Ten thousand people, 120 musicians, five stages, and 32 years of history.
And it’s all free.
The 32nd annual Tucson Folk Festival is slated for Saturday, May 6, and Sunday, May 7. For over 10 hours each day, concert-goers will have the chance to listen to traditional folk, country, acoustic rock and roll, jazz, and bluegrass music across five different outdoor stages in downtown Tucson.
“It’s one of the best kept secrets in Tucson,” Jim Lipson, festival coordinator, says. “There’s literally something for everyone in acoustic music.”
The festival has five stages clustered within a few downtown blocks. With the exception of five-minute set changes between musicians, the festival offers constant music.
Lipson recalls a conversation he once had with Alex Flores, who plays saxophone for the Ronstadt Generations. Flores referred to the festival as “more than just a gig.”
“Alex had this big smile,” Lipson says. “Alex says, ‘The festival is a celebration of music. It’s so much more than playing a 20-minute set.’”
In the beginning
The Tucson Kitchen Musicians Association began the Folk Festival in 1986.
At first, the organization was just a bunch of people playing music together in different kitchens. The TKMA moniker made sense.
“At some point, there was enough critical mass to put out a festival,” Lipson says. “We knew so many wonderful people who play folk music — maybe 30 or 40 people at the time.”
After that first folk festival, the number of musicians who wanted to play the event kept climbing.
Ten thousand people are expected to attend the festival this year.
Nearly one-third of the musicians who perform at the Folk Festival have played the event before. But the festival is set up differently each year and it’s rare that someone would actually play the same stage. And, oddly enough, the main stage doesn’t always host the main act.
“We have so many acts — a lot of people to get excited about,” Lipson says. “You’re going to see performers who you don’t know. But they’ll wow the audience, even though no one had ever heard of them before.”
The TKMA board of directors decides who the performers will be each year. The members actively attend other festivals and pore over YouTube videos to find potential musicians.
“We give so many people the opportunity to perform,” Lipson says. “It’s an opportunity for people to express themselves as artists. Some people aren’t looking to make money and play every week; they just love to play. The festival brings people out of their basements and bedrooms and welcomes them to come out and perform.”
Each year, the folk festival features headliners from the national and the local scenes. This year, Saturday’s national headliners are Billy Jonas and the Black Lillies.
Billy Jonas hails from Asheville, North Carolina. Lipson says he’s the only headliner who has been invited to headline again. This year, he will also perform at the children’s show on Sunday afternoon.
From Knoxville, Tennessee, the Black Lillies play a mix of acoustic and electric country rock.
Lipson says that not many Tucsonans know of the Black Lillies. “We like to bring in musicians that people don’t know about. It just wows them,” he says.
Ryanhood is set to be the local headliner on Sunday night.
Ryan Green, the duo’s guitarist and mandolin player, describes Ryanhood’s sound as upbeat folk rock.
“Some people say it’s a modern day Simon & Garfunkel,” Green says. “I think that’s a flattering analogy.”
A few years ago, Ryanhood played a show at Plush on Fourth Avenue, which is now Flycatcher. Representatives of TKMA happened to be at the show and invited them to play at the folk festival that year. The duo has now played at the festival four years in a row.
“I love the folk festival, but I was skeptical at first,” Green says. “I thought that so many stages going on at once might thin out the audiences, but that’s just not the case. There’s plenty of music and plenty of audience.”
Cameron Hood, Ryanhood’s lead vocalist, says this favorite part of the festival is that it’s accessible for fans.
“It’s easy to go out and participate,” Hood says. “The festival has that casual element to it that makes Tucson, Tucson.”
This year marks Ryanhood’s first year to headline. Hood calls it an honor.
“Since we first became part of the TKMA family, they’ve championed us. It’s been such a gift that has helped us grow all over the country,” he says.
“Jim Lipson was especially really excited and generous toward us,” he says. “Headlining feels like the right next step for us.”
The Folk Festival usually has a stage in the courtyard of the Old Pima County Courthouse — but not this year.
Because the courthouse is under renovation, TKMA is moving that stage to the Presidio San Agustin del Tucson Museum.
“We thought we would have one less stage this year,” Lipson says. But after looking around the area for a new spot for a stage, TKMA ventured into the Presidio San Agustin.
“You could walk by and never know the stage was there,” Lipson says. The performance area is set to hold nearly 300 people.
“We expect it to be hopping. We expect lots of dancing and plenty of room to move,” he says, adding that there will be a beer garden at the new stage, in addition to at one of the two stages at the Tucson Museum of Art.
The courthouse’s renovation should be completed next year. Depending on how well the stage in the Presidio San Agustin goes, the folk festival might have a sixth stage in 2018.
All that music and it doesn’t cost to indulge.
Since the festival is all outdoors and not at a set venue, logistically, it’s nearly impossible to charge admission fees.
“You can’t really charge people to walk into a public park,” Lipson says. “But we love that it’s outside and spread out — you don’t have to walk more than a block to get to any stage.”
With the exception of the three headliners, none of the musicians are paid to play at the festival.
“There’s just something really beautiful about it,” Lipson says. “It’s an equal, even exchange. They’re playing it for free and you’re seeing it for free. It’s part of the vibe that makes this a beautiful festival.”