May 26, 2011–It’s been 10 years and a million memories: Will Owen-Gage rockin’ in the rain, a spritely Sarah Jarosz plucked from a jam session, Blaggards blasting Irish drinking songs, and a seasoned Johnny Gimble playing mandolin with an Austin jazz band.
But that first season of the Pioneer Museum’s Roots Music series might not have happened if not for a little idea by Paul Camfield. It was 2002, and Camfield, then Executive Director of the Gillespie County Historical Society, was searching for a boost in the “post 9-11 world.”
“We were looking at what we could do differently in those times, some way to use the museum grounds in a more creative way,” he remembered. “We had added music to our Founders Day programs, and that led to the brainstorm of having live music events in a nice outdoor setting.”
Part of the motivation was funding, part of it was programming, but most of it was getting people onto the grounds to enjoy live music.
That first summer, Camfield picked bluegrass as the theme simply because he liked it.
“I hadn’t heard much bluegrass in Fredericksburg, and I wanted to see if it would resonate,” he said. The board gave the green light, and he got busy. The results were gratifying.
“I had expected 100 or so, and we had close to 350, and even more at the second concert. That’s when knew we were on to something.”
Over the next few years, the concerts expanded to feature other genres, including blues, rock, jazz, and gospel. Camfield – and, after he moved on, an organizing committee – experimented with indoor concerts and themed catered meals. The format has settled into five monthly summer shows, with food and drinks served.
Collaboration has been key to the continued success of the Roots Music series.
While Camfield found the acts the first few years, he came to rely on the Central Texas Bluegrass Association, the San Antonio Blues Society, Gospel According to Austin, and various agents. Austin-based agent Bill Penn has handled the booking for the past three years. He has his own favorite memories.
“As I recall, for Blues Night in August 2008 we had W.C. Clark, Omar and the Howlers, and Seth Walker,” Penn said. “I think that was one of the largest crowds in our 10 year history.”
Penn walks a fine line between bringing in acts that are new to local music fans, yet not alien to their ears. He admitted holding his breath on Celtic Night in 2008, when Blaggards – a “stout” Irish rock band – took the stage.
“I was concerned that their hard-rockin’ style would be a little too heavy for our crowd,” Penn remembered. “But I was relieved to have such a positive response from the attendees. In fact the band was mobbed after their high-energy performance and sold more merchandise than any other group that season.”
Jody Donovan currently holds the helm coordinating the Roots series. His favorite night?
“I think to date, my favorite show was the Eggmen – the Beatles tribute band,” Donovan said. “The energy and the fun was electric throughout the crowd; as it is with many shows since then.”
Donovan has a hometown interest in heading up the Roots series. He calls it “like a concert in the park on a blanket… but with three bands.”
“Roots is presented in such a cool and laid back environment, it is like sitting in your own favorite lawn chair outside on the grass under the trees and stars listening to such an eclectic array of music in one place,” he said. “I look forward to this 10th anniversary season, especially for the Roots Mixed night and the Gospel night – what a treat we are in for!”
Of course the live music fits the mission of the popular Pioneer Museum – sharing the culture of these different music styles with the community. But at bottom, the Roots Music series is just about sharing.
“I am proud that I was allowed the freedom to shape that,” Camfield said. “It resonated with the community, and it seems to still resonate. Roots has become as dynamic and fun as any event in Fredericksburg. I hope people just continue to come on out.”