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Blissfest celebrates 50 years

Rick Coates - July 5th, 2010
Blissfest Celebrates 30 Years: Roots music festival examines its own roots...
By Rick Coates
When Blissfest kicks off this Friday, the festival outside Cross Village will celebrate 30 years of promoting the diversity and heritage of traditional styles of music.
This year’s version features headliners Richie Havens and John Hiatt, plus bluegrass-rappers The Deadly Gentlemen, Detroit blues diva Thornetta Davis, Australian transplant Harper, Ann Arbor’s My Dear Disco, world music from Funkadesi, and local favorite Claudia Schmidt (who was there to open the first Blissfest in 1980).
Executive Director Jim Gillespie has also been there since day one. As he reflects on the past 30 years he recalls there was a time or two when he and others were unsure whether they would even continue Blissfest.
“Early on when we were losing money, the core people kept asking ourselves why we were even doing this in the first place?” said Gillespie. “It was really a labor of love. We would say that we weren’t going to do it again. But after awhile the reality of the importance of this would kick in and we would be back to planning the next festival.”
Then there was the challenge from the Festival site’s neighbors in the late 1990s that also put the Blissfest’s future in doubt.
“I think that challenge was a reality check for us,” said Gillespie. “What we found out was while we were connected to the world of music, we didn’t have that same connectivity to those that lived in our own backyard. I spend a great deal of my time in the off-season staying connected with the local community. It reassures the residents that we share the same values and that we are good stewards of the land.”

POTATO FARM
Blissfest got its name from its original location in 1980 when it started on a potato farm in Bliss Township near the village of Bliss (between Harbor Springs and Cross Village). While organizers were grateful for the farm, it came with its challenges.
“Every year we had to move to a different location on the farm to hold the festival,” said Gillespie. “In 1988 we found a farm (at the current location) where everything could stay the same from year to year.”
The new farm was located in Redmond Township, and despite moving seven miles down the road from Bliss, organizers felt the name shouldn’t change.
“There really is something magical about our name,” said Gillespie. “I really believe from the beginning it has conveyed a certain mindset that carries over to each festival. For the most part things are pretty ‘bliss’ around here.”
In 1995 the farmer decided to sell the 40-acre farm to the Blissfest Music Organization. Three years later a neighbor sold them an additional 80 acres, giving Blissfest the space to hold 4,500 daily festival attendees of which 3,200 camp on the grounds for the weekend.
“We really become a mini-city that weekend,” said Gillespie. “There is a lot to this logistically in regards to accommodating the needs of everyone. Despite the numbers, we have made it through each festival without any major challenges.”
Surely there must have been some incidents over the years?
“Well of course every event, no matter what, has the two percent asshole factor,” said Gillespie. “Essentially two percent in your crowd are going to be jerks. We just kick them out. This festival is also self-policed. People who have been coming for years help to keep things in line.”
Gillespie says that there is an ironic twist to some of the “jerks” who have been at the festival in the past.
“Not always but a lot of times it is teenagers raising the hell,” said Gillespie. “Well, a lot of those hellraising kids have come back and are volunteering on committees.”

CHOOSING THE ACTS
But at the end of the day it really has and continues to be about the music.
“When we started this it was primarily local and regional musicians,” said Gillespie. “We have expanded over the years to include national and internationally recognized groups. But we are proud of the fact that Blissfest still has several local performers each year.”
Choosing the 40 musical acts for the three-day festival is a challenge for the selection committee. The process begins in November when committee members come forward with suggestions. In addition, Blissfest annually receives 500 plus requests from artists all over North America asking to perform.
“We have built a reputation as one of the best roots festivals in the country so a lot of musicians want to come here,” said Gillespie. “We have a formula that we use in our process that measures several aspects including diversity. It is important that our festival maintain diversity.”
Gillespie is excited to have Claudia Schmidt back.
“Claudia had just become a national renowned folk artist when we started Bliss,” said Gillespie. “It meant a lot to have her at that first festival and it means a lot to have her back for the 30th.”
Over the years Bliss has had a lot of great artists, too many for Gillespie to pick a favorite. There have been some who have offered a few challenges as well.
“Let’s put it this way: there have been a few artists that have been difficult,” said Gillespie. “I don’t say anything -- I just file it away upstairs that they seem to not be invited back.”
Just because a band isn’t invited back doesn’t mean they were a problem. Bliss has a reputation of looking for new acts each year and often waits several years before inviting a band back.

WHEATLAND DAYS
It has been a long road for Jim Gillespie, a Petoskey native who set out in the early ‘70s to become an anthropologist. While studying anthropology at Central Michigan University he performed with a folk band, often in the small town of Remus. It was there that he met other like-minded individuals, and soon Gillespie found himself a part of the original group that started the Wheatland Festival.
Gillespie would move on to U-M and obtain a Masters degree, beginning a career in mental health. Upon returning to his hometown in 1980 he connected with friends and began hatching a plan to start a music festival. Now, 30 years later, Gillespie finds himself working full-time as the executive director (he left his mental health position in 2003).
The demands of the festival and the numerous other music and dance events throughout the year, require full-time, year-round administration.
So, does Gillespie see himself running things for the 50th anniversary?
“No way. What I am looking to do is retire as soon as possible as executive director and become the artistic director,” said Gillespie. “I think that would be a cool way to go out. Let somebody else handle the headaches while I walk around and say, ‘No, I am the artistic director -- you will have to see someone else for that.’”
But Gillespie will stay on and help foster Blissfest’s next endeavor: The Blissfest Arts Recreation Center, a building project that will allow the organization to offer year round programming onsite.
A capital campaign is currently underway and the organization hopes to have the project completed in a couple of years.
In the meantime, the focus is on the current festival.“I would be remiss if I did not mention that numerous volunteers, many who work year round to make this festival successful,” said Gillespie. “Their commitment to this festival and its mission is a big part of the reason we are still here after 30 years.

For additional information on the 30th Annual Blissfest and the artists performing visit www.blissfest.org or call the box office at (231) 526-0836. Tickets for previous festivals have sold out.



 
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