REMUS — Mention the word “Wheatland” around these parts and the eyes of most roots music lovers will light up with fond memories of camping, concerts under the summer stars, and cool September evenings communing with friends both known and unknown.
For 41 years, the Wheatland Music Organization has presented what can only be described as the premier West Michigan concert weekend, just outside the small town of Remus. Each year — during the first full weekend of September — thousands of visitors flock to the area, transforming Remus into a sort of mini-Woodstock, complete with tie-dyed T-shirts, granny glasses and more peace, love and understanding than you can shake a hookah at.
Amazing as the experience is, the event is but a small part of the organization’s driving purpose — to spread a love of and appreciation for music and the arts throughout the area. The Wheatland Music Organization does this in many ways, by helping sponsor other music and arts events, through educational initiatives and by hosting year-round lessons, classes and seminars at the Wheatland complex.
According to longtime Wheatland board member Kim Croy, those ongoing efforts have helped foster a new generation of performers and artists such as dancer Nick Garrus, who will be performing at this year’s festival.
“Nick actually grew up dancing on the Wheatland stage,” Croy said. “Now he dances all over the world. He helped put on the 40th anniversary performance last year and he’s coming back again this year.”
Singer Rachel Davis is yet another Wheatland alum who cut her teeth before Remus audiences. Now, Davis annually hosts the festival’s Sunday morning gospel concert.
“She performs nationally now,” Croy said. “She appears everywhere from Nashville to Michigan. She’s another artist who grew up on the Wheatland stage; there are quite a few of them.”
Wheatland board members are always looking to the future, always searching to cultivate that next great talent. In fact, funding that effort is one of the main reasons for the annual Wheatland Music Festival, hands down the biggest money maker for the organization.
Each year the festival raises between $10,000 and $12,000.
“That money supports Wheat Scouts, our senior center shows and helps fund our year-round activities,” Croy said.
It also goes toward providing “mini-grants” to budding young artists and musicians, a project Croy is particularly excited about. Some of these scholarships, such as the Elyce Fishman Scholarship, has been around since 1989 and is funded by an annual allocation by the organization and through public and private donations.
According to the Wheatland Music Organization’s website, the funding is intended to “assist Michigan children and adults to improve their skills in the areas of traditional music, dance, arts and crafts.”
Lakeview resident Deb Gorby was one of more than 30 young people to receive a WMO scholarship last year. She used the money to attend a fiddle music and dance camp, where her musical horizons were greatly expanded.
“We had a variety of teachers that each showed us techniques useful to fiddle tunes,” Gorby said. “Prior to camp, I didn’t know many fiddle tunes, nor did I know much about fiddle bowing. I had plenty of opportunities in the classes and at the impromptu jam sessions to watch and learn tunes and techniques from the other fiddlers.”
Adelyn Kirby, 11, of Big Rapids, was another Fishman Scholarship winner last year. She attended Wheatland’s Traditional Arts Weekend where she was able to take part in numerous fiddle workshops.
The Wheatland Music Organization’s Scholarship Committee is made up of adults and young people from several area counties who serve on a volunteer basis.
As to this year’s concert lineup, Croy said Wheatland fans can expect more of the same great musical experience they’ve enjoyed in previous years.
“It’s going to be fabulous, as always,” Croys said. “The performer committee put together a really excellent lineup this year. It’s very diversified; there’s going to be something for everybody.”
The festival’s “second stage” will this year feature primarily bands from Michigan, a nod to the considerable talent that exists within the state. The main stage will offer mostly national acts and favorites from previous years.
Croy added the board has been trying to iron out a few logistical issues, as well. Parking, always an issue with so many in attendance, is being expanded — at least for “long-term” visitors — to a lot across the street from the festival. Those willing to walk the few extra yards will receive “a little incentive.”
“If you don’t need your car for the weekend and you park there, it frees up more space for campsites,” Croy said. “You can call the (Wheatland Music Organization) office for more information on that, but there will be incentives for those who do that. We’re lucky to have this kind of problem.”
This year’s festival gets underway Sept. 5 and runs through Sept. 7. Wheatland “newbies,” Croy added, may want to “give it a try” with a Sunday-only ticket, which may be purchased online or at the Wheatland box office.
For more information, visit wheatlandmusic.org online.