Subdued Stringband Jamboree

Of labor and love

Thursday, August 6, 2015

After having spent the past 15 or so years working for an organization that relies on an army of volunteers for basic daily operations, I have learned that you can tell a lot about an event/entity/etc. by the attitude of its volunteer staff.

When volunteers treat their service as though it is an obligation or job they can barely stand, it tends to speak less to what they are being asked to do, and more to who is doing the asking. When volunteers are cheery, helpful and seem grateful to provide free labor—no mater what form that labor might take—it says some things about who they’re working for.

Without fail, the volunteers I’ve encountered during my many visits to the Subdued Stringband Jamboree are competent, engaged and exhibit a real sense of ownership over not just their assigned tasks, but the music festival as a whole. Their smiles come readily no matter how early they’ve begun working, no matter how hot (or rainy) the day, no matter how many things have not gone exactly as planned. Ask them questions you should already know the answers to and you’ll get a patient, well-informed response. Present them with a problem, and they will do their level best to solve it. Even when they have to police the behavior or actions of occasionally rule-breaking or rogue attendees, they do so with their senses of humor intact.

As official ambassadors go, the Stringband volunteers are all-time.

The collective goodwill of the volunteer staff is merely a reflection of the overall ethos that has been at least as important to the longevity of the Stringband Jamboree as the music it exists to showcase. The festival has been a grassroots, community-minded effort since the minute Robert Sarazin Blake founded the festival 15 Stringbands ago. Back then, it was the musicians booked to play who also built the stage, took tickets, did trash duty and undertook all other tasks involved in making the festival come to life, up to and including running a shuttle bus to the parking lot of Stringband’s first locale.

Once that inaugural pickin’ party proved to be an idea with legs, Blake began to assemble his own army of volunteers, many of which have remained with Stringband year after year, their duties growing as the event has grown. These days, they begin months before the festival does, doing publicity, drumming up sponsors and supplies, operating effectively behind the scenes to make sure each Stringband iteration is a resounding success. During Jamboree weekend, they still take tickets and man the shuttle, and they also operate the merch tent, prepare and serve food, man the info booth, maintain trash and recycling stations, lead activities for children, provide as-needed medical services and much, much more. As such, they are they heartbeat of an event that boasts an abundance of heart, and they free up Blake to do such things as troubleshoot as necessary, greet performers and attendees alike and, of course, play his own music on the Stringband stage.

Speaking of the music, it is the reason for the Jamboree’s existence, and if you think making the drive to the Deming Logging Show grounds to kick up a little dust dancing in a field sounds like anything other than a real great way to spend an August weekend, well, you’ve obviously never been to Stringband. Having attended most of them, I can attest to the festival’s ability to show everyone involved—audiences, performers, volunteer staff and even (or especially) Stringband founder Blake—the very best good time.

As it has for several years now, Stringband gets a Thursday-night start, with Blake himself doing the honors on the Slanted Stage as Robert Sarazin Blake and the Happy Hour Band. After that, the music switches between the Flat Stage (otherwise known as the mainstage) and the smaller Slanted Stage and will consist of sets from Moongrass, John Reischman and the Jaybirds, the Caleb Klauder Country Band, circus performers and more.

Friday kicks off, not with music, but instead with a group photo—and everyone’s invited to take part. All you have to do is show up to the Flat Stage at 9am in your best Stringband-branded duds, and you can be part of Jamboree history. Then comes music on both stages by Grace Love and the True Loves, Rabbit Wilde, Bellingham Celli Club, Bar Tabac, Peadar MacMahon, Deakin Hicks, the ever-popular square dance, Yogoman, Robert Sarazin Blake and the Putitalldownina Letters (a band name that I become exhausted typing, but I fear now that I no longer live next door to Blake, I will never be able to nag him into changing it), and more.

Saturday, typically Stringband’s biggest day, features Hot Damn Scandal, Dorrensoro Eta Hicks (Lucas Hicks putting his always-welcome musical stamp all over Stringband), Stephen Ray Leslie and the Crooked Mile (Leslie being my personal do-not-miss performer), Baby Gramps, Meghan Yates and the Reverie Machine, Gallowglass, the Songwriter in the Round set (this year with Biagio Biondolillo, Matney Cook, and Chris Acker), another square dance with the Shadies this time, and others. The Band Scramble—in which musicians throw their names in a hat, random band lineups are generated and they then must take the stage and play songs they’ve written and arranged under enormous time pressure—also happens Saturday, and is always a festival highlight.

Much like many music festivals, late-night music has been added to this year’s Jamboree, and you can count on all your favorite local musicians (Devin Champlin, Gallowglass, Louis Ledford, Sky Colony, and more) to take the party into the wee hours. Speaking of late-night revelry, one of the hallmarks of Stringband has been campfires and the music-making that goes with them, however, considering this year’s dry conditions, a burn ban will be strictly enforced. Bring your battery-operated light sources in lieu of firewood this year, and you should be just fine. Should you ignore this policy—or any of Stringband’s few, commonsense rules—you can expect a visit from a volunteer, who will no doubt politely put you on the right track with both a smile on their face and a spring in their step. Because that’s always been the Stringband way.

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