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Had his life not been cut short by a motorcycle crash this spring, banjo prodigy Houston Caldwell would have turned 19 this week.
The soldier, musician, firefighter and community volunteer is missed, but his legacy of service and talent will live on.
His loss — and more importantly, his life — inspired a group of volunteers to create a new music festival in his memory. HoustonFest 2011 will benefit the organization he loved — the Galax Volunteer Fire Department — and various non-profit youth music programs.
Parents Tess and Kenneth Caldwell and friend Debbie Robinson are organizing the festival, set for May 6-7, 2011, in Galax's Felts Park.
“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.”
In the past few months, HoustonFest has grown, and so have the number of people pitching in to help.
“A small army of volunteers, including people of all ages and all walks of life, are committed to seeing HoustonFest become a reality,” Robinson said. A group of about 40 has been meeting consistently at the Galax firehouse since Aug. 5 to plan the event.
“The firehouse was buzzing with enthusiasm and creativity. It was so inspiring to see everyone eagerly working to make HoustonFest a reality and it's really quite amazing to see the positive impact that our friend Houston continues to make on this community,” Robinson said.
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, Robinson said.
“There's no shortage of interested and caring people who are determined to carry on Houston's legacy, however there's still the issue of funding to offset expenses of organizing and presenting a festival,” she said. “And we're not talking small. The more we meet, the larger it becomes.”
The list of performers has grown to about 30 bands — made up of more than 100 musicians. Bluegrass, old-time, gospel and country music will be part of the festival, with a special area, Camp Houston, dedicated to youth.
Scheduled to perform at HoustonFest 2011 are Blue Highway, Cherryholmes, Mountain Heart, Sierra Hull & Highway 11, Darrell Webb Band, Wayne Henderson, Ron Block, VW Boys, Houston Drive, Still-House, Cana Ramblers, Gold Heart, Crossroad, Pathway, Exit 109, Brandon Davis Band, Jimmy Edmonds Band, Red Head Express, Marshall Brothers & High Road, Amber Collins & No Speed Limit, Jonny & The Jambusters, White Top Mountain Band, Crooked Road Ramblers, Mountain Park Oldtime Band, Zeb & Samantha Snyder, The Church Sisters, Blue Ridge Travelers, Loose Strings, Adam McPeak & Mountain Thunder, Emily Henline, Montana Young and Old Grass.
“We owe a great deal of gratitude to many folks who have stepped up to show support,” Robinson said.
Community service is an important part of Houston Caldwell's legacy, as much a part of his character as bluegrass and old-time music.
Just before his death, the 2009 Carroll County High School graduate had been traveling all over with the bluegrass band Broken Wire he formed three years ago; had just gotten back from training at Fort Leonard Wood, Mo., to go into the U.S. Army Reserves; and had just become a member of the Galax Volunteer Fire Department. He had planned to attend college to become a police officer.
“Although he's not here physically, Houston's spirit continues to make a positive impact on this community through the work of the festival organizers and supporters,” Robinson said.
She cited an example of how Houston is still inspiring people and leading them to encourage young musicians.
The band Blue Highway, one of the HoustonFest headliners, has started a Houston Caldwell Scholarship program, which will give a student free tuition each year.
“This type of generosity is typical in the bluegrass music world and is just another example of how Houston touched others and made a positive impression,” Robinson said. “Having these types of programs will assure us that Houston's legacy will be sustained for years to come and many young aspiring musicians will have opportunities to play string music.”
The biggest challenge facing HoustonFest organizers is finding ways to pay for the ever-growing event.
“We have an enthusiastic sales team prepared to call on as many businesses as possible for support through sponsorships. There are opportunities for any size business to be a part of HoustonFest, from the small “Mom & Pops” to the corporate sponsors,” Robinson said. “There are also opportunities for individual sponsorships.”
The Rex Theater's “Blue Ridge Backroads Live” radio show will hold a series of benefit concerts for HoustonFest. The first is tonight, Friday, at 8 p.m., featuring The Snyder Family Band with Zeb & Samantha.
Admission is $5 at the door and proceeds will benefit the Houston Caldwell Foundation.
A special slide presentation will be shown on the Rex movie screen preceding the concert, and autographed merchandise from HoustonFest 2011 bands will be available for sale.
The Rex Theater East Grayson Street in downtown Galax.
Friends of the Friday night “Blue Ridge Backroads Show” will remember Houston with handwritten memoirs. For a small donation, these memories will be listed in the HoustonFest Program book, as well as on the HoustonFestGalax.com website.
Robinson said innovative ideas from many individuals and businesses who wish to help continue to develop.
A New You Salon & Spa held a special open house on Oct. 29. The staff dressed in camouflage in memory of Houston, and patrons were invited to make a contribution to HoustonFest.
A handmade quilt has been contributed by Lola Bryant. Raffle tickets are now available.
On Nov. 19, a “Chili-Drive Thru” fundraiser will be held in the Galax Volunteer Fire Department parking lot area.
A chili supper will include corn bread, dessert and drink for $5. HoustonFest Volunteers and members of GVFD Auxiliary will work the drive-thru from 4-8 p.m. Proceeds will go to the fire department and HoustonFest.
Grant funding applications are being explored, Robinson said.