It’s Sunday September 3rd, 2017: the last day of the Shelter Valley Folk Festival in Grafton, Ontario. Some of you arrived Friday night with tents and sleeping bags in hand and have been living on the farm grounds all weekend. Some of you have been there for days or weeks in advance preparing the site for festival attendees. Some of you are returning to the festival to volunteer, to play music or to kick back and listen to great music. For some of you, this is your first ever Shelter Valley experience. For others it’s your 13th year returning.
I am in St. John’s, Newfoundland today, wishing I could be in two places at once. I am poring over photos and articles from our band’s early days and am wondering where we would be without the Shelter Valley Folk Festival?
From the tiny green and yellow signs guiding you to the festival grounds to the welcoming committee at the gate you feel like you’ve stepped into a scene from a movie about the perfect folk festival. The land is beautiful and the hill where the audience sits facing the barn stage is gently sloped as if it had been screaming for a festival to be held there.
There is no advertising anywhere on site except the artfully drawn signs that have clearly been made with love, maintained, and stored for 362 days a year only to be resurrected and planted just in time for the Labour Day festivities to begin.
Vendors and artisans are stationed in the southeast part of the site arranged side by side. There’s enough space for everyone to showcase their work, sell their goods and for attendees to peruse at their own pace. Just beside the vendors is the food tent run by volunteers who will spend the weekend feeding hungry musicians, artists and crew. They’ve prepared beautiful, healthy meals in advance of the festival and they’ve laid out reusable plates, bowls, cups and utensils for the hundreds of diners to come. Those working in the food tent are not only feeding everyone but they are emptying the dirty dish bins and frantically washing and drying the dishes so they are ready for the next round of meals. This is the only festival I’ve seen in my travels that does this.
The last I was told, Shelter Valley capped ticket sales around 1500 to keep the festival intimate, safe and sustainable.
Sustainable. That was the word that stuck with me most when I first attended in 2007.
This is the festival that helped the Good Lovelies cut our teeth in the music industry. In 2007 we put our hat in the ring to audition for the festival judges in hopes of winning a spot to play the festival. It was so early in our career that we had barely strung a tour together at that point and had maybe five songs in our repertoire. As luck would have it, the SVFF judges awarded us a spot to play at the upcoming festival that September 2007. We were so overcome, elated, honoured and humbled. Below is a photo from that audition.
Shelter Valley is where we met our hometown art and music community and an audience that has followed our career trajectory closely and supported us 100% along the way. That community of people continues to buy tickets to our shows and the music we make. That incredible audience is why we’ve made it a tradition to close out every touring year in front of our hometown crowd at Trinity United Church in Cobourg, where 600 people fill the sanctuary and celebrate with us as we bid adieu to the year and raise our glasses to the next.
In 2008, Shelter Valley hired us back as a full-fledged band after we had another year of touring under our collective belt, a whack of crazy touring stories and improved and less matchy-matchy stage wear.
That was the year all our parents came to the festival and it was a hoot to see them all side by side cheering us on from the crowd. It was the first and possibly only folk festival my parents ever attended and I’m grateful to have that memory of Mom and Dad (Brenda and Wayne) on site with me. I took this hilarious photo of them posing like they are in a band.
In 2012, I went back alone as I had been invited back to emcee. It was my first ever emcee gig; yet another in a series of first opportunities that Shelter Valley offered. It’s where I learned the art of welcoming a crowd, introducing my fellow musicians and friends, entertaining while people set up, filling the space when people are sound checking, without overshadowing the reason we were all there in the first place: music, art, and community.
In 2013, the Good Lovelies were invited back for the 10th anniversary of Shelter Valley. Two months earlier I had moved to Newfoundland and saying goodbye to my friends and family and my home in Ontario had been harder on me than I recognized at the time. I remember arriving on site with my banjo in my hand, walking onto the Shelter Valley grounds and felt like I had come home. For three days, time stood still and I was exactly where I needed to be in a setting that oozed friendship, beauty and community. No matter where I went all weekend, a friendly face greeted me, conversations started up, tears were shed and we howled with laughter. When the sun set on the Sunday afternoon, I wept from the overwhelming feeling of pride that I came from here, that this festival and these folks were part of my life now and would always be.
Today is the last day of the Shelter Valley Folk Festival, and it stings to think of it not running again someday. I’m not on the grounds this weekend but it’s all I can think about from my home in Newfoundland. I grew up in Port Hope and went to school in Cobourg and that Grafton Festival and the crew who started it, and the folks that go back every year and make magic happen for a new group of visiting musicians, and those who work tirelessly for the love of their community to make it feel like a paradise: you are who make me proud of where I come from and you are who will continue to make the arts, culture and music community at home continue to thrive beyond the magic of the festival weekend.
So I’ll say bye for now, Shelter Valley Folk Festival, but I know we will find our way back to you someday.
On behalf of the Good Lovelies
Kerri, Caroline and Sue