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, Jay Sweet.
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, how hard 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 were 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 George created 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 an album 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 street and 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 these other 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 wanted Jack 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 at 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 haven’t in 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 songwriters 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 run 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 festival,”…
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 year’s lineup?
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 Hellos.
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 were 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 afternoon 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 available.