Festival inspires stories, music and connection

Winter Music Festival had sell out crowds during it Jan. 27-19 run

Feb. 10, 2023 - The 2023 Winter Music Festival, an annual three-day celebration of folk, bluegrass and Americana music organized by FACE (Florence Arts, Culture, and Entertainment), took place Jan. 27-29. 

The festival began on Thursday with the “How to Jam” workshop and the “Take the Stage” event, both opportunities for musical collaboration and performance open to the public. The How to Jam workshop was presented by Janet Wellington, a longtime attendee and contributor to the festival. 

“I’ve come here for 20 of the festivals,” said Wellington. “When I moved here, I was looking for music and I saw that the Winter Music Festival was happening. Back then it was all folk music — it has evolved over time. I got on the committee because I wanted to be a part of helping to choose the acts coming.” 

A similar motivation was shared by festival chairman Kirk Mlinek. After moving to the area, he started attending the festival, known then as the Winter Folk Festival, which was in a period of transition into featuring music outside of the folk genre. He decided to volunteer to give back to the community.

“I was willing to do anything,” said Mlinek. “From emptying the trash to scrubbing the floors, from helping select bands to developing ticket prices. I just wanted to understand how a festival operated.” 

After meeting the committee in the spring of 2018, Mlinek was invited to be the chairperson of the festival. “I wanted to be sure what the goals of the festival were and that they were being met,” he said. “One is to bring culture and entertainment to the schoolchildren in the area through the kids concerts — that was how the [festival] started — to bring entertainment and culture to town in the form of music, and to bring business to town at a time of year when business was slow.” 

Mlinek also spearheaded the expansion of the festival into the genres of bluegrass and Americana, initially suggesting the addition of a Friday night concert with two bluegrass bands. 

“I can honestly say I was met with skepticism. I was told that bluegrass might not sell in this town, but they were willing to give it a try,” he recalled. 

After being met with a positive community response, the festival continued to grow, expanding both its musical horizons and physical area. Many of the more recent additions constituted the Friday events, which included AJ Lee & Blue Summit and Never Come Down, in addition to jam sessions and workshops on topics from the legacy of prison labor in black folk music, to mandolin and guitar ergonomics. 

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The Saturday lineup contained more “progressive acoustic music tinged with bluegrass and Americana,” as Mlinek described it, featuring the Grammy-winning Michael Cleveland & Flamekeeper, Cabin Fever NW, Josh Goforth, The Slocan Ramblers, Jake Blount and Crary, and Evans & Barnick. 

Goforth, like many other folk music enthusiasts, is especially interested in the roots of folk music as a communal practice. Growing up in Madison County, N.C., music was one of the central pieces of socialization and entertainment in his childhood, and this friendly exchange of songs and stories is still what drives his work. 

“That’s the model — just sitting on the front porch with people. They are able to truly see this culture that I grew up around. It is kind of like breathing life into these people and introducing them,” he said. “My stories are really about family and people in the area.” 

He also sees this type of adherence to personal roots as the key element to any type of musical performance. “I encourage other performers who want to do this for living — younger performers — to be themselves on stage. To be yourself on stage you don’t just have to know who you are, you have to know why. We’re a product of our place, we’re a product of the things that have happened in our lives, we’re a product of the people who surround us, we’re a product of the music we’re surrounded by, we’re a product of the stories we’re surrounded by. 

“As the world becomes more connected, I think it will change, it will shift — but people just need to find themselves and be themselves on stage. What I’m trying to do when I’m on stage is to not do a performance; I’m trying to make it like that community.”

Headliner of the Sunday folk festival Hank Cramer also bonded with folk music in his childhood, using it to carry on a rich storytelling tradition. “Folk music ballads, they’re story songs,” said Cramer. “The best ones tell someone’s story, whether it is an adventure they went through, hardships they went through, or a romance they went through. Early on when I was still a teenager, before I started writing my own songs, I found that a lot of those old folk songs could express emotions and feelings that I was feeling — but that I didn’t have the words to put together.” 

Cramer works with a wide variety of musical styles, including Celtic, cowboy, Appalachian and maritime music, both original and traditional. Cramer’s earliest musical memories included hearing cowboy songs from his father and Irish music from his grandmother, Agnes. 

“She had so many stories and songs,” said Cramer. “And not just the songs — I loved the songs, sometimes when I’m on stage I’ll just pick a favorite song of Agnes’ to sing — but also the tradition of stories. She wouldn’t just start singing you a song, she would spin you a tale about where she had heard this song, who was the person who used to sing it, and relate that to the people she knew and the places she lived. That’s a very long Irish tradition of storytelling... Without realizing I was learning something. I learned not just to sing beautiful songs that mean something to you, but spin the tale of how that song came to you, who wrote it, or how long it has been around.”