The father of folk
Chris Aaland - 08/27/2020
Dan Appenzeller was a man with a plan back in the 1990s. He wanted to present a festival in his hometown that brought families together to listen to music on Reservoir Hill. He longed for a communal experience that was pure and organic.
Appenzeller, 64, died at his home in Sisters, Ore., after a lengthy battle with cancer Fri., Aug. 21. He was first diagnosed with cancer in the early 2000s and had been in remission for nearly 15 years. He is survived by his wife, Crista Munro, who co-founded and ran the FolkWest festivals on Reservoir Hill with him for the past 24 years; and his son, Elias Appenzeller, who has followed his parents into a music career as both a performer and promoter.
Appenzeller’s vision became a reality Labor Day weekend, 1996. The inaugural Four Corners Folk Festival featured a couple of iconic headliners – John Hartford and John McEuen, two innovators who helped turn bluegrass into newgrass in the 1960s and ’70s – and national, regional and local bands, such as a pre-teen Nickel Creek and Pagosa Hot Strings, both of whom would win Telluride band contests. Acts like Durango’s Heart & Soul and Kirk James and regional string wizard Bruce Hayes were also on the bill. Weekend passes cost $25 in advance and $30 at the gate. Single-day tickets cost just $20.
Through the years, Appenzeller would book such performers as Keb’ Mo,’ John Hiatt, Gillian Welch, Los Lobos, Hot Rize, Yonder Mountain String Band, the Infamous Stringdusters and Earl Scruggs. Crowds grew to over 2,500 people, most of whom crammed into on-site campgrounds for late-night pickathons, communal meals and strolls down the hill for a shower and soak in the hot springs.
More so than Telluride, which attracts 10,000 festivarians from around the world each June, Reservoir Hill festivals became highlights to the local calendar. Most of Pagosa’s attendees were from in town or neighboring communities like Durango and Bayfield, although regulars from the Front Range, Albuquerque, Flagstaff and Grand Junction showed up each year. Friends and neighbors did friendly and neighborly things together.
In 2006, Appenzeller and Munro added a second festival to their lineup – an early June event called Indiefest, which had more of a rock & roll vibe. The idea never really caught on with fans, so the June festival’s event changed to Pagosa Folk N’ Bluegrass in 2008 … or, as Appenzeller joked, “Another f***ing bluegrass festival.” To be honest, the June event became my favorite, due to its smaller size and a more bluegrass-centric lineup with the likes of Town Mountain, Lil’ Smokies, Jon Stickley Trio and FY5.
I first attended a FolkWest festival in 1999 and eventually got to know Appenzeller and Munro – first as a fan, later as a media member, then as a volunteer and, eventually, as a friend. The two were eager to share thoughts and experiences about concert promotion and bands and were just as anxious to pick my brain as I was theirs.
KSUT was the main media sponsor of Pagosa festivals from the very beginning. For well over a decade, the station staffed an auction booth that raised funds for both the festival and public radio. Then, about 16 months ago, Munro contacted KSUT about assuming ownership of the festivals. She and her family had moved to Oregon, which was better for Appenzeller’s health. For five years or so, they ran FolkWest from their new home before Munro became executive director of the Sisters Folk Festival in Sisters, Ore. Within a few days of her initial phone call, arrangements were being made to transfer the two Pagosa festivals to KSUT.
“We’re deeply saddened by Dan’s passing and cherish our partnership with him, his family and his legacy through these wonderful festivals,” KSUT Executive Director Tami Graham said. “We’ll do our best to honor his stellar tradition of amazing performances on Reservoir Hill. Our hearts are heavy and our love goes out to Crista and Elias.”
Appenzeller never viewed the festivals as something that he owned. They were always “our” festivals, with each attendee rightfully assuming their own personal ownership. I think he always thought of himself as a curator of something organic, much like a farmer might not truly own an orchard. Those trees are their own living, breathing things, producing fruit for decades after the seeds are sown.
“Dan was one of my closest friends in the business in terms of being a promoter,” concert promoter Rob Miller, owner of Pickin’ Productions, said. “He and I would talk about bands and who we were eyeing. We shared a lot of different favorite new bands through the years.
“Dan and I shared the philosophy that to put on a great show, you really have to know your audience. It’s not as much about who you want to see on that stage, but knowing who your audience wants to see,” added Miller, Miller produces shows in Paonia, Ridgway, Crested Butte, Leadville and Ouray.
Miller appreciates the view from both sides of that stage. A singer/songwriter and guitarist, he was part of the former Western Slope old-time string band, Sweet Sunny South, which played Reservoir Hill several times through the years.
Another musician who worked closely with Appenzeller the past decade was Erin Youngberg, bassist and vocalist for FY5 which was booked each of the past 10 years at Pagosa Folk N’ Bluegrass and whose members were regular instructors at the Jam Camp that preceded the festival.
“We worked with Dan directly on the band camp stuff,” Youngberg said, who was a member of Hit & Run Bluegrass prior to forming FY5 with her husband, Aaron, and singer/songwriter Mike Finders. “He was always helping us with logistics, making sure our families were taken care of. They just always paid attention to what we needed and those details.”
Youngberg was impressed with Appenzeller’s commitment to community. “I remember having conversations with him about his efforts to get the people in Pagosa Springs to embrace the festival and explore ways for outreach.”
One of those was asking musicians to play a local senior center, whose residents weren’t able to make it up to Reservoir Hill. FY5 was well-received by the seniors. “I’ve never played at a festival that thought about the community in that way,” she said.
Youngberg also noticed a commitment that Appenzeller and Munro made to ensure gender equity.
“One thing that set Dan and Crista apart from other festival promoters that I’ve encountered being a female in a band is that they really tried hard to set an example of making sure that at least half of their acts had females,” she said. “They made it a priority.”
In early years, Appenzeller booked women like Maura O’Connell, Mollie O’Brien and Alison Brown. Recently, female-fronted acts like I’m With Her (Sara Watkins, Sarah Jarosz and Aoife O’Donovan), the Shook Twins and Elephant Revival provided highlights.
And there was a commitment to local and regional bands. The guys in Broke Mountain Bluegrass Band camped at one of the early festivals shortly after meeting each other, putting their musical thoughts into Anders Beck’s instrumental, “Reservoir Hill,” that his current band, Greensky Bluegrass, still plays. The Badly Bent, Rock & Rye and the Robin Davis Duo have opened Pagosa Folk N’ Bluegrass in recent years. Colorado bands have dotted both festivals’ bills.
Dan Appenzeller hosted the parties that became Aaland family highlights each summer. He became my friend, confident, mentor and colleague. But he also became much more. He became Festival Family. I will miss seeing him on Reservoir Hill, but I’ll remember him each June and September as I’m part of the team that carries on his vision.
Email me at email@example.com.
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