Green River Festival

Green River Festival

For years, many music-loving Western Massachusetts residents considered the Green River Festival one of the area’s best-kept secrets. It certainly started out that way in 1986 when WRSI, a then-fledgling radio station with studios in downtown Greenfield, was approaching its five-year mark and some people there thought it will be fun to mark the occasion with a public birthday party, and that’s exactly what happened.

Admission was free to the outdoor event on the sprawling Greenfield Community College lawn, and the line-up was a good one: NRBQ (with its classic lineup including Al Anderson), 10,000 Maniacs, and Ed Vadas and the Fabulous Heavyweights. Although people didn’t know it at the time, this bash, which drew 2,000 people on the afternoon of July 26, 1986, would come to be considered the first Green River Festival.

It wasn’t until 1998 that the annual event was officially named the Green River Festival, which since 1987 included a hot-air balloon fair with up-up-and-away launches, and for most of its first three decades was run by the Franklin County Chamber of Commerce. From the beginning though, Jim Olsen, a popular on-air host and then-music director at WRSI, has played a pivotal role in booking the talent, consisting mostly of local artists at first but expanding big-time starting in 1991 with appearances by Dr. John and The Holmes Brothers.

Jim, already a fan of the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival, started sprinkling Crescent City and/or JazzFest performers into the Greenfield event’s mix. The 1993 lineup had a national feel, with Robert Earl Keen and The Cox Family, and the next year, a barely 23-year-old Alison Krauss lit up the stage, along with Ted Hawkins and the Subdudes.

It was around that time that Jim co-founded the Signature Sounds Recordings label, and over the following years, artists who recorded for that label – from Lake Street Dive and Josh Ritter to Lori McKenna and Chris Smither – have played Green River.

In 1998, there were balloon launches, fireworks, and first-class regional bands playing on Friday night. But the music component of the festival was still mainly a Saturday thing, and advance weekend passes sold for $10, a very good deal for a day of music that boasted Gillian Welch and David Rawlings, Don Walser & The Pure Texas Band, Cheri Knight, Nathan and the Zydeco Cha Chas, and Koko Taylor & Her Blues Machine, among others.

Besides fireworks and hot air balloon launches and rides, the concert poster for the 2000 festival touted “Two Stages of Music” for the first time, with folk-blues legend and Springfield, Massachusetts, native Taj Mahal headlining along with Beausoleil Avec Michael Doucet. And in 2001, the festival expanded to two full days of music. It would be more than a decade before it became a three-day event.

The GRF got another New Orleans-inspired flavor in 2005 when Nan Parati, known for her distinctive and beautiful handwritten signage that graced JazzFest stages with performers’ names, began doing the same for the Greenfield festival.

Into the new millennium, thanks in part to Jim’s savvy and visionary bookings, the list of artists who’ve graced the festival’s stages has read like a who’s who of present and future stars. Just for starters: Emmylou Harris, Brandi Carlile, Bombino, Allen Toussaint, The Funky Meters, Michael Franti, Lucinda Williams, Tedeschi Trucks Band, Los Lobos, Gogol Bordello, Preservation Hall Jazz Band, John Hiatt, Peter Wolf, Wanda Jackson, The Mavericks, Booker T. Jones, Rhiannon Giddens, and Kermit Ruffins.

Jim sensed that things were going to another level in the mid-2000s, saying, “In 2005, we had Steve Earle and Buddy Miller. In 2006, it was Fountains of Wayne and John Hiatt and The Avett Brothers. That’s around the time it felt like it turned from ‘this is just a local event’ to people really starting to recognize what was going on and traveling a little bit.”

Journalist, recording artist, and radio personality Johnny Memphis literally wrote the book on the Green River Festival. In Music In The Air: A History Of The Green River Festival 1986–2016, he tells the story of the festival artfully, year by year, complete with beautiful pictures and annual concert lineups. In the chapter on 2014, which includes headliners Dirty Dozen Brass Band and Puss N Boots featuring Norah Jones, Johnny writes, “The Green River Festival changed hands in 2014, and the new leader had a familiar face. Longtime talent buyer Jim Olsen, of Signature Sounds, became the festival director as Ann Hamilton of the Franklin County Chamber of Commerce stepped down after running the event and its earlier incarnations for 26 years.”

We’d be remiss if we didn’t mention the food at the family-friendly GRF. Like JazzFest on a smaller scale, dozens of food vendors from near and far offer up culinary treats like red-curried dumplings, lobster rolls and chilled cucumber-dill soup. These change from year to year, but the options are delicious and the lines usually pretty short.

Over the years, national accolades for the GRF have grown appropriately. The New York Times wrote about it in 2015 in a piece headlined “50 Essential Summer Festivals” while NPR praised it saying, “The Green River Festival lineup gets more legendary by the year.”

Flash forward to August 25, 2021. In that day’s issue of the Northampton-based Daily Hampshire Gazette, Jim Olsen penned a guest column ahead of that year’s festival, which said a lot about him and Green River. In the piece, entitled “Enjoy The Music, Keep Each Other Safe,” he wrote, “This week we bring us all together for the Green River Festival for the first time since 2019, and we need your help. If we all follow the protocols and we all keep ourselves outdoors, socially distanced, masked when we are in close proximity or when we use a shuttle or restroom, together we build a scene that keeps each other safe. It’s science informed by love. Love not only for our own families and our community, but also love for strangers we have not yet met, for musicians, staff, and vendors who need to work for a living, and for the idea of hope in a year of darkness.” Successfully, the 2021 GRF beckoned in a bright future for this annual phenomenon, held for the first time at the Franklin County Fairgrounds, two miles from its former home at Greenfield Community College. Headliners included Jon Batiste, Ani DiFranco, and Drive-By Truckers.

These days there are nearby camping facilities and the fest draws music lovers from 40 states. In April 2023, Jim reflected back saying, “I’m a music fan, and I’ve been able to find people ahead of the curve… that’s one of the things I’m proud about. We had Gillian Welch before she really caught on. Alison Krauss, Old Crow Medicine Show… the list goes on and on. That’s so gratifying, finding artists before they take off or just as they are taking off. A couple years ago, we had the great luck to get Jon Batiste. When I booked him he was at one level, and by the time he played the festival he was an international star… it was crazy. Now we have people attending from all over, and it was a contributing factor when we could start offering camping. We’re on the map as a national festival. And that 40 states [statistic]… it’s been pretty amazing. Ticket orders from South Dakota… What!?”

(By David Sokol)

David Sokol is the editor of Music In The Air: A History Of The Green River Festival 1986–2016, written by Johnny Memphis and published by Signature Sounds Recordings in 2016.

Published On: June 9, 2023