By Dan Ruby
MerleFest maintains its commitment to presenting music that fits Doc Watson's definition of "traditional-plus," said MerleFest executive director B Townes in an exclusive interview with Festival Preview.
Townes would not give away any names of artists who have been booked for 2008. The lineup is scheduled to be announced toward the end of September. "Rest assured it will be the best ever," Townes said.
Following the departures of three key staff members, long-time MerleFest attendees are expected to closely scrutinize the lineup when it is released, looking for signs of changes in artistic direction.
Townes declined to comment on specific personnel issues. Regarding the staff departures as a whole, he said, "Just as the talent at MerleFest changes and the music evolves, so will the people who are involved. The people we loved, artists and employees, who have passed on, or who have moved on, we will miss them."
However, he maintained that the staff changes will not result in significant changes to the festival's musical mix. Townes said the tradtional-plus format allows the festival to program bluegrass, Americana, Irish, cowboy, jambands, zydeco and dozens more musical styles.
On the subject of genres, Townes expressed some doubts about the Americana label used to describe the festival's music. "I think Americana is one genre among many that we present," he said.
Townes said as festival founder and director, he was the one primarily responsible for setting MerleFest's musical direction, and that others who have been involved in booking have followed his formula. "It is very broad, but I know the boundaries that Doc won't cross and that MerleFest won't cross. We will push the envelope, but still keep it in the formula."
Townes said that Doc Watson is consulted regularly as a sounding board. "From the beginning, Doc said he didn't want to manage the festival but he wants to play at it each year. He is always available to give us his thoughts on this act or that act, but after 20 years, I kind of know what he is thinking," Townes said.
In response to specific concerns that the management changes might result in more bookings of mainstream country-music entertainers, Townes said, "Let me put that to rest. It is not the intent of MerleFest to go beyond the boundaries to bring in more commercial acts. Having said that, we reserve the right to invite any artist that our committee decides people want to see."
He cited Dolly Parton and Marty Stuart as examples of Nashville artists who have been successful at MerleFest because they have embraced more traditional styles. "When someone like that says, 'I want to play bluegrass,' we take note of that," he said.
Responding to criticism
In the interview, Townes also responded to a wide range of concerns that have been raised following the staff changes.
He explained that the festival is owned by the Wilkes Community College Endowment Corp., of which he is executive director. He also wears hats as the vice president of development for the college and executive director of MerleFest. Currently he is also acting artistic director for the festival.
Ted Hagaman, a former marketing executive with Lowe's Companies, is the managing director of the festival, responsible for coordinating the six project teams working on specific aspects of the festival. According to Townes, Hagaman's success as the college director of hospitality and of the Walker Center made him the best choice for the position.
"Ted worked a lot on the site changes that were unveiled this year, including the Shops at MerleFest and eliminating cars on lower campus, a dreeam I have had for 10 years. Ted implemented that and did a great job," Townes said.
On the subject of festival sponsorship, Townes said he started the sponsorship program in 1992 to support a public television film about the festival, and that since then the sponsorship program has grown substantially.
"For about five years, we have had the goal to secure a presenting sponsor for the festival and we were proud to announce Lowe's as the presenting sponsor last year," Townes said. He added that it was his own work and not Hagaman's connections that brought in the sponsor deal. "Lowe's exercises no influence artistically on the festival," he contended.
Townes denied that the festival prioritizes commercial success over artistic quality. "Our commitment is to put on a quality event first, and the dollars follow from that. However, the reality of business is that there is a certain level of revenue that must be realized to pay for talent, infrastructure, production and amenities," he said.
Townes said the festival is not seeking to increase attendance. Instead the goal has been to improve audience quality by increasing the ratio of weekend passes to single-day walk-ins.
Regarding logistical problems that developed during the 2007 festival, such as a slow exit flow on Saturday night, Townes said that they resulted from a combination of site improvements that were implemented this year and programming. "We will tweak our procedures to address the problem, but it really was better than it would have been if we still had car traffic," he said.
In response to charges that the festival's management style is autocratic. "Actually, our management style is open and team-oriented," Townes said, explaining that each of the festival's major functions are directed by a project team. "That structure can make decision-making somewhat cumbersome, such as with the number of people involved on the programming team. But we want that kind of team organization," Townes said.
Townes acknowledged some sensitivity about political speech. "The college is apolitical and we work with both sides. However, in an election year, we wouldn't choose to put on people making political statements," Townes said. If an artist has a reputation for being outspoken, "we would want to have a conversation about that before we booked the talent," he said.
Wednesday, August 01, 2007
By Dan Ruby