The Deep Roots Festival will mark its 15th anniversary this October, but some may not know that its roots go back further, to 1995.
Since then, it has evolved into a booming music and arts festival known across the state.
Deep Roots can be traced back to “Fest-Of-Ville,” a daytime arts and crafts festival located on Front Campus from 10 a.m. -5 p.m. The festival was a play on the words “festival” and “Milledgeville” forming Fest-Of-Ville.
Fest-Of-Ville began in 1995 and was put on every year during the second weekend of November.
In 2002, Frank Pendergast, owner of The Brick, saw a decline in ticket sales over the years and made the executive decision to end Fest-Of-Ville.
The following year, Pendergast and his team traveled through Georgia and observed how small towns put on festivals, eventually applying what they learned in Milledgeville.
At the time, Milledgeville did not allow open containers on the street. An alcoholic beverage could be consumed inside a bar, but organizers wanted people to grab a beer and walk around.
In 2003, Pendergast and his team sought a change in the law for the festival date. The change was passed, but the city was cautious, said Pendergast.
“They [the city of Milledgeville] were concerned that things would get out of hand and that we wouldn’t be able to control things,” Pendergast said.
The inaugural event was called the SweetWater Festival, based on the discovery of Jarrett Springs in the center of the city.
Historical evidence shows the spring and the proximity of the Oconee River determined the settlement location of Milledgeville, and why it was established as the explorer who discovered the spring, John Clark, was carrying a flask of whiskey and used the spring water as a mixer, which he noticed made the new beverage very sweet. The spring was then colloquially called the ‘SweetWater Springs’ because of the water’s sweet taste.
Heather Pendergast, wife of Frank Pendergast, remembered hearing about the spring in a GC history class, which led to her coming up with the name SweetWater Festival.
The first festival was intentionally designed to be a trial run, said Pendergast.
SweetWater Brewing Company, one of Atlanta’s first craft breweries, also co-sponsored this first festival.
Jimmy Holder, who is in charge of marketing at the festival, explained that they were approached by SweetWater Brewing Company, who wanted to co-sponsor the event and provide their beer to attendees.
For the festival, two flatbed trailers were brought in and jackknifed together to create a stage, even though the two trailers were of different heights.
As the sun started to go down and the focus of the festival shifted to music, the event organizers realized they forgot to buy lights.
The organizers rushed to a local hardware store and purchased lights so attendees were not standing in complete darkness.
“It was a great show in the dark,” Holder said, in a 2015 interview with The Blue Indian.
In 2005, SweetWater was not invited back. Pendergrast attributes that decision to a disagreement over SweetWater’s conduct.
“They [SweetWater] have an attitude,” Pendergast said. “They have a gimmick, and their employees act that way, which is fine, but it does bother me when my reputation is on the line, and our event could get pulled because of the way they acted. So we didn’t invite them back, and Freddy Bensch, the CEO, decided he was gonna sue us.”
SweetWater did sue for trademark infringement in federal court, but Milledgeville Mainstreet backed down.
Pendergast explained that at the end of the day, the case was going to be an attorney fight, and that Milledgeville Mainstreet as a nonprofit was not going to spend $20,000 to win the name back.
Pendergast and Holder, along with Justin Jones, chairman of the board for the Milledgeville Mainstreet, changed the name to Deep Roots in 2009.
Since the name change, attendance rates and ticket sales have increased every single year exponentially. In 2004, the festival had an $11,000 budget, 15 arts and crafts vendors and just under 7,000 attendees.
Flash forward to 2017, the Deep Roots Festival doubled those numbers with an estimated attendance of 19,500 people, and with this year’s numbers are expected to be even higher.
In his 2015 interview with The Blue Indian, Holder said that the arts and crafts vendors of 2004 could be counted on your hands, but now there are far more vendors expected.
“We hated that we had to change our name, [but] Deep Roots has been hugely successful, and I don’t think we’ve ever looked back,” Jones said.
2017 saw big progress for the festival as The Union-Recorder called Deep Roots the best annual event. Also in 2017, the festival won its 22nd Kaleidoscope Award in eight years. The Kaleidoscope Awards celebrate the best and brightest festivals in the south.
One of the main, and arguably most important parts of the festival, is the music portion. With the first act, the Rock U Allstars starting the day off at 2:45 p.m. and the final act, The Norm playing at 10:25 p.m., the festival grows more jam-packed as the evening goes on.
This year is a bit different in terms of music. In the past, lesser-known bands played earlier in the day with more popular bands paying later in the evening, but this year the headliner of the festival will go before the final act. Headliners Black Joe Lewis & The Honey Bears go on at 8:45 p.m., and The Norm will take the stage at 10:25 p.m. for a “Late Night Set.”
Holder said the music selection process is very innovative.
“I try to catch bands that are affordable at the times we make offers,” Holder said. “Judah and the Lion was not popular when we got them. Rainbow Kitten Surprise was not popular when we booked them. The idea is to catch them on the way up, before they become too big to play in Milledgeville. It doesn’t necessarily have to do with genre, but it has to do with availability and what band shows the most promise of growth and having a continuing career.”
2018 will also be different because there will be a new layout, and the overall flow of the festival will be altered, said Jones. The number of attendees and arts and crafts vendors will most likely continue to rise as the festival becomes more popular as the years go on. With the new layout, there will be 80 spaces for vendors, but the committee is aiming for 65 because some vendors buy out two spaces.