Stephen Burke

Summer is a formless time in Ithaca. Schools are out, thus the college students gone and the regional population more than decimated. A lot of school workers are furloughed or vacationing, thus also absent, or at least freed from the dictates of the academic calendar, its demands and routines.

Streets and stores have plenty of space. Parking is abundant. The only long lines are at ice cream stands.

The exact reverse situation prevails just ten miles away, in Trumansburg, where July is the fullest, busiest time of year, because of the GrassRoots Festival.

The festival does the opposite of decimating Trumansburg’s population: multiplying it by ten, or close. T’burg has 1,700 residents. The festival attracts 15,000 guests, many of whom camp during the four-day event. 

It is a big festival in a small town. How small a town? So small it does not have a traffic light.

But the village (as it is, officially) has a lot of character. Main Street, noticeably curved, full of impressive old buildings, looks like a movie rendition of a charming town. The buildings hold thriving businesses, including fine and casual restaurants (and a pizza place and a coffee shop that rival any in New York City).

Also photogenic is Taughannock Falls, about two miles from downtown, the highest waterfall east of the Rockies. A beautiful state park sits where its waters empty at Cayuga Lake.

In the heart of town is Smith Woods, a preserve of old growth forest with 200-year-old trees, a rarity in any populated area. It is open to the public. Visitors experience, in its denseness, true darkness in daylight and maybe a sense of timelessness.

GrassRoots Festival is across the road from the forest, in the Trumansburg Fairgrounds, dating from the nineteenth century, with magnificent old trees of its own providing beauty and shade, uncommon if not unique among music festival sites.

Despite its pride in itself, or maybe because of it, T’burg can be insular. Natives might not consider anyone a real T’burger who was not born there. 

This localism might have helped when, 30 years ago, GrassRoots organizers first looked to rent the Fairgrounds. “They were from the greater Trumansburg area,” one resident says.

They were musicians themselves. If they had been professional concert promoters, the private organization that owns the Fairgrounds might have turned them down. (There are a lot of musicians in Trumansburg. The first synthesizer was created by Robert Moog in a storefront there.)

There was some skepticism about the festival at first, that it might prove too wild. But as lively as it was, it proved utterly peaceable. There was no need for police or medical personnel. It was community-oriented and family-friendly.

Of course, there was some revelry, and the music could be loud. Prior to the event, the organizers helped create good will among its nearest neighbors with free passes to either use or sell.

At first the lease went year-to-year. But favor grew each year as the festival brought excitement and great musicians to town from everywhere: Mahlahthini and the Mahotella Queens; Toots and the Maytals; Hugh Masekela; country legends Merle Haggard, George Jones and Emmylou Harris; Ralph Stanley, Ricky Skaggs and other bluegrass favorites; Cajun, zydeco, and brass bands from Louisiana; and gospel singers, Native American performers, and regional musicians from around the world: Central America, eastern Europe, India, Mali, and elsewhere.

Over the years there has been a certain amount of star power, too: Los Lobos, Arrested Development, Ricky Lee Jones, the Family Stone (sans Sly) and, before they were stars, Rusted Root and Old Crow Medicine Show.

Year after year, the festival organizers proved good neighbors and tenants. They respected the grounds and cleaned up thoroughly. Even as the crowd grew by the thousands, it remained well-behaved and well-managed. The festival brought a certain amount of money to town.

Maybe the winning stroke in ultimately gaining a multi-year agreement was, among other physical improvements GrassRoots made to the facility, building a roof for the grandstand stage, at no charge.  

This week, GrassRoots celebrates its 30th year. The number is a little fuzzy because of two years of absence during the pandemic. But as in all things, the festival tries to be fastidious about math.

Way back in the festival’s history, its graphic designer presented to organizers the prospective program cover for its upcoming event, featuring the anniversary number 8. The group admired the artwork..

The problem no one else caught was noticed by Leslie Puryear, the beloved matriarch of the festival, who passed away at age 86 on July 20, 2016, the day before the 26th festival.

“The thing is,” Leslie said, “you’ve got the number 8 on there, but this year is the 7th. Because last year was the 6th, and, well,” Leslie said, in her kind and laconic style, “that’s just the way that works.”

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