Where music and farmland meet in Petaluma
Kate Wolf wrote about red tail hawks, Carolina pines, and the wind blowing wild. John Denver saluted Rocky Mountain highs, country roads, and wild Montana skies. The Wailin’ Jennys sing of beautiful dawns, bird song, prairie towns, and storms coming.
There’s just something about folk music and the natural world. They fit together like “tumbling” and “tumbleweeds,” like “cattle” and “calls,” like “a home” and “the range.”
It’s that indelible music-nature connection that inspired Petaluma singer-songwriter Avery Hellman - stage-name Ismay, named for the smallest town in Montana - to launch the Sonoma Mountain Music Festival, taking place for the second year this July 8. The location? Five Springs Farm, the working ranch owned by Hellman’s family, located about 3-1/2 miles off Lakeville Highway, on Adobe Road, overlooking Petaluma.
“The main driver of the festival - aside from my lifelong love of music, obviously - is a desire to bring people onto working farms and ranches, to celebrate the land, and nature, in a way that people can easily relate to,” says Hellman, calling in from the Klamath River in Oregon, where she’s just completed a weeks-long horseback ride. “We have a farm,” she continues, “but we don’t have a lot of opportunities to show people how sustainable agriculture works, to get people onto the farm to observe sustainable practices in action. So the music festival is a way to do that. They’ll see what happens on a farm, and they’ll get to experience some of the ways that the land and the arts overlap.”
This year’s event - which Hellman says will keep attendnce down to a manageable 350 guests - is set to feature Grammy-winning fiddler-folksinger Laurie Lewis, with her band The Right Hands, along with San Francisco’s Kendra McKinley, New York City’s Tanbark, and a number of Bay Area rising stars including American Nomad (with Hassan El-Tayyab), folk-rocker Rainy Eyes (aka Irena Eide), and Ismay herself, performing with her band, also called Ismay.
The daylong festival will also include tours of the property, food prepared from ingredients raised on the ranch, and a guided bird tour, courtesy of Point Blue, the Petaluma-based conservation nonprofit that will the beneficiary of this year’s festival.
“Money raised from this will go to support the work of Point Blue,” Hellman confirms. “It’s another way to give back to the Earth, and maybe encourage others to find ways to support programs that heal the planet.”
Hellman started out as an environmentalist, she explains, focusing on resource management and sustainable ranching.
“Over the years, I got more and more interested in music and the arts,” she explains, “because there are some things about environmentalism, about nature, about our connection to the land, that can’t be communicated any better than through music. Music is a very powerful, creative, meaningful way to express our connection to the natural world.”
It’s challenging, Hellman has found, to get people who aren’t familiar with things like ‘land management’ and ‘environmental justice’ to become particularly passionate about it.
“But folk music can do that, in amazing ways,” she says. “It also just happens to be the kind of music I play. I try to send that message out, telling environmental stories in my songs, through the music I write and the songs I sing.”
Another attraction to holding a folk festival on her small farm, Hellman points out, is that the location itself restricts the size of the event. Hellman’s grandfather, Warren Hellman, was the founder of San Francisco’s Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Festival, an event that annually draws 750,000 people over its three-day span. In contrast, the Sonoma Mountain Music Festival will give attendees a purposefully intimate experience.
“I love that about this festival, the intimacy of it,” says Laurie Lewis, who’s played for enormous audiences at festivals around the world, has entertained 4,000 people at the Grand Ole Opry, and performed for an audience of 1,000 people (not counting the four million radio listeners) every time she’s appeared on “A Prairie Home Companion,” staged at the Fitzgerald Theater in St, Paul, Minnesota. “I’ve played Hardly Strictly too,” she adds, “and you’re just playing to a sea of humanity, which is exciting, but you don’t feel like you’re reaching anybody. To play for just 300 people or so - that’s going to be a treat.”
Lewis goes on to say that performing alongside her as part of the band, will be the impressive young fiddler Tatiana Hargreaves.
“Tatiana just graduated from college,” Lewis says. “She’s definitely somebody to look out for in the future. She’s terrific, and she’s living proof that folk music is reaching a whole new generation of young people today.
“I admit there was a time, many years ago, when I thought folk music was done. But then this new generation discovered it, and they’re making their own music, and creating their own thing. It’s a very exciting time, and little festivals like the one in Petaluma are part of the excitement.”
(Contact David at firstname.lastname@example.org)