Find Your Third Space at GrassRootsJul 01, 2023 09:00AM ● By Gayle Morrow
You’ve never been to the Finger Lakes GrassRoots Festival of Music and Dance? Well, goodness, how come? It’s not only, as the tagline says, a family-friendly music lovers’ paradise, it’s a paradise for all other kinds of lovers—lovers of food, art, new experiences, community-building, friend-making, dancing, learning, science, healing, and a host of other great opportunities and experiences. This year’s GrassRoots, July 20 through 23 in Trumansburg, is the thirty-first—perhaps not technically the thirty-first annual, but the thirty-first nonetheless.
“The numbers don’t quite line up,” admits Russ Friedell, the festival’s marketing director. Organizers lost 2020 due to covid, and 2021 was a kind of mini event, with attendees sticking to their own “pods” rather than everybody having access to everything (“We wanted to be back as quickly and safely as possible,” Russ says). Last year it was back in spades, with four stages and a fairground full of people, so organizers celebrated it as the thirtieth annual.
The precursor to GrassRoots was a May 12, 1990, benefit concert at the State Theatre of Ithaca. It was to raise awareness for the fight against AIDS, and it went over very well. As Russ tells it, Jeb Puryear, one of the members of the region’s beloved Donna the Buffalo, and bandmates, including frontwoman Tara Nevins, played at the event. They’d been attending a few old-time fiddler/traditional music conventions in those days, and thought they’d try “throwing our own thing” after the success of that State Theatre gig. They did, and the first official Finger Lakes GrassRoots Festival of Music and Dance was in July of 1991 in Trumansburg.
“The basic idea has always been the same—four days, four stages, and music from around the world, around the state, Tompkins County...a cross-cultural experience,” Russ says. At GrassRoots, bands from Ukraine and Miami are side-by-side. Trumansburg is basically a farm community, and a farmer in Trumansburg who has never left New York State can “experience a band from the Democratic Republic of Congo and be just blown away.
“You come, and maybe you know one band, but you leave loving four or five new ones,” Russ continues. “No matter who’s playing, the band is familiar with the roots of the music they’re playing.”
How cool is that?
Another very cool feature of GrassRoots is Culture Camp. It’s the sixth annual, four days prior to the festival, July 16 through 19 this year, and it is a jam-packed jam session for music lovers of all ages, with workshops led by some of GrassRoots’ favorite performers. And even though she is an amazing musician, D. the B.’s Tara concedes she is not a teacher. She is, however, “good at putting a party together,” and Culture Camp is her baby.
Tara gives credit to Jonas Puryear for encouraging the Culture Camp notion; he, in turn, downplays his involvement but acknowledges that, yeah, he had a little something to do with it. She describes it as “a very boutique event” where you can come into a “very intimate setting to learn from your favorite performers.” The workshops range from Tex-Mex songs and guitar styles to the art of reading your musical partner to the business of getting your band on the road to the folk youth ensemble. There are nightly dinners and dances included with the Culture Camp that are also open to the public. The culturally themed dinners are typically linked to the nightly dance, Tara explains, so attendees can look forward to such delights as honky-tonk night and Cajun night. It’s all “very community-building,” she says.
“You roll into the festival with all these new friends you’ve just met,” Tara continues. “We’re sort of creating this gumbo, this mix. It’s an educational party leading up to the festival.”
Festival organizers want the event to be as sustainable as possible, so there is an emphasis on recycling, supporting local farmers, using the sun for recharging phones and other electronics, and composting. With 15,000 people over the course of the four days, that’s a big project. But it’s part of what keeps the relationship with Trumansburg so cordial. That and an economic impact of 2.5 million dollars, plus or minus a few bucks, pumped into the local economy every July.
It’s a little hard to describe the GrassRoots vibe, but you’ll know it when you experience it. It’s always a mellow crowd, and that, Russ says, has always been part of the event’s success.
“People are conscious and aware that they are part of this,” he says, adding that acknowledgement on the part of the thousands who show up “provides ownership for the attendees,” helping to keep everything pleasant.
“We’ve been very grateful that people have been supportive of the atmosphere,” continues Russ, noting this is part of what makes GrassRoots a great Third Space. Third Space, also known as Third Place, is, in sociological terms, a space or place where people can spend time, exchange ideas, build relationships.
“The Third Space—it’s not home, it’s not work, it’s the space where change can take place,” Russ says. “You will leave that performance as a different person. We’re not all alone. Life is built on community. Your engagement in that community is what makes the world go around. We’re creating, cultivating, that space.”
Bands scheduled for GrassRoots 2023 include headliner Donna the Buffalo, Sim Redmond Band, the Mavericks, Rising Appalachia, Machaka, the Flying Clouds of South Carolina, Jupiter & Okwess, Pine Leaf Boys, and about fifty more. Over two dozen vendors will offer all sorts of shopping opportunities, including organic skin and body care products, clothing, jewelry, CBD products, and a variety of art. Attendees come for the music but might stay for the food, so satisfy those hunger pangs with street food from around the world, authentic jerk, empanadas, seasonal Italian fare, Ben & Jerry’s, Venezuelan arepas (stuffed cornmeal cakes, from grandma’s secret recipe), lobster mac & cheese, pizza, and most everything in between.
For the most up-to-date information about Culture Camp, GrassRoots, tickets, volunteer opportunities, and the lowdown on camping, visit grassrootsfest.org or call (607) 387-5098.