In 1980, Jean Healy and three of her friends decided to start their own team. They weren't athletes, comediennes or sales associates; they were dancers, inspired by the tutorials of the Apple Chill Cloggers, offered every Tuesday night at The Station in Carrboro.
"We learned our steps and just kind of went from there," says Healy, who has been a Cane Creek Clogger off and on for more than 30 years. "It's gone through many changes. We've had lots of different members come and go. It's just so much fun, and so much joy can be gotten from dancing."
At least once a year since 2004, the Cane Creek Cloggers have shared that joy and their Appalachian roots at the Shakori Hills GrassRoots Festival on a sprawling expanse of thickets and fields in Chatham County. Designed to celebrate music and dance, Shakori invites more than 60 acts to share their sounds on four stages for four days. Attendees mosey across the festival's rolling hills, strolling from the old-time bounce of the Cane Creek Cloggers to the fiddle wizardry of Casey Driessen, from the Latin grooves of Suénalo to the reggae sounds of The Wailers. The diversity is deliberate, designed to encourage communal connection.
"I hope this doesn't sound cheesy, but it's not only a festival. It's kind of a way of life," says Sara Waters, co-coordinator of the biannual gathering. "We like to be entertaining, but we also like to teach people about how to be a better community."
While Waters' credo might sound like sheer idealism, Shakori Hills activates those ideals on the ground twice a year. Organizationally, that translates into craft vendors committed to eco-consciousness and custom design. It involves working with food vendors faithful to healthy recipes and local food sources. It means encouraging recycling, allowing space for advocacy organizations, and offering dance, music and movement workshops. Shakori Hills is also working to buy the land on which they host the festival so as to increase their own accountability as stewards of the property.
Such aspirational drive pushes past the festival grounds: For the last five years, Shakori Hills has coordinated the Hopes and Dreams program to connect incoming performers with local schools. This year, acts such as Elephant Revival, a Colorado-based Americana outfit, will stop by Jordan Mathews High School in Siler City to share their music and answer questions from students. Allison Springer, who leads the effort, sees it as a way to bolster faltering education budgets.
"We want to expose kids to things that they wouldn't normally be exposed to, especially in the environment these days where schools just cut, cut, cut things," she says. "Being exposed to different things opens up horizons and opens up possibilities. If one kid goes home and asks their mom, 'Hey, can I learn the guitar? Hey, can I learn the keyboard?,' we've accomplished something."
The school program is a youthful distillation of what Shakori provides for its patrons. Back at the festival, a bevy of idiosyncratic acts allows fans to draw their own connections between the array of sounds they hear. That's a thrilling invitation for a lineup that stacks the worldly (like Malian singer Fatoumata Diawara) beside the local (like Chapel Hill bluegrass insurgents Mipso Trio). On the stages, indie rockers (Lost in the Trees) follow bluegrass boys (Steep Canyon Rangers), and Native American harmonies (Deer Clan Singers) take a turn after steel pan jazz fusion (Fourchestra). Musicians retaining pure regional traditions bump shoulders with artists layering sounds from across the globe.
"It's less about you in particular," reasons Lost in the Trees' frontman Ari Picker of the festival experience, "but more about the whole atmosphere with all the other bands."
If there are downsides to that exchange of personal ego for populist ambiance, the festival's performers don't betray it. Zydeco sweetheart Rosie Ledet builds her vibrant tunes on accordion licks, washboard beats and wild shouts in French and Creole. For her, the atmosphere offers energy and feedback more than similar events.
"I play a lot of festivals, but that's one that when you think about it you say, 'Oh yeah, that's a good one,'" she explains. "You see the way people are playing the instruments and the way people are dancing. You feed off each other. You get the love and you can give it back."
For Waters, the charm stems from the spirit of exchange on the ground. "We have a big thing here about not really having walls between the artists and the attendees," she says. "That's just really important to us that we're all here together and we're all listening to these artists, but have something to offer them just as much as they have something to offer us."
Indeed, giving the love back is a big theme at Shakori Hills. For Jean Healy and the Cane Creek Cloggers, the event is a chance to share a folk dance tradition that connects their lives to ages-old European steps and African rhythms. For other bands, it's an opportunity to play songs for a community that helped shape their creative output or to introduce themselves to a crowd eager to support new talent. For Waters and her co-workers, that entire exchange is the best of job perks.
"I just really love watching the people. I love seeing what they've learned," she says. "There are people who it's kind of their second home; it's where they come to let go of everything that's bothering them. I just love walking around and watching people's reactions."
This article appeared in print with the headline "Every time the music starts."