The venerable Strawberry Music Festival, silenced for more than a year by fire threat and then permit issues, opens Thursday at the Nevada County Fairgrounds in Grass Valley – 200 miles from its home of three decades.
The four-day folk-Americana-bluegrass festival formerly happened twice a year, over the Memorial and Labor Day weekends, at Camp Mather, in Tuolumne County near Yosemite National Park. But last year’s forest-devouring Rim fire canceled the fall edition and put the festival on the brink of financial ruin.
(Though Camp Mather was saved from the Rim fire, the blaze damaged its water-delivery system).
The cancellation occurred just days before the event, necessitating refunds or exchanges for tickets already sold. Strawberry organizers received a Small Business Administration disaster-relief loan for around $800,000. Although word of the loan’s approval came in January, the funds took months to arrive.
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“All we had enough money to do was to stay in business long enough to get the loan,” Strawberry spokeswoman Jodi Barnett said. Attendance drops over the past five years at the spring festivals – when the weather can be iffy, Barnett said – contributed to the financial situation.
Fortunately, the vast majority of Strawberry patrons – a loyal, mandolin-and-tie-dye-loving lot – were willing to wait for the loan and/or a rescheduled festival rather than demand their money back immediately, Barnett said.
A spring 2014 festival was off the table, but organizers believed a Labor Day festival – an event that can draw 6,000 to 7,000 people, including vendors and volunteers – still could happen at Camp Mather.
But the San Francisco Recreation & Parks Department, which operates the city-owned Camp Mather, denied the festival a permit, citing lingering water-storage and forest-safety issues.
A letter from department general manager Philip Ginsburg to the festival, dated May 1, discussed the dangers of limbs or trees from property next to the camp falling on festivalgoers. The letter also stated that temporary repairs that had been made to the water system would accommodate the 600 or so campers who visited Camp Mather from San Francisco each week during summer, but not thousands at once.
The denial came despite efforts by the festival and Tuolumne County officials to address the issues raised by the parks department, Barnett said.
By the time Strawberry organizers were certain the camp was not available, it was too late to secure a venue for Labor Day weekend, Barnett said. Thus the mid-September dates.
Musical acts often plan tours many months in advance. Strawberry started booking this week’s festival in June. In another testament to the goodwill Strawberry built over decades, “about 40 percent” of acts from the canceled festival re-upped for this one, Barnett said, despite the short notice. They include two Grammy winners – dobro ace Jerry Douglas (6:30 p.m. Sunday) and singer-songwriter Patty Griffin (8 p.m. Sunday).
Other carry-overs include Davis singer Chris Webster, from the band Mumbo Gumbo but performing in a duo with guitarist Nina Gerber, at 12:30 p.m. Friday in Grass Valley; and bluegrass-folk-rock band Good Luck Thrift Store Outfit, at 12:30 p.m. Saturday.
“As long as you can keep the spirit alive, I think (the Strawberry festival) will survive anything,” said Willy Tea Taylor, Thrift Store Outfit’s co-lead singer (with Chris Doud). Taylor, 38, lives in Oakdale, neck of the woods-ish to Camp Mather. He has attended or played at most Strawberry festivals since he was 18. He loves Camp Mather, he said, and hopes the festival returns to it. But he will go where Strawberry goes.
“It is a utopian society,” he said of the festival vibe. “We get to experience how life should be without a ruling government – just peace and harmony. The only rules are just be a good person.”
For many, utopia is easier to arrive at in Grass Valley, since it requires taking the only slightly twisty Highway 49. Southern Californians have farther to travel – Strawberry fans tend to come from California markets with public radio stations, Barnett said – than they did to Camp Mather, but it is an easier drive.
The crowds likely will be lighter as well. The Nevada County Fairgrounds covers about 100 acres to Camp Mather’s 360 – though a big chunk of that Mather acreage goes unused by festivalgoers. According to fairgrounds spokeswoman Wendy Oaks, the Grass Valley venue can accommodate 3,000 to 4,000 campers, depending on how an event is configured.
Barnett said she is not sure where the next Strawberry festival will be held. She is just pleased a 2014 festival is happening.
“We accomplished it, and totally against the odds,” she said.