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In the hot, sweet summer of 1990, Donna the Buffalo guitar guy Jeb Puryear and his bandmates invited a few musical friends and 1,500 fans to Ithaca, New York's State Theater for the first Finger Lakes Grassroots Festival.
At a time when the rest of the country was still wearing acid-washed jeans and shrieking over guitar solos, the Grassroots fest was all about the kind of music you'd traditionally find in barns, back yards, and bars. "Being named Grassroots," Puryear explains, "we wanted to focus on real roots, like bluegrass, Cajun, zydeco, blues, reggae, and all that sort of stuff.
"Yes, we wanted all types of music. But then it comes down to personal taste and it becomes the types that you actually like," he laughs. "You know, we weren't trying to book all that many heavy-metal acts. No offense to the headbangers."
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Another good reason for being named Grassroots: the fact that the festival was an extremely low-budget adventure, based on blind faith, pure enthusiasm, and a loan from a fellow believer. "We had no backing or nothing. So we borrowed $5,000 in start-up money from our friend Sally," Puryear snickers. "We knew a whole bunch of people and we kinda talked them all into coming out. But needless to say, we still came up a little short."
Eventually, though, the Grassroots crew settled all debts. And 22 years later, the Finger Lakes fest has become a sprawling, self-sufficient musical celebration that lasts four entire days, packs 60 bands onto multiple stages, and floods Ithaca's Trumansburg Fairgrounds with 15,000 totally devoted fans.
In fact, the fest has thrived so mightily that it's even spawned a couple of offshoots. In 2002, Puryear and his bandmates took the movement to rural North Carolina, founding the biannual Shakori Hills festival. And this year, they're setting out for the subtropics with the inaugural edition of the Virginia Key Grassroots Festival.
"You know, we always wanted to throw festivals in different places across the country," Puryear says. "Our original plan was to do them in North Carolina, Florida, and somewhere out in the Midwest. So we've almost done it all.
"But the challenge," he admits, "has been getting bigger while still preserving that real, personal quality. And I think we've succeeded for a couple of reasons. I think being a not-for-profit festival is part of it. This isn't somebody's big moneymaking idea. So it's not very corporate. And the other is that we try to implement the basic Grassroots foundation when we start a new festival while letting the community influence it too."
And for proof of Puryear and company's commitment to tapping local resources, you need only look at the Virginia Key lineup. Even though the 50-act roster is topped by big national names such as funk diva Chaka Khan and pioneering hip-hop collective Arrested Development (plus Donna the Buffalo, the Del McCoury Band, and Toubab Krewe), there are dozens of South Florida acts slated to take the Grassroots stage, including Suenalo, Soulflower, Raffa & Rainer, Locos por Juana, Araka, ArtOfficial, the Lee Boys, Lance-O, Jahfe, the Jacob Jeffries Band, and Big Brass Juke.
"You know, these bands are really good. Being a local band doesn't mean you're not topnotch," Puryear states plainly. "We're just looking for that community feeling. And there's no better way than tilling the earth for talent."