I was born and raised here in the Tri-Cities. Since I was ten years old, a group of dedicated musicians and music lovers have been working hard each year to put on a free concert in the park called the Tumbleweed Music Festival. A two day (and mostly free) gathering in Howard Amon Park that hosts an almost overwhelming list of regional artists, Tumbleweed Music Festival is a staple of the Tri-Cities! And yet, somehow I had never been to one.
As much as I love music, my passion has always been food — mostly making it for others, especially in a communal environment. It was a pleasant surprise, then, when a food co-op acquaintance named Chris Medford asked if anyone wanted to help her in the kitchens for a few hours for this music festival. It sounded like a fun time — a couple hours cooking in a kitchen to help out a free festival. Besides, a bunch of people I know said Tumbleweed was cool.
Chris Mesford has been in charge of feeding everyone at the Tumbleweed Music Festival for the last 27 years. When I first got the email from Chris saying she was bringing her whole kitchen down to the Richland Community Center to help prepare whatever food gets donated, I had imagined a chef and their professional kitchen supplies. But Chris isn’t a chef by profession; she’s an English teacher. What I found when I got there Saturday afternoon was a collection of home kitchen tools and spices spread out all over the small kitchen. We didn’t even have a single burner, just a great little tilt kettle (which was crucial since it’s the only way we had to boil water). I didn’t know it at the time, but this small space with limited professional equipment is a huge step up from the rusted brick barbeque they used when the festival first started.
We didn’t have time for stories that weekend, though, so I just started cooking and helping make suggestions to the other volunteers with less culinary experience (including two wonderful women who were just really happy to be in the kitchen helping out, and even happier to have a new person to talk to). For the Saturday lunch, a lot of salads, sandwiches and desserts constantly went out to the dining room where there were always a few people really excited for whatever you were putting out, ready to plate it up on the largest random collection of dishware I’ve ever seen. The space had a professional dishwashing unit and there was always a volunteer genuinely excited to play with the sprayer and run all the dishes, so over the years, Chris started buying plates and cups and silverware from the Goodwill so they didn’t have to keep buying single use stuff.
After seemingly no time had passed, we were ready for the big Saturday night dinner, where there were three different kinds of chicken, a vegetarian medley, and all the baked potatoes you could eat. Processing that many potatoes was a breeze with help from two missionaries who were part of a group of Mormons that came in and out, volunteering in pairs. What I didn’t know at the time was that we had taken the job of baking potatoes from a man who had been doing them since 1996. Back then, he’d had to wrap each one in aluminum foil and cook them directly on coals. We met him later, after the potatoes were already prepped and in the oven, and he seemed pretty grateful that someone else had taken care of them this time.
It sounds cliché, but the best part about the whole experience was how happy and laidback everyone there was. This event is a labor of love for everyone involved; no one gets paid to be there, they all just love the music and getting together to jam and reconnect each year. In fact, when Chris met up with me for coffee a week after the event in her Live, Love, Accept shirt, the majority of her stories were about the music: about getting to participate on stage, about being backstage and listening to talented musicians playing around riffing off each other, and about the many wonderful musicians that have passed away, leaving her thankful that she got to hear collaborations that will never happen again.
It’s a lot of work on Chris’ part — soliciting veggie donations from Schrieber and the annual potatoes from Booker, trying to coordinate personal donations so people with different dietary needs are accounted for, and all the organizing, transporting, and storing of food and equipment each year. Armies march on their stomachs, and so do the over two hundred musicians, volunteers, and vendors that come in and out for breakfast, lunch, and dinner during the festival.
Chris says she has a few more years left in the tank but the biggest concern is that there aren’t enough of the younger generations helping out, learning all the facets of running the festival as the OG generation ages out. It’s not just the kitchen that could use help; the festival as a whole could really benefit from an infusion of new blood that cares in the same way they did almost 30 years ago when this whole thing started.
It seemed like random chance I was asked for some help this year, but after talking with Chris and experiencing the festival from the inside, it feels more like fate that I was able to use my own lived experience to help such a great project (and a wonderful person) make wholesome food for the Tumbleweed Music Festival. There are so many amazing people here, all working together to put on a free show for whoever wants to come listen.*
The 2023 Tumbleweed Music Festival just ended, but we’ll be back next September! And there is work to do, even now, to start prepping for next year. If you want to reach out and get on the list to help, send an email to email@example.com. Let them know what you’re good at and what you're interested in doing to help out, and they’ll let you know what they need help with.
The Tumbleweed Music Festival is a really great event, and even if you can’t help out, you should put it in your calendar next year. Just come and listen to the dozens of amazing performers who are here for all of us. Hopefully, I’ll see you there!
*It doesn’t hurt that I also occasionally write articles for an awesome paper and can help spread the word, in case there are others out there like me that don’t really know how cool this event really is! Want to help keep it going? Email firstname.lastname@example.org