by Joe Sylvester
Richard Briggs has been a fan of the blues since his youth.
He wishes he would have gone to Woodstock in 1969, but the then-teen had to work on his family farm.
The concept of music festivals, specifically blues, never left his head.
In the late 1990s, working as a producer, director, editor and production manager for WVIA, he came up with the idea of starting a blues festival on his family farm.
“The blues is a big part of what I was listening to as a teenager,” he said. “Creedence, Doors, Beatles, the Stones – all those bands were very blues-oriented.”
Because of his job, he already knew how to put a show together. So he did, a one-day blues festival in 1998 on the nearly 240-year-old family farm. About 800 people attended.
The Briggs Farm Blues festival was born.
He still worked at WVIA while putting on the festival, until 2007, when he quit his job to focus on his growing enterprise.
Just over two decades later, the festival has grown to a four-day event with established and up-and-coming blues performers, plus vendors, camping and a total of about 7,000 music fans, about 2,000 of them campers.
The Briggs family also has grown, and now three generations of Briggs are involved in the family friendly festival’s planning and operation, along with about 50 paid employees during festival time, most of whom have worked there for 10 or even 15 years.
“It was important it be family-friendly, because this is our farm,” said Briggs’ wife, Alison, the family matriarch who does much of the marketing for the festival.
The Briggs’ sons began helping with the festival when they were in high school. Son, Dylan and his wife, Dena, who run the family corn and soybean farm, are involved, as are their teenage sons, Lewis, 16, and Mitchell, 14.
Richard and Alison’s other son, Drew, and his wife, Nicki, have been involved in the past but now live in Seattle and were unable to make it this year. Besides the distance, they also have a newborn, Hank, born in June, and a 20-month-old daughter, Tilly, short for Tilda Rose.
As the festival grew, people started asking if they could camp. The more than 100 acres of woods along the festival site accommodate the tent campers, while RVs and camping trailers border the audience area on the hillside.
“We’ve always been able to grow in a way that works financially,” Richard said. “We’re always trying to stay within our budget.”
Twenty-one acts took either the main stage or the Back Porch Stage at this year’s festival, held from July 11 through 14. The acts including Briggstock, Brett Alexander & Friends’ Woodstock 50th anniversary celebration on the Back Porch Stage on the first night, up-and-coming performers Vanessa Collier and Christone “Kingfish” Ingram, as well as Sunday Gospel Blues on the Back Porch with Slam Allen and Alexis P. Suter and the Ministers of Sound.
In between the stages was a village of vendors selling, T-shirts, blankets, gifts, souvenirs and food.
Dena Briggs, who, along with Maegan Beishline, handles ticket sales and social media, said about 50 or more vendors rented space at the festival this year. The festival operates the food tents, where the menu includes slow-smoked pulled pork, southern fried catfish, Briggs’ mac-n-cheese with stewed tomatoes, sausage, hot dogs, fresh picked, fire-cooked sweet corn, homemade cole slaw and collard greens.
‘It takes a lot’
Dena also helps make sure the performers have everything they need in the green room, a tent backstage for performers and media interviews. Her son Lewis worked as Back Porch Stage manager this year. Mitchell was working at the corn stand.
“He’s a jack of all trades, helping vendors set up. Now he’s roasting corn,” Dena said on the second day of the festival.
“We have our hands in a lot of different pots, Maegan said of herself and Dena. “People are surprised we work all year, but it takes a lot.”
Dena’s husband Dylan, an engineer, oversees the setup of the infrastructure, such as the festival stages.
“As time goes on, he and Dena will begin to primarily oversee the festival,” Richard said.
Alison’s brother, Keith Stone, also helps out with the festival and is in charge of T-shirts.
Richard said that while “Woodstock put the seed in my brain,” the Briggs event is more organized.
“We’ve had the good fortune to grow each year. This year, we added another five acres of camping grounds.”
The event takes nearly a year to organize, sign up acts, advertise and prepare and several weeks to clean up.
“We take two weeks off, three weeks off,” Alison said.
Then it is back at it. Richard, who books the performers, works with several agencies that handle blues soul or blues rock bands. He meets bands at other festivals or other venues.
“We used to listen to CDs,” he said. “I would get 70 CDs a day. Now they contact us by email.”
“Or a link to YouTube,” Alison added.
He used to wait until later in the year to book the bands. Now that Briggs is the festival other venues watch to see what performers are booked, he books in September.
Sometimes it takes several years to get a band because of their schedule.
Tickets go on sale Oct. 15 at a lower price than those purchased closer to the event. The Briggs offer various packages for one or multiple days and camping packages.
For most campers, it’s first come, first served. Those with camping vehicles reserve space. The past couple of years, campers also could rent a private port-a-potty for the weekend and bring their own lock.
‘Doing everything right’
Fans and performers also help fill the area hotels for the four-day event.
“The Columbia-Montour Visitors Bureau always supports our festival,” Alison said. “The Luzerne County visitors bureau is very supportive.”
She said the festival partners with several hotels in the Hazleton area, and festival-goers book their rooms for the following year before they leave.
Richard said the festival contributes to the local economy in other ways, too, when it leases portable toilets and generators, hires a trash service.
The Columbia-Montour agency tested out a shuttle program this year.
Executive Director David “Otto” Kurecian said about two dozen hotel guests used it. The agency and Briggs will probably do it again, but not for the four days.
“People check out on Sundays,” Kurecian said.
He said he hasn’t had a study done on the festival’s economic impact, but he’s had conversations with the Briggs about that.
“It’s a growing festival,” Kurecian said. “It does really well.”
Richard said the festival grows every year financially and in ticket sales.
“We’re really selling them an experience,” he said.
“What has been nice about our business is it has grown every year,” Alison said. “Not one year has it not grown.”
Kurecian, who attends Briggs and other festivals, said several reasons make Briggs a success.
“The access — you can get right up front by the stage,” he said. “It’s all pretty easy. You can bring in your own food. You can bring in your own drinks. Other festivals, you’re waiting in long lines, pay $5 for a bottle of water.”
Michael Cloeren, who founded and produced the Pocono Blues Festival from 1992 to 2016 and has been a consultant for numerous other blues festivals, including Briggs, said Briggs Blues Festival is successful for a number of reasons.
“It’s the setting,” said Cloeren, who has been venue manager at Penn’s Peak in Jim Thorpe the past three years. “The setting is a very unique spacious setting, like a Woodstock kind of vibe. Another is the camping.”
Then there is the mix of traditional and contemporary blues, roots and jam bands and gospel music performers; the market in Northeast Pennsylvania for a festival of that magnitude; the economics — fans can bring in their own food and beverages, and parking is free — and the history of blues.
“They’re doing everything right,” he said. “It is getting better every year.”
He cited the booking of Vanessa Collier, who Cloeren said has taken the blues and roots world by storm in just three years, and “Kingfish” Ingram, a traditional blues player from Mississippi.
“It brings joy to my heart to hear a young African American from Mississippi carry on the blues tradition,” Cloeren said.
With growth comes more expenses, as well.
Cloeren said festivals face expenses for marketing, payroll, insurance, tents, sound and light production, as well as paying the artists for performing and their travel and accommodations.
“It is a big responsibility for the Briggs,” he said. “Every year they are getting more and more national acclaim. They want to make sure they are giving fans the right product.”
Fans seem to think so.
“Great blues matched by a great concert atmosphere set by the Briggs family,” commented Lou Cicci, of Archbald, who has attended the festival for several years.
Fans’ reviews on the festival’s Facebook page cite the “easygoing vibe,” the food, the setting and the performers.
With reviews like that, the festival seemingly could keep going indefinitely.
That’s where the kids come in.
“After 22 years, we thought it was time to start transitioning to our kids,” Richard said.
“They came to us (and asked) how are we going to keep this going?” Alison added.