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Bob Jones... The man behind the music at the Cherry Festival

Mark Waggener - June 29th, 2006
This summer’s favored event in Northern Michigan is about to unfold. The ever-popular National Cherry Festival gets under way July 1-8 at the open space on Grand Traverse Bay. Aside from the daily activities and the tummy-tempting aroma of good food, one of the most celebrated attractions commences every night on The Bayside Entertainment Stage. As a long time fan of music I have often wondered what it takes to deliver eight straight nights of live entertainment. I recently had a chance to sit down with Mike Jones and discuss his 24 years of experience as the “man behind the music” in selecting which acts will perform at the festival.

NE: When and how did you become involved with the National Cherry Festival?
Jones: 1982 was my first year. I joined as an ambassador and worked with Randy Nash from Sound Environments. We were hired to run sound for the shows and Diane Dennis was the director of the entertainment stage at that time. We worked with all locals and didn’t do any national acts for quite a few years. The original budget to hire musicians was $100. Back then, the shows were performed on a stage which consisted of four 8’x 8’ platforms mounted on sawhorses. We had no roof, no lights, and when it got dark, we went home.

NE: What is your current position?
Jones: I am the director of the Bayside Entertainment Stage and have held that title for approximately 15 years as a volunteer. I kind of grew into it helping pick out bands with former director Diane Dennis, who decided to run for president of the National Cherry Festival.
NE: Do you have a musical background?
Jones: Actually I do. I have not played since high school but have always had a musical inclination. I wanted to be involved with music and played trumpet and trombone in a band at the high school level.

NE: What kind of preparation is required for these concerts?
Jones: Beginning in January I collect applications and develop a wish list of what we want to do for the next year. We discuss and review the talent available and begin to establish a budget. We then get it approved by the board. This is a virtually free show and all of our funding is through the sale of sponsorships. Altel, Pepsi, KFC, Blue Cross-Blue Shield, and The Blue Care Network of Michigan have been major contributors for many years.
We sell individual shows to other companies, and without their support, we absolutely couldn’t keep this a virtually free show. I work closely with Rick Shimel of Meridian Entertainment Group who books the national acts. The relationship with his crew has worked out very well for us. Randy Nash, Mark Walter and the guys from Sound Environments have also worked out very well. You put a good team together and you stick with it. I couldn’t do it without them.

NE: How many assistants are required during the show?
Jones: Well, on any given night there will be 15 to 20 of us on the production side depending on the show. From runners, to caterers, to stage hands, sound and lighting techs, we all work together.

NE: How many local and regional acts contact you to perform?
Jones: I talk to a lot of people. The phone rings off the hook pretty steady from the middle of March on. I receive at least 100 CDs, DVDs and video tapes each year. We have a lot of applications from Detroit, Grand Rapids, Chicago, Nashville, as well as 15 to 20 from local area musicians. We are pretty well known.

NE: Who has been your favorite act over the years?
Jones: Well, several of them. I guess I am a bit of a country fan which is what I listen to most. Some of the acts like Trick Pony and Blake Shelton have been my favorites. This year we have Keith Anderson coming, a rising Nashville star. We have been very fortunate in that we’ve been able to get stars from the Nashville country western scene on their way up. They have become huge stars after they have been here. Maybe we have something to do with it, who knows. As far as classic rock, Eddie Money was here last year and he put on a great show.

NE: Do you have a family, and if so, are they involved as well?
Jones: Yes, I have a 28-year-old daughter named Megan, my son Adam is 24 and my wife Gail have all participated throughout the years. It’s a lot of fun and has become a family experience for me. My wife and daughter do the backstage catering for all the acts. They provide the deli trays and help meet the contract rider requirements. My son, before he went away to school, ran spot lights for us. So there was the four of us, we were all working it and that is a lot of fun.

NE: Can you explain the contract riders?
Jones: Well, the musicians ask for things that they need to make their performance better. The bigger the artist, the more outlandish the demands are typically. If only red M&Ms will make them happy and they go out and do a good show, then I’ll give them red M&Ms, I don’t care. The bottom line is I want to put on a good show. Some people might think the rider demands are unusual, but if you stop and think about their life living on the road, they need certain things, or want certain things. You and I go home at night and may have M&Ms. When they’re are on the road, they don’t have time to go to the store and get M&Ms, or Gooby Bears, or whatever it may be. They put it in their rider and we get it for them. We are providing a service to keep them happy and they rely on us to do so.

NE: What are the personal rewards for pulling off this musical accomplishment?
Jones: Well, the personal rewards are really when you are standing back stage,
And you’ve got the show up and running, and by the third song everyone is standing on their feet and they are all clapping and swaying to the music. That’s my reward right there. To have the people really get into the show. There are certain shows we do year after year after year, like The 64 Tribute (the Beatles show). That’s just a really cool show because you have everybody from little kids to grandmothers and they’re all on their feet, they all know the words, and they think they are seeing the Beatles. That’s very gratifying for us and makes all the hard work worth while.

NE: What has kept you going throughout the years?
Jones: Its fun and I enjoy the people. I said when it stopped being fun, I’d stop doing it and I’m still here. There are folks from all levels of society that work the Cherry Festival. Nine times out of ten you never know what they do in the real world. They are just Cherry Festival people and they all come together as a family. That’s really cool. You’ll have attorneys and ditch diggers working side by side doing the same job and nobody knows. Everybody is equal. Working with the public is a pleasure and you meet some interesting characters. It’s just really fun to see people enjoying themselves and to think you had something to do with it is rewarding. I guess that’s why I do it year after year.

NE: Are you excited about this year’s lineup?
Jones: Absolutely, I think we have a great lineup this year. Average White Band, 1964 The Tribute is back, Gregg Rolie Band, Otis Day & The Nights, and Grand Funk Railroad, which is one I have wanted to do for a long time. For me that’s going to be a high point.

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