GroverFest markets itself as more wholesome subsitute to forerun

by Jordan Green

SmileFest, a belovedsummer ritual among North Carolina jam-band aficionados, made its lasthurrah in 2006 after vacating the open-air coliseum at VanHoy FarmsFamily Campground off Interstate 77 north of Statesville a year or soearlier. Stepping into the breach the next year was John Saunders, anelectrician, one-time restaurateur and party planner of the old-schooltype. SmileFest relocated to a more mountainous redoubt inTransylvania County and then folded after numerous reported run-inswith NC Alcohol Law Enforcement and the local sheriff’s office. Saundersnoted the escalating law enforcement presence at SmileFest and cited”overdoses, fights and belligerence” as some of the bad baggage thataccumulated around the festival. And while the peaceful, good-heartedpeople who assembled over the years at SmileFests to honor the memoryof Jerry Garcia would surely dispute most of that, with the possibleexception of copious provisions of chemical substances, Saunders isclearly eager to establish some distance. “We’ve got people whocome in droves to see some of these bands,” he says. “That crowd isyoung kids, probably eighteen to thirty. We’ve got a little bit ofthat, maybe not as much as SmileFest. We want to avoid some of the badstuff with SmileFest. I’ve got kids at this event, so I don’t wantanything crazy going on to scare families away.” The 28-year-oldSaunders lives in nearby Union Grove, where he grew up. A typical ruralmusic impresario, he’s handy with power tools, definitely sociable andan enthusiastic fan. “I just do a little bit of everything,”Saunders says of his various livelihoods. “I do electrical work fulltime. I had a restaurant called Grover’s Pizza. That’s how GroverFeststarted. I play saxophone. I’ve been into music all my life.” Festival promotion is more an evolved passion than a grand scheme. “Ijust really like to do that type of thing,” he says. “I like to meetnew people. Going out with friends on the weekends, I was the one whowas always planning what to do. And being in the restaurant business,I’ve had to do a lot of planning. With all the things I’ve beeninvolved in, it just comes naturally.” For the second editionof GroverFest, two large stages and a smaller tent stage willaccommodate more than 30 bands covering a stylistic range perhaps evenmore eclectic than SmileFest’s bluegrass-jam band marriage. “We kind ofdo everything from bluegrass to reggae to rock to funk and country,”Saunders says. “I’ve even got a Christian band playing.” Saundersconsiders himself something of a genre-buster, and his goal is to getpeople to mix up outside of their cliques and to expose audiences tomusic that they ordinarily wouldn’t think they liked. Greensboro funkmerchants Hot Politics will bump elbows with Long Island songwriterJake Incao, and Asheville rock and rollers Hollywood Red will sharebilling with Saunders’ own band, Duk Tan. It’s a mostly local affair. “Peoplearen’t traveling very far because of the high price of gas, so I try tomake it so they won’t need to spend an arm and a leg to come,” Saunderssays. “Instead of having to pay four dollars for a bottle of water,you’ll pay a dollar-fifty or two dollars. For a barbecue sandwich,instead of six dollars you’re going to pay three dollars. I ask myvendors to keep their prices down. I try to keep everything as low forthe general public as possible.” Throughout the year Saundershas been orchestrating a series of smaller shows called GroverFestSpotlights to defray some of the bills for the annual festival, and atsome point “turn it into a nonprofit organization” and “start doingsome good in the community.” He’s set up shows across the state – inStatesville, Charlotte, Winston-Salem and Boone – at venues rangingfrom wineries to bowling alleys and a converted billiard rooms. He acknowledges a certain degree of reluctance to delegate tasks, but of course most of the work is on the front end. “Itruns itself after a certain point,” Saunders says. “All you can do isget things set up and get things ready. And then it’s downhill fromthere. On June thirteenth through the fifteenth people will come and itwill happen whether I’m there or not.” To comment on this story, e-mail Jordan Green at