Submitted by the Winthrop Music Association board of directors
For the Winthrop Rhythm & Blues Festival, as for everyone in the valley, the fires have been a test of our commitment to this community and place.
With fire raging east of us, and prevailing southeasterly winds pushing smoke and flames away from the Blues Ranch, the festival did go on. Some believe the festival should not have gone on. But the advice we heeded, from the experts at the command center with whom we were in constant contact over, was to keep doing what we were doing. The state fire marshal told us the festival was never at any point in danger, and the safest place in the valley all weekend. If he at any time indicated the festival and its attendees were in danger, we’d have pulled the plug immediately, without hesitation, and had an evacuation plan ready to go.
For the 2,000 or so who did attend, among them our national and regional blues artists who arrived from points east and west without mishap, the festival was an experience none will ever forget. Powered by four backup generators, the festival had the only electricity, hot meals, showers and other amenities in the valley after the power lines went down.
Friday, the volunteer board of the nonprofit Winthrop Music Association (WMA), which runs the festival as its major annual fundraiser, opened the gates to anyone in the valley impacted by the fires. By Saturday afternoon more than 100 had sought refuge at the Blues Ranch. Many of them had lost their homes. Our Beer Garden late-night performances raised over $5,000 for The Cove Food Bank in Twisp to help valley residents impacted by the fire. Chicago blues harmonica legend Charlie Musselwhite donated $1,000 of his performance fee to that effort.
On Monday after the festival, generators onsite were redeployed to Twisp to help businesses get back up and running. We donated unused catering provisions — several boxes of fruit, coolers of cold drinks and many boxes of packaged snacks — to the Red Cross emergency center at the Winthrop Barn.
Attendance at this year’s festival was significantly down. A quarter to a third of our sales have traditionally been at the festival gates. Those sales did not happen this year. The festival lost money, and will have to dip into reserves to pay its performers, stage providers, sound company, rental on the Blues Ranch site, rental of backup generators, etc.
It may be quite a while before we have a handle on the depth of that loss. Of WMA’s eight board members, six reside in the Methow Valley, and all have friends and/or family who lost everything in this historic inferno. It may be several weeks before the members of our board, who are each dealing on a personal level with this crisis, can sort out how this fire impacted the festival.
Why should the valley care? Because this festival plays a vital economic and cultural role in the valley. The festival is the second-largest tourist draw after the Omak Stampede and the largest in the Methow Valley. We fill more hotel beds in the area than any other single event. To music aficionados in such far off places as Boston, Austin, New Orleans and Oslo, Norway, the festival has put Winthrop and the Methow on the map. Beyond the valley, the festival is understood to be one of the finest, most respected, longest-running blues/roots festivals of its kind in the nation.
No event, not even Seattle’s mega-festival, Bumbershoot, has brought more legendary blues/soul musicians to Washington state than has Winthrop. The Washington Blues Society understood that when it awarded the festival its “BB Award” as Best Festival. There is a nomination in the works for the coveted “Keeping the Blues Alive” award for “festival of the year” from the Memphis-based Blues Foundation.
WMA is a 501(c)3 nonprofit corporation formed in 2005 to restore the festival to fiscal solvency and carry on the tradition of producing the world-class music festival that started in 1988. Over the last 10 years, the association has contributed thousands of dollars to The Cove Food Bank, the Methow Valley School District Music Program, Little Star Montessori School, the Washington Blues Society Musician’s Relief Fund, Methow Valley Theater, the Shafer Historical Museum, the Heart of the Methow Powwow and more.
The fires have focused and given a sense of urgency to the association’s mission going forward. We expect that for many years to come revenue raised by this festival will be assisting those impacted by this historic fire. Festival volunteers will be working on the “Blues for the Burn” benefit concert featuring Too Slim & the Taildraggers and other acts at the Winthrop Barn on Aug. 29 to raise additional funds for valley residents who lost their homes.
We thank you for your support of the Winthrop R&B Festival, and hope to see you at the Blues Ranch next July 17 – 19, 2015.
Erika Olsen, president,
Winthrop Music Association
Mark Seguin, vice president
Robin Wheeler, treasurer
Peter Dammann, secretary