"The eventual goal is that the festival will be successful enough to purchase the farm and for it to be owned by a not-for-profit that puts on these festivals but also thoughtfully develops the land so that we can have other performances out there," Mitchner says, adding that he'd like to see the place turn into a kind of folk arts school.
A frequenter of fiddler festivals while an undergrad at UNC in the '80s and the original bassist for Trailer Bride and current bass player for Big Fat Gap, Mitchner developed a friendship with music fans from Ithaca, N.Y., who started the Finger Lakes GrassRoots Festival in '89. "It was rare for me to go to something and see so many things that I felt were outstanding musically, so I started going up there to play with my own little band and just fell in love with that festival, and I thought those guys' idea of what a festival should be was right on the mark."
In 2001, New York's GrassRoots festival organizer, Jordan Puryear, told Mitchner he was looking for a location to hold another festival and the two started to look within a 50-mile radius of Chapel Hill, where Mitchner was living at the time. "There wasn't really anything that you could hold a four-day festival at and have people camp out," Mitchner says. "So we said, 'Well, it looks like we're gonna have to create this ourselves.'"
Mitchner defines his role as being, in part, the public face of the festival. "I'm trying to carry this vision forward, to try to make the farm into something more than just a festival site, holding out the goals for everybody to get behind us and turn it into something really cool." Mitchner says he's too busy with his work as a physical therapist and playing with Big Fat Gap to be working on the festival full time, but he does help book the bands, hire the policemen and EMS workers and get the portable toilet people out there. "Mostly I just speak for it and steward the festival."
But some grateful attendees of the first year's mudfest might recognize him as one of the friendly guys with tractors pulling out cars mired axle-deep in mud. "That's my favorite job," Mitchner says. "It was a very stressful first year to get that thing off the ground, and so being able to be up on the tractor and have a very specific job to do was nice. It's brought out the farm boy in me."
Mitchner sees the festival as a new way of creating community and says he really didn't know what he was getting into. "I feel like I was sort of put under a spell or something. I'm so glad I did. I'm so glad I had temporary insanity."
And though he admits the core audience "is kind of Woodstockish," the NPR crowd and local families are also well represented. "My neighbor, Mr. Elkins, he's been working in the hardware store in Siler City for years, and he's pretty much a quintessential Chatham County local guy. I love to see him out there with his wife and his little fold-up lawn chair, watching all this music and just having the time of his life."
Though pleased with the results so far, Mitchner says the festival still has a ways to go before breaking even. They're hoping for attendance levels to go up to 5,000 from the usual 3,500 or so to help offset costs such as the $40,000 investment in gravel for the roads and parking areas.
If it comes true, the festival's wish list would help boost attendance figures. David Byrne, Toots & The Maytals and even Willie Nelson are penciled in for future gatherings. Festival-goers are invited to come out every week for planning meetings. The volunteer effort is a major part of the infrastructure. "It's all volunteer, and people just do great things out of the goodness of their heart," Mitchner says. "I was never the kind of person to volunteer loads of my time to do anything before this, and I've always been amazed at what people give. And that's the only way it works, really. There's no way we could do this if all those people expected to be paid."
His pay is in friendship, and the satisfaction of bringing people together. "I'm sure babies have been conceived out there. That to me is really remarkable and humbling. It's like wow--we took this empty farm and turned it into something really cool. So that's what motivates me."
The goal, Mitchner says, is about preservation--of a lifestyle and a property. "Chatham County is developing at a really rapid rate, and I can foresee a day when all the spots right around our farm are going to be developments, so it's really kind of neat to be able to take a chunk of the woods and the fields and preserve it for something that 10 or 20 years from now will really be a unique spot there in Chatham County."
The Shakori Hills GrassRoots Festival runs Oct. 6-9 in Silk Hope, N.C. Tickets are $75 for a weekend pass; daily prices range from $15 to $30. For all the details, visit www.shakorihills.org .
Donna the Buffalo
Larry Keel and Natural Bridge
Two Dollar Pistols
Donna the Buffalo
African-American Dance Ensemble
Chatham County Line
Donna the Buffalo
For the complete schedule, visit the festival Web site at www.shakorihills.org.
Take the Biodiesel Shuttle to Shakori
Ride Ninth Street Bakery's new biodiesel bus to the festival. For reservations, call the festival office at 542-8142 or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org and leave your name and the date and time you want to ride. Reservations will have first chance on the 15-seat bus. Tickets are $3 one-way and $5 round trip, cash only--less than the cost of parking. (Katrina evacuees are welcome to reserve free shuttle and free festival tickets.)
THURSDAY: Pickups are at 3 p.m. in the One World Market parking lot on Ninth Street in Durham, 3:30 p.m. in front of the Trail Shop on Franklin Street in Chapel Hill, and 3:45 p.m. at the Weaver Street Market parking lot in Carrboro. A second round of pickups occurs at 6, 6:30 and 6:45 p.m. (in the same locations).
There will be two return runs back from the Festival Ticket Booth leaving at 10:30 p.m. and 12:30 a.m.
FRIDAY: Same as Thursday.
SATURDAY: Three runs--same locations, pickups at noon, 3 and 5 p.m. Two runs back at 10:30 p.m. and 12:30 a.m.
SUNDAY: Same pickups as Saturday. Two runs back at 9 and 11 p.m.