Down By The River: Interview with Roots on the River Curator Ray Massucco

Last year we moved to Vermont and almost immediately found a small niche of wonderful music in the Roots on the River festival. It was intimate, expertly curated and felt like “home”. A welcome way to welcomed into our new home in the Green Mountain State and the man behind all of that was a huge reason for that. It’s particular exciting to see so many friends gracing the line up this year, from The Meadows Brothers to Suitcase Junket to Woodsmith & Hersch and Muddy Ruckus and some heroes of ours like Hayes Carll. The list of bands may not be a mile long like some of those bigger fests, but man its a line up that packs a punch.

Ray Massucco is the curator and puppeteer that makes the show keep running behind the scenes. I had only spoke with Ray on the phone and over email leading up the fest last year, but when I approached and introduced myself I was greeted with a big hug and a warmth that seems to run throughout the entire weekend of this event.

I was lucky to catch him for a fleeting free moment as he continues planning and executing this year’s fest over the next few weeks. You can read on up below…but if there is any advice I can give you for early June it is to get your tickets and get to the quaint town of Bellows Falls for some incredible music. 

Get on with it folks…

 


Della Mae at last year’s Roots on the River 
RLR: Hey Ray, how’s it going today?

RM: Good, good. Its always good to talk to people who know the other side of the stage.

RLR: For those who are going to read this article as ROTR newbies…I mean last year was my first year and I got to experience firsthand the magic of the festival. But for those folks, what is the quick backstory of how you became involved with Roots on the River.

RM: Well, Charlie Hunter who started the thing with Fred Eaglesmith, his short version is “too late at night, too much to drink and too many leftover f*cking t-shirts“. Yeah, Charlie ran it for 7 sevens and at that point he was just completely fried. He is also quite an artist and his art career has really gone through the roof. But of course he also runs the Roots on the Rails music trains, which are enormously successful and a lot fewer people to deal with. So anyway, I had been a volunteer since day 1. I made the mistake of saying this is a great festival, I love what it does for Bellows Falls and maybe we should find a way to keep it going. Somehow that found a way of meaning “Ray Massucco is going to take over the festival and run it”. So we met over the summer and he said “do you have any idea what you are doing” and I said “no, of course not”. He said “do you want to do it?” I said, “Charlie I have no idea.” He said “well lets meet every Thursday for a beer and by Labor Day you can figure out what you want to do.” I had been a trial lawyer at that point for 35 years and thought “sure, how hard can it be to run a music festival?”…I have tried 1o day psychiatric medical malpractice cases in federal court that were easier than running a festival! So having no knowledge, no artistic talent, I took over and I am about to start my 11th festival. So, at some point I guess I figured out just how to keep it going and thats the shortest story I can give you.

RLR: You had mentioned Otis Mountain when we first got on the phone. There are so many different places and viewpoints and areas that festivals take place these days. Mountain views or dipping your toes in the harbor of some beautiful town. You guys have some really humble roots and location. A quaint town. There are quite a few people in attendance, but its not huge by any means. You are able to maintain a sense of intimacy in the event that is very rare. Can you elaborate on the reasoning behind keeping things that way?

RM: You know places like Bonnaroo, you know they have 5 times more porta-potties than we see people the entire weekend. The intent was never to grow this thing into some huge festival and every year I get a handful of people who say “man, with a little more underwriting you could explode this thing! You could do THIS, you could do THAT”. And no, this is a hobby. I have a day job and this is just about the right size and all that I can manage. Thats one of the things that attracts volunteers, and the fans for sure. A lot of artists tell me they really enjoy roots in part because they are really part of the festival. They aren’t tucked away in a trailer, in the back. They aren’t isolated from the fans. They can’t help it because we only have one stage. Basically only one way in and out. They like that small scale and the atmosphere that goes with it.

Every night since we started, at least up at the motel, we have late night jams going on. I got a great picture of Hayes Carll. When he first started coming we didn’t have enough to pay him for bus money, nevermind anything else. But he was out there jamming with Roger Marin and any 15 year old kid that wants to pick up a guitar and play with him. Thats really a lot of fun. I’m not sure if that happens at a lot of other festivals, I am sure it probably does, but its nice when it happens for us.

RLR: Yeah for sure. I think the intimacy you guys provide at the festival is something you typically only see in small clubs and listening rooms. Its really nice when it happens on a slightly grander scale in terms of it being a larger event, but you still manage that intimacy that is really important for THIS type of music. Music heavily focused on the lyrics, and the songs and stories. The stuff that makes a real connection with people in the audience. 

RM: Yeah people tend to ask me what kind of music it is and I tell them its easier to tell you what its not. You know, we’re not heavy metal, we’re not rap, we’re not classical, not spoken word. We are not a lot of things. The focus and the way I describe it is that it is a “singer-songwriter festival”. The artists that you are going to see performing are the artists who wrote the songs and are singing and playing them. Thats true all across the board. 

RLR: Yeah, I guess that seems true especially with the emerging artists and also larger names like Hayes and Mary Gauthier who return for multiple years. Thats a testament to the magic of the fest.

RM: I think I may have told you this once before, one year she (Mary) had a gig Saturday night, in Buffalo, NY and on Sunday night in Manhattan. I knew that was on her schedule and I said “look Mary, it looks like there is no possible way you can make it this year”. She said “what are you talking about? Are you not asking me?” I said, “no, I would love to ask you but you are in Buffalo Saturday night and Manhattan Sunday Night.” She says, “Yeah? Hey, if you want to have me. I’m there.” And she drove an extra 300 miles to come play for us for 45 minutes. To me, thats pretty good drawing power.

RLR: You briefly mentioned that many of the artists may not necessarily be on a “national scale”. You guys are a big support for up and comers performing at a festival alongside some more established artists. Last year you kind of cherry picked the gals from Lula Wiles and they played a wonderful set. This year good friends of mine, The Meadows Brothers are returning again. 

RM: Oh man, I love those guys. When I first met them they were 17 and 19. They just blew me away and I asked them where they had gone to college and where they had done their musical training. They were like “Ray, I’m in high school” and I was all like “how can you sing like an old folkie at that age?!” and he goes “I don’t know. Thats just what we do.” I am so thrilled to have those guys back this year. We have them for TWO days this year and I just can’t say enough good about those guys. The same thing with Lula Wiles. I saw them last weekend in New Hampshire and they said “you know we aren’t going this year, but everyone needs to go to Roots. Ray, how far away are you?” I said, “you know 30 miles.” And it was “Ok everyone needs to go to Roots on the River, what are the dates?”

I love it when the artist is enthused even when they aren’t playing. I first met them when it was just Isa and Ellie and they didn’t have a name. Still at Berklee, of course. And I don’t know, maybe its because I go to so much live music and I read so many blogs and subscribe to so many different sources, but we have been really lucky about getting artists early on. It helps if we can keep doing that. 

RLR: So last year you had them (Lula Wiles) for two days and two different sets and you have the Meadows again this year doing a similar thing. I guess thats part of the gospel hour on Sunday, which is a return this year from last year. It creates a really great dynamic…a different experience. A more in depth experience than say just showing up and watching a bunch of bands under the tent for two days. A change of scenery and place and vibe. How did the idea for the gospel hour come about and evolve?

RM: Last year was our first one and every year I try and throw in one little wrinkle. It may be production wise or some type of theme. We have the youth tent for parents and kids. I have been thinking about this for years and one of my volunteers, who is also a singer-songwriter, he said, “How about if I lead a Sunday morning gospel tune?” and I was like, “ehhh, I don’t know if the fans.” But I talked to the rest of the staff and they thought we should try and mix it up so we tried to figure out who we wanted. It had to be somebody we kept over night from Saturday. So when I was curating Saturday I was keeping people in mind for Sunday as well. We came up with the Steel Wheels, Joe Crookston and Lula Wiles. Not knowing what the format was really going to be. So I introduced them to each other and they sort of vaguely knew who each other were. Introduced them through email, texting and everything else and told them that I wasn’t going to tell them what to do or how to do it or anything else. I want the three of you to figure out the format and the sequencing. You figure out the song sets, you know this is your gig. You put it on any way that you want. And they asked, “well how about some guidance?” and I said, “I just gave you all the guidance I am going to give you”. I don’t make requests, or ask for dedications. Joe Crookston took the thing  by the horns and they said he was just fabulous in curating this thing and getting everyone on the same page. It was the best meeting house set we ever had and probably one of the 2 or 3 best festival sets we have ever had. 

RLR: Let me ask you about your booking process. How far in advance do you book for Roots? How do you come about artists? How can an artist get on your radar to play Roots on the River?

RM: Alright, well as far as how far in advance, we are already securing the line up for our 20th anniversary in TWO years. Next year’s line up, at least in my mind, is pretty much, my first choices, is all set. We will have some surprises this year which will change things up. Next year’s line up is pretty much pen to paper. Two years from now we have got a theme going, which we will work on. Somebody asked me how soon after the festival do you start thinking about next year and by the time the festival gets here I am already well into next year. Sometimes we were only  booking artists 3 or 4 months ahead of time and it became harder and harder to get acts that weren’t already committed. We now have enough credibility that people are willing to commit to it so far in advance. A couple of artists…you know last time Hayes was here he had no plan on being on the east coast. He said yes to us and then built a tour around us. 

In terms of how we find them. I try and go to live music, on average, at least once a week. I am always watching, listening to suggestions. We get on average…there isn’t a formal submission process. But there is something on the website that tells you how to do it. I average about 300-350 submissions a year and I have to pare that down to 15 a year. And from that 15 I probably pick the top 5 and then the others, i just start throwing darts. We (the festival staff) will have a listening party or I will make a playlist and ask “who do you like?”. Then I take all the suggestions I can get from other artists. It may sound crazy to say, but I am good friends with maybe 50-75 of the artists who have played for us. We stay in touch like I would any other friends and they send great suggestions. I have incredibly knowledgable staff. I listen to them. 

Before I was reaching out to artist management and they would be all “who are you, what do you want and what the hell is a ‘Bellows Falls’?”. Why would they want to come to this little festival in the middle of nowhere that no one ever heard of? And now, we get calls from people. We can’t pay big money but we treat the artists really, really well. I have never told an artist “come for the exposure”. You know “come and play, its good for your career!” That’s bullshit, you know, money is good for your career! And while we can’t pay big, big money we ask. And all they have to say is they can’t afford to come and I get that. I am not insulted. If we can find a happy medium and everyone is happy. I just want no qualms about it whatsoever. 

RLR: So, go ahead and give us the final pitch. Three or so reasons you think folks should show up for Roots come June.

RM: You know one thing I hear a lot. I hear this a lot from out of town people mostly. “What’s not to like about a weekend of music in early June in Vermont?” You know, I hear that form people from Austin, Texas who are burning up. Really, we are outdoors. There are tents if there is bad weather. Looking at green mountains all around you. The only building you are likely to see is the one we are right next to. 

People have developed amazing friendships over the years. A woman I know is coming this year who hasn’t been in about 5 years. She has recruited about 30 attendees to show up for a sort of mini-reunion. People from Texas, North Carolina, Michigan who came for a while and then stopped coming but she said “hey, we are getting older. Let’s meet up.” These are the type of people who talk year round and keep in touch. Travel to see each other and see music together.

The third thing I think is to hear world class artists they haven’t yet heard of. The may not have heard of them yet, but people have told me “I heard so and so at your festival first 6, 7, 9 years ago and now I can’t afford a ticket to go see them anywhere!” So you do have that opportunity that we have a lot faith in and they put faith into us and we hope they make some new fans. People keep deciding to come back. Mary Gauthier, Hayes Carll, the Steel Wheels. Those people have been very, very faithful.


 

Thats June 9-11 in Bellows Falls, Vermont. TICKETS HERE. … and if you see Ray during the weekend give him a big ‘high five’ and a thanks from all of us!

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