Since 2002, FloydFest has brought magic to the Blue Ridge Mountains, and it’s been quite the odyssey

By Grant Golden

June 2, 2021

Photo: Svetlana Nikic

Ask anyone who’s attended the Virginia-based music festival FloydFest to describe it and the word you’ll hear them say most is magical. Capped at 13,500 attendees a day, FloydFest straddles the line between grandiose and grassroots, interweaving fresh Grammy-award winning acts with road-worn legends and regional up-and-coming artists. With new themes each year, embodied by both their lineups and their artistic direction, FloydFest sets out to “have a gathering with some meaning behind it,” as festival founder Kris Hodges puts it.

Photo: Drea Atkins

Entering the world of music at 15 years old as a drummer, Hodges has worn many hats in the industry. From touring musician to promotions at the Georgia Theater, to front-of-house engineering, Hodges gained an acute love and understanding for the world of music.

“From those early days in green rooms, I was like, ‘This is the life for me. Period,’” Hodges said. “Being a drummer you get the best seat in the house because you get to see everything. Not just the musicians…but the front of house, the back of house, and all these aspects in between.”

Kris Hodges, founder of FloydFest in 2002. Photo: Svetlana Nikic

As the years passed and he hit his 20s, Hodges realized he was burning out on touring. But those years cutting his teeth in the industry helped him find a way to hold on to those green room nights. After his mother recommended he check out the tiny musical town of Floyd, Virginia, Hodges serendipitously met his mentor A’Court Bason– a Raleigh-born artist, musician and poet– and began the path toward forming FloydFest.

“When you’re 18, 19, 21 you don’t just think you’ll go find a mentor…but I knew this guy could teach me a lot,” Hodges said. “It began with ethnomusicology and learning about the breadth of the history of music, but then it just went into so much more.” 

As the ‘90s pushed on and his relationship with music evolved, Hodges simultaneously grew his love of the music of the Appalachians and of the world.

West African music and dance collective, Kusun Ensemble in 2002. Photo: Svetlana Nikic.

This sparked a trip to Africa to explore West African culture and the sounds he’d fallen in love with. On this trek he found an immediate connection between the stringed ngoni instrument of Mali and the five-stringed banjo that serves as the anchor for American roots music. So by following the musical roots of the African Diaspora, Hodges had found both his first theme and his first act for what would become FloydFest.

Beginning in 2002 with “just a dream and no real financial backing,” Hodges set out to highlight the true roots of music in his new home of Floyd, Virginia. While traveling in Africa, Hodges befriended the African Showboyz, who he now calls “the ambassadors of the festival,” and brought them to the states to busk and tour across the country. Eventually culminating in a meeting with Mickey Hart (drummer of Grateful Dead) out in California, Hodges and the African Showboyz helped to bridge the musical gap between Africa and Appalachia. The 2002 Floyd County World Music Festival (the first year of FloydFest) featured the Showboyz, alongside legendary acts like Doc Watson, John Scofield, and the Neville Brothers and has continued to organically grow ever since.

Doc Watson playing the main stage at FloydFest in its inaugural year in 2002. Photo: Svetlana Nikic

“It was a big struggle the first year, we lost a lot of money. It was beans and rice for a minute,” Hodges said. But that perseverance and determination embodies the heart of FloydFest and, ultimately, that heart is why the event has been able to succeed where others have failed. Despite their continued growth over the years, the festival has stayed true to their roots.

Acts like the Avett Brothers played the festival for free in the early 2000s and are now returning to headline this year’s event. During our conversation, Hodges waxed nostalgic over Grammy Award-winning Brandi Carlile’s last time at the festival where her manager proclaimed that “Floydfest is like church for her.” It’s clear it’s not only the attendees that feel this magical bond with FloydFest, but the artists as well.

“It’s about the relationships and connecting in an honest way. Not only with the artist but with the patrons as well,” Hodges said. 

FloydFest 2015. Photo: Drea Atkins

Since the beginning of the festival they’ve maintained a family-friendly vibe that includes children-run stages, open mics, the Children’s Universe, and more. This helps to foster a strong sense of community at Floyd, which is why acts like Keller Williams performs with his daughter, Ella, at the festival. Because for nearly two decades, Across the Way Productions has ensured that as the festival grows, both artist and patron can still feel at home nestled in those magical mountains.

“My son was four or five when we started the festival and my daughter was just born, so do I want to invite people to my backyard party that are gonna trash it,” Hodges said, “or do I want a safe environment that’s enlightening to adults and children alike. Nobody else in the scene was really fostering that.”

That level of safety and trust is a big reason why FloydFest saw an 80% return rate on tickets from their cancelled 2020 festival. Despite the onset of a global pandemic, fans trusted in Hodges and his Across The Way Productions team to put their safety first.

The Oh Hellos in 2015. Photo: Drea Atkins

“We’ve been doing this since day one, you know,” Hodges said. “When we started this festival we had no real financial backing, we just put all of our passions and beliefs into it and that translates.” 

Now with the world reopening and vaccination rates continuing to rise, FloydFest is expected to be one of the first festivals back in 2021, set for July 21 – 25. With a fresh lineup and a new theme of “Odyssey,” Kris Hodges and his team are ready to bring the magic back to the Blue Ridge.

“What better time to represent this sense of hope by not giving up…by moving forward, announcing a headliner, changing a theme, getting the artwork, we just haven’t stopped, man,” Hodges said. “Do you have what it takes to see it through? To not give up when there’s a crisis? We just believed that this was going to happen in 2021 and we believe that anything is possible…and through that belief the magic happens.”

FloydFest takes place on July 21-25 off the Blue Ridge Parkway in Floyd, Virginia.

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