HoustonFest honors banjo player's music, service

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The second annual event celebrates the legacy of Houston Caldwell with two days of old-time and bluegrass music.

By April Wright, Reporter


Last year, more than 4,500 people attended the first HoustonFest in Felts Park over the course of the two days.
This year, as the May 4-5 festival expands with an auction, camping and a fire truck parade, HoustonFest is gaining an even larger following. Visitors are traveling from all over the U.S. and even from the U.K. and Germany, said Debbie Robinson, director of HoustonFest.
The concert features 35 bluegrass and country bands, including headliners Ricky Skaggs & Kentucky Thunder, Sierra Hull & Highway 111, Doyle Lawson & Quicksilver and John Berry. Over the two days, musical entertainment will be held on three stages.
Throughout the park, jam sessions, workshops, dancing and music will be found, with performances starting at 2 p.m. on Friday and lasting throughout the evening. Music starts at 10 a.m. on Saturday, with Ricky Skaggs & Kentucky Thunder performing at 8 p.m.
HoustonFest is named in honor of Houston Caldwell, a local banjo prodigy, soldier and volunteer firefighter who was killed in a motorcycle wreck at age 18 in April 2010.
The proceeds from HoustonFest are donated to the Galax Volunteer Fire Department, where Caldwell served as a cadet and was inducted as a member shortly before his death; to a scholarship fund in memory of Caldwell; and toward the operation expenses of HoustonFest.
The fire department is hoping that HoustonFest will become one of its largest fundraising events.
“Houston loved the fire department and always had a great attitude,” said Mike Ayers, first lieutenant of the department and one of the event organizers. “He was a very aggressive worker, with a thirst for knowledge. He lived and breathed it.”
To commemorate its 100th anniversary, the Galax Volunteer Fire Department will kick off each night with a fire truck parade in front of the Felts Park stage at 6 p.m., featuring equipment dating from the 1930s to today. Long-time fire department members will be honored as they ride along, and young firefighter cadets will follow.
Ayers said this represents the fire department’s slogan, “Pride in the past. Dedicated to the future.”
Fire department memorabilia, including antique equipment, will be featured both days. “Kids will be able to sit on the truck, ring the bell, and we’ll have some period gear and equipment,” said Ayers.

For the second year, Camp Houston will highlight the area’s rich musical heritage. The area is dedicated to youth, music, workshops, jam sessions and other activities focusing on continuing the musical tradition of the region.
An instrument “petting zoo” at Camp Houston gives youth the opportunity to be introduced to instruments. Musicians will teach youth about the different instruments and will allow them to hold and play them.
“For kids that have never played an instrument before, they can try out an instrument,” said Tony Hatcher, organizer. “When young people have an instrument, it’s with them at all times, and when two or more children gather, you can expect to see them jamming together.”
HoustonFest will also include arts and crafts from Chestnut Creek School of the Arts and other artisans, as well as military and law enforcement displays.

A live auction will be held at 4 p.m. on Saturday on the main stage, featuring acoustic string instruments crafted by master luthiers of the Appalachian region, including Wayne Henderson, Jimmy Edmonds and Gerald Anderson.
Prior to the auction, each luthier will talk about their experiences in the music business— how they got started and where they are now.
Ken Farmer, featured on PBS program “Antiques Roadshow,” will be the auctioneer for the live auction, and people from around the world will be allowed to bid on these instruments online at www.kfauctions.com.
“People stand in line for years to get a Henderson guitar,” even stars like Eric Clapton, said Hatcher of Henderson’s 10-year waiting list. “Now is their opportunity.”
Under a tent near the main stage, a silent auction will be held on both days, featuring instruments, arts and crafts, furniture and more.
Hatcher said many don’t want to sell instruments that have been passed down from generation, but might wonder what it’s worth. Farmer, along with other master luthiers, will appraise instruments.

Winners of the Houston Caldwell Music Scholarship will be announced during the festival, and a percentage from the live auction will be donated to this program.
The fund began this year as an opportunity to remember Caldwell and his ability to reach out to people of all ages and walks of life through his service and his music.

New this year, a limited number of camp sites will be available by reservation by calling 236-9908. This will include 10 RV spots for $25 a day, and 20 tent spots for $15 per night, available on a first-come, first serve basis. Musicians are encouraged to bring their instruments and join in on jams.
Firefighters work throughout the week to set up tents and organize the logistics to make sure everything goes as planned.
“We were very blessed to have the community support us last year,” said Ayers. “We’re hoping that when it becomes sustaining that funds will help offset our expenses."
More than 200 volunteers, including many high school students and firefighters, did their part to help last year.  

Tickets to HoustonFest are $15 for a one-day advance ticket, or $25 for a two-day advance ticket. Tickets will go up $5 per day at the door. Tickets can be purchased online at houstonfestgalax.com, or at the Galax Visitors Center, Roy’s Diamond Center, Barr’s Fiddle Shop, Leaf & String, Cox Realty and RJ’s Pizza & Subs.


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