With new roots in the ground, SmileFest turns 15

by Ryan Snyder

Keller Williams (left) jams with Quiver at last year’s SmileFest.

Bob Robertson knows how to have a good time. His company Mountain Roots Management works almost every conceivable role in the country’s biggest music event, from Coachella to All Good to the recent Hangout Festival to the upcoming MoogFest. Since he started SmileFest in Greensboro in 1995, he’s been in the business of making sure others do too. We all have to grow up at some point, however, and the one-time brouhaha that bounced around from Union Grove to Lake Toxaway before being beleaguered into hiatus by small-town authorities has as well. After two years away, it found a new home last year in Pinnacle with a clandestine admission policy to keep the riff-raff away, and the idea just might have completely rebranded the festival. It was billed as friends and family only, with invitations necessary to buy tickets, but the 2010 edition still pulled in over 1,200 attendees. Now in its 15th year, Robertson has plenty of reasons to smile, smile, smile.

Y!W: Do you feel like SmileFest has a home in Pinnacle now?

BR: I believe so, the Page family, Alan and Tom Pace, have been very generous and great to work with, and I believe we have.

Y!W: What made you decide to finally bring it back last year?

BR: It felt like it was time. We had done a couple of other events that just didn’t have the feel that we had wanted. So we chose to bring it back small and kind of see what happens and see how it might grow itself back out.

Y!W: What’s your booking philosophy going forward for SmileFest?

BR: We like to tap on every style of music. We don’t really like to pitch ourselves as a bluegrass or punk or jam-band type of event. Honestly it began from my own musical tastes from way back in the day at the very beginning. We’re a little bit different now in how we like to attract our audience. We’re more concerned now with having a peaceful, family-friendly vibe. You can let your kids run around and you don’t have to worry about the music going past midnight.

Y!W: Anything new scheduling-wise you’re trying out this year?

BR: It’s pretty much the same. We’ll be starting the music a little earlier on Sunday than on Saturday. We’ll go to midnight every night except for Sunday, which goes until 6 p.m. We’ll also have a couple of late-night picking sessions that aren’t amplified, but some of the musicians on the bill will certainly take part in those.

Y!W: There’s been no schedule released yet, but would you care to share who’s headlining which days?

BR: Friday night is Railroad Earth and the New Mastersounds with John Brown’s Body and Pimps of Joytime in between. Saturday is JJ Grey & Mofro, Karl Denson’s Tiny Universe and Melvin Seals with JGB. We’ll have Big Daddy Bluegrass Band on Sunday, which is Steve McMurry, Billy Cardine and Jay Sanders of Acoustic Syndicate. Then Tara and Jeb of Donna the Buffalo are doing a duo set.

Y!W: What’s the rationale for keeping it invite-only and how does someone get invited?

BR: Well, we’re opening up a little bit more this year in regards to other folks attending. Anyone who wants to request an invitation can just email < a href=""> We’re also selling tickets at the gate this year, and I’d be more than happy to share the password with anyone who requests it. We just wanted to give people some feelings of safety and we really just wanted to grow ourselves back by making sure we have the right people, like-minded thinkers. We’re growing older, I’m 45 now, and times have changed since we started out. We have a really good time and the music is amazing, and we dance and sweat like everyone else. But we’re looking for a calmer experience with people who are really there for the music and the camaraderie.

SmileFest will take place at the Jomeoke Campground in Pinnacle from Friday, June 3 to Sunday, June 5.

Follow Ryan on Twitter @YESRyan