Festival Organizers Prep Summer Shows

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Festivals are an important part of Payson's tourism industry, and with warm weather just around the corner the Rim country's festival organizers are beginning to finalize plans for this year's offerings.

According to Vertielee Floyd, Arizona State Championship Old Time Fiddlers' Contest director, festivals play a unique role in the total tourism picture.

"It's part of our responsibility to bring people into town to spend money," she said.

Shakey Joe Harless, owner of Shaker Music and organizer of the June Bug Blues Festival, thinks festivals also help make Payson more attractive as a tourist destination by providing us with an identity.

"Do we want people to respect Payson as a community," he said, "or do we just want to be a pit stop?

"We don't have a town square like Prescott to give people a place to come together. Festivals have to do that for us."

An ongoing challenge for most festival organizers is attracting local support, because few can break even without it.

That support takes several forms, including the assistance of local and national sponsors. For the June Bug, the Tonto Apache Tribe and the Mazatzal Casino have been primary supporters.

"The tribe is the backbone of our festival," Harless said. "Preservation of culture and traditions has always been important to Native Americans. The Tonto Apaches have always stood behind the June Bug because they view it as a bastion of art and culture in the community."

Coming up June 9, the 8th Annual June Bug Blues Festival already has a number of top line performers committed to the event, which is considered among the top blues festivals in the nation by music industry professionals.

This year's performers include the Gary Primich Band from Austin, Texas, a group whose special brand of Texas blues was once a staple at Antone's; Uvon, whose female Chicago-style blues renderings have made her the first Arizonan to be invited to appear at the Monterey Jazz Festival; and Stefan George, a pre-eminent slide guitar player and a director of the renowned Kerrville Festival in California.

Floyd's primary sponsor is the Payson Parks and Recreation Department. She says that while the Old Time Fiddlers' Contest is more self-sufficient than most, she couldn't do it without Parks and Rec.

The dean of the Rim country's fall festivals, this year's fiddlers' competition is scheduled for Sept. 23-24, and planning is well under way, Floyd said.

"We will stay with the traditions of the past in promoting the music of our heritage, and we will do what we always do by performing in schools and nursing homes before the festival," Floyd said.

Because she thinks it is important for festivals to give something back to the community, Floyd always puts together a group of participating musicians for a tour of local schools and nursing homes a few days before the fiddler's contest.

She also donates a portion of the proceeds from the fiddlers' competition to school music programs.

"Some of the funds last year went to pay for part of the PUSD band camp," she said.

Rodeo boss Bill Armstrong said the proceeds from the Gary Hardt Memorial Rodeo, scheduled for May 11-13, will continue to fund scholarships and other programs for Payson's seniors and children.

Admission to the spring event costs half that of the World's Oldest Continuous Rodeo, he said, which is scheduled this year for Aug. 17-19.

Floyd and Harless also think that getting young people interested in the Rim country's heritage is another role that festivals can play.

"There was a time," said Harless, "when kids went to festivals just for something to do. That doesn't happen as much today as it used to, and it's real important to encourage our young people to do that."

Floyd laments the gradual loss of many of Payson's history- and heritage-related events.

"We used to have a whole bunch of music festivals featuring different things," she said.

"They used to start in May and continue each month during warm weather except rodeo month. There was an old-time gospel festival, an old-time country festival, the sawdust festival and then the fiddlers," she said.

One of the Rim country's historic festivals will be back for a reprise after a hiatus of about 16 years. Festival organizer Ben Sandoval, who lived in Payson for 25 years, is staging the Payson Old Time Country & Bluegrass Festival over Labor Day Weekend, May 26 and 27.

"This is Payson's original music festival," said Sandoval, who now lives in Spring Valley. "It used to be considered the training ground for the Old Time Fiddler's Contest."

Performers will compete for more than $5,600 in prize money in such categories as flat pick guitar, mandolin, five-string banjo, bluegrass band and old-time country band.

Rim Country Museum Director Sharesse Von Strauss said she thinks festivals also serve as an important rallying point for the community. "They do create a sense of community, a sense of celebration, camaraderie and family," she said.

Art in the Park, an event held in conjunction with the Rim Country Western Heritage Festival, is now owned by the Rim Country Museum and will be bigger and better than ever. Von Strauss envisions eventually adding music and activities for children to the one-day event held in Green Valley Park adjacent to the museum.

The museum acquired the event when its sponsor, The Local Gallery on Main Street, closed down last year.

Art in the Park is held in conjunction with the Rim Country Western Heritage Festival, which is again scheduled to take place on Labor Day Weekend, Aug. 31-Sep. 2. Initial plans call for a new slate of cowboy poets for the Rim Country Museum concerts, another old-fashioned western melodrama and more western heritage-related events.

In summarizing the role festivals play in the Rim country, Von Strauss captures the sentiments of Harless, Floyd and the other festival organizers when she says they have a positive impact on the community in two very important ways economically and psychologically.

"They make us healthier by bringing in tourist dollars from other places, and they make us feel better about ourselves," Harless said.

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