Next Friday, July 11, 2014, the Briggs Farm Blues Festival will kick off its 17th annual event with a stellar lineup of national and local acts, great food, and an eclectic array of vendors. In 2012 I had the opportunity to chat with festival organizer Richard Briggs on the occasion of the festival’s 15th Anniversary.
Let’s fire up the Wayback machine for a short trip in time to 2012 and Richard Briggs…
Briggs Farm is a 350 acre family-run farm nestled in the small, rural Pennsylvania town of Nescopeck and one weekend every July since 1998 it has been home to blues musicians and fans from around the world as they gather for the Briggs Farm Blues Festival. 2012 marks the 15th anniversary of the Briggs Farm Blues Festival which has hosted dozens of artists from legends like David “Honeyboy” Edwards, Big Jack Johnson, Eddie Shaw, Louisiana Red and Johnny Rawls to local favorites Clarence Spady and upstarts like Vandelay Industries. The festival features acts on the Main Stage and the Porch stage which is literally a back porch set up under a tent and the spot where Honeyboy Edwards sat telling stories about his time with Robert Johnson, Harper instructed the crowd on the finer points of didgeridoo playing, and festival favorite and BBQ Pit Master Lonnie Shields perennially lights up the night with his electrifying performances. For the 15th anniversary, the folks at Briggs Farm have put together another all-star lineup including Sam Lay on the Back Porch, Friday headliner Eddy “The Chief” Clearwater, Saturday headliner Bernard Allison, plus Moreland & Arbuckle, Rory Block, The Butterfield Blues Band, Linsey Alexander, Alexis P. Suter Band, and many others. The festival takes place on July 6 and 7, 2012 and is sure to be a hot weekend of blues.
The Briggs Farm Blues Festival is the brainchild of Richard Briggs, blues and roots music fan and former TV producer. We caught up with Richard recently to take a look back at 15 years of Blues and family fun down on the farm. Richard Briggs’ experience as a producer gave him a different perspective when he attended festivals as a fan, “I like to go to other festivals, not just to see musicians but to see how it’s produced. I produced TV shows for PBS station WVIA and I was there for 22 years. I started this project here on the family farm while I was still doing TV, so I come from that background and I really enjoy putting on a show.” The idea for the festival came to him at the Philadelphia Folk Festival, “I always thought I could do better. I was at the Philly Folk Festival thinking ‘I could do this.’ Everything was ready and I just had to put it together. It took a few years to get it together and convince people that it wasn’t outrageous. It took a lot of convincing at first. The township was concerned and wanted to make sure it wouldn’t be a bad situation for the community and neighbors. We’ve had a gradual growth in attendance over the 15 years so it wasn’t like a horde of crazy people coming in to town. Traffic problems never occurred, parking wasn’t an issue. It’s really become a good thing for the community. In addition to the local business people who are involved, there are families who come to visit relatives and go to the blues festival. People come from Texas, Canada, California, all over. ”
Richard was confident he and the festival could succeed but he’s not afraid to admit he over-reached a bit that first year. “I had planned to do three festivals,” he said with a laugh. “But I learned my lesson. People still say to me ‘why don’t you do a jam band or a country festival?’ – but they’re crazy! It’s a lot to put together, but that first year I had a folk festival also and there was another one I cancelled. But the blues people were just really nice. They were comfortable and it was well enough attended that I really didn’t lose any money. Now, we get a lot of people coming back and they bring more people and whole families and groups of friends. It’s a comfortable place for people.” Comfort isn’t usually something you often expect at a festival, but the laid back atmosphere and farm fresh food at Briggs Farm is a big part of the comfort factor. Their willingness to allow coolers and outside food and drinks also helps, and you can’t beat camping at Briggs Farm, especially if it rains. “It was initially a one day event and the next year we had really bad weather. In fact the second year attendance was less because of the weather so we decided to do two days. We already had everything set up so we thought if one day is rainy and one day isn’t then it’s not a loss if people only come one day. Then we had some people who wanted to camp so we started letting them stay overnight. So camping turned out to be the best idea because people camping don’t care if it rains and it makes it very easy for people to come a long way. They don’t have to find a hotel and don’t have to drive if they’ve had a few drinks. It’s a lot of fun to have people stay overnight.”
Camping tickets are a hot commodity and have greatly helped the Briggs Farm maintain its reasonable prices, which is important to Richard and the folks at Briggs Farm. They view their festival as a family event and want as many people to enjoy the music as possible. “If we have to increase the price we agonize over it. We’d rather have more people come than raise the prices and have less people. We have the space so we want people to come have a good time. We don’t want it to be an expensive event. I think our prices are good and we’re going to keep them there. We’re making it at this price. We didn’t start out to make a bucket of money and be done. We want a yearly event that we all love to do and have it be financially stable, which it is. We like the bands we’re able to afford at this point. We’ve been able to grow our audience and we can pull from a larger pool of artists now because we can pay more. Now our second stage is becoming as well booked as our big stage.”
Another integral part of this successful festival is the food, which is overseen by none other than Lonnie Shields who is not only a blues maestro but also a barbecue master who offered his services to a frustrated Richard Briggs. “One of the early years, Lonnie headlined on a Friday night and that’s when I met him. He’s one of those guys that’s always talking barbecue and we continued to talk over the years and we’ve had him back a few times. Eventually he offered it to me. Originally we were making the food ourselves, and then we had vendors in and I was not happy. Then again we had vendors the next year and I still wasn’t happy. Lonnie was there and he wanted to help out. We made the smokers and cookers to Lonnie’s specifications. We buy 500 to 600 pounds of pork and he comes up and starts cooking on Wednesday night.” Richard continues, “Making the food is something we always wanted to do ourselves and with Lonnie’s help it’s going well. We’re adding some new things in the style of home cooked Delta-style food. We definitely want something home cooked instead of from a cart or a truck and Lonnie loves doing it. Now he brings his sister Pearly Mae up from Helena, Arkansas to help him out. They have a little family reunion. He has other family within reach and they all come to the festival and stay over.
Lonnie also knows all the musicians coming in and he often goes and plays with them on the main stage after his set on the Porch Stage. He entertains all the volunteers too. He has plenty of stories! I was concerned that at some point he might not be able to do it so I asked him about it and he said I’d have to tell him not to come, and that’s not going to happen.”
Over the course of 15 years there have been some great memories made for fans and musicians a like but a few stick out in Richard Briggs’ memory, “We always try to get some older guys for the Porch Stage so that can be really close to the audience and relate some of the history. This year we have Sam Lay and in 2010 we had Louisiana Red – a lot of those guys are leaving us, but Red was here. We had a lot of rain that Saturday night and I remember him sitting in the green room tent backstage waiting to go on and water is coming in under the tent – it was raining pretty hard – but he wanted to go on. He’s saying ‘If there’s any way we can go on, we want to play.’ So I told him as soon as the sound guy gives me the go ahead we’ll get you out there. It was real late and the rain stopped so Red went on and then it started to rain again but he kept going! He played until around two in the morning. His wife wanted him off stage because it was really late but he wasn’t pausing between songs long enough for us to comfortably get in there to get him off stage. It was quite an experience.” He continues, “One year, Eddie Kirkland, who was about 80 years old, drove up in the beat-up old 80’s station wagon, popped the hood and started working on it. I looked in and it was held together by wire and duct tape! (laughs) It’s just been great to meet all those guys.”
Luckily, everyone attending Briggs Farm Blues Festival also gets the chance to meet the performers, usually at the merchandise table after their sets but many stick around for some of Lonnie’s pulled pork or some fresh sweet corn cooked to perfection, and can be found chatting with fans and fellow musicians all day long. The interaction between musicians and fans, the relaxed atmosphere, the volunteers, the fresh food, and great music makes Briggs Farm Blues Festival a true family destination that is affordable and enjoyable. There is a tangible sense of community that permeates the festival, putting smiles on faces even before the music starts and Richard Briggs is particularly proud of it, “I want people to get that as soon as they drive in and I want them to be wowed by it and get that excitement.”