When former ACLU Utah director Carol Gnade got the idea to start a women’s music festival in Torrey, Utah, she admits that the idea was something of a “crap shoot.” There were expenses to consider — buying supplies for even a small music festival is not easy in a small Southern Utah town — as well as the local atmosphere: Would Torrey’s citizens accept the gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender audiences such a festival draws?
Worse: Would anyone actually show up?
Although the challenges facing the fledgling festival were many, the numbers quickly proved that they were not at all insurmountable. In its first year the Red Rock Women’s Music Festival drew roughly 350 people, and received almost no complaints from locals known for their conservatism. Even better, it actually made money, something nearly unheard of for festivals in their first year.
“It was wonderful. Everybody loved it,” said Gnade.
Two years later, audiences still love the festival. In 2008, 350 increased to 500 attendees, which included some from other states and even other countries: Australians, Germans and French tourists making the rounds of the Southwestern United States’ National Parks. A Hungarian lesbian couple who learned about the festival on the internet even came to celebrate their anniversary. But even though the festival’s reputation as a fine venue for independent female musicians is spreading across the world, Gnade predicts that the festival, like its stages tucked away between the towering cottonwood trees, will always remain as small and intimate. That, she says, is part of its charm and appeal.
“In a way I don’t think it will get much bigger,” she admitted. “It will probably stay the way it is.”
Indeed, Torrey’s beautiful scenery (the town is close to Capitol Reef National Park) was one of the reasons Gnade thought it would be a perfect venue for her idea. And though the town, like much of Southern Utah, has a reputation for being anti-gay, Gnade, who lives in Torrey year round, said she wanted the music festival to change those attitudes.
“There are still people who are homophobic, and there are still people who say I don’t want these kinds of people in our town. But we’ve been pleasantly surprised that there’s been very little of that,” she said. “[The locals have seen] that they’re ordinary people, and that has been great. Interestingly enough, a lot of our volunteers are local now, and that’s a wonderful transition to go through, from people not knowing about [the festival] and being shy and suspect to calling to volunteer. This is the way we make headway and gay rights in small ways all over the state of Utah”
The Red Rock Women’s Music Festival, Gnade said, has been great for Torrey because it has also stimulated the local economy (she estimates the town does business comparable to a Fourth of July weekend during the show’s two-day run), and attracted national attention to the area. In its three year existence, the festival has become synonymous with quality, and support for the independent female musicians its audiences love. Gnade credits its success to the hard work of its many volunteers, including stage manager Lu Prickett and operations manager Laurie Wood, and its burgeoning reputation for great music to programming director Jeri Tafoya, who assembles the line-up of local, regional and even national musicians each year from the scores of bands and soloists who ask if they can play.
“What we try to do is stay somewhat within our region,” Tafoya explained. “We like to support and empower independent women around the world — not [women musicians signed with] a big label, but the independents who are just there for the music, for the women.” Keeping this mission in mind, Tafoya said she brings in a number of local musicians. Familiar faces in 2009’s line up include keyboardist and singer Misty River, who dazzled crowds at a rally against Proposition 8 last November; club favorite Rita Boudreau, and sisters Tessa and Sophie Barton, a pianist-composer and singer duo from Salt Lake City.
“My gosh, her voice is absolutely amazing,” Tafoya said of Sophie Barton, who is still a teenager. “When I first heard her, her manager sent me some of her clips, and I thought, oh my gosh, who is this person? Why haven’t I heard about her?”
“Crowd favorite” Mona Stevens (lead vocalist of the popular rock and blues band Sister Wives) will also serve as the festival’s emcee. Other festival favorites who will return this year are Jill Knight, Vermont-born Edie Carey and the Debi Graham Band. When it comes to the festival’s headliner, Tafoya said she tries to pick someone who is “really popular and who has a really good following in Utah.” This year, that someone is Sarah Bettens, a Belgian alt-rock star with her own label, Cocoon Records, and a new CD out called _Never Say Goodbye_.
“It was kind of difficult to get her,” said Tafoya, noting that Bettens will be playing in Brussels two nights before the Red Rock Festival opens. But Bettens and her band said they would take an all-night flight and then make the four hour drive from the Salt Lake International Airport to Torrey to play.
“They really have heard some great stuff bout the festival,” said Tafoya. “That was really quite flattering [of them to do this], and we are so pleased that she could make it.”
The festival will also feature Andrea Gibson, an award-winning slam poet who has recently combined her spoken word art with music on her album, _Yellowbird_. Her poetry, said Tafoya, focuses on such urgent topics as global injustice, gender issues and anti-gay legislation.
“With all of this stuff going on with Proposition 8, she has a lot to say about that,” she said.
The main reason for starting the festival, said Gnade, was to connect musicians like these with Utah audiences hungry for their work. And while women’s music festivals have a reputation of catering only to lesbian, bisexual and transgender women, she said that Red Rock welcomes all fans of women musicians — although she notes that the audience’s make up is currently about 90 percent female and 10 percent male.
“But we’re getting more and more couples who are coming, more and more straight couples who hear about the music, and that’s good too,” she said. “Our motto is: Music by women, for everyone.”
To see the complete line up of this year’s festival, purchase tickets and view lodging options, visit redrockwomensfest.com. The festival is still looking for art and craft vendors. To express interest, contact Carol Gnade at [email protected]