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Oregon's Sisters Folk Festival Showcases Diverse Folk Music Genre


For decades, the small town of Sisters, Oregon, has been a favorite vacation spot for people who enjoy spending time outdoors. Whether it's winter skiing, or hiking, mountain biking or bird watching on those same hills in the warmer months, there is something that appeals to just about everyone. Including people who are looking for something no more strenuous than sitting in the sun, and enjoying the music at the annual Sisters Folk Festival. VOA's Katherine Cole reports on this year's event.

Jimmy LaFave performed songs from his 8 CDs, including the most recent, Cimarron Moon, during the four concerts he performed with his four-piece band during the 12th annual Sisters Folk Festival. That's correct, a "four-piece band." There is more to folk music these days than the outdated stereotype of a long-haired guy strumming an acoustic guitar and playing the harmonica, or a girl plucking songs on a dulcimer. The lineup of the Sisters Folk Festival does a good job of showcasing the diverse sounds that fall under the "folk music" genre today.

"Our tag phrase is 'Sisters Folk Festival, blues to bluegrass,' said Brad Tisdel, artistic director of the festival, which began as a single afternoon event in 1995. "On Friday night, we had Karen Savoca and Pete Heitzman, Jimmy LaFave, The Greencards, and Dan Hicks and The Hot Licks. And right in that, we had some blues. We had some jazz. We had some folk. We had some bluegrass."

This year, Sisters Folk Festival ran for three days, with artists performing on six stages scattered throughout the town. Sisters is no longer a regional event, known only to residents of the northwestern U.S.

"It's [the festival] getting some notoriety," Tisdel said. "There was just a national radio program out of Boston that did a poll of their listenership, asking what folk festivals they'd like to go to. And the highest ones up there were obviously Kerrville [Texas], and Merlefest [North Carolina] and Strawberry Music Festival [California]. But Sisters Folk Festival was slotted right in with some of those others. So I think it is beginning to get a national reputation. And many of the artists have told us it's going to grow quickly because it's such a little gem."

The Greencards made their first Sisters Folk Festival appearance this year. Singer, songwriter and mandolinist Kym Warner says the natural beauty of the area helps make it stand out among the hundreds of festivals that are held throughout the U.S. summer.

Warner: "It's beautiful up here, mountainy with beautiful fresh air. It's really nice, and it has been a very friendly festival, with really nice people. I've had a really nice time, and really enjoyed it. They [the audiences] are really receptive crowds, and it's been a lot of fun, that's for sure. The whole thing about playing festivals is that you are trying to find some new fans, and this has certainly been good for that."

Cole: "It must be interesting playing here, because they've got such different venues set up. You've got the main tent, where you're playing for over a thousand people, and then little, intimate settings, and even a bar."

Warner: "It's interesting. Like you said, there's a little bakery that you play, and do a little workshop in; and a restaurant with another tent out the back. Multi-venue events are always a lot of fun. Sometimes it's tough to find where you're going to play, you know, when trying to find your way around town. But this is such a nice little town, and actually every thing [each stage] is within walking distance, and that's been nice."

Cole: "Would you like to come back?"

Warner: "Yes, I would. I love it! It's beautiful here. I really like the northwest. I think it's one of the most beautiful parts of the U.S., and it seems like every time we play up here, people are really receptive and are willing to listen to what we've got to say in our music."

While Brad Tisdel was happy to hear Kym Warner's comment about the Sisters Folk Festival audience, he was not surprised by it. It's what Brad has come to expect from his neighbors.

"We value the arts," he said. "We value self-expression, and community building. We've created, I think, just a gem of community involvement. And we continue to try to do what we can. The environment is wonderfully beautiful, as you've seen. It's central Oregon. Special!"

The "Americana Project," an educational program open to all students of the local school district, and designed to demonstrate the cultural significance of American roots music, is another way in which Sisters, Oregon, shows how much it values the arts. The 2007 Sisters Folk Festival featured sets from some current participants and past graduates of the program, including Kerani Mitchell, who performed her original song Alone.

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