‘Green River’ hits 30: Three-day festival celebrates ‘pearl’ anniversary with musical gems

  • The Mardi Gras Monster makes an appearance at a previous Green River Festival. PHOTO COURTESY OF GREEN RIVER FESTIVAL

  • Hot-air ballons are illuminated at a previous Green River Festival. PHOTO COURTESY OF GREEN RIVER FESTIVAL

  • And the Kids will perform Saturday, July 9, at 3:30 p.m. on the Main Stage. PHOTO COURTESY OF GREEN RIVER FESTIVAL

  • There’s lots of family fun at The Green River Festival. PHOTO COURTESY OF GREEN RIVER FESTIVAL

  • Families enjoy a jump house at a previous Green River Festival. PHOTO COURTESY OF GREEN RIVER FESTIVAL

  • A view of The Green River Festival, taken from aboard a tethered RE/MAX ballon, shows the main stage with Allan Tousaint playing and a crowd of festivalgoers. recorder file photo

  • Lux Deluxe will perform Saturday, July 9, at 2:10 p.m. on the Four Rivers Stage. PHOTO COURTESY OF LUX DELUXE/FACEBOOK

  • Sonya Kitchell will perform Sunday, July 10, at 12:15 p.m. on the Four Rivers Stage. PHOTO COURTESY OF SONYA KITCHELL/FACEBOOK

For the Bulletin
Thursday, June 30, 2016

On a hot July day in 1986, radio station WRSI — now known as 93.9 The River — threw one heck of a party.

Nobody knew it then, but the radio station’s fifth anniversary “birthday party,” held on the grounds of Greenfield Community College, would become an annual event, now known as The Green River Festival. 

Thirty years later, it’s been named a top music festival by Rolling Stone magazine, The New York Times and USA Today.

The festival takes place this year July 8-10 at Greenfield Community College.

That first concert attracted 2,000 guests, who came to listen to Ed Vadas and The Heavyweights, 10,000 Maniacs and NRBQ play throughout the afternoon and into the evening, undaunted by forecasts of thunderstorms, which only turned out to be a brief shower.

The following year, the Franklin County Chamber of Commerce started a hot air balloon festival, which became an annual event featuring some music. But it wasn’t until WRSI decided to throw a 10th anniversary party that the Green River Festival’s predecessor was born.

“At that point, the two events sort of merged and the festival, which at the time was called the UpCountry Balloon Fair and Music Festival, became more of a mix of balloons and music,” said Jim Olsen of Signature Sounds, who has helped organize the festival since its inception.

Because of atmospheric conditions, hot air balloons can only be launched during the morning or evening, so organizers decided to fill the time in between with music.

Olsen said the festival was fairly modest throughout the 1990s, with local bands and $5 or $10 tickets sold at the door. It became known as the Green River Festival in 1997 and continued to grow, graduating from one stage to two, and eventually to three, and expanding from one to three days.

“All along this festival has taken baby steps in growth. There’s never been a huge turning point where one year it was one thing and the next year it was something else. We see it continuing on that path,” he said. “We really want to keep the nature of the festival — its comfortable size is really one of the biggest attributes that people love about it.”

Ann Hamilton, president of the Franklin County Chamber of Commerce, which sponsored the festival for most of its 30 years, said young children who came to the very first events with their parents are now attending as adults with children of their own.

‘Weather moments’

Despite the festival’s success over the year, Olsen said it’s easy to remember the tough times — bad weather, in particular.

“You tend to remember the weather moments mostly, and over 30 years we’ve had our weather moments,” he said.

In 1996, organizers realized the Wednesday before the festival that Hurricane Bertha was coming up the coast, on a straight path to hit Greenfield by Saturday. Instead of canceling the show, Hamilton rented an enormous tent that would cover the field.

“I have to give a lot of credit to Ann, who year after year would stick with the event and continue to fund it,” Olsen said. “It poured the whole day and we had a crowd of 200 or 250 under this tent.”

To make matters worse, one of the band's tour buses tried to drive across the muddy field and got stuck.

“We actually ended up recruiting audience members to help push this bus out of the mud. It was just your basic disaster,” he said.

But, Olsen said, the festival has also had its great performances over the years, including a number of artists he called legendary. Mavis Staples of The Staple Singers, a singer and civil rights activist who used to march with Martin Luther King Jr. in the 1960s, came to the festival in 2008 during Barack Obama’s first run for president.

“It was just a thrill to hear her talk about the civil rights movement and tying it to Obama,” Olsen said. “Things like that stick out in your mind, but there have been really special moments every year.”

Destination event

This year, organizers added camping on the Franklin County Fairgrounds, about a mile away.

“We just found that a lot of people have been starting to come from further away, and Franklin County has limited hotel room possibilities and the hotels would fill in January and February, so the move to camping was just something people were looking for,” Olsen said. “For people attending the festival, it won’t feel any different.”

The Chamber of Commerce sponsored the festival up until 2014, when Signature Sounds took over. For Hamilton, funding the event was a no-brainer.

“I think it put Greenfield on the map in many ways,” she said. “It became clear that many of these groups and main artists have a whole following, and people will go anywhere to hear them … Part of the job of the Chamber is to bring people to the area and support hospitality, so it was a natural.”

John Reily, a former DJ at WRSI who goes by the name “Johnny Memphis,” has written a book about the history of the festival for its 30th anniversary, which organizers are hoping to sell during this year’s event.

And for Olsen, seeing the festival come together year after year has been a thrill.

“It’s really gratifying to see; it’s become such a part of my life cycle,” he said. “It’s kind of like Christmas for me because you’ve been doing all this work and planning and thinking, ‘How will this work out?’ and then you get to see it all unfold and happen. That’s why we keep doing it.”

The Green River Festival will run July 8, 9 and 10 on the main campus of Greenfield Community College, 1 College Drive in Greenfield.

Locally, tickets are available at The Parlor Room and Turn It Up, both in Northampton, and at the World Eye Bookshop in Greenfield.

A three-day pass costs $119; a two-day pass (Saturday and Sunday) is $99; and a one-day pass (Saturday or Sunday) is $64.99.