Friend With Benefits 

Local volunteers are at the heart of the Folk Fest, and they get sweet perks too.

click to enlarge feat41_volunteers.jpg

Just a few hours before he was scheduled to go on stage at the Richmond Folk Festival in 2008, bluegrass singer Dan Tyminski arrived in Richmond with a shattered vintage guitar, the victim of a bumpy tour-bus ride through the Appalachians.

Fortunately, festival volunteer Bill Rice was ready to run Tyminski out to the West End to purchase a new guitar.

"He was pretty frazzled," recalls Rice, a 10-year festival volunteer who works in media production for Virginia Information Technologies Agency. "He tried to get a couple of hours of sleep, but he was so wound up he couldn't sleep. So he got acquainted with the new guitar and tried to chill out the best he could. The show must go on!"

Working behind the scenes, dozens of volunteers such as Rice serve as hosts for artists, escorting them from their hotels to the festival and back, and making sure they get to the appropriate stages and perform on time. They also act as gofers and troubleshooters, being called on to do everything from ordering lunch to staying with an ailing elderly performer at the hospital. They also get to enjoy concerts from a close-up, backstage vantage point.

"They're indispensable," says Tim Timberlake, who's served as team leader of the artist host program since the festival's inception, recruiting and overseeing their efforts. "It gives the folks who are hosting an opportunity to meet some fascinating people they'd otherwise never get a chance to meet and really be a part of their lives for that intense weekend experience."

A familiar voice from local commercials and as a former morning personality on Newsradio 1140 WRVA, Timberlake also serves on the festival's programming committee.

"We take care of them and get them whatever they need — if they want coffee or they want a soft drink or they want lunch — whatever they need to keep them happy and get them from show to show on time," says Becky Ralston, a data integrity coordinator for Virginia Commonwealth University's advancement services department. She recalls zigzagging from one food vendor to another in 2012, searching out honey for bluegrass legend Ralph Stanley's coffee.

"You basically become their road manager for the weekend," says Anita Conner, an oncology nurse practitioner at Hunter Holmes McGuire Veterans Administration Medical Center, who's volunteered at the festival since 2007.

"It is a cool job," says Barb Dodd, a festival volunteer from the beginning. "It is the most fun. You'll work, work, work. You see the festival from a totally different view. Sometimes it's kind of loud. You don't get to see as much because you have to have your artists to the stage usually 30 minutes beforehand."

"It's like being an ambassador for Richmond," says Dodd, who works as marketing manager for the Virginia Board for People with Disabilities.

Chuck Wrenn, a carpenter who's well known around town from his former life as a music promoter and club owner, says he had an especially memorable time in 2008 getting to know the Tezcatlipoca Voladores, traditional Mayan sun dance performers who swing in circles by ropes tied to their ankles from atop a 90-foot-tall pole.

"We took everybody to Wal-Mart to buy jeans … and then we went out to a Chinese restaurant for food," Wrenn recalls. "They were wonderful people."

One perk of being an artist host is getting a behind-the-scenes look at the world of professional performers. Rice, for example, recalls being on the bus with Rosanne Cash in 2012 while she and her band members discussed their set list, and getting to chat with Tyminski, a member of Alison Krauss and Union Station, about his gig as the singing voice of George Clooney in the 2000 Coen Brothers film, "O Brother, Where Art Thou?"

Another big plus is attending the Saturday night party that festival organizers hold every year for performers and volunteers. "By that time," Wrenn says, "everybody's ready to blow off some steam. It's a great party." [See sidebar.]

"The artists will come in and jam and play in configurations that you don't see at the festival," says volunteer Gene Raney, who works as director of health benefits services for the Virginia Department of Human Resource Management. At one year's party, he says a bass player from a reggae band, a Kentucky acoustic finger-picking guitarist and a go-go guitarist backed a local wedding singer who was belting out James Brown and Motown tunes.

Artist hosts also develop friendships with visiting performers.

"It's a fabulous opportunity to learn the culture of the world," says Ralston, who became email pen pals with Los Angeles-based classical Indian dancer Mythili Prakash. "I feel like I've traveled around the world every year when I go to this festival. It's just incredible, the sights and sounds."


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