SamJam Jams Undaunted in Pike County, Ohio
By Kara Martinez Bachman
While many fairs, festivals, and concerts were on hiatus this year due to Covid-19, the SamJam Bluegrass Festival continued for its fifth year of picking and strumming in Pike County, Ohio. Held September 2-6, the festival was an example of what can happen when organizers swim against the tide, making the best of an iffy event climate that’s already caused many musicians worldwide to lose both income and performance opportunities.
The organizers of SamJam weighed everything and decided to hold the event that — with some modifications in place — would bring back a gathering that’s been oh-so-good for the local economy. Even IBMA acknowledged what’s going on there in Pike County when SamJam received IBMA’s 2018 Momentum Award for Best Festival Event Venue.
Rick Greene — who owns the festival along with Sam Karr — said that in around June or July, they thought there was no way SamJam could take place. Undaunted and fueled by possibilities, however, the team kept hope; they worked in close consultation with the local health commissioner and Emergency Management Agency to assure the health and safety of participants and attendees were maximally maintained.
Greene said the reason they ultimately committed to SamJam 2020 is that so many in the local economy were dependent upon it, and he didn’t want to let them down.
It’s been a boon to local businesses — such as hotels and restaurants — and directly helps groups such as the local 4-H Club.
“We have about a $2.5 million economic impact in the community every year we have the festival,” Greene said, explaining the mark they’ve made on Piketon, Ohio.
Greene said he was sure they could find a way to do what they do best, only with a few new distancing guidelines. Groups were required to place their chairs six feet apart. There were more hand-washing stations than normal. A few modifications happened to the venue space, to provide room for social distancing.
“We took out a large shade tent where people would gather…we needed the space for people to spread out,” Greene explained.
He said chairs were pre-emptively set up in the front rows near the stage — before the early “front-row” diehards showed up with their chairs — and were placed in the socially-distanced way Greene and local authorities wanted the crowd to emulate.
“We wanted to give them [fest-goers] the optic of what it was supposed to be,” he explained.
The ten or so vendors on-site were expected to follow all new safeguards required of local food service.
“We made it clear they had to abide by the rules that they had to abide by everywhere,” Greene said.
Not much changed with the camping, a popular activity at most bluegrass festivals and a natural when it comes to family and friend groups staying separate from the crowd.
“One thing I think is important is if you look at bluegrass fest camping…you’re kind of socially-distanced anyway,” he said.
As it turns out, camping was one of the surprises of this year’s event.
“Our camping was actually larger,” Greene said. “I think it’s because people are starved for it. We didn’t know that was going to happen.”
Greene said many came out to hear this year’s stellar lineup of music, which included about two dozen acts and notables such as The Grascals, Rhonda Vincent, Doyle Lawson, Balsam Range, Po’ Ramblin’ Boys, and many more.
Shows at the festival grounds are also augmented by an added series of performances held at four local venues and accessible to fest attendees by shuttle bus, somewhat like what IBMA does with its Bluegrass Ramble.
In the final accounting, Greene said attendance didn’t falter.
“Our numbers for the festival were up,” Greene said, “but our revenue was down.” The reason is not related to ticket sales; it’s because SamJam usually sets up a presence at other festivals, where they can sell merchandise. Because so many other events were shut down this spring and summer, this extra revenue stream wasn’t available.
Another issue was that since much of the festival lineup was booked before pandemic lockdowns, two bands changed their minds and declined to attend. Sometimes, though, when one door closes, another door opens;
one of the bands was replaced with what turned out to be an All-Star Jam with Sideline, featuring multiple special guests. Not too shabby as a way to close out SamJam 2020.
Greene sounded quite positive about the decision to hold the event, and proud of his team’s commitment to honoring both safety and a feeling of normalcy, particularly for musicians who have been hit hard by the virus and have seen live in-person gigs canceled right and left.
“We’re all doing the best we can to try to find that balance,” Greene said.
In the end, he complimented the festgoers for things happening so smoothly.
“We couldn’t have been happier with how people abided by the rules and respected other people,” he said.
And that…particularly in the world of bluegrass, where traditional values still matter… says it all.