Q&A: Steve Wildsmith, Waynestock Organizer
At the end of 2010, when News Sentinel music writer Wayne Bledsoe’s 23-year-old son Andrew died, the local music scene immediately went to work. In just a few weeks, Steve Wildsmith, entertainment editor of The Daily Times in Maryville, Wil Wright (Lil Iffy, Senryu), Tim and Susan Lee, and a handful of others had organized the first edition of Waynestock, a three-night festival of local music, headlined by a reunion of Andrew’s former band Psychotic Behavior, to raise money for Bledsoe’s family.
Since then, Waynestock has turned into an annual celebration of the local music scene, with two or three generations of performers and their friends and fans heading down to Happy Holler for a weekend jam-packed with indie rock, punk, country, folk, blues, Americana, and hip-hop. Proceeds from the shows are donated to a local community organization—previous recipients include the Community School of the Arts, Knoxville Girls Rock Camp, the E.M. Jellinek Center, and WUTK. This year’s festival, scheduled for Feb. 3–4 at Relix Variety Theatre, will raise money for the Old City rock club Pilot Light, which acquired 501(c)(3) nonprofit status in 2016.
What was the plan when Waynestock started?
When Wayne’s son died, it was one of those things—you’ve got the shock of a young man dying so unexpectedly from a health problem he didn’t even know he had, and then Wayne had lost his wife to cancer more than a decade ago. To so many people who care about him and consider themselves his friend, it seemed so unfair. The feeling was like, this dude already had his turn.
It seemed to fall into place pretty effortlessly. No one hesitated. No one said, “Let me check my schedule.” No one said, “Eh, I’m not sure, let me think about that.” Every single person we asked said, “All right, tell me what time to be there.”
The first Waynestock seemed like a one-time event. How did the second one come together?
At the time, we talked about whether it would cheapen it to do it again. There wasn’t really an idea, well, let’s do another benefit. We thought, that was a cool thing, a really special thing—do we just let it stand on its own?
And then Phil Pollard died. Pretty immediately, Tim and Susan said if were going to do something, we needed to do it for Phil’s family. Again, the wheels started turning. At that point, Wayne was part of the planning process. Phil died in November, so we had basically about a month to pull it together.
I think it was that second year, when Band of Humans did the finale and everybody, or most people who played that weekend, got on stage with them. I’ll never forget looking up there and there’s Black Atticus with Band of Humans and Jack Rentfro and all these people and they’re going through “Gettysburg Address” and all these Band of Humans standards. It was just such a ramshackle, thrown-together experience, but it totally worked. It was like, this is magic—this is stuff you can’t plan for. That became the Waynestock motif, so to speak—the moments that fall into place by happy accident and become something special.
So the second one established it as an annual event.
When it was over, we thought it was too cool a thing to shutter it now. That third year is when we did it for the Community School of the Arts. We decided to just do it as a fundraiser for worthy organizations.
What goes into putting it on? And who does the work?
At one time, we talked about looking at nonprofit status. But it’s such a pain in the ass to fill out all that paperwork, and with everything else going on, we kept it as a loose, informal group. In the beginning, it was Wil and me and Tim and Susan and Mic Harrison and Jason Knight. The next year Wayne came on board. I think it was the third year that [Blank publisher] Rusty Odom came on board.
Over the last several years it’s become Tim and Susan, Wayne, me, and Rusty in the beginning stages of that process. We call in Jay [Nations] and Jack [Stiles] over at Raven Records and Rarities to help out with the raffle. Paige Travis helped us out one year. Amanda Starnes has been part of it the last couple of years. She’s Tims right-hand person when it comes to stage-managing and marshaling the bands off and on. My wife and I come down to work the doors. It’s very much a grassroots thing, but we have no shortage of people we can ask for help.
How much money do you usually raise?
It depends. I think for the first couple of years it was in the ballpark of $7,000, the next year less than that. We expected that, because when people were turning out to support Wayne and to support Phil, we got a whole lot of people who may not ever come to stuff like that, but because it was for Wayne, because it was for Phil, they did.
It wasn’t a significant drop-off, maybe $4,000 or $5,000 after that, but for an organization like the Community School of the Arts, it was an amount of money that was very gratefully received. The same with the Jellinek Center, which was a beneficiary one year. It just depends. I don’t think we’ve ever come out of it going, yeah, we didn’t do well enough. We’ve never wondered whether it’s run its course.
This year we decided on Pilot Light. Especially since it’s become a nonprofit, Jason [Boardman, Pilot Light’s executive director], has indicated that the money will go to some things that he’s always wanted to do—some furniture, stuff like that, that he’s never had the discretionary funds for. So every little bit helps. With the Jellinek Center, it was going through a transition where state funding was being cut, so I know they were grateful. Same with WUTK.
What are some of the specific things you look for when picking an organization to raise money for?
An organization that does some good, that is helping people. I think that’s the biggest thing—an organization that’s helping people, whether it’s the Jellinek Center in the recovery community, or groups like Community School of the Arts or Girls Rock Camp that are educating young people, or WUTK, a student laboratory, or Pilot Light, which is providing a place for bands that don’t have anywhere else to play here in Knoxville.
I don’t think there’s a specific formula. We all bring ideas to the table and kick them around. We’re all pretty laid back and agreeable on most things, so whenever a beneficiary rises to the surface, it doesn’t take long for us to see that yeah, that sounds like the one this year.
HOW YOU CAN HELP
• Attend the festival! The $5 cover will go directly to Pilot Light, where it will be spent on new lighting and furniture. (“We plan to use the money raised to replace and repair things that have always had to wait due to more pressing priorities,” the club’s executive director, Jason Boardman, says. “These are features that will make it a more comfortable environment to see a show.”)
• Volunteer! Contact organizers through the Waynestock Facebook page for information on helping out at the festival.
• Donate! Every year, the festival holds a raffle, with donated prizes from local businesses, artists, and craftspeople.
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