Commonwealth Journal

July 15, 2013

Iconic Willie Nelson headlines huge anniversary bash for music festival

By CHRIS HARRIS, CJ Staff Writer
Commonwealth Journal

Somerset — To provide some perspective, the first Master Musicians Festival took place the same summer as the O.J. Simpson police chase. The same year that America Online first offered web access, and that the Winter Olympics were held in a different year from the summer games (to say nothing of skater Nancy Kerrigan’s sabotage by rival Tonya Harding’s ex-husband).

Indeed, it’s been 20 years since Somerset was first introduced to the name “Master Musicians Festival” — or its oh-so-familiar abbreviation “MMF” — lo that fateful year of 1994. This weekend, July 19 and 20, longtime fans will get to celebrate the milestone in style along with the newcomers curious about the guest of honor to this party.

Guy’s name is Willie Nelson. Maybe you’ve heard of him?

The iconic country crooner’s presence at this year’s MMF is the fruitful realization of the organizers’ goal, to land a truly marquee name in accordance with the very special occasion in the festival’s history. Not that previous MMF headliners have been chopped liver or anything, but Nelson is, well, different.

“Willie just crosses so many generations and genres,” said MMF president Tiffany Bourne proudly. “You don’t have to explain Willie Nelson to anyone. Just say his name and it’s an easy sell.”

And how. The appearance by Willie Nelson & Family (as his act is known) has helped cause ticket sales to skyrocket leading up to this weekend, according to MMF treasurer Jeremy Reynolds.

“We’re pleasantly surprised to be ahead of our own estimations as far as ticket sales,” said Reynolds. “We tried to be conservative as far as what we expected for turnout, but as far as pre-sales, we are more than double the total ticket sales this year as compared to last year.”

Normally, the festival sees its biggest ticket revenue from sales at the gate — approximately 65 percent of last year’s total came from those who showed up on the day of the festival and bought a pass. Ah, but to paraphrase David Bowie’s song, things are ch-ch-ch-ch-changing.

“We’ve not sold a single gate ticket yet, and we’re already at double the total ticket sales as last year,” said Reynolds. “... We still have tickets available and believe we will throughout the day of the festival, but depending on how early people turn out for the gate that morning, that may be subject to change.”

Turning people away because of a sell-out has never been a situation MMF has really had to consider before. It’s been well-documented how the festival had fallen on hard times earlier this decade before new leadership breathed new life into it.

With the 20th anniversary visible on the road ahead, the MMF board took efforts to save money here and there to have enough to pay a big-time act like Nelson this year. Now, it seems, they may even be able to bank ahead for next year if things continue to go well.

“That’s always the hope,” said Reynolds. “Even in a year when we’re not getting a big headliner, we’re always hoping to put some away for a rainy day and prepare for the future.

“It’s always our goal to build a solid financial base for the festival that assures its longevity well beyond Tiffany’s and my tenure on the board,” he added. “... Thanks to the support from sponsors and donors and the great outpouring of ticket sales, we’ve been able to hit those targets. We feel good about it.”

Two big sponsors in particular have their names associated with the festival on posters and pamphlets: Southern Petroleum and Valero. Numerous others, however — corporate givers and individuals alike — have also added financial fuel to the fire that keeps the board burning with passion to make each MMF a truly memorable experience for fans.

This year looks to draw in more people than ever who are first-time festivalgoers, drawn by the allure of Nelson’s star appeal. MMF organizers are trying to strike the balance between making allowances for the larger crowd while not sacrificing what makes MMF so appealing to so many.

“We try to do all we can to take proper steps, making sure we have a police presence there, the National Guard is always there to help us,” said Reynolds. “... When you draw in more people with a bigger-name artist , there are some elements that come along with that as far as security precautions. We will have a full staff that will help monitor that, and monitor the crowd based on ticket sales.

“Fortunately, MMF has always been known as a family-friendly festival, and it’s never been a problem in the past,” he continued, “and we don’t expect it to be this year.”

One thing that will be different is not the result of MMF’s policies but the Commonwealth of Kentucky’s. Bringing alcoholic beverages into MMF in a cooler has been a yearly tradition for many fans, with a cold beer on a hot day while listening to the music proving the elixir for a merry summer.

Now that Somerset is “wet” — allowing the sale of alcohol, something that wasn’t in effect even during last year’s festival — state law prohibits bringing your adult refreshments from home.

“You’ll still be able to bring in coolers — we encourage (fans) to bring a picnic for their family — but as a part of that, you certainly can’t bring in any outside beverages,” said Reynolds. “That’s nothing the festival has decided.”

That said, the festival will feature new vendors selling beer and wine — at reasonable prices, Bourne assures — including domestic and craft beers.

“We’re at max capacity as far as vendors,” said Reynolds. “It should be the biggest version of MMF that anyone’s ever seen.”

So how big does it get? There may be a sort of “point of no return” here. If fans become accustomed to a larger-scale festival with household-name acts, MMF organizers may try to push into the future with a similar mindset.

“We feel we’re trying to take the next step,” said Reynolds. “We feel like this year, we’re showing everyone we’re trying to go to the next plateau in growing the festival. We don’t know exactly what next year will bring, how big or small.”

Added Bourne, “The 20th year is the perfect year to do this, because we can go either way. We can go bigger, and if we want, we can stay that way. (On the other hand) I wouldn’t want to stay the same, but if we had to for financial reasons, it would be fine, because we’ve had a blowout for the 20th year and we might do it again for the 25th or 30th.”

The prospect of getting bigger could sound scary to those who have experienced the overwhelming crowds of other, larger music festivals — think “Bonnaroo” — with a decidedly less low-key ambiance. Bourne is clear that MMF isn’t that kind of show.

“When we’re saying we want to sell out and everything, we don’t want to compromise the atmosphere,” she continued. “We want people to hang out in law chairs and put blankets down. If you want to be able to go up front, you can come back. We don’t want it to ever be where you have to stand up shoulder-to-shoulder, barely moving. I don’t think that would be enjoyable for our festival.”

Advance tickets are sold locally at the Somerset-Pulaski County Tourism Office, Somerset-Pulaski County Chamber of Commerce and Citizens National Bank downtown, Waitsboro and Monticello branch.

Tickets are also available online at www.vendini.com or through www.mastermusiciansfestival.org, which provides links to online sales, or by calling 606-677-6000.

As always, Master Musicians Festival is held at Festival Field behind Somerset Community College off of Monticello Street. On Friday, July 19, the gate opens at 5 p.m. Regular tickets are $25. On Saturday, July 20, the gate opens at 11 a.m. Regular tickets are $45 each.

Military and seniors (ages 65 and older) can buy tickets for a $5 discount with ID at the gate and at the local ticket offices listed above, while tickets last. Children ages 12 and under are admitted free with ticket-holding adult.

Reynolds wants everyone to know that while this might be the biggest and best ever, it’s still the same old MMF that Somerset has grown to love over the last two decades.

“It’s about protecting the integrity of the festival, not just from the standpoint of musical diversity, but also the fact that we’re conscious to protect the family atmosphere it’s always been,” he said. “Even as we’re growing the festival, we’re still trying to maintain that feel.”