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FolkWest: Bringing the music to the people

In addition to the sun setting earlier in the evening, the nights getting chillier and school about to start, a sure sign that summer is coming to a close in Pagosa Springs is the large white tent that is visible from town on Reservoir Hill.

The tent will be home to the main stage at the annual Four Corners Folk Festival, now in its 14th year. Reservoir Hill’s open meadow, with amazing views of the San Juan mountain range, seems quiet now, but work is already underway that will transform the spot into a venue for some of the finest contemporary folk artists in the nation.

In the mid-’90s, Dan Appenzeller and Crista Munro had an idea for a community project: bring top-notch musicians to Pagosa Springs at a venue that could accommodate large numbers of people. Their intention was to create an event for locals to enjoy without having to travel out of the area. The husband and wife team approached the Pagosa Springs Arts Council for help and in 1996 the festival was born under the umbrella of that organization.

At the time, the site at the top of Reservoir Hill was very rustic, to put it mildly. Over the years, the area has been slowly improved to make the site comfortable for the thousands of music lovers that come to the event each year.

With two weeks to go before the show over Labor Day weekend, a local contractor delivers loads of mulch that will be spread over the main site to help with mud control. As the date of the event approaches, the activity on the hill will increase, but the preparations for the festival were started as soon as the 2008 show ended, and the booking and planning for the 2011 show are already in the works.

After the 2008 festival, Dan and Crista met with their key people in an informal way to discuss what went wrong at the show, what can be improved, and what went right. The topics include how many acts to schedule to keep the show on track, or what late-night venues to plan to make sure the volunteers aren’t overworked. The team begins plans for the next year’s show while ideas are still fresh in their minds — new talent to book, site improvements, and drainage issues.

According to John Porter and Associates, an assessment and strategy consultant that conducts studies on the economic impact of the arts, the total economic significance of the Four Corners Folk Festival on the community of Pagosa Springs is over $2 million, which includes $84,000 of local sales tax generated over the one weekend. According to the 2008 report, 4,346 individuals representing 28 states and the United Kingdom attended the performances, workshops and children’s programs during the weekend.

An event with such significant economic impact is not an easy feat to accomplish and involves not only scheduling the incredible talent that comes to the community, but also hiring subcontractors, planning print media campaigns and advertising, coordinating more than 400 local volunteers, and the big job — selling tickets and getting them delivered.

Crista has pre-event ticketing help from Catherine Frye, and Catherine’s son, Kyle, is also involved in the festival as the manager of the “runners” — teenagers who volunteer to work with organizers during the show to fulfill immediate tasks, which are usually endless at an event of this size.

Crista runs through some runners’ tasks off the top of her head. “We need ten bags of ice, get 14 bales of hay over here, bring us some zip ties, the lights are too dark, the tent stakes need pads on them.” In addition to the dashing around, one job for a runner is sleeping on the stages during the night for security. Kyle Frye started as a runner when he was 14 and has since graduated, but he returns each summer to help with the festival.

As the folk festival grew each year, Dan and Crista formed their own non-profit, FolkWest, which has a five-member board that oversees festival business and finances. FolkWest also has a steering committee that is made up of at least one person from each of the departments that keep the festival running smoothly: recycling, garbage, kids’ events, security, site coordination, medical, Mounted Rangers and parking.

The logistics of the entire event have to be coordinated with the town, and in the 14 years of the festival, Dan and Crista have worked with four town managers, two police chiefs, four parks and recreation directors, and the high school principal for parking. The festival needs to be in compliance with all town regulations, and all off-site signage has to have a permit.

Each year since 2000, FolkWest has reapplied for a grant from the Colorado Council on the Arts to help fund the festival. The stringent grant process looks at the follow-up reports generated by the steering committees, scrutinizes salaries, and looks at the festival budget. Although many grants were cut or reduced this year, FolkWest received the highest grant possible for their event in 2009.

The phone that rings seemingly non-stop during the day is answered by Catherine Frye when she is in the office for ticketing, but mainly by Dan and Crista. The duo has split the responsibilities so they each have their own roles. Dan is mainly in charge of pre-event planning such as acquiring the tents, hiring subcontractors, lighting, sound, accommodations and booking acts. He receives requests and music from nearly 500 artists and acts and has to sort through all of it to determine who will be in the lineup and when they will play. Dan chooses the acts based on the years of experience in this genre of music that help him find acts he thinks the audience will like — bands that already have a following, or new acts that he hears and wants to get on his stage.

“Sometimes fate has a role in the process,” Dan adds. He booked a little known band, the Wiyos, in December of 2008. They have since been discovered by the masses and are now touring with Bob Dylan, Willie Nelson and John Mellencamp, but will still be coming to Pagosa Springs to perform two sets on Friday.

Dan and Crista explain that it is the “goosebump moments” that really make the Four Corners Folk Festival so spontaneous and unique. Some of the bands that Dan books have members who know each other, and when one group is performing, members of other bands are often invited on stage to play along. These spur-of-the-moment, improvised jams are what draws the perpetual festivalgoers to these events.

Dan elaborates, “An artist gives, the audience receives. It happens in the present and you can’t replace it.” On one occasion, Dan saw a member of one band he booked play with another artist on stage. The two had never met, but knew each other’s songs. They traded solos on stage and the next year toured as a duo.

In Crista’s office, she has a list taped to her desk called “The Big To-Do.” The list gets shorter as Labor Day weekend approaches, but is still daunting, with the amount of work that remains. As she peruses the list, Dan walks into the office. “We need to hammer out the banners,” he exclaims, “and we have to meet with the Cisco sales rep about the refrigerated trailers.” Crista smiles, shrugs and takes note as he hands her an envelope with promo music that has to be priority mailed to a radio station that will be promoting the event. Crista’s to-do list includes getting the programs to the printer, sending out the weekly e-mail blasts, creating press releases, getting the phones turned on at the site, ordering the wine for backstage, updating the Web site, sending show information to vendors, and printing parking passes. Those are just the items on the first page of the list — the tasks such as getting markers and other incidentals continues on page two.

Crista delegates much responsibility to a few key event organizers who have been involved with the festival for several years. Brian Smith is on the board and steering committee and is the site manager. Rick Bolhouse, otherwise known as “Bear,” has been in charge of security since the second year of the festival and takes a huge load off of Crista by taking complete charge of that department. The vendor coordinator is Mark Brown, who makes sure the vendors are lined up, know where to go, and are in compliance with all fire and health regulations. All sales tax from the vendors is collected on-site, then tracked and submitted by FolkWest.

“We believe in music,” Dan says. “Music is the product.”

The goal with FolkWest is to deliver an incredible music event to Pagosa Springs, and the tireless preparations and planning by Dan and Crista is putting them on track to host another outstanding show of folk music on Reservoir Hill. In the words of Louis Armstrong, “All music is folk music; I ain’t never heard no horse sing a song.”