The Steel Wheels perform before a large crowd at Natural Chimneys Park during the second annual Red Wing Roots Music Festival. Photograph by Keesha Dickel ’00, who is married to The Steel Wheels bass player Brian Dickel (class of ’98), and whose company, RubySky Photography, was a festival sponsor.

Thousands throng to new music festival made possible by many folks with close ties to EMU

From a headlining act to the bike-powered recycling effort, from a group of staff and volunteers to the tent distributing Menno Tea to hundreds of friends and alumni, Eastern Mennonite University and its graduates helped make the second annual Red Wing Roots Music Festival a success.

Close to 3,000 people attended each day of the festival, July 11-13, 2014, at Natural Chimneys Park in Mt. Solon, Virginia. First held in the summer of 2013, the Red Wing festival is hosted by The Steel Wheels, a nationally known roots music band that features three alumni: Trent Wagler ’02, Eric Brubaker ’01 and Brian Dickel, class of ’98. (The fourth band member, Jay Lapp, attended EMU’s sister Mennonite school in Indiana, Goshen College, for a time.)

After enjoying performing at other festivals across the country since they began touring seriously around 2010, members of The Steel Wheels began thinking about ways to create a new festival in the Shenandoah Valley.

Family friendly, honoring community roots

The Steel Wheels (RubySky Photography)
The Steel Wheels (RubySky Photography)

“We wanted it to be rooted in community and informed by our upbringing,” said Brubaker after Red Wing ended this year. “We wanted a family-friendly event where we would be proud to bring our own children and expose them to many different kinds of authentic musical expression.”

The band partnered with Black Bear Productions, a local event production company, and began planning well over a year in advance for the first event. Their vision was realized in a multi-generational, community-focused festival that has brought dozens of performers and thousands of visitors for a long weekend of music on four stages at Natural Chimneys, about 20 miles south of EMU’s campus.

“The exciting thing is that all [our] dreams and more are already being fulfilled,” Brubaker added. “It’s amazing that so many people from our community are investing time, creativity and resources to make the festival a true success.”

Jeremiah Jenkins, a managing partner of Black Bear Productions, said the welcoming, friendly atmosphere at the festival is one of its special characteristics.

“Red Wing has fans of all ages. This sets a certain tone of respect and appreciation among the crowd, and that collective enjoyment really fuels us all weekend,” he said. “Red Wing brings out both the seasoned festivarian and the first-timers, and together we create our own festival culture. We’re proud of the Red Wing fans, volunteers and staff that treat the park and each other with such conscientiousness.”

EMU was official sponsor

After noticing how many EMU alumni attended the first festival, the university signed on as an official sponsor this year. Throughout the weekend, advancement staff passed out tea and connected with hundreds of alumni, prospective students and other festival-goers.

recycle bicycle
Volunteer Ben Roth Shank ’10 used an EMU recycling bicycle to collect recyclables as part of the festival’s Green Team. About 10 alumni worked in various roles at the festival as volunteers or staff.

EMU and Red Wing organizers also collaborated to minimize the amount of trash generated at the festival. The festival banned the sale of plastic water bottles and required visitors to bring or purchase a reusable steel cup to use at the free water station and in the beer garden, Jenkins said. Food vendors were also required to use renewable, recycled or compostable materials for all service items.

Aware of EMU’s commitment to sustainability, Black Bear Productions hired EMU sustainability coordinator Jonathan Lantz-Trissel to oversee trash and recycling collection during the weekend. He and his team of volunteers collected well over 1,000 pounds of recyclable materials and 500 pounds of food waste to add to EMU’s compost piles

“When people congratulate me on the festival, I always say that it takes a village,” Jenkins said. “We’re so glad that EMU is part of ours, from the alumni office and sustainability team to the many EMU alumni that bring their families each year.”

Dozens of bands on four stages

In addition to The Steel Wheels, about 40 other bands performed this year at Red Wing, including The Walking Roots Band, first formed under another name at EMU. Six of the eight members are EMU graduates: Lauren ’09 and Mitch Yoder ’09, Jackson Maust ’09, Kristina Yoder ’09, Adam Schmid ’09 and Seth Crissman ’09, MDiv ’15. Crissman also said the welcoming feel to the festival was important to the group.

“Something we care about a lot is being able to create and share music that is fun for everyone. There was a broad range of ages at Red Wing, and music brings all these people together,” he said. “In making music in this roots-folk tradition, we draw nourishment from those who have come before and, hopefully, pass it on to those who will come after us. It was a lot fun to be able to listen to and enjoy other musicians doing the same thing at Red Wing. It was exciting to see so many people excited about roots and folk music, especially local music.”

Another band performing at Red Wing, Ragged Mountain String Band, featured Reuben Miller ’00 on fiddle.

The third Red Wing Roots Music Festival will likely be held on the second weekend in July 2015, with exact dates to be announced soon on the festival’s website and Facebook page. In the meantime, Brubaker said, The Steel Wheels will be recording a new album that will be ready in time for next year’s event.