Music moves us. From dancing to a live show under the summer stars to hearing things we’ve never heard in an electric nightclub or parlor room, it makes us move, magically.
In 1986 Jim Olsen, then-program director for WRSI-FM, an up-and-coming Western Massachusetts radio station, had a vision, a pretty ambitious one. Inspired by the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival, he wondered if he could bring music that moves us, with a Crescent City vibe, to the sleepy town of Greenfield, MA, for the station’s fifth-anniversary party at Greenfield Community College.
Although no one realized it at the time, the Green River Festival was born during that Saturday afternoon party. Attended by some 2,000 people on July 26, 1986 (the concert was free to the public), the first lineup was simple but rocking, with NRBQ (the classic four-man lineup of Terry Adams, Al Anderson, Joey Spampinato, and Tom Ardolino), 10,000 Maniacs, and Ed Vadas and the Fabulous Heavyweights… and an illuminating backdrop of hot-air balloons lighting up the mid-summer sky. The Green River Festival has been growing ever since, and the balloons are still flying.
The eclectic list of artists who have graced the festival over the years reads like a musical Who’s Who, though not everyone was a star when they first appeared here: Josh Ritter, Fountains of Wayne, Emmylou Harris, Booker T. Jones, Mavis Staples, Dirty Dozen Brass Band, Peter Wolf, Bombino, Lucinda Williams, Michael Franti and Spearhead, Allen Toussaint, John Hiatt, Los Lobos, Wanda Jackson, Preservation Hall Jazz Band, Dr. John, Taj Mahal, Anaïs Mitchell, Kermit Ruffins, and Steve Earle… to name a few. Slowly but surely, the Green River Festival has evolved into an institution for music lovers throughout New England and beyond.
These days, from the jam-packed schedule on three stages to lines of vendor tents selling handcrafted art, clothes, and artist merch to the irresistible foods (including chilled vegan cucumber dill soup and fresh New England lobster rolls) to the easy-going hula-hooping vibes, you can dance with hundreds of friends you haven’t seen since last summer, with all sorts of characters joining this enchanted outdoor party. I’ve been to almost as many Green River Festival weekends as I have my own birthdays.
A few years ago, Rolling Stone named GRF one of the “must-see music festivals,” alongside New Orleans JazzFest, Bonnaroo, and Lollapalooza. And Green River is an experience the whole family can enjoy, a musical treasure chest for adults and kids alike. There’s a glow to people connecting here, and it’s not just from the colorful hot-air balloons rising up at dusk.
Remember when I said music moves us? In 2013, I was living in Portland, Oregon, walking two miles to work each day in three-inch pumps at 6:30 a.m. (Those were not the days.) A ritual was to call my dad in Western Massachusetts when I reached The Hawthorne Bridge so he knew I was almost safely at work on the PDX waterfront. During my walks, I often found myself listening to the aforementioned WRSI 93.9–The River. The River was a second family to me (and not just because my brother was production director at the time), keeping me tuned in to all things Pioneer Valley from 3,000 miles away.
One rainy Spring morning, I’m carrying my umbrella on my walk to work, listening to WRSI. The morning on-air host announces the lineup for the upcoming 2013 Green River Festival in Greenfield. Brandi Carlile will be headlining Sunday night! Brandi and I have a special connection, whether she remembers it or not. In 2009, she visited my women’s jewelry boutique in downtown Northampton, MA, before I moved to Portland. Brandi stopped in wanting to buy my life-size LED display tree lights for her concert that night at Northampton’s historic Calvin Theatre. I don’t know why I said they weren’t for sale (well, because they weren’t), but I regret to this day not just giving them to her. I was star-struck, and she left two tickets to the Calvin show on my desk.
Her performance that evening was life-changing for me. I took my dad as my date even though he was hesitant as his mother’s health was declining in a Boston-area hospital at the time. Brandi sang “The Story” a cappella closing her set, and she moved the whole audience with just her voice. It felt like she was singing directly to my father and me about my grandmother. My grandma passed away the next morning, and ever since I’ve made sure to see Brandi in concert wherever and whenever I can.
So on this early morning in Portland when the Green River announcement airs on my walk to work, I drop my earbuds and call my dad from the Hawthorne Bridge. I have extra pep in my step all of a sudden, and the sun starts to come out. “Did you hear?!” he asks answering his phone. “Yes! And that does it! I’m done with Portland. I’m moving home to Massachusetts this summer. This is a sign.” The huge sigh of relief from my dad was palpable. The 3,000-mile distance was getting to my parents, getting to me. I’d given my all to Portland, and this was the tipping point. The Green River Festival typically takes place around my birthday weekend in July, and I could think of no better gift to give myself.
That 2013 Green River Festival was filled with stellar performances including those by wild Gogol Bordello, brilliant Todd Snider, jamming Lake Street Dive, and such local bands as And The Kids and LuxDeluxe. And of course, Brandi Carlile. She rocked the main stage, and from the opening notes of “Hard Way Home” had thousands of sunlit festival-goers dancing, clapping, and singing along. She didn’t know it, but she was speaking directly to me again (or so I like to think). Remember when I said music moves us? Well, if we’re very lucky, sometimes it moves us home.
After a year break due to the pandemic, the 2021 Green River Festival will return celebrating its 35th Anniversary on August 27–29 at the Franklin County Fairgrounds in Greenfield, MA. The lineup includes John Batiste, Shakey Graves, Ani DiFranco, Deer Tick, Valerie June, Rebirth Brass Band, Drive-By Truckers, and many others. Thank you Jim Olsen, and hope to see you all there!
(By Jessica B. Sokol)
Suggested reading: Music In The Air: A History Of The Green River Festival 1986–2016. By Johnny Memphis. Published by Signature Sounds Recordings.