By KATHLEEN SHAW
Daily News-Record 5/15/20
Set against cascades of limestone chimneys and bathed in pine, each summer, Mount Solon is freckled by pitched tents as root music lovers gather and strangers become friends at Red Wing Roots Music Festival.
From dusk to dawn, those three days under the Red Wing Roots Music Festival sun bring endless tunes twiddling in the air across the music meadow, but this summer will echo with the silence of thousands missing in its fields.
Months ago, the idea of the festival kicking off its eighth year at Natural Chimneys Park was a point of excitement for thousands, but Thursday twisted the dates into a point of sorrow as the announcement of its cancellation due to the COVID-19 pandemic spread.
Managing partner of Black Bear Productions Jeremiah Jenkins has been a part of the Red Wing dream since its inception, Black Bear Productions being a precursor to the festival, and said it is disappointing that the festival’s family of followers will be unable to gather, relax and renew in the music meadow this year.
“We want Red Wing to be that — a place of renewal for people; so the safety of the community is paramount. It’s not something we would ever want to take any risks, so it’s with an ounce of prudence that we postpone,” he said. “It takes a village to produce an event like this. … Gathering together with that community of people that believe in this event and take care of each other and celebrate and relax together. It’s really the community and the gathering. It’s the whole.”
Nearly 200 people reacted with sorrow on the Facebook post announcing the cancellation of the festival, previously scheduled for July 10-12, reflecting on fond memories and with hopes for a celebratory reunion when the festival comes together in 2021.
Dwayne Sanders, of Chesterfield, lamented over the late- night, early morning campground singalongs between 20 strangers bonding over Crosby, Stills & Nash while the world slept. Cosby Harmon Quinlan, of Charlotte, N.C, with roots in Staunton, shared her favorite memory of lounging in the field alongside artists, always feeling at peace.
Mark Pistrang is a Red Wing veteran from Cleveland, Tenn., who has attended the festival since 2017 with his wife and looks forward to camping with his friends from various places. He said he has developed close friendships within the music community and remembers fondly how intimate those three days can be.
“Last year’s set with our friends Della Mae. They invited ex-band member Courtney Hartman to join them on stage, and the joy of their reunion was palpable in the music. They dedicated a song to my wife who is going through some medical issues and it was very poignant,” he said. Pistrang said the festival’s cult-following stems from the friendly atmosphere that makes everyone feel at home.
“Red Wing is a unique festival that cultivates a ‘small fest’ feel, while providing the musical quality of the biggest festivals on the circuit. They just seem to get everything right from how they treat the artists to how they treat the fans,” Pistrang said.
For some, Red Wing makes Mount Solon feel like home, but for Anne Saarinen, the festival is a true homecoming. Growing up near the Natural Chimneys, Saarinen said she has driven up to eight hours while traveling from homes as far as Pennsylvania and Kentucky, but she would never miss the festival if she could help it.
Apart from the award-winning bands that join the lineup, Red Wing sets itself apart from several festivals by dedicating a show to the children who cultivate musical skills as a part of Red Wing Academy, an intensive music camp led by Eric Brubaker of The Steel Wheels.
Katie Coleman Malone from New Market, Md., excitedly anticipated morning runs, Blue Mountain beer and giant donuts at her fourth year at the festival with her family and her fifth grader joining the academy. Those family experiences are what makes Red Wing so treasurable, according to Jenkins.
“The most exciting thing to see are the children who come are growing up with us. Some were kids and children and now they’re preteen or teenager. Many of them take part in our Red Wing Academy and grow up with us musically as well. Seeing those families grow together, that’s really been the most beautiful change watching as we journey along in life together,” Jenkins said.
Red Wing is not the first nor the last regional festival taken down by the pandemic. Harrisonburg’s 23rd annual independent music festival MACROCK was canceled mid-March and the ninth annual FloydFest, a five-day Blue Ridge music festival, announced Thursday the cancellation of this year’s event.
Patrice Hawkins Sigmon is a resident of High Point, N.C., who was prepped to experience her first Red Wing festival this summer after years of following The Steel Wheels. She said the news of its cancellation filled her with grief, but she has continued to listen to bands such as The Judy Chops through livestreams and contribute financial support through their virtual tip jars.
“This would have been our first Red Wing, so naturally we’re disappointed. Postponing until next year is the right call, though, and we’ll continue to support our favorite musicians via their virtual ‘tip buckets’ and enjoy their livestreams,” she said. While the festival is a point of migration for folks across the East Coast, Red Wing is a source of pride for many Shenandoah Valley residents.
Harrisonburg resident Erin Bishop is a five-year attendee of Red Wing who always looks forward to Saturday night when 6,000 people join alongside her in smiles and song as The Steel Wheels performs “Red Wing,” the festival’s namesake tune.
“Saturday evening performances on the main stages surrounding the music meadow. It’s when I feel like the whole weekend has really settled in and festival life has taken over. Friends and familiar faces are all around and everyone is just having such a good time,” she said. “It just feels like a reunion of sorts. Like a culmination.”
Dayton-based post-Americana artist Bryan Elijah Smith was scheduled to perform at Red Wing this summer. He said the news of its cancellation was heartbreaking, but he is excited to return to Natural Chimneys and perform next summer.
“ I don’t think there is anything healthier for the body, heart, mind and soul than getting outdoors in the summer sun and being surrounded by nature and beautiful music. I can only imagine how tough a decision it was to make for all the wonderful folks at Red Wing,” he said. “It was sad news to hear as it’s one of the best festivals in the nation but I’m also grateful that I will be a part of it in 2021.”
Ticket holders can choose between reservations rolling over for next year’s festival planned for July 9-11, 2021, or asking for a refund, but the refund option will be available until June 15. Jenkins said nearly all bands on the 2020 lineup have committed to playing next year, but there is a possibility of changes considering the time span.
“It felt a bit like a homecoming for me since I grew up in the area and still consider it home. We had an amazing time discovering some incredible bands and meeting tons of new camping friends. It was wonderful to kick back for a few days in a relaxed, open, welcoming environment. Red Wing has since become one of the highlights of our summers,” Quinlan said. “We are of course bummed that we can’t all get together this year but fully support the decision to postpone. We will have even more to celebrate next year and I know we will all be thrilled to see old friendly faces along with new ones.”