For 30 years, the Athens Folk Music and Dance Society has paid homage to the arts, crafts and music of the area’s cultural roots. This year, to mark the three-decade anniversary of the North Georgia Folk Festival, they’re bringing back favorite performers from previous festivals and highlighting headliner Norman Blake.
“[Blake is] one of the heroes of acoustic music, and we’re thrilled to have a performer of his stature this year,” says Tommy Jordan, the festival’s director and associate director of the University of Georgia’s Center for Geospatial Research. “This festival is the only show he’s playing this year. He doesn’t tour anymore, so this is a huge honor.”
Blake emerged on the acoustic scene in 1972 with an album called Home in Sulphur Springs, written about his hometown in north Georgia. The LP paved the way to world tours with his wife Nancy, guests spots at the Grand Ole Opry, appearances on “Prairie Home Companion” and multiple Grammy nominations in the 1990s.
If we ignore those roots, that’s really our loss.
Blake’s resume is impressive: He has played with Johnny Cash, Bob Dylan—appearing on that songwriter’s Nashville Skyline album—and Joan Baez. The movie O Brother, Where Art Thou? featured Blake’s guitar work on the songs “You Are My Sunshine” and the instrumental version of “Man of Constant Sorrow.” Norman and Nancy also played on the Cold Mountain and Walk the Line soundtracks. In addition, Nancy, backed by her husband and Gillian Welch, played and appeared in the Coen brothers’ latest film, Inside Llewyn Davis.
In August, Norman Blake joined Kris Kristofferson, Emmylou Harris, Steve Earle and Welch for a Cash tribute, titled Look Again to the Wind: Johnny Cash’s Bitter Tears Revisited. Blake is the only performer on the recording who also recorded on Cash’s original release 50 years ago. Norman and Nancy also joined more than 30 artists to create Divided & United: The Songs of the Civil War, released by ATO Records.
Blake’s appearance at the Folk Festival began as something of a lark, says Jordan. “While driving back from Savannah one day, a group of us were brainstorming and thought of Blake for the festival’s 30th anniversary—but didn’t think he’d play,” he says. “We called up his agent, and he said he would. Now we’ve got people from New York and South Carolina and all over coming, because he’ll be here.”
At the festival, Blake joins a lineup of multigenerational players covering bluegrass, blues, Irish ballads and Cajun tunes, among other styles. The day will start with children’s activities and storyteller Pat Shields, followed by a children’s contra dance at noon. Then, traditional ballad singers Mary Lomax and Bonnie Loggins will share songs they learned from their father, followed by The Skillet Lickers and the Stone Mountain Wobblers.
“We all learn from the people who came before us,” Jordan says. “Every song is a derivative from something we’ve heard. If we ignore those roots, that’s really our loss.”
The 30 artist vendors also represent a broad range of talent, with blacksmiths, basket weavers, candle makers, potters, knitters and quilters on hand to demonstrate their skills. All crafts will be handmade. “These demonstrations show how we all can work with our hands and create art without tools like Photoshop,” Jordan says. “Whether it’s a basket, broom or pot, it’s artistic and beautiful—but also functional.”
The Athens Folk Music and Dance Society received a grant from the Georgia Council for the Arts to help fund this year’s event. The council’s grants aren’t typically available for music events, so the award was particularly special, Jordan says.
To further promote the 30th anniversary of the event, the society is hosting additional events leading up to the festival. The Folk Society Band performed on WUGA last Friday and at the Bishop Park farmers market on Saturday. This week, several groups will play shows each night at The World Famous and Two Story Coffee in Five Points. (See the Calendar for listings.)
Summing up the Folk Festival and its longevity, Jordan is blunt. “We should know and understand our traditions and history,” he says. “Every year is a great event with family-friendly activities and high quality music, and 30 years is a great marker.”
For the full list of performers and vendors, visit athensfolk.org.
WHAT: North Georgia Folk Festival
WHERE: Sandy Creek Park
WHEN: Saturday, Oct. 11, 11 a.m.–9 p.m.
HOW MUCH: $15 (adults), $8 (students) $33 (whole family, online only), FREE! (children under 12)
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