South Fork CO, a tiny town tucked away at 8200 feet in the San Juan Mountains, has always been a stop on the way to somewhere else. Starting life as a stage coach station in the 1880s, the town only grew slowly in the aftermath of the silver strike in nearby Creede and the extension of the railroad. Finally in 1992, it was officially incorporated as a town, the youngest in Colorado. But South Fork and Creede have always drawn musicians and others who sought the tranquility of these rugged mountains and the swift moving waters of the Rio Grande, which begins a few miles from Creede.
Last year, after the Rhythms on the Rio music festival ended its eighth production, I sat down with local musician Michael Gnapp and we talked about that festival. Gnapp is the owner and principal luthier of Xylonix Guitars, based in Creede. He himself has been playing music for over 50 years, starting when he was 16, and currently plays with Mojones, a local blues band.
When I asked him about Rhythms on the Rio and why South Fork and Creede, he said he came to Creede many years ago to visit someone and, frankly, just couldn’t leave. The mountains, the slower pace, and the people kept him here. He said that was why people come---and stay. “We all have roots in the communities here,” he added. And he began to tell me about the people who played some of those early festivals and why they keep doing it.
In the early 2000s, Paul Orr and others began to talk about more formal ways of sharing music besides campfire jams and a few local bars and music venues. They also talked about the children (theirs and others) who didn’t have a formal music program in the schools. The South Fork Music Association (SFMA), a non-profit, was born to cultivate local music and attract musicians and music lovers from all over the country.
In 2005, the first Rhythms on the Rio was held in the parking lot of a local business. Mainly, it hosted local bands that needed an audience. Their music fell on thirsty ears and eventually reached out to local children. SFMA believes in its motto: “Keeping Music Alive: One Child at a Time.” Through grant-writing, summer concerts, and the big end of summer extravaganza, the Rhythm on the Rio festival, they provide workshops, music scholarships, and funds for music related school programming. In essence, the SFMA provides music lessons on string instruments to students, allowing them to keep the instruments when they complete the program. This has been a boon to local children and their families, who see these students excel in other areas of school because of their music studies. And they get to see them perform at Rhythms on the Rio.
Michael Gnapp also pointed out that members of Mojones and another local band, The Fabulous Schnebly Brothers, have deep connections to Creede and South Fork. John Gross, for example, who plays in both bands, is the principal of the Creede K-12 school. Courtney La Zier owns Big River Music in Creede and teaches the school music program that SFMA supports. Steve Baxter, guitarist for The Fabulous Schnebly Brothers, owns Rio Grande Enterprises, that offers automobile services for locals, as well as luxury cabins and the Bronco Grill for mountain visitors.
Paul Orr, president of the SFMA and another member of The Fabulous Schnebly Brothers, works in the region and installed cabinets in the remodel of rooms at the Wolf Creek Ski Lodge. That lodge, along with the Ute Bluff Lodge, houses musicians and festival staff during the music season. The owners, Bob and Sherrie Mason, met at a classic rock music festival in Wisconsin and seem to have festivals in their blood.
Paul Orr’s wife, owner of the Feelin’ Good Coffeehouse and Café, marshals her staff to feed the musicians and crew of each year’s festival.
Blake Hemmert, owner of ITL Productions, though not a local, brings his tech crew all the way from Denver’s hectic pace. It’s a welcome balm for him and his guys. And the festival always has expert sound because of his crew, even in the middle of some wind and rain storms---or the intricacies of a large band with musicians who switch instruments not just during a set but sometimes during a song. Hemmert is amazing.
Then there are all those folks who actually build the stage on the festival grounds, donated each year for the festival’s use by the River Mill. There are volunteers who handle security for both the campground and the festival site, those who man information booths and merchandise tents, and others who handle all of the myriad details of putting on a festival like this. Also, a young, local artist does all of the festival artwork just for exposure.
Indeed it does take a small village to put on a music festival. Each year the festival has gotten larger and has brought in bigger names. For its ninth year, this year, Keller Williams will be headlining. Euforquestra and Grant Farm return to share the stage with a number of regional musicians. It will be quite a party.