Saturday, May 19, 2007

Putting on a Festival - Bluegrass on the Waccamaw

Bluegrass on the Waccamaw is unusual in several ways. It is a one day festival offered free to the public. Held on the second Saturday of May in Conway, South Carolina, BG on the Waccamaw aspires to showcase national bands, as well as local and regional performers, offering, as its promotional material says, “World class bluegrass.” Promoter Jennings Chestnut, who owns and operates a mandolin shop in Conway and who makes fine mandolins, works all year long to find sponsors, local boosters, and other supporters to make it possible to offer this event without charging attendees. He serves without pay as do all the other people associated with the event. The only people receiving payment are the performers and the various vendors offering services to the festival. After proving ourselves three years ago, Irene and I were allowed to become volunteers last year, and this year came back. We worked from Thursday until Sunday morning, with many other volunteers, to help Jennings, his wife Willi, his daughter Ginger, and Ginger’s kids Dylon and Amanda Lynn to get Bluegrass on the Waccamaw off the ground and running for its eleventh consecutive year. While each festival is unique, a thread of similarity runs through all of them. This review is written from the point of view of a volunteer rather than a fan in the front seats.

Seven o’clock Thursday morning is our time to appear at the Old Peanut Warehouse. Built in the nineteenth century, this unpainted barn of a building was resurrected by Jennings about a dozen years ago, having fallen into disuse when peanut agriculture in Horry County declined. The first year he used it, Jennings and his family spent days cleaning off the accumulated waste of years of disuse, including a thick carpet of pigeon waste. This morning, when Irene and I arrive, a pumper truck from the local fire company is on hand and a man in fire gear is pressure washing the floor with a thick fire hose. The space looks wide open and smells fresh and clean. As the morning wears on we hang bunting, put risers for the small stage in place, hang banners outside the building, and collect traffic barriers and cones from the police department to help control traffic on Saturday.

Volunteers for various parts of the operation appear and leave during the day, but essentially this is Jennings’ and Willi’s show and they’re the administration and staff. The organization and implementation for all elements of the festival reside in their minds; no checklists point the way, no organization chart distributes responsibility. Jennings likes to say that when he and Donald Smith, a local entrepreneur who is Jennings’ partner, talk on the phone, the Board has had a meeting. While Jennings and I do chores around the warehouse, Willi, Ginger, and Irene chop vegetables, prepare cakes, and make sure the materials for both Friday’s supper and Saturday’s lavish buffet for performers and volunteers are ready for assembly. Lynn and Brenda Butler have been volunteers at Bluegrass on the Waccamaw for years, they know the routine, and their work and spirit are crucial to its running smoothly. Despite the fact that they are delayed because their son is coaching in an important high school baseball tournament, by Thursday afternoon we found ourselves waiting for the rental company to deliver the next batch of work for us. The rental company appears around 2:00 PM and starts putting up the large tent that provides shade for the audience as well as delivering the tables and chairs we need.. By quitting time, the tables are in place and covered with table cloths, chairs largely distributed and the warehouse begins to look like a banquet hall. A large tent to provide shade from sun or protection from rain is erected toward the rear of the seating area. A festival grounds and backstage area have begun to be created.

On Friday morning Gary Payne appears with his sound equipment for the Friday evening fund raiser. Gary, from Charleston, is a musician who also does sound. He erects his equipment and meticulously tests it to be sure that the balance is good and that the sound fits the room. The porta-john man arrives and sets up these essential items. There is a lull as the room is finished and we wait for the caterer to arrive with dinner and the band to begin to come and set up. This year’s fund raiser entertainment is a band called Derwin Hinson and the Soggy Beach Boys. Hinson, large and smiling man filled with energy, is primarily an evangelist/entertainer who does a one man band presentation to churches and other religious organizations featuring gospel music where he plays all the instruments. Tonight he will be doing a bluegrass show with a full band. He and the band arrive and set up as Larry Dickerson, the caterer begins to arrive with dinner. The pace is picking up. Outside the Old Peanut Warehouse a few people are beginning to arrive for dinner and to check out our progress.

One of the ways Jennings keeps Bluegrass on the Waccamaw going is by offering a $25.00 a person benefit dinner the night before the festival. He raffles off a guitar with a limited number of chances at $10.00 each. The dinner provides an opportunity for friends of the festival and local people to hear a performance by bluegrass band, eat good food together, and have a fine time. Jennings presents awards to people whose contribution to the festival help keep it working. The setting is rustic, the environment friendly. Larry has provided a supper of Chicken Bog, a low country rice and chicken delicacy that is different in the hands of each cook. His recipe is excellent. The buffet includes Chicken Bog, cole slaw, beans, and rolls, and Miss Willi and other volunteers have provided a range of cakes for desert. Steve and Eve Hinman set up their vending table offering T-shirts as well as other Bluegrass on the Waccamaw memorabilia. Tomorrow Steve will be selling outside while Eve works in the kitchen. After supper, enjoyed by all, Derwin Hinson’s band begins to play. Derwin is obviously the real talent of this group, but the ensemble works well, playing bluegrass standards, which is what this crowd wants. They are well received. In the middle of the concert, the band takes a break so Jennings can present awards. He gives a lovely glass obelisk to Derwin as a lifetime contributor to Bluegrass on the Waccamaw. Grady Richardson, a fellow Conway businessman who serves as an auxiliary security person representing the Horry County Sheriff’s Department, receives the volunteer of the year award, and Jennings two grandchildren, Dylon and Amanda Lyn, are given lifetime achievement awards for their having grown up with the festival and the help they give annually in making it work. Derwin and his group return for a few more songs and the successful evening ends on schedule, an important value for Jennings.

Grady Richardson isn’t the only representative of the Horry County Sheriff’s Department in evidence at the festival. Both the sheriff’s department and the Conway Police Department provide security for this community event, and most of the police presence found there is providing volunteer support. Having a clear police presence at the festival relieves Jennings, the performers, and the attendees of concern about personal safety as well as assuring that musicians’ valuable instruments are well protected inside the Peanut Warehouse. Jennings is a man who maintains a pleasant demeanor governed by nature, culture, and good manners. Nevertheless, he is anxious that this event run smoothly. Having the police presence allows him to stay even tempered and polite throughout while knowing that the necessary protection is on hand.

On Saturday morning we arrive shortly after seven to find Jennings already there and working. The traffic barriers are erected and the Bluegrass Strangers bus has arrived. They are important because not only are they performing, but they are the sound people. Because bluegrass music is traditionally presented with acoustic instruments, sound is especially important at a bluegrass festival. Each microphone must be adjusted and balanced in order to have instruments and voices reach out into the crowd. Gene Daniell, one of the best sound men, says his job is to make the words completely understandable while not missing a note. A good sound technician can make a band sound better than they are, while bad sound muddies the music and either overwhelms the audience with its volume or hides its quality. As the Bluegrass Strangers set up their sound equipment, people are already beginning to arrive and place their lawn chairs either beneath the tent, under the bridge behind the tent or in front of the stage. The music won’t begin until 12:30, but folks are beginning to arrive. Since this is a free festival, there are no lines for admission, but people do have their preferred seating patterns.

A group of us help Steve Hinman erect his vending tent and set up his operation. Chick Filet is the sole food vendor, and they set up a tent next to Steve’s. The stage is decorated with the same carnations that decorated the stage last night.. To the right of the stage an area is set aside for the bands to place their merchandise tents from which they will sell their CDs and other paraphernalia. We have accomplished enough so that by mid-morning there’s no need to panic as noon approaches. Slowly the opening bands show up and are admitted to the Warehouse. They break out their instruments and begin to warm up in a couple of corners. The Grascals’ bus arrives from Nashville and Lynn Butler takes their driver to the Holiday Inn Express to sleep so he can meet FTA regulations for driving back later tonight.

Larry, the caterer, has brought in the buffet – chicken bog, turkey, ham, slaw, potato salad are supplemented from Miss Willi’s kitchen with cheese, her own home made summer sausage, nuts and more. One specialty of her house is the Cake in Bowl, a concoction of sponge cake, vanilla pudding, strawberries, and cut up bananas all layered to look festive and delicious. There are cakes and cookies and more. The entertainers who’ve played Bluegrass on the Waccamaw rave at other festivals about how well they are treated here. The Grascals hit the buffet as soon as they arrive and then return to their bus and the comfort of air conditioning. The temperature is hovering around ninety. Randy Waller, son of Charlie Waller, and the Country Gentlemen arrive. At 12:30 Rocky, the emcee, introduces Flatt City and the festival has begun.

For the next several hours I wander between backstage, in front of the stage taking pictures of the bands, and wandering around the crowd taking pictures of “the scene.” I stop to help Randy Waller pick up some rocks to hold down the fliers on his CD table and we end up talking about bluegrass history and his Dad’s role in it. He walked me back to his van and pulled a book out. It was a copy of Bluegrass Odyssey, a picture history of the music, which he has had signed by most of the living legends of bluegrass. As we talked I realized the gift, the burden, and the struggle of being descended from one of the greats. He tries, and sometimes manages, to pull it off gracefully. Meanwhile, it seems to me his band is improving and today his voice is the best I’ve heard it and the chemistry of his band is there.

The Lewis Family bus pulls up and folks go to the door to help Little Roy Lewis’ aging sisters into the Warehouse. They are aging and ill, but they are troopers and they’re here to perform. Little Roy is all energy. His energy drives the Lewis Family effort forward and they hit the stage on time. Irene has agreed to cover the merchandise table for Grasstowne’s first set while I take more pictures and wander.

Jennings has asked me to be sure to be available for his presentations at the beginning of the supper break. Little Roy Lewis joins him and Derwin Hinson on the stage to present Derwin with a lifetime achievement award from the festival. Then the local state representative presents a lovely tribute to the Lewis Family in the form of a resolution from the State House of Representatives. Roy appears genuinely moved as he accepts the truly handsome framed resolution, tells a couple of stories and they all exit. And the second sets of music begin. When they come off the stage I ask Little Roy if he would play my banjo. An account of the jam that developed can be found here. At around 7:40, Jennings comes over to tell Little Roy that the Lewis Family will be on stage in five minutes. He transitions from jammer to family leader and the family hits the stage on time.

A cool wind has begun to blow and by the time The Country Gentlemen have taken the stage a decision has been made to close the festival down, as thunder storms are headed right at us. The people leave quickly and the bands, too. Only two bands, Grasstowne and The Grascals miss their performances, but safety comes first.

On Sunday morning we arrive again at around eight to find that Elsie and Jackie Snipes along with Tom and Joan Moore have cleaned the grounds until they are nearly spotless. Jennings and Miss Willi soon appear as well as Steve and Eve as we go through the final pieces of cleaning up and closing the Warehouse. By ten we are done, but people seem a little reluctant to leave, despite being tired after three days of hard work. Finally, everyone hugs and we go our own way. Another Bluegrass on the Waccamaw is complete for another year.

Putting on even a small bluegrass festival is a complex affair requiring attention to detail as well as keeping the big picture in front at all times. Jennings Chestnut has pulled this off for yet another year, and even though weather has intervened, the festival has been a success.