key. “Over the next couple of years, we plan to continue to get younger, fresher faces and new blood on the planning team. That’s how we stay relevant,” Jim stated.

One of the younger faces on this year’s committee was a little girl at the first event. Because the 1997 festival was not in the town budget, Jackie and Liz, with five small children in tow, asked every Carrboro business for a donation. And they got it –sometimes it was money, sometimes it was a performance space, sometimes it was free advertising or a giveaway – but always, they got support. Amber Hayes, Jackie Helvey’s daughter, was one of those five small children. “You don’t have to have money to listen to great music,” she said. “You can pack your lunch and spend a very laid-back day connecting with people through music. I love that our festival brings a lot of people of all ages and musical preferences together in one place.  I’m really excited about future expansion into hip hop and techno. That’s what keeps this fun for me. I’m proud to be from Carrboro and a part of this.”

Without music, life would be a mistake. Strong words from a man who espoused belief in nothing (well, nothing but music, apparently!), but, Friedrich Nietzsche is right. Music is the universal language, putting a gate in the walls between cultures, ideologies and neighborhoods and kicking it wide open. That notion is what keeps this festival strong and growing (and still free) for 20 years, says Jim. “In Carrboro, we love our town, we love our neighbors and we love music,” he pointed out. “Music is relatable. When you play a song together, it requires listening and performing, coordination and respect. It’s the same as playing on a softball team or going to church. We did this hard thing, we did it together, it came out nice and now we have this amazing moment we can share with other people.” Berkeley agrees. “Our original inspiration was good, we jumped in feet-first without knowing what we were doing and it worked. Our entire budget for that first year was $1500. We borrowed everything. It worked, because of the music.” Festival founder Liz, who runs the nonprofit Helping Parents Heal, which supports bereaved parents and their families and honors her son Morgan, who marched in the first festival parade, believes music is transcendent. “We need music in this world more than ever before,” she mused. “Music brings unity, love and hope…and allows us to feel and express that to each other. That’s why Carrboro is such a beautiful community.”

For Gerry, the beauty of Carrboro is deep and wide. “People care about their community, about their world and about their music,” Gerry said. “They love Carrboro and are being rewarded by a town government that really cares about them in return. There aren’t many towns of 16,000 people that do so much for the arts, with a music festival, a film festival and a poetry festival. This is more than celebrating music, we’re celebrating Carrboro.”

The good of the hive. Those words are part of a mural of terrier-sized bees spiraling around gigantic, colorful flowers painted on the wall of the Town Hall fire department. The picture perfectly captures town spirit. In Carrboro, what’s good for the hive is neighborliness … connection … chilling out. In a word, music.

For details about the Carrboro Music Festival performance schedule, visit carrboromusicfestival.com.

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