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2022 Richmonders of the Year

The organizers and volunteers behind the Richmond Folk Festival.

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Somewhere around the middle of this year, it seemed as if pandemic fatigue had really set in for many people. Chances are we all know someone who burned out much earlier. Maybe that’s why the return of the 18th annual Richmond Folk Festival (Oct. 7-9) along the downtown riverfront felt so glorious. The near perfect fall weather that weekend didn't hurt either. It proved lovely for hanging out and listening to free music by diverse artists from around the country and the globe, while enjoying the arts, crafts and food and drinks from local vendors.

Richmonders showed out big time this year, smashing the festival’s attendance record with a total estimated crowd of 230,000 people over the weekend, while raising the highest amount of bucket donations in the festival’s history: a little over $140,000. Merchandise and t-shirts were sold out by Saturday afternoon, according to organizers.

Because of the longstanding success of this free music festival; because it brings together all of Richmond unlike any other event on the calendar; because the triumph of this year's festival felt like a watershed moment in the return to a sense of normalcy during the COVID pandemic; and due to their tireless dedication, devotion and love for all kinds of folk music while celebrating our downtown -- we are naming the organizers and volunteers behind the Richmond Folk Festival as Style Weekly’s 2022 Richmonders of the Year.

Stephen Lecky, director of events for Venture Richmond, the nonprofit organizer of the Richmond Folk Festival. - SCOTT ELMQUIST
  • Scott Elmquist
  • Stephen Lecky, director of events for Venture Richmond, the nonprofit organizer of the Richmond Folk Festival.

“A lot of people thought this was the best festival ever,” says Stephen Lecky, director of events for Venture Richmond. “Three days of perfect weather sets a tone for greatness. We’ve come to learn after doing events that weather can make or break it … This year, people were just ready to get back out and do stuff.”

Lecky notes that just a weekend earlier, Venture Richmond had to completely cancel the 2nd Street Festival in Jackson Ward due to Hurricane Michael. “People were coming off a week-and-a-half of hurricane weather, and this was truly like the first real fall weekend.”

It takes a village to produce the Richmond Folk Festival, which means we have a roll call of folks and positions to recognize as part of this award.

Our honorees include the festival’s primary organizers, Venture Richmond, who handle on-site logistics in partnership with the National Council for the Traditional Arts (NCTA), which still handles the contractual obligations with the artists and sound crews, etc. The award also goes to the all-important, unpaid local volunteers who help run the festival, which numbered roughly 800 people this year – and who are recruited by volunteer coordinator Jamie Thomas and the folklife coordinator Diane Muska.

There's the critical local programming board, whose roughly two dozen volunteer members meet throughout the year to propose musical artists for the NCTA to book (more on them later). And the diehard volunteer hosts who take care of the artists over the weekend, catering to their every whim; as well as the emcees who introduce the performers onstage and smoothly remind us to give money.

There are the experienced sound, security and set-up crews who are contracted out, and provide invaluable technical support. And last but not least, there are the field volunteers who carry the orange donation buckets, otherwise known as the bucket brigade. All of these folks, as well as the musicians and artists, work together every year to make this one of Richmond's most popular weekends of entertainment. They all deserve kudos. Especially this year, which after nearly two decades of events, felt special.

SCOTT ELMQUIST
  • Scott Elmquist

If you didn't already know, the free Richmond Folk Festival isn’t an event that makes money, even after a record-breaking year like 2022. The entire festival budget this year was roughly $1.6 million, according to organizers, not all of which is recouped by the festival’s sponsors and donations. Fortunately, that’s not the point of this shindig.

“We don’t do it to make money, we do it to bring 230,000 people to downtown Richmond and expose them to how great the riverfront is,” says Lecky. “But without our dedicated sponsors [whose names include Altria, Dominion, CarMax, CoStar among many others], this thing wouldn’t happen.”

A sense of ownership

From the beginning, everyone involved with the RFF has worked together to create a sense of ownership.

Venture Richmond still contracts and partners with the NCTA, the organization that originally brought the National Folk Festival to Richmond in 2005 for a three-year run. The Richmond Folk Fest spun off of that original run, and the NCTA still helps run four other city folk festivals around the country.

Blaine Waide, associate director of the NCTA, says he believes that "personal ownership" is the main quality that has made Richmond more successful than the other festivals. In terms of attendance, it’s fair to say that Richmond has the best attendance among all of the cities, he says, and we've also been the most successful at growing the festival from the NFF's footprint. This is true even though other city festivals, such as one in Lowell, Mass. have been going on longer. “For a local festival to be successful after the National Folk Festival leaves, it’s only going to work if the community feels like its theirs,” Waide says. “Venture Richmond has done an amazing job of creating that sense of ownership and also the [local] programming board is a big part of that.”

Lisa Sims, CEO of Venture Richmond, says that “it’s hard to believe the amount of development and change that has happened along the riverfront since the Folk Festival has been there.”
  • Lisa Sims, CEO of Venture Richmond, says that “it’s hard to believe the amount of development and change that has happened along the riverfront since the Folk Festival has been there.”

Led by CEO Lisa Sims, Venture Richmond has a small staff of a dozen, but only three people, including Lecky, Mavis Wynn, who handles food vendors, and Sharon Bassard (craft vendors), dedicated to working its annual events full-time. Sims, who has been there since before the RFF launched on its own, agrees that this was far and away the most successful festival. “There’s only so much credit anybody can take when you have such a spectacular weekend and pent up demand,” she says. “The clouds lifted … it was spectacular, it was glorious.”

She mentions a number of unsung heroes, including the team leaders and volunteer coordinators Jamie Thomas and Diane Muska; and what she calls the “ask-a-teer” team and Otto Konrad, who several years ago came up with the concept of organizing teams of public speakers who are comfortable asking large groups of people for money from the stage. Sims also calls Plan 9 Records founder Jim Bland “a saint and our hero” for helping coordinate all the merchandise sales, the tents with CDs, posters and shirts. The only source of earning for the festival, apart from the sponsorships, comes from beverage sales, merchandise sales, and those all-important, orange bucket donations.

Of course, Sims doesn’t forget to give a shout-out to the sponsors who stroke the checks. “[They] write very big checks for this, and primarily because they believe it’s a dynamic community event,” she says. “Most are in it for the community building aspect.”

Waide says that another thing Richmond did well was making sure the festival stayed at the size, scope and vision of the National Folk Festival, noting that it has actually grown. “People [in Richmond] know they’re going to have a great experience every year and have their minds blown by some band – and I also think the community itself feels a sense of ownership, which is reflected in those donations.”

The toast of this year's festival, Son Rompe Pera from Mexico City, during its final song on the main stage. - DAVE PARRISH PHOTOGRAPHY
  • Dave Parrish Photography
  • The toast of this year's festival, Son Rompe Pera from Mexico City, during its final song on the main stage.

Typically, there will be a couple “buzz-worthy” bands, Lecky says, but this year there were four or five, chief among them, Son Rompe Pera, a group of youthful punk rockers from Mexico City who fused high-energy cumbia and Mexican marimba with old school hardcore and garage rock, blowing away audiences at all three of its packed performances.

Which brings us to one of the elements that insiders say is key to the success of the Richmond Folk Festival: The festival’s active programming board of roughly two dozen diverse local community members, which meets around four times a year (often not everyone together) to discuss, and sometimes argue, over which artists to suggest the NCTA book for the festival.

The programming board

“More than half of the artists who came to the festival this year were all new to the NCTA, we broke them in,” says Don Harrison, a member of the programming board [and a freelance contributor to Style Weekly]. “Almost everything I’ve heard from the NCTA about Richmond is that we’re unusual from the other cities where this happens because our programming board is integral. With other cities, the NCTA programs the festival, but we actually give feedback.”

Don Harrison, volunteer member of the Richmond Folk Festival programming board, and first time musical artist, lap-steel guitarist Fran Grace, at the 2022 festival. - SCOTT ELMQUIST
  • Scott Elmquist
  • Don Harrison, volunteer member of the Richmond Folk Festival programming board, and first time musical artist, lap-steel guitarist Fran Grace, at the 2022 festival.

While some people might stereotypically think of folk music as a bunch of white, crew-cut guys, or hillbilly geezers, the Richmond Folk Festival has helped change that definition by broadening and expanding the term “folk” to include many other genres. “It’s music that is important to different communities; or a folk tradition within different communities,” Harrison explains. “[Before us] the NCTA wasn’t programming [hip-hop] beat-boxers, or Gary U.S. Bonds, or soul music, these are things that Richmond helped redefine. Go-go groups were not at folk festivals before us. It wasn’t considered a part of the canon, but now it is. Trouble Funk now goes and plays other festival locations like Butte, Montana.”

Lurking behind most programming committee debates is always the question of authenticity. Artists should be “of the community” that their art represents, whatever the influential genre may be; and the artist should have learned it through informal transmission, passed down within a community, not through conservatory training.

Harrison remembers that he pretty much ruined one programming meeting by arguing that German 'Krautrock' should be included, even though some of its early practitioners are no longer around. “Theoretically, anything is possible if it’s a style of music that came from a particular region and ended up influencing not just the community itself, but the greater community outside of it,” he says. [Editor's note: Style agrees with Harrison's notion -- as well as including someone like folk legend Michael Hurley, who once lived in Richmond, and who is a true originator and influential songwriter for the freak folk and Americana genres, tying together multiple genres.]

Blaine Waide, associate director of the NCTA, shown at the 2022 National Folk Festival held in Salisbury, Md. - REMSBERG, INC.
  • Remsberg, Inc.
  • Blaine Waide, associate director of the NCTA, shown at the 2022 National Folk Festival held in Salisbury, Md.

Waide points out that Richmond’s programming board is the most engaged he’s ever seen. He adds that it’s important to the NCTA’s work to program sounds that are central to American traditional music – blues, bluegrass, gospel, etc. – while still challenging people to follow where today’s popular artists are taking older traditions, such as hip-hop pioneer Grandmaster Flash, who has played the Richmond festival. “For us, go-go music is traditional and indigenous to Washington, DC,” Waide says. “And it was very important in bringing together Black and white audiences in Richmond.” When asked, he says that there are possibilities for doing more with jazz artists in the future. In the past, the RFF brought the Sun Ra Arkestra (with NRBQ’s Terry Adams on keys).

Mostly, Waide marvels at the fact that, 18 years into the Richmond festival, “kids have grown up learning that folk is not just guys with banjos, but that it reflects the rich diversity of cultural communities in the U.S.”

“There’s just a big feeling of family that exists,” he says of the festival. “We hear the statement a lot that this is the best thing Richmond has ever done.”

More volunteers needed

Lecky says the festival was prepared for the large crowds that showed up in 2022, having watched events on Brown’s Island slowly get bigger last summer. But unfortunately, organizers are seeing an ongoing trend in Richmond, and nationwide, of lowering volunteer numbers; although the last couple years they were understandably down due to COVID. This year, the festival ended up with 800 volunteers. Ideally, those numbers should be between 1,000 to 1,200, Lecky says.

“I don’t know what that is, if people’s need to give back to the community is waning, or people maybe expect ‘they don’t need me,'” he says, adding that organizers try hard to get school groups and civic organizations involved early. “It’s the best volunteer gig in town. You get great parking right onsite, a T-shirt, discount on merchandise, and an invite to the big party [post-Festival].”

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Similarly, Sims says she doesn’t know the reasons for those declining numbers, but there have been many conversations around how to address them. “We’re going to have to figure out a better way to fill a lot of those positions in the future,” she says.

Perhaps it should be noted here that the Richmond Folk Fest has faced adversity before and persevered.

In fact, when other cities call Sims to ask her questions about hosting the festival and about why Richmond has been so successful, she always mentions a critical early financial grant it received. If you remember, Richmond Region 2007, which celebrated the region’s 400th anniversary, had identified the RFF as a local legacy project, providing it with $750,000 per year for the first three years of the festival.

“The [callers] say, 'oh, we can’t do that,'" Sims says. “If it hadn’t been for Richmond Region 2007 [and its president and CEO Wilson H. Flohr], I won’t say the Folk Fest wouldn’t have happened, but it would’ve been much more difficult for sure.”

Then there was the recession in 2008, when the major sponsors stood by the festival, saving the day, Sims says. And due to the pandemic, in 2020 the festival was cancelled but held virtually; Sims says they had close to 80,000 online views of the artists playing from their homes [VPM also televised performances from local Spacebomb studios]. In 2021, the festival came back, slightly smaller, but still fun, she says.

But it wasn't until this year that things truly felt back on track.

The RFF recently had its first programming board meeting to start booking bands for next year’s festival, which will be held the weekend of Oct. 13-15, 2023. So far, it has yet to start any serious planning regarding the 20th anniversary in 2024, Lecky says.

“My dream for the 20th would be to have a television special on VPM,” Sims says about the upcoming anniversary, "which would not only feature the artists, but do a historical look back on the festival. Interview people who were there from day one.”

A look at some of the merchandising tables at the festival.  Sims calls Plan 9 Music founder Jim Bland "a saint and our hero" for helping coordinate these areas during the festival. - SCOTT ELMQUIST
  • Scott Elmquist
  • A look at some of the merchandising tables at the festival. Sims calls Plan 9 Music founder Jim Bland "a saint and our hero" for helping coordinate these areas during the festival.

Before our conversation ends, Sims makes sure to note that "Venture Richmond is not a traditional arts organization, [but] a nonprofit downtown improvement organization whose mission is to bring people downtown." She adds that “it’s hard to believe the amount of development and change that has happened along the riverfront since the Folk Festival has been there.”

Another potential major development on the horizon is the new outdoor amphitheater proposed by Charlottesville music magnate, Coran Capsaw (Red Light Management), that would be situated on Historic Tredegar Hill near the middle of the Folk Festival site. Nobody knows yet whether this venue, if it happens, will become part of the festival activities.

Venture Richmond organizers did not program anything in that area this year in case it ends up going away, Lecky says. However, if everything gets approved for the developers, the new 7,500-person venue could be built and holding concerts by 2024, according to local media reports.

So far, Venture Richmond has only seen a few presentations about the potential amphitheater, but organizers are hoping for a future partnership. “There are no guarantees, but that is certainly something we would like to see,” says Sims. “If the amphitheater is built, it would be wonderful if we could use it.”

By now, one thing should seem certain about the Richmond Folk Festival: If they build it, we will come. Especially when the weather's right ... but also when it's not.

The 19th Richmond Folk Festival returns Oct. 13-15 of 2023.

Disclosure: VPM, the owner of Style Weekly through a subsidiary, is a sponsor of the Richmond Folk Festival. However, the decision-making process for Richmonder of the Year was solely conducted by Style Weekly.

An overhead view of the 2022 Richmond Folk Festival. - DAVE PARRISH PHOTOGRAPHY
  • Dave Parrish Photography
  • An overhead view of the 2022 Richmond Folk Festival.