Straw Stages Bring Natural Solution to Tennessee’s Buffalo Valley Music Festival

It’s not like we were genius types who came up with this brilliant idea on our own. Nope. We had help from a guitar player and theatre set-building guy in Chicago: Erin Edminister. I knew him from Reggies Rock Joint on South State Street in Chicago and then from Bernice’s where we actually first met.

The Johnson City Folk Festival was something we started in 2010, and the first year was a bit of a wild ride – we got evicted from our planned Theatre in Johnson City, TN because of some mix-up with the owners and a lot of nonsense politics at The Acoustic Coffeehouse.

In short order, two guys came out of nowhere to help us and save the day: David Pennigton and one of the head guys from Time & Pay, a business in JC.

We Survived this First Year

The event survived that first year and in planning for a second season we ran into a lot of roadblocks, put in front of us by a lot of city restrictions and charges. The Festival was held successfully, but then we needed to move out of the area and about 10 miles up the road to Unicoi, Tennessee and a location we thought would be ideal. We had found a pastoral setting with rolling hills, meadows, a solid infrastructure and the owners had years of experience in hosting events and were excited by the straw stage solution

Home Free…  Or so We Thought!

We got the deal lined up and proceeded to move the Festival out of Johnson City and into Unicoi, about 10 miles up the road and a world away.

We proceeded to line up the acts and had scheduled about 80 acts on 4 different stages, two big ones outside, and two smaller ones inside. We were excited – I had a lot of insurance cash on my hands from a few settlements, and we were ready to roll.

When prices and estimates started to come back, they were way, way over the top. $5ooo-$7.500 per stage, lighting, and stairs, pick-up, and delivery extra! Fortunately for us, we had our own sound, for the most part…

We had our good friends at Holston Distributing line us up with The Budweiser Truck and it looked like things were going to sail right on… Then someone asked about the stages. We hadn’t really given it much thought. Then we figured we needed staging and lights and we started calling around to see what we could get, and what the pricing might be.

Priced off the Stage

When prices and estimates started to come back, they were way, way over the top. $5000-$7.500 per stage, lighting, and stairs, pick-up, and delivery extra! Fortunately for us, we had our own sound, for the most part, but added a little extra for the main stage. We engaged a friend from Greensboro, NC to come and work with us on sound issues, and we got pretty much all the sound gear we needed.

Everything was coming along, but we needed a stage solution and fast. I remembered my conversation with Erin a year earlier, and we got on the phone to locate straw and cheap lighting.

And we Succeeded!

After calling on Home Depot and making a short presentation, they donated 40 sheets of 3/4″ marine plywood. Then we negotiated with local farmers to purchase over 200 bales of straw from $3.50 a bale to about $1.75. We didn’t know it yet, but we were able to donate a lot of straw at the end, as well as sell the remaining bales on the open market when the Festival finished.

Eric Stillions, who flew in from Hollywood and added all the lighting, the stage sets, and the mechanics of the straw stages. We could not have done this without him and his expertise and set skills made the stages come alive!

Here’s something really remarkable: the incredible Eric Stillions, who flew in from Hollywood and added all the lighting, the stage sets, and the mechanics of the straw stages. We could not have done this without him and his expertise and set skills made the stages come alive!

Straw Stages Magic

We had a tractor-trailer offload 150 bales into the main Meadow. Then a few small trucks brought in another 50 or 60 bales. Once in the flat area, we assembled the bales carefully in such a way that would give us balance and firmness on the deck, once the plywood was put down.

So that gave us 2 bales high in cross formation: 4 bales on the 1st layer, 4 bales on the top layer. We trimmed them up, put bales at each end for steps to go up and off the stage.

Additionally, we added electrical banks for the Honda 300i generator hook-ups, ran big cables off the stages to the three generators around the Festival grounds, and then put the plywood on the Meadow Stage.

We spent a few hours settling the interior straw bales and filling the holes and uneven sections with hard-packed loose straw. Straw bales shift, and since that is their nature, we needed a stable platform on all sides. Stuffing the holes was fun, easy, time-consuming, too.

The day was warm and bright, and sun-filled, so no problem at all.

Spread Out in the Meadow

The Meadow Stage was positioned to be seen from any spot on the Meadow.  As you look at the Meadow Stage by itself, it’s a rectangle, angled towards the rising hill directly opposite the stage. The views are spectacular, made even more so by the carefully mowed grass in a cross-hatched pattern and our straw stage solution. It was easy to think you were in front of the Green Monster in Fenway Park.

The plywood covering is 3/4″ Marine Plywood, in two layers, screwed together by 1″ screws every 12″ or so. At the front of the straw stage,  a series of mason jar lights were created to add floor lighting and definition.

Still to come are two 15′ steel towers at either end of the stage, a tarp covering the center stage to shield performers from the Sun, and the PA system. It’s all yet to be loaded in.

The plywood covering is 3/4″ Marine Plywood, in two layers, screwed together by 1″ screws every 12″ or so. At the front of the straw stage,  a series of mason jar lights were created to add floor lighting and definition.

Side lighting came from Home Depot – just simple track lighting, refitted lamps, a great control board that gave us color and fade, and we were in business.

This reminded us of  Woodstock, Bonnaroo, and the Newport Folk Festival, Blue Plum, Chicago Blues Festival, and The New England Folk Festival.

Ready, Set… Action!

One of the most striking stages for the Festival was up in the Hollar: it was a beautiful natural bowl, and the straw stage with thrift-store fixtures made it all work beautifully and looked so peaceful and secluded. And what’s more, the sound in the Hollar was magnificent: so natural, so resonant and so pure in terms of sound, not processed thru a monster speaker system.

With the two 15′ scaffolds on either side of the stage, the sound system was set up and then the track lights zip-tied on the rigging. Everything was run on an iPad and it worked flawlessly!

The Straw Stage Solution!

The tarp was stretched at the top, Eric Stillions did a masterful job in his role as BOTO (Brains Of The Operation) and we ran around, doing all the little things that matter, and making sure the generators were full and we had 20 gallons of extra fuel on the side.

So What Was The Final Outcome?

After all the cars were gone, all the straw bales sold off, donated or spread around, and all the crawlers, beer trucks, kegs, merch tables, and sound gear loaded up and carted off,  we headed back to the Carlisle Hotel in Johnson City to do a little debrief.

After hours of discussion about the wonderful music, the cool acts, the great beer truck, and the food and the Hollar, we came to what didn’t work. So, after reviewing a list of a million things that went wrong, the one thing all the Festival goers really loved… was our straw stages! The Straw Stage Solution!

People took pictures of them, asked all manner of questions about them, where we got them and how they all came together, and we were pretty darn pleased with ourselves. But what was most satisfying was the response to our beautiful little Storyteller’s Stage up in the Hollar.

People took pictures of them, asked all manner of questions about them, where we got them and how they all came together, and we were pretty darn pleased with ourselves. But what was most satisfying was the response to our beautiful little Storyteller’s Stage up in the Hollar.

Our Storyteller’s from the Jonesboro Storytellers Guild  enjoyed what we had created and Saundra Kelly seemed very pleased with our efforts. We had Keith Rea and  Lou Shields on the Hollar Stage and we had The Spookhouse Saints pulling out the E Pluribus Spookum Voodoo every chance they got .

Justin Nix and our friends from Knoxville were well received, and wandering poets, guitar players and philosophers from Memphis and Boston filtered through all weekend long….

Fini

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Eric Sommer: About the Artist

“If there’s a place for musical perfection, it’s wherever you’ll find Eric Sommer – A blistering acoustic style plus a variety of slide and open tuning formats will knock you for a loop…” wrote Studdie Burns, New Melody Maker/UK in 2013. “How one guy can do this so well is remarkable, but if you look a little deeper there’s a batch of road miles around this lad… and it all makes sense.”

Eric started his musical career in the Boston area under the eye of legendary promoter Don Law and was onstage at The Paradise Theatre in Boston for a record 40 appearances. He has been a regular player on many national and international tours and showcases, and worked in Europe for two years with Nick Lowe and acts Bram Tchaikovsky and Wreckless Eric; during this period Eric worked on Danish, German and British rock stages, returned to Boston and formed The Atomics.

As a founding member of Boston’s legendary pop/new wave cult trio “The Atomics”, who toured non-stop with Mission of Burma, Gang of Four and The Dead Kennedy’s and were on the leading edge of several musical transformations, Eric never lost sight of his acoustic roots.

And now he is returning to his heroes and mentors more often: David Bromberg, Steve Howe(YES), Duane Allman (Allman Bros.), Bert Jansch, Davy Graham, Robert Johnson. Mr. Sommer’s current project with power trio “The Solar Flares” shake up Chet Atkins and David Bromberg’s influences with those of Randy Travis and British Rocker Elvis Costello – a remarkable mix.

And to keep track of it all, Eric started keeping notes, which evolved from napkin scribbles to paper and pen efforts, writing stories, making poetry and capturing the roads and bridges as they went by, plus people, places and… more people which become his notes, then become characters for songs, stories, and prose.

Eric currently has four volumes of verse, 5 studio albums, a LIVE in AUSTIN DVD as well as an electronica project titled “The Smallest Particle” and more on the way… this blog is an attempt to keep track of it all…

Amen.

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You can reach Eric directly at ericATericsommer.com and see more of his projects here on this website. Red Chairs, Black Pancake and Blue Turtle are all available here, as well as all current releases. Please share and comment below.

Original 2014 Festival Poster
img src="IMG_2116-scaled.jpg"> alt="drummer boy on stage with lights">
Sound and lighting test on Meadow Stage
Meadow Stage LIVE on Opening Night
Little War Twins sound checking and getting set
200 bales of hay being unloaded
Checking the criss-cross straw layouts
Meadow Stage gets plywood top and lighting
Mason Jars, wired up, bolted down...
Checking the electric feed for stage lights
img src="onelayer_raw.png" alt"straw stage with plywood in a grassy hollar">
Raw Storyteller's Stage in the Hollar
img src="Sorytellerstage.png" alt"finished stage with plywood in a grassy hollar">
Stage, with lights and set, in the Hollar
The StoryTellers Stage in the Hollar!
Live under the lights with straw stages
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