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Color photos by Willy Cook and David N. Seelig. Black-and-white photos by Elaine Somerville.
Rosalie Sorrels and Utah Phillips enjoy the sun at the second Northern Rockies Folk Festival, held in Elkhorn in 1978.

Rock for the people
The Northern Rockies Folk Festival celebrates 30 years.Text by Dana DuGan

"A drinking club with a music problem" is the way Kit Neraas describes the early days of the Northern Rockies Folk Festival, of which he is the executive producer. This summer marks the festival’s 30th anniversary, and in those three decades it has grown from a simple flattop-bed stage into Hailey’s most recognizable and celebrated outdoor summer music event.

Beginning in 1977, under the helm of the Sun Valley Center for the Arts, the festival has grown into a two-day show jam-packed with talent culled from the Wood River Valley as well as regional and national music scenes.

2. Teal Torres and Darby David rock the greens at the 2006 festival. 3. The great Isaac Hayes was the headliner at the 1982 festival. 4 & 5. Muzzie Braun and Rosalie Sorrels, both regulars on the stage, perform in 1986. 6. Mike Tempo of The Bonedaddys bring their brand of folky-funk to the 2006 event. 7. Eileen Ivers fiddles her way through the crowds in 2004. 8. Kim Stocking has become a regular feature on the stage at the annual festival.

Today, the festival remains one of the most family friendly of Wood River Valley events. It is held at Hailey’s Hop Porter City Park, which is nestled along the riverbank on Croy Creek Road, on the west side of the city. Families and friends visit, share picnics, watch kids at play and, most importantly, party and dance together. No fuss. No pretension.

The fun begins in May with an annual radio Folk-a-Thon to help raise needed funds. By July, folks are lining up to buy booster buttons, good for entry both days. As for music, there have been plenty of highlights. Some of the best names in the business have played at the folk festival.

9 & 10. Partying and dancing are the order of the day for the folk festival, from the first year through today.

"Basically, we’ve evolved," said Pete Kramer, president of the festival’s board of directors. "We took it over 10 years ago. We always ran it, but it was under the banner of the Center. We incorporated it, and created our own body.

"For a long time it was about the folk in the folk festival. When we expanded from that notion, it changed," said Kramer. "We thought about what would give us a killer show. Blues to folk to zydeco to world beat. We mix it up. And have a helluva party.

"We want to stay true to our mission to expose people to things, like the (Arts) Center does. It’s not a commercial venture. For the people, by the people. It’s more of a roots kind of thing… . Magically, fortunately, every year I say, ‘How do we top that!?’"

Well, each year the organizers manage to present another tour de force. Even when it rained on the great fiddle and mandolin player Sam Bush, he didn’t flinch or run from the weather; people just danced harder while loving him and the evening that much more.

11. Bruce Willis’ T-shirt extols the benefits of living in this idyllic mountain town, on stage at the Northern Rockies in 2005. 12. Reggie Marks of Mumbo Gumbo strummed up some hot world music in 2003 13. Also in 2003, legendary fiddle player Sam Bush heated up the crowd on one of the festival’s rare rainy nights

To sum up the festival’s energy, Kramer likes to tell the story about the time Elvin Bishop was headlining. "He was there earlier in the day and listening to the early acts. The park hadn’t filled up. Let’s just say the band playing wasn’t as lively as the later acts were going to be. He said to me, ‘These people seem kind of mellow. Do you want me to dial it down?’ I said, ‘No, we want the ‘A’ show and pull the trigger. The crowds will be there for you.’

"Bishop gets on stage and the crowd puts it in gear. Everyone was on their feet and screaming for an encore. The place was electrified. He looked at us and snarled, ‘These people don’t know who they’re messin’ with.’ He went back on and played for another hour. That night he was what was happening in Idaho."

Other headliners over the years, to name a few, have included the Amazing Rhythm Aces, Sam Bush, Rosalie Sorrels and Utah Phillips, Rodney Crowell, Robert Earl Keen, the Bonedaddys, Mumbo Gumbo, Reckless Kelly, Muzzie Braun, Asleep at the Wheel, Laurie Lewis, Eileen Ivers, the Derailers, Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, Rob Quist and the Great Northern, Jefferson Starship, Bruce Willis, and Ian Tyson.

"From a musical standpoint, we work hard to bring in premium talent," Kramer said. "Thirty is a visible milepost. We want it to continue. But what is it going to look like? We’d like to hand off to the next generation."

Part of the new vision is to continue showcasing young bands. Singer Kim Stocking began playing at the festival nearly a decade ago. She continues to front her own band and play regularly around the region. Wood River High School senior Kelsie Barrow debuted her band at the 2006 festival, charming the audience with not only her singing and songwriting, but her on-stage poise. Now in college, she is invited to play again this summer.

Two days this summer, music will surround the burg of Hailey, and all the sounds from past, present and future will meld on one huge stage. The production is equal to the beautiful outdoor setting, and the audience is in heaven. The Northern Rockies Folk Festival quite simply rocks for the people.
And that’s folk.

Northern Rockies Folk Festival
The party starts Friday, August 3 and continues Saturday, August 4 at the Hop Porter Park, Hailey. Headliners include the Greencards, the subdudes, Tom Ball and Kenny Sultan, and Rob Quist and Great Northern. $25 booster buttons are available at Notes Music Store and Iconoclast in Hailey and Chapter One in Ketchum. For further information, visit