By Jenna Lazenby
Milepost #170.5 just past the Rocky Knob visitor’s center along the Blue Ridge Parkway is an idyllic piece of countryside. For most of the year, the majority of traffic along the parkway is comprised of cyclists, hikers and those out for a slow-paced afternoon drive. A quick park of the car at the visitor’s center and moments later you can find yourself in solitude, meandering along a path with stunning mountain vistas; one where you’re likely to run into more cows than people.
Then comes Floydfest each year for five days in late July, and the cows are best advised to run for cover, unless they happen, say, to be wearing shades and are hankerin’ for a party.
The long-established music festival draws some 12,000 people from across the country to converge on the land for fun, relaxation and southern soul vibe.
Floydfest is what’s known as a boutique festival, not large, but community- and family-oriented. The air is decidedly filled with music, but it’s also filled with the laughter and squeals of children and the chatter of friends and strangers. There is kayaking and bike trails, 5k races and disc golf courses, yoga classes, dance classes, and massage. Then there are the music stages, nine of them spread around the festival grounds, set amid clusters of trees that help provide welcoming shade during the heat of the day, or cover during a midsummer rain storm. Two of the stages are permanent timber installations that were built to blend in with the trees and mountains, not scar the beauty of the countryside. Another Stage, Children’s Universe Forever Young, is geared specifically to the kiddos. Then there’s the added touches. The large musical note that greets you at the entrance, the festival performers, the art installations, and the classic wooden “love” sign that reigns high on the hillside above the HillHoller stage. It’s all part of a well-staged retreat with music at its epicenter.
Many music festivals are ephemeral events that live a year or two and collapse in losses for the founders. It’s no small feat when one becomes established to thrive annually.
To truly understand FloydFest, it helps to know Kris Hodges, the mastermind and co-founder of the event. Hodges, a musician and drummer in his own right, founded Across the Way (AtW) Productions, which produces FloydFest, among several other events, along with his life-partner Erika Johnson.
I sat down with Hodges recently at The Phoenix, the “little cubby of cool” music venue housed in Downtown Roanoke that Hodges and Johnson purchased in 2014. It serves as a venue for smaller concerts and hosts an annual battle of the bands series that results in a portion of the “On The Rise” FloydFest performances that highlight smaller, up-and-coming acts. Hodges has a natural intensity about him and during the interview he spoke freely and deliberately about his experiences, his passion for music, and his belief in its ability to affect social change.
“I knew from a very early age that come hell or high water, music was where I was going to live,” said Hodges. “I love the atmosphere, the energy, the urgency of getting your instruments on stage, and setup and iced and sound checks and just the gritty, raw nature of working with people in a real and natural way.”
Hodges, a native of Roanoke, now 45, delved into the music scene early, cutting his teeth first playing at the Iroquois Club at the ripe age of 16. After spending several years following the rock and roll dream and touring along the East coast, Hodges started to question if the touring lifestyle was what he wanted long-term.
“I always had the idea of being a rocker or connecting with people in a huge way. I had already been on Dead tour, I had toured myself, and I saw just how powerful a social fuel music was. Whether it was the punk rock scene, the Dead head scene, the jazz scene, the folk coffee house scene, the blues scene, rock and roll, you name it, I was always interested in how we can affect social change and music has always been a huge part of that. I just wasn’t sure if the touring life was for me.”
On the advice of his mom, Hodges went to live in Floyd on the communal farm of Travianna. There he was mentored by local artist, musician and instrument maker A’Court Bason in music, art, spirituality and living healthfully. It was at Travianna that he met Johnson, and in 1999, the two opened Oddfella’s Cantina. That same year they also started Across the Way Productions.
“When I met Erika I wanted to slow down, I wanted to get back to the land. So we grew organic tomatillos and cilantro and made salsa that we sold at the Blacksburg Farmers Market. I love food. I remember we went out to Oregon for awhile and on the way back there was this little club in Denver that served Jazz and Burritos and I thought, well that’s badass. I’m an entrepreneur by spirit, Erika too, so we returned to Floyd and opened Oddfella’s. It was basically a fatty burritos restaurant using a lot of the local food from Floyd. We started bringing music in and that’s when it took off because we understood the connection between our service and our product and people and lifestyles.”
“The first ever Across the Way show was Norman Blake. Blake is a national treasure, one of the best flat picking guitarist in the country out of Georgia. His discography and history is so deep. I brought him in and we sold the place out. I knew at that point we were going to take it to the next level.”
Hodges and Johnson went on to sell Oddfella’s to pursue their dream of starting a music festival and in 2002, the first FloydFest commenced. That first year brought 2,300 people to the festival grounds, and along with them a hurricane.
“We had 50 mile per hour winds and mud up to our eyeballs. Erika and I didn’t have any real experience to draw from. We went into it blind, fueled by passion. Most people would have completely lost their minds. I remember specifically telling myself that this is a test. If we can get through this, we can get through anything.”
Get through it they did, and while the following thirteen festivals have presented different challenges along the way, FloydFest has become a premier destination music festival winning major awards and accolades from the likes of Forbes Travel, The Smithsonian and the National Endowment for the Arts.
Hodges attributes several things to the festival’s success. Timing, the unity of the AtW Productions team, and staying true to the motto, “it’s not who you bring, it’s not what you bring, but it’s how you bring it.”
“FloydFest was built off of our own love, and experiences, and attention to detail. We try to leave no stone unturned. We make sure it’s a safe and holistic environment for every patron no matter the age, the gender, or the background. Our production team is one of the best in the business only because of love. We are grassroots, we are artists, and art is our number one motivation.”
As for the timing, there’s no denying that the music festival scene has exploded since FloydFest’s inception in 2002. There are currently more than 800 music festivals in the United States alone, and according to Nielsen Music, 32 million people attended at least one music festival in 2014. Hodges believes that boom is the result of people searching for ways to escape the daily grind.
“People want authentic experiences. They want to experience that energy, that feeling you get that pulls you out of the daily grind, that pulls you out of the status quo, that pulls you out of that box that we all live in from day to day. Festivals provide that. It’s a way to get outside, to connect with nature. It’s not just a concert. It’s an experience. It’s a vacation. It’s something that you can take back home and it enlivens your life. I think people are craving that more than ever. They want to get out of their status quo complacencies and find ways to expand their minds and interact with each other. I believe society is dictating for people to come back together and festivals are the perfect platform for that.”
Another key to the success of the festival is Hodges knack for identifying artists just before they get big. The Avett Brothers is probably the most notable. They played for free as part of the On the Rise series in 2004 and then blew up. Grace Pottter is another, as is Megan Jean, The Mantras, and Pappa Dozi, and there are a dozen or so more with similar stories.
“So much of what I do is R & D. I’m on the road all the time just traveling to festivals, doing research. Fortunately for me, I love research. I love the progress of music. I love the history of music. I love understanding how music affects people, and I love marketing and providing something that people respond to.”
This year’s festival, FloydFest 16 Dreamweavin’, is being headlined by Gregg Allman, Warren Haynes Ashes & Dust, and Bruce Hornsby & The Noisemakers. The Hodges’ golden nugget is Nathaniel Rateliff & The Night Sweats. The band’s popularity seemed to grow overnight after the launch of its lead single “S.O.B” off of the band’s self-titled album. With nearly 100 acts over five days, there’s a little something for everyone. The music is an eclectic mix of roots rock, bluegrass, folk, funk, classic rock, jazz, blues and a few other genres in between. Other lineup highlights include Shakey Graves, The Wood Brothers, Greensky Bluegrass, Rich Robinson, Monophonics, The Legendary Shack Shakers, and the list goes on.
Logistically there aren’t a lot of other changes coming to the festival. Hodges says that they have that part of the formula figured out, but it’s the packaging that is always a little different.
The biggest change to the 2016 packaging is Saturday’s secret stage, “Stage 15 Lost In Time.” The AtW Productions team decided to take advantage of the leap year and reduce confusion by getting festival numbers on the same page with the year. So, FloydFest 15 will exist on Saturday’s secret stage. While festival goers will have to be onsite Saturday to learn more (it’s called a secret for a reason), Hodges assures that the stage will be full blown with artists and musicians.
If you’re in the need of a little break from the daily grind; if you appreciate the combination of arts and music; and if you’re hankerin’ for a party, then the FloydFest experience is right up your alley. One-day and multi-day festival passes are still available through the FloydFest website. While at the festival, keep an eye out for those shade-wearing cows.