GroverFest markets itself as more wholesome subsitute to forerunner

by Jordan Green

SmileFest, a beloved summer ritual among North Carolina jam-band aficionados, made its last hurrah in 2006 after vacating the open-air coliseum at VanHoy Farms Family Campground off Interstate 77 north of Statesville a year or so earlier. Stepping into the breach the next year was John Saunders, an electrician, one-time restaurateur and party planner of the old-school type.

SmileFest relocated to a more mountainous redoubt in Transylvania County and then folded after numerous reported run-ins with NC Alcohol Law Enforcement and the local sheriff’s office.

Saunders noted the escalating law enforcement presence at SmileFest and cited “overdoses, fights and belligerence” as some of the bad baggage that accumulated around the festival. And while the peaceful, good-hearted people who assembled over the years at SmileFests to honor the memory of Jerry Garcia would surely dispute most of that, with the possible exception of copious provisions of chemical substances, Saunders is clearly eager to establish some distance.

“We’ve got people who come in droves to see some of these bands,” he says. “That crowd is young kids, probably eighteen to thirty. We’ve got a little bit of that, maybe not as much as SmileFest. We want to avoid some of the bad stuff with SmileFest. I’ve got kids at this event, so I don’t want anything crazy going on to scare families away.”

The 28-year-old Saunders lives in nearby Union Grove, where he grew up. A typical rural music impresario, he’s handy with power tools, definitely sociable and an enthusiastic fan.

“I just do a little bit of everything,” Saunders says of his various livelihoods. “I do electrical work full time. I had a restaurant called Grover’s Pizza. That’s how GroverFest started. I play saxophone. I’ve been into music all my life.”

Festival promotion is more an evolved passion than a grand scheme.

“I just really like to do that type of thing,” he says. “I like to meet new people. Going out with friends on the weekends, I was the one who was 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 been involved in, it just comes naturally.”

For the second edition of GroverFest, two large stages and a smaller tent stage will accommodate more than 30 bands covering a stylistic range perhaps even more eclectic than SmileFest’s bluegrass-jam band marriage. “We kind of do everything from bluegrass to reggae to rock to funk and country,” Saunders says. “I’ve even got a Christian band playing.”

Saunders considers himself something of a genre-buster, and his goal is to get people to mix up outside of their cliques and to expose audiences to music that they ordinarily wouldn’t think they liked. Greensboro funk merchants Hot Politics will bump elbows with Long Island songwriter Jake Incao, and Asheville rock and rollers Hollywood Red will share billing with Saunders’ own band, Duk Tan.

It’s a mostly local affair.

“People aren’t traveling very far because of the high price of gas, so I try to make it so they won’t need to spend an arm and a leg to come,” Saunders says. “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 my vendors to keep their prices down. I try to keep everything as low for the general public as possible.”

Throughout the year Saunders has been orchestrating a series of smaller shows called GroverFest Spotlights to defray some of the bills for the annual festival, and at some point “turn it into a nonprofit organization” and “start doing some good in the community.” He’s set up shows across the state – in Statesville, Charlotte, Winston-Salem and Boone – at venues ranging from 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.

“It runs itself after a certain point,” Saunders says. “All you can do is get things set up and get things ready. And then it’s downhill from there. On June thirteenth through the fifteenth people will come and it will happen whether I’m there or not.”

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