Volunteers, including Williams, began the festival in 1998 as a Fete de la Musique, a celebration of the summer solstice. Carrboro’s version was one of a few officially recognized by the Ministry of France, along with New York City and San Francisco.
“For a small town, Carrboro government and the Board of Aldermen and the mayor have always been committed to supporting the arts. For a town with 1,800…it embarrasses many cities with its commitment to the arts,” said Williams.
Heat and logistics have since moved the festival later into September, but festival is still going 17 years later.
“The first year, we had a few professional music organizers come talk to us, and they told us we were out of our minds and it would be a disaster,” said Williams.
He and his wife were skeptical, but they along with the then-mayor Mike Nelson, businesses of Carrboro, and the Festival Planning Committee, made it a success.
After the first festival in 1998, Williams recalls, “Monday, I was taking down banners around town, cleaning up and stuff, and people were driving by and beeping their horns and giving thumbs up and I realized this is pretty cool,” said Williams.
Now, 16 years later, the committee still exists, along with help from the Carrboro Recreation and Parks department. Rah Trost, Recreation Supervisor of Community Events and Festivals, oversees logistics and works closely with Williams.
She said the festival takes 10 months to plan, but is a “pretty well-oiled machine.”
Despite the shift in leadership, Trost doesn’t expect anything major to change. She does note that they have been increasing their advertising, targeting people in Asheville and Charlotte areas.
“People like to come to Carrboro for its very relaxed vibe,” said Trost.
But the talent remains strictly local.
“It’s truly a community event in the sense that the musicians aren’t getting paid to come,” said Trost.
Occasionally bands from Charlotte or further away apply, but only bands from the Triangle area are accepted. Participating bands receive either a t-shirt or a $10 food voucher redeemable at several Carrboro establishments.
But for the bands, it’s much more than free food.
Michael Goy, singer and guitarist for local band The Carrborators, has participated in the festival every other year.
“If we’re not performing, we go,” he said. “It’s really fun.”
He says his band has benefited from participating in the festival. Bands are grouped at certain venues by genre, so they get to hear and meet people playing music similar to their own. One year, Goy hit it off with a man playing the set before his. They began playing together. Even though the man moved away, he connected Goy with Tracy Feldman, who now plays fiddle for The Carrborators.
““Musical friendships can be made easily there,” said Goy. “It’s like networking a little bit.”
Coordinators and performers alike cite Carrboro as an ideal location for a music festival.
“The support is here because people enjoy the festivals; that is a quality of life issue for them,” said Trost.
The festival is partly run by about 35 volunteers, who organize parking, sell T-shirts, and work at information booths. Trost says many volunteers return every year.
“There’s something really special about the festival that people really want to come and be a part of it, and we’re really grateful for that,” she said.
The town is grateful, too. At the Sept. 16 Board of Aldermen meeting, the town honored Gerry Williams and his wife Janet Place for their years of dedication to improving the town. They dedicated a day to Williams and Place and gave them a proper send-off as the festival and the town enters a new phase without them.
Says Trost, “It’s a bittersweet year, with Gerry and Janet, that they’re gone. They really made this festival happen. They thought it up, they nurtured it, and they will be missed in a big way.”
The Carrboro Music Festival will kick off on Saturday Sept. 27 from 2 to 6 pm at Carrboro Town Commons. Additional bands will play that night at Cat’s Cradle. The main event will take place downtown on Sept. 27 all day long.