Orange County

Streets alive with the sounds of Carrboro Music Festival this weekend

Carrboro is a town with a beat, a rhythm equal parts artist, hippie, social activist, good ol boy and soccer mom. So, it’s no surprise the Carrboro Music Festival has grown from a few dozen volunteer performers on a handful of stages 20 years ago to more than 200 local bands (still donating their time and talent) on 29 stages all over town.

The festival is Saturday, Sept. 23, from 1 to 7 p.m. and Sunday, Sept. 24, from 1 p.m. to midnight. There’s even a free, eco-friendly shuttle bus from Carrboro Plaza on Sunday.

Featuring a diverse range of genres, from classic rock to classical, the music festival draws thousands of performers, neighbors and local businesses to the streets of Carrboro for what the town does best: laid-back harmony.

But how does a festival like this happen? The more apt question when it comes to Carrboro is, how can it not?

“He kisses all the girls; he's shameless,” says Diane Rodelli of the Pagan Hellcats as Pete Pawsey, lead singer of the Radar's Clowns of Sedation, leans in for a kiss on the Weaver Street Market lawn on Sunday, Sept, 28, 2014. Mark Schultz

In 1998, the Carrboro Arts Committee was a group of citizens supporting Carrboro’s evolution from mill town to arts center. Member Liz Boisson, who had just returned from 10 years in France, proposed an event that was based on the Fete de la Musique, a free music festival in villages and cities across France on the summer solstice (June 21). The proposal jived with the town slogan “The Paris of the Piedmont” and Carrboro became an officially Fete de la Musique venue recognized by the Minister of Culture in France, just one of four U.S. cities at that time (including New York and San Francisco).

Founding volunteer Jackie Helvey will never forget that inaugural June Sunday in 1998 when musician Tim Smith hurried by, saxaphone in hand, grin on his face. He had just finished playing a set on an outdoor stage in a Carrboro parking lot and was dashing to another stage to play with a second band. By the end of that first festival, Smith had played with six groups in six parking lots. Fast-forward 20 years and a couple of months and it’s the same story: Smith’s sax is still firmly in hand, the grin still on his face.

Founding volunteer Berkeley Grimball and long-time coordinator Gerry Williams share the same memory of that first festival. With a weather forecast in the upper-nineties, they hurriedly cobbled together a make-shift tent out of two paint-splattered tarps to shade the performers. Years later, Williams found an old photo of beloved Red Clay Rambler Tommy Thompson singing under that home-spun sun shade. It was one of Thompson’s last performances and a poignant and fitting reminder of what the festival is all about: musicians coming together to do what they love–give the gift of their music to appreciative audiences.

Allyn Sharp, a public defender form Carrboro, left, and Elia Bizzarri, 30, a traditional chairmaker from Hillsborough, dance to the rockabilly band the Swang Brothers outside the Southern Rail restaurant Sunday, Sept. 28, 2014. MARK SCHULTZ

Currently, the festival is a coordinated effort by the Carrboro Recreation and Parks Department and the Carrboro Music Festival Planning Committee, with support from the Carrboro Tourism Development Authority.

To Helvey, the festival is quintessential Carrboro.

“On a typical night, you can walk down the street and hear music coming from bars and restaurants. This festival is a typical night times a thousand,” she said. “To be able to walk through Carrboro and hear music no matter where you are, what’s better than that?”

For details about the Carrboro Music Festival schedule, visit