The Tumbleweed Music Festival’s origin story begins in 1976, when John and Micki Perry moved to the Tri-Cities from the Hudson Valley of New York, an area with a very active music and folk community. There, they were close friends with Pete Seeger and his wife Toshi, and extremely active for the clean-up of the then heavily-polluted Hudson River through the Seegers’ “Hudson River Sloop Clearwater” non-profit organization. In 1966 the Seegers, with the Clearwater Sloop Campaign, started an annual environmental music festival that is still held every summer and is now called the “Great Hudson River Revival.”
In the 1980’s a community organization called SunFest was founded, which produced a series of summertime entertainment and family events at Howard Amon Park in Richland, WA.
The Perrys, bringing their rich Hudson River heritage with them, joined with others to make the Tumbleweed Music Festival a reality. It took some time for the right mix of talented and dedicated people to find each other. In 1987, an informal group began to form: Bret Cannon had produced some Contra Dances, Jim Honeyman had produced some Bluegrass concerts, and the Perrys had opened for a Dan Maher concert produced by Patty Stratton. The “Crystal Midnight” sound company that had helped with that concert donated $150 as start-up capital for the new organization. The first two Three Rivers Folklife Society (3RFS) concerts featured Utah Phillips and John Gorka.
In 1987, John and Micki Perry recruited Jim Honeyman to work with them and the SunFest organization to produce the first Bluegrass music festival in the Tri-Cities on Labor Day Weekend, which represented a new event for the SunFest organization.
The SunFest “DownRiver Bluegrass Festival” had a modest budget for performers and was able to book both national and regional Bluegrass artists. The Festival had free folk music programming during the day on Saturday at the Fingernail Stage in Howard Amon Park, along the banks of the Columbia River. The Bluegrass portion started with a paid-admission concert on Saturday evening at the Greek Theater location in Howard Amon Park (it was formerly located where the Richland Hampton Inn is now). The primary portion of the Bluegrass festival was held on Sunday also at the Fingernail Stage in Howard Amon Park, and was also free.
The “DownRiver Bluegrass Festival” ran for three years, from 1987 to 1989, and featured national acts such as Seldom Scene, Hot Rize, John Hartford, and the Original Dillard’s Reunion tour. The DownRiver Festival ended due to the unfortunate financial failure of the sponsoring SunFest umbrella organization, which ran into difficulties when other SunFest events with high-cost performers did not draw paid audiences adequate to offset the production costs.
Many lessons were learned during this 3- year run of the SunFest DownRiver Bluegrass Festival, which carried through by the emerging 3RFS working committee into the subsequent organization of the Tumbleweed Music Festival:
- Folk Music can draw a crowd into Howard Amon Park on Labor Day Weekend in Richland, WA
- To be financially successful, it is important to focus on regional acts who can perform for nominal travel costs, along the lines of the Northwest Folklife Festival in Seattle
- It is essential to have a solid base of volunteers to organize, produce, and operate the festival, limiting purchased services to the extent possible
- It is possible to stage events using multiple stages
- A Saturday Evening paid event can be successful, and allows the booking of more established performers who require payment for their participation
- Community sponsorship, including the City of Richland, is essential to assure ongoing success
Under the leadership of Mark Horn, 3RFS attained legal non-profit status in Washington state in 1990, and federal non-profit status in 1991. Each year brought more organization, and the involvement of more people. The first 3RFS Coffee Houses began in 1990, produced first by Jeannette Lockhart then, from 1996 to 1999 by Robin Hill and, beginning in fall 1999, by Sally Butler.
Contra dances became a regular part of the 3RFS schedule in 1991, with Bret and Cheryl Cannon as producers. Finally, a core of dedicated volunteers emerged with a vision and strong steering committee: John and Micki Perry; Perry and Liz Campbell; Dave Oestreich; Theresa Grate; Gary White; Harry Babad; Jim Mock; Robin Hill; Mickie Chamness; Frank Cuta; and Robert Phillips. Many are still active volunteers involved in the production of Tumbleweed.
In December of 1995, the Tumbleweed Music Festival went online. In October 1995, Judi Gibbs, a professional technical writer, overheard the comment made by John Perry that it would be nice if 3RFS could eventually have a site on the World Wide Web. Although she had never written for the Web, Judi Gibbs volunteered to create the Website and set out, with then husband Alan, to learn HTML. In 3 months, they accomplished John’s vision, and the 3RFS.org website was born.
3RFS then extended their activities beyond the Tri-Cities. In 1996, 3RFS presented a workshop at the Northwest Folklife Festival (NFF) in Seattle on forming and operating a local Folklife Society. The workshop was repeated, sharing what was learned during their early years, at the next two NFFs. The 3RFS organization continued to grow and, as it has matured, more people have become involved from our local community, the Pacific Northwest and beyond.
From 1996 to 1999, 3RFS received grants from the Tri-Cities Corporate Council for the Arts, including support for the first-ever Tumbleweed Music Festival held August 30-31, 1997 at Richland’s Howard Amon Park.The first Festival was chaired by Janet Humphrey, and was followed by a second and third in 1998 and 1999 respectively, coordinated by Janet Humphrey and produced by an army of 3RFS volunteers.
The path to that first Tumbleweed Festival has many stories. Pre-Festival, the Sound production costs for the early concerts were high. Then Frank Cuta, an avid fan, began loaning his sound system and volunteering as concert sound engineer, beginning with a Bill Staines concert. Later John and Micki Perry gave themselves a sound system for their 25th anniversary, and started using it for Coffee Houses and Contra Dances.The first newsletters and mailing labels were made on John and Micki’s old dot-matrix printer. Then, Mary Hartman took on the job of editing the newsletter, and Jim Zimmerscheid took over upkeep of the membership and mailing lists (thereby saving John and Micki’s marriage!). The 3RFS logos came about as the result of a contest. The winning designs were submitted by Theresa Grate, a professional graphics artist. Theresa also volunteered to do the page layout for the 3RFS newsletter, Folk Talk. Her logos now appear on the newsletter, on notices of 3RFS events, and on a group of t-shirts designed by Gary and Laura White.
The Tumbleweed Music Festival is now an annual event in its 24th year, with an estimated 4,000 plus attendees per year; each year that number grows, as does the number of performers and workshops. Continued successful growth has been made possible these past 24 years by Tumbleweed’s strong dedicated chairpersons and the dedication of hundreds of volunteers every year: THEY are “our lifeblood to support folk music and bring music and events to the people.”
One of the best features of the Tumbleweed Music Festival is the deep affection that so many people hold for it. For many performers, both regional to the northwest and from across the country, Tumbleweed is and remains their favorite festival. Hank Cramer III, a Tumbleweed stalwart from the first festival, has said that it is “. . . the best folk festival in the country.” When Tumbleweed happens each year, performers, volunteers, and audience members alike all speak of a feeling of a family reunion, of a true community with traditions and solidarity; this has grown organically as year after year, the Tumbleweed planning committee and volunteers have striven to treat our performers well, to allow them to have the environment they need to best share their art and love with all of the rest of us. For this, everyone involved in the organization is justifiably proud.
Each year, a theme for that year’s Tumbleweed Festival is identified. Last year (2019) honored Pete Seeger (an inspiration for John and Micki Perry, the founders of Tumbleweed) on what would have been his 100th birthday. The chosen theme was the “Power of Song,” taken from the PBS 2007 documentary about Seeger’s life and influence, and “music’s ability to inspire social change.”
The year 2020 has brought our biggest challenge ever – COVID-19. The planning committee was faced with a choice: cancel the 24th annual festival outright, OR commit to the intense work it would take to hold a VIRTUAL 2020 festival at the traditional time – September’s Labor Day weekend, to inspire change, AND maintain Tumbleweed’s family and community spirit that, as Micki Perry succinctly says, “. . . is a huge umbrella that embraces blues to bluegrass, Celtic to old-time, and singer-songwriters writing their own stuff.”
Thus has been born the Tumbleweed Virtual Music Festival 2020, also known as “TMFVirtual2020.” A central tenet of the planning for this year’s festival was to make sure and maintain the feeling of family and community that has grown over the years among not only the volunteers, but the performers and audience as well. Time will tell if we have succeeded.
Among the brightest points of building TMFVirtual2020 has been our “wild-caught” performers – people who have heard of our virtual festival and have reached out to us, asking to be a part! This includes bands from the northwest area, a performer from Indiana, and TWO bands from Ireland! (With the addition of a set by Tom Lewis, another 3RFS and Tumbleweed fixture for many years who now is living in Ireland, we’re tempted to begin calling ourselves the “Tumbleweed International Music Festival!)
It normally costs about $35,000 annually to put on the Tumbleweed festival. Funds are raised through a combination of grants, sponsorships from the City of Richland, individuals, corporate and local organizations’ contributions, and fund raisers; without the time and talent of our performers, Tumbleweed volunteers, and these grants, sponsors, and donors,keeping the Tumbleweed Music Festival an event free for all would not be possible. While this year’s festival is virtual, which removes the need for some expenditures (we don’t need stages or port-a-potties, for example), there are still costs to create and run it; among the new types of costs are software, hardware, hosting, production, advertising, licensing fees, and other overhead expenses.
As always, then, your continued support is much appreciated. You can help us directly by buying tickets to our “Saturday” Concert and our livestreamed Contra Dance, and by buying our festival buttons, T-shirts, and other items at our Shop. And, again as always, by making a direct donation.
The Tumbleweed Music Festival will celebrate its 25th anniversary on the Labor Day weekend of 2021, and we earnestly hope that we will all be able to again attend the festival in the open air, along the beautiful banks of the Columbia River in Richland’s Howard Amon Park. See you then!