When Frazer Watkins was a teenager in the ‘70s, he and his pals would pull their car alongside an embankment overlooking the Shenandoah River. They wanted maximum launch capability from the top of the car as they swung from a rope hung from a massive oak in the Watermelon Park campground in Berryville.
Not long after the inevitable outbursts of hooting and hollering as the teens soared above and into the river, they’d often be chased off by a less-than-amused Mr. John Miller Sr., the long-time proprietor of the campground. His family had acquired and managed the park since the ‘30s, and still do to this day.
Many years later, Watkins bumped into David Van Deventer, the talented fiddler for area bluegrass and roots bands Furnace Mountain and the Woodshedders, as they walked their dogs along the same stretch of river. They got to talking about the rich musical history of the Watermelon Park campground, which, during its heyday featured performances by Johnny Cash, Patsy Cline, Dolly Parton and other country/roots legends.
They wondered: “Could we bring that back?”
The two co-founded Shepherds Ford Productions and asked Mr. John Miller Jr. – the son of the man who once shooed away Watkins – if he’d be interested in allowing them to produce a three-day bluegrass musical festival at the campground.
Miller agreed and the Watermelon Park Fest was born in 2004. Held annually in late September, the festival is celebrating 10 years of booking top bluegrass acts, including such legends as Ralph Stanley and Del McCoury. It regularly sells-out and is widely recognized as one of the East Coast’s top traditional bluegrass/roots festivals.
This success led Watkins and Van Deventer, in partnership with the Watermelon Park campground, to recently launch the River & Roots Festival, a new annual event that will feature local American roots music. Held over the weekend of June 27-28, it will not only pay tribute to the rich cultural history of the Shenandoah River and rural heritage, but also honor local farmers and food producers too.
“Mr. Miller Jr. feels the river has been his family’s life blood for generations. He wanted to pay tribute to it, raise awareness of its importance, and pay it back,” said Watkins, who added that some concert proceeds will go to Shenandoah Riverkeeper, a group who advocates for the health of area rivers and streams.
Van Deventer says they especially wanted to introduce local farmers into the mix as a way to broaden awareness of the efforts of area farms, local growers and CSAs, all whom benefit from the river and the local rural economy.
“We thought, instead of people going to grocery stores and throwing out packaging at the campground, why not just have local farmers show up and have a market on-site to provide food,” said Van Deventer.
Watkins added they’re also encouraging local farmers and CSAs to use the festival’s website and Facebook page to make the community aware of their offerings.
But the music matters, too.
In addition to featuring many of the area’s top bluegrass and American roots music acts, the festival is headlined by the Grammy-award winning Steep Canyon Rangers, out of nearby North Carolina. Watermelon Park Fest crowd favorite Cedric Watson will also bring back his scorching Cajun-Zydeco act to the party.
The rest include well-known local bands including Furnace Mountain, the Woodshedders (Van Deventer’s bands), Danny Nicely, The Plank Stompers, Linda Lay and the Springfield Exit, The Short Hill Mountain Boys and many more.
In addition to a weekend-long lineup of acts, and the wicked jam sessions that breakout around the park, Van Deventer says the festival will also hold music workshops, including free lessons highlighting a variety of styles, including bluegrass and Delta Blues, among others. Local farmer and author Forrest Pritchard will also be on-site to discuss his best-selling book, “Gaining Ground.”
And unlike the September music festival when the water is usually too cold to swim in, concert goers will be able to enjoy the campground’s full complement of river activities, including tubing, canoeing or kayaking. There will also be numerous educational forays on the river led by history and environmental experts, including members of the Piedmont Environmental Council.
The most important thing to Watkins and Van Deventer is that concert-goers leave with a personal connection and new-found appreciation for the Shenandoah River, as well as for local musicians and area farmers.
“Every day we go to work we get to look down on the river, and we often travel back and forth on it by canoe,” says Van Deventer. “This matters to us in a very personal way and we want to share that appreciation with as many people as we can.”
IF YOU GO:
Watermelon Park, Berryville. Weekend tickets (Fri-Sat): $60. Friday or Saturday only: $40. Kids under 12 free.
Purchase tickets online or at these locations: Watermelon Park Campground Store, Berryville Newsstand, Guitar Studio in Winchester and Shamrock Music in Purcellville. For more information and ticket sales, visit http://www.riverandroots.com