The 20th year of FloydFest will set sail this month just off the Blue Ridge Parkway for this year’s Odyssey-themed event, with “one of the best line-ups of all time,” according to festival COO Sam Calhoun.
The five-day festival, which was canceled last year due to the pandemic, will bring music, art and visitors to the mountains July 21-25 at milepost 170.5.
“America needs to heal and that’s what we set about to do, to get everyone back to the mountain as a family,” said Calhoun, who grew up in Roanoke, and went to college and acted off-Broadway in New York City. He came to Floyd by way of Boone, NC, where he worked as a journalist, editor and publisher of newspapers and magazines and, in a prophetic-like sign, put on festivals.
Calhoun started coming to FloydFest about 15 years ago and was soon working in the Merchandise Tent and doing Across the Way (the event management company that puts on FloydFest) Wine Festivals, which is where he met his wife, who hails from Floyd. He’s been working for the festival full-time since 2014.
Calhoun explained how he and the core FloydFest team — Chief Creative and Founding Producer Kris Hodges CCFP, CEO John McBroom and CFO Jessica Taylor — announced the cancellation of FloydFest 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic on May 15, 2020, then took a leap of faith a month later by announcing FloydFest 2021.
He described the uncertainty of the times and speaking with Gov. Ralph Northam about executive orders and crowd capacity limits. “He relayed to me that he understood the economic development that we provide for this area and that he would do everything in his power to make sure we could get back out there safely,” Calhoun said.
The Odyssey festival theme was chosen to reflect the 20-year anniversary of the Floydfest adventure, Calhoun said. He pointed out that it took Homer’s hero in the poem “The Odyssey” 20 years to complete his epic journey. After coming back from the cancelled 2020 Vision Quest, which turned out to be a true vision quest for everyone, and the Voyage Home of 2019, which was celebrated with a life-size ship at the center of the main field, the Odyssey tag fit, said Calhoun. He promised an amazing main field art installation to reflect the new theme.
Around 80% of 2020 Floydfest ticket holders rolled over their tickets for 2021 and the festival sold out early. “It’s been amazing to see the community, the long-time staff and volunteers rally back behind us,” Calhoun said, attributing that support to the relationships and trust that the festival has built during the years.
Even the early booking of artists for 2021 came down to relationships and trust.
Calhoun explained how the Avett Brothers, a North Carolina Americana band, signed on early as a 2021 headliner when bands were not touring because of the pandemic. The Avett Brothers were not widely known when they won the festival’s patron-voted “On the Rise” competition in 2005, Calhoun recalled. They played the main stage in 2006. After playing the festival five years later, the band’s fame skyrocketed and led to several Grammy wins.
“They took a chance and trusted us because of our relationship,” Calhoun said.
Another story for the FloydFest lore books is that of Mason Via, whose father David Via is an award-winning singer/song writer from Patrick County. Via, a native of Danbury, NC, who is now based in Nashville, was an On the Rise runner-up in 2019 and is the newest member of Old Crow Medicine Show. Via he recently made his Grand Ole Opry debut with the group of Wagon Wheel fame, which is another 2021 Grammy-winning headliner and a FloydFest returning favorite.
Other headliners that Calhoun is excited about are Grammy award-winning guitarist and bluegrass musician Billy Strings, and Turkuaz with Jerry Harrison, a past band member of Talking Heads and Andrew Belew, a past member of King Crimson who will playing songs from the Talking Heads’ album “Remain in the Light.”
“What we’ve had to overcome this year has been amazing and I’m so proud of our team,” said Calhoun, who mentioned their struggle with supply chain issues due to the pandemic.
After last year’s cancellation, the core staff took the time to review and revisit every system on site with newly hired Site Operation Director Terri Tishman. With safety, health and wellness as a cornerstone of the festive, a new Wellness for Artists Program was created, offering free backstage healthcare to artists during the festival.
“Bands often on the road don’t have health insurance and so we want to take care of them while they’re here,” Calhoun explained
Calhoun figures that FloydFest was the first festival on the east coast to announce a Health Department reviewed COVID Safety Plan and that other festivals used it as a template.
“We’re at a voluntarily reduced capacity — between 70% and 80% of what we normally are,” Calhoun explained. “We know that everyone’s at a different comfort level about coming back together, and so we don’t want to pack this.”
Precautions at the festival this year will include temperature checks at front gate. Employees working directly with patrons will have masks on, but patrons will not be required to wear them. FloydFest staff members have all been vaccinated.
“We’re going to be one of the first major festivals out of the gate, and we know that we have to set an example,” said Calhoun. He mentioned that journalists from Rolling Stone and NBC News (along with local stations) will be on site reporting.
“There’s a lot of interest in witnessing us do this right, and we’re up for the challenge,” he said.
More information about FloydFest 2021 is available online at https://floydfest.com.