Calling off MMF headliner because of storm conditions was the right decision

Christopher Harris

As it turns out, I missed the featured performer at Master Musicians Festival this year.

By which I mean, of course, the storm.

After coming by to take some photos and do some quick interviews earlier Saturday, I went back to the office and banged out a Sunday edition story for MMF, which tends to focus on Friday's goings-on, but is by necessity a little predictive of the rest of the evening (saying things like "the crowd grew through the day for Jason Isbell's headlining performance"). I decided to eat dinner before going back -- sorry MMF food vendors, I love y'all, but I need air conditioning -- and was hoping to catch most of the War and Treaty set before Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit closed out the evening.

Sitting in the restaurant, I saw the dark clouds encroach on the east side of U.S. 27 and thought, "Huh, that doesn't look good." But it was difficult to say just how "not good" it would be. Some weather reports had initially pegged the storm as coming much later in the night; my general philosophy is that it's hard to trust any forecast. Ultimately, the only way to know what the weather is going to do is to look out the window, and what I saw out the window had me wondering if the War and Treaty were even able to finish performing.

The answer to that question was simple: No.

Once the rain and lightning eased a smidgen, I wandered back onto Festival Field and was greeted at the gate by a throng of soaked people coming the opposite direction. Uh oh. As I trudged through the wet grass, I started to hear murmurs suggesting the rest of the festival had been called off. I found MMF Board President Tiffany Finley, who confirmed it for me.

Made sense. Even though the rest of the night didn't turn out too rough, weather reports were saying another storm was on the way. I may believe in looking out the window, but I'm not going to tell a virtual town's worth of people that they should all sit outside and wait to get struck by lightning. Especially people who, unlike me, had to flee to tents when a virtual monsoon suddenly swept through Festival Field, holding on for dear life as those tents very nearly blew away.

I made a post on my Facebook page about MMF being cancelled, and was asked by a friend if I was upset about it. I thought, "Why would anyone be upset? It's an obvious decision."

Apparently not, to some people.

In the 24 hours or so following the decision to call off the rest of the night's acts -- including Isbell, whom a number of people came to see exclusively -- MMF organizers took heat on social media. People upset because they paid money and didn't get to see Isbell. People threatening legal action or wanting their money back (as if they didn't pay for a whole day's worth of MMF -- it's not a la carte by the artist). People disrespecting the rest of the line-up, referring to them as the "B" team.

Even Isbell had to deal with complaints on Twitter, one person claiming that the festival left "thousands of ticket holders high and dry." I can't speak to how many of them might have been high, but I can assure you that not a one of them was completely dry.

That's because -- and I want you to pay close attention here -- YOU CAN'T CONTROL THE WEATHER. Isbell can't. Finley and her MMF board can't. All that they can do is schedule for an festival months in advance and hope that everything goes well. Usually it does. MMF has gotten lucky over the years. This time they weren't. Them's the breaks.

But what Isbell and Finley and the rest COULD control is how they handled the situation -- try to plow ahead and put everyone in danger, or pull the plug and spoil everyone's fun, but keep them alive and healthy. They chose option no. 2. They chose wisely.

Finley said that in the midst of the worst of it, it hit her that she and her fellow organizers were responsible for the lives of all these people. "Holding a festival is all fun and games, until ..." she said. "It was a really scary moment."

Especially when you're thinking about something like the Indiana State Fair stage collapse in 2011 during a Sugarland concert that killed seven people and injured 58 others. Booking popular musicians and food vendors is only part of the job of a festival organizer; part of it is taking care of the well-being of everyone who comes into that venue. With great music comes great responsibility, and that's the kind of reality -- REALLY real reality -- Finley and crew had to consider.

Are people just that selfish? That thoughtless? We can always blame social media, and it certainly plays a role. It's so easy for annoyed people to get online and shoot off at the mouth these days. Even if they eventually calm down and see the clearer picture, in the moment that they're mad, they say something that everyone gets to see, something they can't take back. We see it in sports message boards, we see it in online debates, and apparently we see it when music festivals get canceled.

And I can assure you, no one feels worse about it than the MMF organizers themselves. Finley said so in words, but I saw it on her face. I've done a lot of interviews with her over the years on Festival Field, and when I encountered her after returning Saturday evening, the stress and heartbreak radiated from her palpably.

But the hardest choices require the strongest wills, and in that moment, Finley and her team had to have the will strong enough to make a decision that not only undid months of work and excitement, having Isbell on the schedule, but that they knew might be unpopular. They made that hard choice. And they should be commended for it, not criticized.

Of course, they didn't have to cancel the whole show -- just one-and-a-half acts. The headlining acts, yes, but very few nonetheless. Whether or not people primarily wanted to see Isbell is up to them, but in addition to him, there was a Friday night and Saturday afternoon full of performances on two stages and an intimate SomerSessions tent for people to enjoy.

Having many of these local artists as social media contacts, I've seen them take the "B Team" criticism in good spirits, saying they're proud to be part of it. And I can tell you, MMF is proud to have them. Year after year, I talk to local or regional performers who are thrilled that they get to take the same stage as Willie Nelson or Counting Crows or John Prine or Jason Isbell, and pleased to be able to perform for however many people came out early in the day to enjoy the festival for all its worth. The big names are nice, but the real magic of a festival like this one is made earlier in the day, when the artists express sincere gratitude for the opportunity to play in such a lovely venue, for such a welcoming community, and can make real eye contact with the people in front of the stage when they say it.

The MMF board volunteers out of their own free time to put this event on each year so that people from near and far can come to enjoy it. Most years, they get almost nothing but compliments, because things go well. But as the great sufferer Job said to his wife, "Should we accept only good things from the hand of God and never anything bad?" In this case, an "act of God" as it's sometimes put -- a torrential storm -- made the festival less successful than it was in the past. Complaining on social media and talking down the other artists won't change that. All you can do is accept it.

But if you've got to say something, try thanking the MMF organizers for worrying about getting you home safely, even if it meant missing out on an artist that they too waited all year to hear. That's the only kind of response to this weekend's events that's worth anything.

CHRISTOPHER HARRIS is a reporter for the Commonwealth Journal. You can reach him at charris@somerset-kentucky.com.