Written By: Jeffrey
:: Interview: Newport Folk Festival Producer Jay Sweet ::
This weekend the granddaddy of all music festivals – the Newport Folk Festival – will get under way with three days of roots,
folk, funk, soul and rock or what can basically be defined as quintessential American
music. For the fourth year in a row the event essentially sold out well in advance of a
single artist on the lineup being announced - a testament to fans’ knowing that they could
once again count on seeing an exceptional assortment of acts all thanks to its producer,
Founded in 1959 by George Wein as an offshoot of his already successful and well-
established Jazz Festival, and possibly most famous as the place where Bob Dylan shunned
the folk world when he went electric in 1965. The festival fell on hard times and was
forced into taking a 14-year hiatus starting in 1971 before it was revived in 1985 – and
has been thriving ever since with its eclectic lineups that have featured everything from
folk to funk to New Orleans brass-bands to arena-sized rock.
Over the years the iconic fest has hosted a veritable who’s who of musicians from Joan
Baez to Johnny Cash to Muddy Waters in its classic years, and more recently has seen the
likes of My Morning Jacket, Fleet Foxes, Neko Case and even Trey Anastasio log time at the
Fort's tents and stages. This year’s lineup is no slouch either, featuring the likes of
the Jeff Tweedy, Band of Horses, Deer Tick, Conor Oberst, Dawes and Jack White.
Earlier this month we had a chance to chat with Mr. Sweet about all things Newport,
including crossing off a "white whale," from the list of acts yet to play Newport, the
pressures of booking the fests and some acts he’s excited to see this year.
JamBase: (Jokes) First off I want to congratulate you on another amazing lineup,
was it to get Outkast to play this year?
Jay Sweet: I know it was really difficult I had to convince them that their songs
really protest music. The funny thing is that I made a half-hearted joking tweet and I got
one back that said “not this year” I don’t think they had any idea who I was, but we just
did it as a joke and whoever was doing the automated Outkast twitter feed didn’t really
get the joke.
JamBase: You obviously get asked this question a lot, but can you give me your
definition of folk music?
Jay Sweet: Well I’ll try and give you an original answer to that question because I
come up with a different answer every time someone has asked me that. Originally, when
the festival it actually stood for everything that wasn’t jazz. It was basically by
definition not jazz. So to George, who had a successful jazz festival, and to Pete, it was
things that George didn’t deem right for his jazz festival, it was the catch all for
everything else. That’s why there is gospel, bluegrass, fiddle music, Celtic music, rock
and roll, country – hey Johnny Cash, you know Janis Joplin, and at the same time Doc
Watson or Dock Boggs or Son House or Joan Baez or Bob Dylan.
So that’s one answer. The real answer which I would say is the megalomania would say is
what the Newport Folk says it is for that year. If you’ve been around long enough, you can
just say that this is what Newport deems as folk. So it’s not something that I don’t take
lightly, I always want to get this across, the way I look at this is, who is fit to belong
in the continuing narrative of the ongoing story that’s being written every year.
JamBase: How much pressure do you feel to honor the festivals past, but still try
and move it forward?
Jay Sweet: Well it’s a mandate that both George Wein and Pete Seeger bestowed on me
- that’s the goal right? Pete and George started the festival in 1959 through 1965, which
I consider to be the real golden years of the festival, even up through ’67, I just went
back and cribbed everything that they’ve done. So it’s organic that I pay tribute to the
historical aspects of the festival, mostly because it’s how I’ve decided to create the
playbook was from the playbook that create before I was even born.
JamBase: What’s your philosophy on booking the festival?
Jay Sweet: The philosophy is pretty easy. There are three criteria to play Newport
and you have to
meet two of the three or else you won’t ever get added to the bill. The first is I want
you to play. The second is that the audience demands that you play, and the third is the
artist wants to play. So if I want you to play and the artist wants to play, I don’t care
if the audience has ever heard of this band or don’t want them to play. If the audience
demands that the artist plays and the artist really wants to play, but I’ve never heard of
the band – then we’ll give them a slot. So that’s basically the philosophy.
JamBase: How far in advance do you look at the lineup for again given year?
Jay Sweet: We start putting out offers now for 2015 because we don’t really book on
cycle per say we don’t care if your album went number one, we don’t care what triple-A
college radio station that you got added to. We’re basically booking a family of artists
that we love. The slots are based on the stages, we have three main stages and a smaller
stage, so you just do math and say ok we have about 65 slots and you just try and squeeze
as much in there as you can.
JamBase: It always seem so very democratic, you guys reach out via social media
asking about who people want to see play, you really don’t see that at other festivals…
Jay Sweet: It’s like what’s going on, turn us on to something, which is a two-way
that’s what social media is supposed to be about a social conversation not so much a one-
way megaphone. The interesting thing about that is we have a lot of manpower behind
hearing what people are saying, you know in a comment if someone says “I went to this so
and so show in Delaware and it was amazing,” we just kind of keep this running tally of
analytics, kind of power point information on a lot of artists.
Some artists we are looking at two years ago when they just formed and we didn’t think
that they were quite ready, but we’ve actually written to them and said please keep us
informed of all your successes and all your comings and goings, we are just like "please
keep us posted" like send us notes and they do. They’ll say "hey we just got a booking
agent" or we just got invited to open up for Patty Griffin on something. So it’s not just
we our family, you know the Newport Folk community, but it’s also with the artists
themselves, when they are really small, can we help, is there something that you need from
us. So the democratic thing as you mentioned is not only just with our community, it’s
with our artists as well.
JamBase: To that point about Newport being family, which artists have that carte
blanche invite to play?
Jay Sweet: There are some bands that just have an invite like from me directly -
I’ll hold you a
slot until you say that you’re not coming. And it’s not hard to decipher which bands those
are because those are the ones on our advisory board, you get on the advisory board, which
means all I need is a phone call saying that you have a slot, and I don’t care what
project you’re doing that’s different. If Colin Meloy or Chris Funk of The Decemberists,
either one of them wants to come with Black Prairie or Colin Meloy solo or Chris Funk
leads all the museum stage - it’s open.
John McCauley – oh you want to come with Middle Brother, or you want to do a solo thing,
Ok. Those things are made in thirty-seconds – meaning hey I’ve got this idea and I want to
come and try it out at Newport – no safety net, I’m going to try this out, well I’d rather
them do it at Newport than anywhere else on the face of the earth even if it’s a massive
disaster I’m fine with that. You know I will say that McCauley and I talked about Newport
and taking a big break after this year – we’ve never been more in love, but to your point
they’re playing the main stage, that’s a set I wouldn’t miss period!
JamBase: For the past two years you have gone with a rolling lineup, what’s the
reasoning behind that?
Jay Sweet: It was a conscious decision we just can’t play in the same field as all
festivals that have these massive corporate sponsors. The reality is, if I had a choice I
could just wait later and announce everything at once, but in all honesty I want to reward
the people that trust me.
To me every single person in the last two years that has come to Newport has said “I saw
last year’s line-up and I said I’ll never miss that festival.” So they’re buying their
tickets based on what they saw last year, and they don’t know what’s coming this year and
that to me is the single best achievement since I’ve taken over is the ability for these
people to trust that I’m going to do my best. And here’s the other thing – I might fail.
We didn’t get Beck until we were sold out last year, we were sold out and then we found
out that we got Beck. We could have just said screw it we’re sold out let’s not even throw
money at Beck, but at that point I was like are you kidding me, for all the people that
bought their tickets and we’ve announced the entire line up are ecstatic and now this late
in the game I get to say ‘ladies and gentlemen, please welcome Beck…” There is nothing
greater in life then to put that announcement out there.
JamBase: To that point Jack White was the last artist to be announced on this
year’s bill, and you referred to him as one of your ‘White Whales’. Can you talk a little
bit about bringing Jack White to Newport?
Jay Sweet: Did you see It Might Get Loud? The day that I decided that I
White, when I
freaked out, is when he’s sitting in his attic and he says "this is the record" and he
plays Son House, and that album, that record is a recording from Son House at Newport, and
he said "this is the song that changed my life."
It took me five years to get Jack White to come, personal letters begging, flat out on my
knees in the William-Morris office. I remember speaking to Bob Boilen and he told me that
Jack White at SXSW, when the Rolling Record Store made it’s very first appearance, three,
four years ago, and he said "Jay, he’s going to be pulling up in front of a hot dog stand
11 o’clock" and this was at 9 o’clock in the morning, so I rode my bike down and I stood
exactly in front of this hot dog stand and there was nobody there, and then all of a
sudden this truck pulls up, Seasick Steve plays a song, then Jack White comes out of the
truck and plugs in front of about 200 people, plays "Not Fade Away," I went right up and
introduced myself. He says you’re the guy that, I know about you, and he just said
“Someday, someday, don’t worry someday it’s going to happen.”
JamBase: And speaking of ‘white whales,’ who is still left on that original list
that you reference in your Jack White piece?
Jay Sweet: At some point you just start to say it’s a travesty when certain artists
their career played it yet. Jack White and Beck not withstanding cause they both still in
the prime of their thing. But others you look at a guy like Neil Young, or a Paul Simon or
someone that has an album called the Seeger Sessions who has yet to play the festival.
JamBase: Can you talk about bring Robert Hunter to Newport, it seemed like a very
obvious fit to me…
Jay Sweet: Yeah, that's a no-brainer, right - to me one of the top five greatest
alive. Another guy that who when I first got the job,
"I’m retired, I don’t do that
anymore" I wrote him a personal letter. He didn’t have an agent, so I wrote him a letter.
I grew up believing his words were gospel, I don’t want to throw that lightly – but that’s
a truthful statement. I was a creative writing major in college and I basically him as the
same as one would a Tennyson or a Walden. There is reason the Dylan works with Robert
Hunter, cause Robert Hunter is a genius, because who else do you know that somehow
managed to create these timeless characters of like a "Wharf Rat" or like a "Jack Straw"
where, ‘was the song written by Marty Stuart?,’ was that a real cowboy song, like "Brown-
Eyed Women?" Like where are these places? Do they actually exist?
JamBase: I just thought he was a perfect fit because I’ve always thought of the
Grateful Dead as the quintessential American band…
Jay Sweet: Robert Hunter could just show up and hold a guitar and talk and it would
be one of the
best sets of the festival. He doesn’t even have to sing; he could just talk about being in
London when he wrote "Brokedown Palace," "Ripple" and "Wharf Rat" in about a 45 minute
session when he was suffering from a fever and drinking red wine, and those three
songs, holy cow. People would kill for an entire career to write those three songs, and
those where just three that he did in an afternoon.
JamBase: How would you describe Newport to people that have never been?
Jay Sweet: The thing is I’ve stopped trying to compare it anything, because people
say to me,
“Well what’s it like?” I’m like well I don’t know, and that’s a good question, and I’m
obviously a fairly verbose person when it comes to talking about this stuff. I actually
out of things to say. If you’ve been to Newport, you get it. You either trust us and come
and check it out and if you don’t like it understood, but if you do like it - you just met
10,000 of your next best music friends – we’re your family. The goal is, if a friend tells
you, just trust me I’m going to buy you a ticket to Newport come – we turn that person on,
that’s the goal.
JamBase: In the past I’ve described Newport Folk as the “music fan’s, music
Jay Sweet: And that’s it, right there, I don’t have a Ferris wheel, sorry. I don’t
have this cool
amazing sound sculpture with 15-foot things that throw water - I don’t. I’d rather spend
every single dollar on squeezing in another band especially if it’s some no-name band that
I saw in some no-name bar blowing the roof off the joint as if they were playing as if
they were playing at the main stage at Glastonbury. I want that band, I don’t care. The
biggest complainant that I get from everybody is ‘there is too much music at Newport’ that
is something that I will gladly accept the anger of people from. If you had three favorite
musicians playing at once you could probably catch twenty minutes of each one of them by
walking 100 yards in a different direction so it’s a very unique.
JamBase: Who are some of the smaller bands that you are excited about on this
Jay Sweet: This year I love the Oh Hellos I think they are fantastic. I think Phox
is amazing. I
think Hosier is pretty incredible. The funny things is even when I discover, well I don’t
discover bands, I just find them, what I mean is even the period between when we book them
and now, there are things that have grown on me tremendously, ‘like oh they’re going to be
pretty good,’ and then all of a sudden you’re getting closer to the festival and you
realize wow I’ve listen to a lot of Mandolin Orange, or I’ve listened to a lot of the Oh
JamBase: I would think as an artist Newport might be a little bit of a daunting
place to play given the festival’s history. What advice do you give to the acts that are
playing Newport for the first time?
Jay Sweet: It’s very easy, which is it’s a very stock answer, it’s a generic but
stock answer, I
say "remember where you are." What I mean by that is if you come and you did what you did
at three nights on tour leading up to it this crowd will know so fast and they will sit on
their hands and they will make you feel about inch tall. Cause if you are, it’s not going
to be one for the ages. It’s not going to be Dylan goes electric, it’s not going to be the
Pixies goes acoustic, it’s not going to be the Felice Brother playing in the mud, it’s not
going to be Beck playing and singing Sunday Sun as the sun comes out.
The minute that you make them realize that you know where you are and what stage that you
are on, meaning what Jim James said – "ghosts upon ghosts upon ghosts" - if you make the
audience believe that you know where you are they’re yours that’s it.
JamBase: Have there been any bands that you’ve book that have really surprised you?
Jay Sweet: I’ll get overwhelmed in the beginning like this band is incredible and
this band is
incredible and they really are going to blow people away, then you know you book somebody
and you were kind of like on the fence on - like Milk Carton Kids last year. Milk Carton
Kids were the last band that I booked, because I was like "eh, I don’t know," and they
just unbelievable. If you’re seen them live it’s like Gil and Dave meets Simon and
Garfunkel meets the Smothers Brothers, they are funny as hell, they have chops beyond
chops and they have these voices. But that’s the thing it didn’t hit me, it didn’t clobber
me over the head and say I’m awesome, it was the sublime and I’ll get off on the sublime.
JamBase: Finally, will we ever see Bob Dylan play Newport again?
Jay Sweet: He gets an invite every year. It’s up to Uncle Bob, it has nothing to do
with us. He
gets an offer every year.
This year's edition of the Newport Folk Festival officially kicks off on Friday
at roughly 12:45 p.m. with a set from Tall Tall Trees, and will wrap up around dusk on
Sunday night, with a festival-closing set from Mavis Staples. The festival will once again
be recorded and streamed by NPR. Ryan Adams' set will be streamed live with others
available in the NPR archives shortly after the sets, where they are permanently
You can follow along with live coverage from the fest by following me on Twitter and Instagram.