How the Newport Folk Festival Got Its Groove Back

"Bands are willing to turn to their management and say, 'I'm doing Newport and we'll probably lose a little bit of money.'"

Newport Folk Festival, Jim James
Douglas Mason/Getty Images
Jim James at the 2013 Newport Folk Festival.
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In 2008, ticket sales at the Newport Folk Festival had become so slow that founder George Wein was considering selling the 50-year-old event where Dylan went electric in 1965. That's when Jay Sweet – a journalist and music supervisor for filmmakers the Farrelly Brothers – wrote an 18-page proposal asking for a shot at booking the fest, which kicks off its 55th year tomorrow. He got the job and put together a lineup combining indie acts like Iron & Wine, Deer Tick and the Decemberists with vets like Pete Seeger and Arlo Guthrie.

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It sold out, and the formula has produced tons of unforgettable moments in recent years: In 2010, for instance, members of Dawes and the Felice Brothers backed their hero Levon Helm on "The Weight," and last year, Beck tossed out his setlist to invite hero Ramblin' Jack Elliot out for an unrehearsed set of Hank Williams songs. "They had never even met before," says Sweet, 43. "Those are the things where I'm just like, 'You've got to be fucking kidding me.'" One of Sweet's favorite memories is trying to track down 92-year-old Pete Seeger, only to see him perched on some stage scaffolding 30 feet above the stage. "He said 'Everyone keeps bothering me and I just want to see the Decemberists!'"

"My favorite memories of Newport are the unexpected, unplanned moments," said Jim James, who has played Newport numerous times with projects including My Morning Jacket and Monsters of Folk, in a rambling email. "[Like] when someone invited me to join them onstage, in the street or on a boat in the harbor or in the yard of some fucked up mansion early in the morning, or ringing church bells and wrestling wild boar in the chapel late at night, duets with the late great Whitney Houston, night swimming, howling in the streets, singing in the fort. It's another world."

Most big acts take a financial hit to play the three-day fest, held on the gorgeous, centuries-old Fort Adams with a daily capacity of only 10,000 (though many more spectators watching from boats on the surrounding harbor). "These people are playing the festival not for the dollar," says Sweet. "And I don't know how many places in America, bands who have big management companies and massive agencies, that are multi-national agencies, who are willing to turn to their agent and their agencies and their management and say, 'I'm doing Newport and we'll probably lose a little bit of money.' I'm very lucky that a lot of them have found us. I've been around enough to know that it's a unique situation."

"The man is obsessed," says Jim James of Sweet. "I remember one time we were hanging out in my hotel room. There were tons of people in there and he was sitting at the desk the entire night laughing and hanging out. And the next morning I looked at the pad of paper that had been sitting in front of him and it said, 'Newport Folk Fest!' It's like he can think of nothing else!"

This year's lineup – including Jack White, Jeff Tweedy, Jimmy Cliff, Robert Hunter and Mavis Staples, who first played Newport in 1964 – sold out before it was even announced. "I love that nobody bought a ticket knowing Jack White would be there – but were so excited when they found out," says Sweet, adding that his goal is to one day keep the lineup a secret until festivalgoers arrive. "We've actually flirted with the idea. You'd literally walk on site, and you would be handed 'Here's today's schedule.' I want to reward the people that trust us," he says. "I realize that I'm just here to keep it 'til the next guy, but they're going to have to pry it out of my cold dead folkin' fingers."

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