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When 18-year-old banjo prodigy Houston Caldwell died in a motorcycle crash in 2010, his loss was felt by the entire community. Gone too soon was a gifted musician, a born leader, a soldier, a firefighter, a brother and a son.
But Houston’s parents and friends in the traditional music world didn’t mourn — they made it their mission to celebrate his life by creating a legacy that unites several of his passions.
Parents Tess and Kenneth Caldwell and friend Debbie Robinson have worked for the past week to create HoustonFest, a new event that will benefit the organization Houston loved — the Galax Volunteer Fire Department — and a charity for youth music program. The fire department also has signed on to help present the festival.
One of his goals, listed in a private journal — “Be a volunteer firefighter till the day I die.”
Tragic though it was, Houston did just that. After a couple of years as a cadet, he had just been installed as a firefighter a few days before his death.
This week, an army of firefighters and about 130 volunteers began working non-stop to transform Felts Park for the first-ever HoustonFest, which takes place Friday and Saturday.
The goal is for it to become an annual event.
The festival’s steering committee is focusing on the impact Houston had on young people and hopes to foster and encourage youth involvement. Each committee chair recruited a young person to share the duties and serve as co-chair.
“The ultimate goal is to have local youth continue the HoustonFest foundation and festival for many years to come,” Robinson said. “When the time comes for us to sit in rocking chairs, we’ll pass the torch to these youth and be assured that Houston’s music and legacy will continue.”
Community service is an important part of Houston Caldwell’s legacy, as much a part of his character as bluegrass and old-time music.
One of his journal entries reveals his core beliefs in service — “I believe in success through personal responsibility and hard work, and taking care of your own.. [I] strongly encourage more family, work and community involvement.”
Houston is remembered as a young man who excelled at anything he put his mind to.
And in his brief life, he had put his mind to a lot. The 2009 Carroll County High School graduate had begun traveling all over with the bluegrass band Broken Wire he formed three years ago; had just gotten back from training to go into the U.S. Army Reserves, had just become a member of the Galax Volunteer Fire Department and had planned to attend college in the fall to become a police officer.
“He wanted his hands in everything and was the perfect role model for any kid. He worked so hard and was going to succeed in everything he did,” said Stevie Barr, Houston’s first banjo teacher and manager at Barr’s Fiddle Shop in downtown Galax, where Caldwell worked.
“These parents have suffered an incredible loss yet are still willing to continue giving to their community as they always taught Houston to do,” Robinson said. “My respect and admiration for the Caldwells grows more each day.”
The outpouring of love from the community, as well as the support of musicians that Houston came to know, has been uplifting to the entire Caldwell family.
Interest in the event has been high, Robinson said. She reports ticket sales from New York, Pennsylvania, Maryland, Indiana, Florida, South Carolina, Tennessee, West Virginia, Minnesota, South Dakota, Delaware and even the United Kingdom.
“An encouraging response was received from musicians who wished to participate by contributing time and talent,” Robinson said. “Houston touched numerous lives, young and old alike, from all walks of life.” More than 40 bands and performers have signed on, many of them nationally known.
The HoustonFest Foundation plans to “inspire others to serve their community, their country, encouraging them to fulfill their dreams and passions with the drive, energy, honesty and generosity that Houston exemplified,” she added.
She admits she has quite a reputation to live up to. “I will do my best and give it 110 percent — just as Houston would do.”
HoustonFest 2011 is supported with a grant from the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities.
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