Next week, world-renowned musicians will take the stage in Yachats to play Celtic music to sold-out crowds from all over Oregon and beyond. Few will mind that they are sitting in a former elementary school auditorium, as frill-less as a Depression-era place of learning can be, aware only that they are among the lucky few to have a ticket to the Yachats Celtic Music Festival.
In recent years, musical director Stephen Farish has looked out over the full house of 200 or so people and watched the transformation begin:
“When the ball starts rolling on festival day, and somebody climbs up on the stage, and you start hearing the strains of bass and violin, flutes, guitars, harps, flowing through that building, and pretty soon you forget that ratty-looking basketball hoop, you forget what’s up on the wall and what isn’t on the wall, and what’s going on in the rest of the building. You’re focused and that stuff starts infiltrating into your soul; you’re immersed in the culture and the music and the magic of what’s going on.”
Not even a decade ago, there wasn’t much magic to speak of. Musical directors came and went, none well-versed in Celtic music. There was even an attempt to make it a Celtic/bluegrass fest. “Ugh,” Farish recalled, “It didn’t go well.”
Then, along came local artist Burgundy Featherkile and businesswoman Linda Hetzler.
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The art scene was “really terrible,” Hetzler recalled. “All these entities started falling by the wayside. The Friends of the Commons fell apart. The Arts Guild was failing.”
In 2015, the women formed the nonprofit Polly Plumb Productions, named after local artist (and Featherkile’s partner) Dave Baldwin’s great-great-great-grandmother, who penned children’s books in the late 1700s. Its sole purpose is to support the arts. They started with the Celtic festival, bringing on board Farish, a self-described “huge fan of Celtic music” who had previously managed another regional festival. It wasn’t long before the festival was a sold-out affair.
Today, in addition to the Celtic festival, the nonprofit has taken under its wing numerous groups and sponsors a varied list of events — even assisting in fundraising to expand the skateboard park from 1,200 to 2,000 square feet and add new elements. More than $70,000 has been raised for that project, including $15,000 from the Rogue brewery.
Polly Plumb operates on an annual budget of $90,000 to $100,000. The money comes from festival ticket sales, banner and quilt sales, private donations, and recently a $50,000 grant from Business Oregon.
“We’re supportive, and we have the same vision as the people we choose to support,” said board member Robert Rubin. “Honestly, there are goddesses on that board. Everyone is super motivated to do things correctly. We have a phenomenal volunteer base. That’s the key part, we have the cream of the crop of Yachats. We have very talented people on the board who know what they are doing, who are balanced and love the town and want to support the arts and cultural things Polly Plumb is dedicated to.”
The Yachats Arts Guild is one of the groups that might not exist were it not for Polly Plumb. Founded in 2007 to showcase local artists, the guild was just getting by until the nonprofit came along, said Polly Plumb board member Deb Aken. “As a small organization, we just didn’t have what we needed to grow. They gave us some startup money when we were down to pretty much nothing.”
Today, the guild has nearly tripled its membership from 15 to about 40 members and hosts three major shows a year. Members currently have a juried show at the Newport Visual Art Center, through Nov. 26.
Also on the list of formerly fledgling endeavors saved by Plumb is the Yachats Annual Art Banners Project, which this year raised about $4,500. About $1,500 of that was donated to the Waldport High School art department. The Art Quilt Show is also under the Plumb umbrella and draws artists from all over the globe for its juried Gems of the Ocean show. “We brought in some really phenomenal stuff,” said Rubin. “You couldn’t believe how someone created these masterpieces. That made a whole other world of art quilters aware of us.”
And so, too, the Celtic fest has revealed Yachats to innumerable music fans. As the rest of the coast settles in for the likely gray days ahead, in this little village where the mountains meet the sea, it’s all hands on deck for this year’s festival, Nov. 10-12.
“This year we have a few musicians of some fame and renown,” Farish said. “I am impressed and delighted and terrified all at the same time. I mean, these are legends, these are icons. I’m going to try to get them into this 220-seat former school auditorium, … and will try to blend their expertise and legendary status with Yachats Celtic Music Festival.”
Headliners include Dervish, described by the BBC as “an icon of Irish music” and by the News Journal (Delaware) as: “The most compelling, most soulful Irish traditional folk band playing today,” and Alasdair and Natalie — Alasdair Fraser, known as “the Michael Jordan of Scottish fiddling,” with “brilliant” Californian cellist Natalie Haas. There’s the Karan Casey Trio, Kevin Carr, the Cillian Vallely Trio — the list goes on.
Which brings me – and likely you – to the big question. How do you get bands of that caliber to a little town hours from any urban community of any size, a town many have never heard of?
“It takes a lot of work, and it takes a lot of hours online,” Farish said. “I don’t travel the world auditioning these bands. Twenty years ago, that would have been necessary. It’s kind of like winning a contest or lottery when you hear a band that really rings in your ears. You hear them on a video, once in a while you hear them live, and you say, ‘Oh man, these folks would be great.’ There is no way I could get them from Scotland or Ireland to Yachats.”
Nonetheless, Farish often reaches out to agents anyway. “You ask, ‘Is there any possibility they could be in the state in November?’ Usually they say no, for various reasons — money, VISA restrictions. Then you say, I’m going to throw out an offer … and lo and behold you get a note months later.”
While ticketed concerts on the Yachats Commons Main Stage are sold out, there are occasionally cancellations and “tickets crop up,” Rubin said. There are also free impromptu session sets at the Commons and jam sessions throughout the weekend at Hetzler’s Drift Inn.
“It is such a warm convivial-like group, like a tribal kind of experience,” Hetzler said. “It’s just a network of people who go to these things and do these jam sessions where other people are invited to participate, so it just is kind of like a family of folks celebrating life and enjoying Celtic music.”
Perhaps no performance is more magical than crowd favorite “Piper on the Point,” when Friday and Saturday afternoons Kevin Carr plays the bagpipes at Yachats State Park as the sun sets and the ocean adds percussion.
Over the years, Farish has grown used to hearing, “Where is Yachats?” but the question comes less and less these days. “Now, when I go out and approach somebody, I tell them I am from the Yachats Celtic Music Festival, and they say, ‘Oh yeah, I’ve heard of that.’ Despite the fact that we have these rudimentary venues, we do our best to treat these people well, and we are gaining some momentum within the Celtic music world – slowly. This festival is starting to put Yachats on the map.”