When it started in 2005, people wondered if it would be bigger than Nascar.
They weren't far off the mark.
The Richmond Folk Festival, celebrating 10 years in Richmond since its launch as part of the National Folk Festival, is a jewel unlike any other on the annual musical calendar. It's known to attract a couple of hundred thousand people to the banks of the James River for three days of world music, diverse food, crafts and fun.
Returning this weekend, Oct. 10-12, the festival brings an incredibly wide-ranging lineup of global sounds Richmond often doesn't encounter, not to mention highlighting Virginia's exceptional artistic lineage. The idea this year was to bring back favorites — including go-go pioneers Trouble Funk, a Grammy-winning mariachi band, Mariachi Los Camperos de Nati Cano, and Indian slide guitarist Debashish Bhattacharya. More than 35 groups will play across six stages.
The National Council for Traditional Arts, which operates the National Folk Festival, started using the event to seed regional festivals across the country in the 1980s, says its executive director, Julia Olin. But Richmond's festival now is the largest and stands out for its longevity, diversity and level of community support.
"There are some others still running that are quite good," she says. "But Richmond has really continued the tradition in grand style." Olin says when the national festival enters a new community, she points to Richmond, saying, "This is the kind of festival we hope can stay in your community."
There's very little public money involved in the festival ($85,000 comes from the city). It's run by corporate sponsors (see the stage names), merchandising and on-site donations, which make about 8 to 10 percent of the roughly $1.4 million budget. That said, economic impacts haven't been studied. But Venture Richmond's Lisa Sims says they're clearly significant if you go by typical economic multipliers used by convention and visitor bureaus and organizations (around $100 per day-trip visitor). "Really people look at this as a community builder that belongs to everybody," she says.
The Virginia Folklife Program, part of the Charlottesville-based Virginia Foundation for the Humanities, also is marking 25 years — so there's double reason to celebrate. It's grown from a small tent in the first year near Tredegar to an integral part of the festival experience.
"People appreciate that it has local focus," says Jon Lohman, the program's director, noting that the Church Crowns fashion show (African-American women showing amazing church hats) is back, emceed by local drag queen Earl Fleming, as well as the popular oyster shucking sisters [see page 24]. "All walks of life are there, old people, young, white, black. It has an energy you don't often see at a folk fest."
We encourage you to explore, wander, discover. And for a little guidance, we offer the following critics' picks, profiles on some of the fascinating artists and stories on the real heart and soul of the festival: the volunteers.
And tip that bucket brigade every day you visit — we don't want to screw this thing up. — Brent Baldwin
Break dancing is alive and well, and ready to leave it all on the floor at the Folk Fest.
Friend With Benefits
Local volunteers are at the heart of the Folk Fest, and they get sweet perks too.
After the Party
Five of the most memorable moments.
Sisterhood of the Shuck
All you'll hear are shells falling when these champion oyster-shucking sisters hit the stage.
Two guides to making the most of your time at the Folk Festival.