Though often quite fun, outdoor music festivals can conjure a bricolage of unpleasant images: walkways bordered by piles of trash, their mix of paper and mud and food rotting in the open; lines stretching from port-a-johns, their soapy septic smell hanging in the air; kids peaking on weed and whatever, their minds baking in the midday sun. Covering about 90 wooded-or-green acres 15 miles northwest of Pittsboro in the caution-light community of Silk Hope, Shakori Hills GrassRoots Festival certainly has its share of all that: lines of water closets, barrels of waste, teenagers with pot. But in its seventh year, two qualities not associated with such festivals often enough—sustainability and community—continue to make Shakori Hills successful, despite a collapsing music industry hamstrung by a troubled economy.
"We're getting right to the point where we're covering our expenses, which was a very difficult point to get to," says Jordan Puryear with a nervous laugh. As the former bassist for the band Donna the Buffalo, Puryear started a festival much like Shakori Hills in upstate New York nearly 15 years ago. That festival carries on there, though Puryear came south early this decade to start a sister event. "We're firmly on the ground, which is really good. You have to pretty much present the festival, and then people have to come. Having to put the festival out there first with the facilities you have and letting the audience come to it ends up being a fundamentally expensive thing to do. But we've reached that basic goal."
Now, Puryear admits, the aim becomes moving beyond that break-even point, and they're working in the right direction. Two weeks before Thursday's opening ceremony, the festival had sold dozens more four-day passes than for any prior Shakori Hills event. The hope isn't to turn a profit, though, as the nonprofit corporation, Shakori Hills Inc., runs the festival and the land that it's currently leasing to own. Instead, Puryear has other earmarks for any extra income: to buy the land sooner, to build a dance pavilion, to power the festival with solar energy, to present more events for the community aside from its current biannual GrassRoots festivals and Hoppin' John Fiddler's Convention. In essence, he wants the festival and its land to be a good neighbor.
"As the festival grows, it's so well-rooted in this community," says Puryear, who's long booked the event with a rotation-of-crops approach, mixing young local talent with national touring favorites. "Just like any type of thing where everybody pitches in on something, it's a huge catalyst for community building."
Indeed, after scraping by for several years with just enough volunteers to run the festival, volunteer coordinator Michelle Wright says Shakori Hills' current militia of 700 volunteers is almost too much. People come from as far away as New York and Florida to donate their time in exchange for free festival admission, but most, says Wright, live near the festival grounds. They pick up trash, prepare food, direct traffic, and—every day—turn all that garbage lining all those walkways into compost.
Tickets for Shakori Hills GrassRoots Festival start at $22 per day. A four-day adult pass costs $95. For information and a complete schedule, see www.shakorihills.org.