Trip McClenny’s Daydream
Tucked away, far away from the hustle and bustle of the polluted lifestyle of the urban east coast, in the rolling hills of Preston County, West Virginia, is Sunshine Daydream Festival campground. Since its inception, Sunshine Daydream has brought some of the scene’s biggest names to the Mountain state. The pristine, natural environment of green rolling hills has played host to String Cheese Incident, moe., John Scofield, and Leftover Salmon as well as scores of other top-notch artists over the past few summers. The site has played host to such yearly festival traditions such as the Jerry Garcia Birthday Bash and the All Good Festival. This year, the First Annual Higher Ground Festival will be held at the campground on June 26th-28th, Galactic, Jurassic 5, Soulive, and Robert Randolph and the Family Band top the list of acts, and the tradition of quality bands taking to the secluded hills of West Virginia looks to continue this summer. The farm’s owner, Trip McClenny, reminds me of many of the good-natured folks I’ve encountered at shows and festivals in the past. Bearded, with somewhat scraggly long hair, Trip is often adorned in faded tie-dye and ready to greet all friends, old and new, with a hug and a smile. Not one to put on the air of a business man, or a high powered music industry executive, Trip is as down to earth as those whole roll onto his land by the carload each summer to take in the long jams and the good vibes. I recently got a chance to sit down with Trip and discuss the ups and downs of the festival business.
Aaron Hawley: What inspired you to start throwing festivals?
Trip McClenny: I’ve been going to festivals since I was thirteen and a half. I used to catch the Fredericksburg Jam. They used to do southern rock, like Blackfoot, The Outlaws, people like that. That was my first festival I ever went to, and from that point on I was adamant about going. I was die-hard. I loved it. I love music, I play the piano a little bit, I’m teaching myself guitar, I plan to purchase a banjo for next winter and I’m gonna teach myself how to play, as winters are long here. I like the traditional folk style, mountain roots type of music. As far as the rest of the music scene though, I like just about every type from classical, from playing the piano, on into country music, which I listened to a lot as a kid, growing up in the country. And then there’s rock and roll, lots of rock and roll and lots of Dead shows. Did a lot of touring. And I decided I wanted to go ahead and give it a try.
We used to do these little parties down in Potomac, Maryland, just to pay the rent. That was the way I grew up as a kid, was once a month, you throw a rent party, and you could cover it, they started getting bigger and bigger. Then Wilmer’s Park closed down. I was one of those folks who always tried to be the first one there, I always had the same camping spot there, for years. We got there and there was a sign out front that said it was closed, that the park was closed, and the shows had been canceled. There were some people there who’d traveled from as far as New York and Atlanta, sitting at the gate going "What the hell are we gonna do? We drove all the way up here".
A buddy of mine said, "Well Trip, why don’t we go to your house, we’ve done this before". I said to him, "Well, looks like this might be a little bit bigger, but what the hell, let’s go do it". We had two thousand people, on two and half acres of property. The county commission refused to give us a permit, and refused to give me a reason as to why. We told them that that was a violation of our constitutional rights, and that I was calling the police. Of course, they laughed at me and hung the phone up. I called the police. They told me they had to check into it. Then they called me back and said, "you’re right, your constitutional rights are being violated, it is our job to protect and serve, myself and six other officers will be over shortly and we’ll discuss where you’re gonna park, and where not to park and the logistics of the show".
Right on! God bless the Montgomery county police department, they are doing their job down there. As things got on, we got a little bit too big, and we had a United States Senator who lived down the road from us. She called, and she didn’t bitch or anything, but she just politely asked that if we were planning to do it again if we could look for somewhere else. It was just a little bit too much for that neighborhood. My next-door neighbor had an underground tennis court in his back yard. Potomac, Maryland, is a money city, lots of doctors and lawyers and such. I would have to say that the thirteen of us living there were the crime level and poverty level of the whole town under one roof according to the town folk. So we loaded up the truck and headed for the hills of West "by god" Virginia. Where we are today.
AH: What kind of problems have you encountered as you began throwing festivals on the farm?
TM: Well, once we picked this place out, within two weeks, between the time of closing and our first show, we were busy. Unpacking and trying to get the property ready, because it was a hayfield and the place needed a lot of work. We were out there until three in the morning with five push mowers and two riding mowers and we mowed this entire place with those. Course none of those mowers work anymore. It was a challenge to get the place up and ready, but we did it. Our first show went great, everybody had a wonderful time, and we decided that this is what we were gonna do, we’re gonna keep on going and it’s been difficult. Last year was the worst year yet, worse then my first, as far as income went. I do think that the larger festivals had something to do with that, I had a show within a couple of weeks of Bonnaroo, lost my ass. I’m not like normal promoters, I don’t have a problem with saying yeah, my show did well, or I lost my ass.
This is going to be a tough year, I have to buy out my ex-partner in August, or the farm will be sold. Jerry’s Birthday Bash will be a save-the-farm event. I feel that over the past five years my wife, my staff and myself, we’ve given everything we have and a lot of things that we don’t have. We put ourselves in a position now, where if, we don’t do something and we don’t pull it off, then Sunshine Daydream won’t be here next year. I wouldn’t want to see that happen, but I personally believe we are doing the right thing by offering quality festivals at a lower price than anybody else is offering. I can only hope that the word gets around that yeah, we are in a bit of financial difficulty, but, if we do make it through this year then the things that we are going to be able to offer next year will be comparable to the what’s offered at larger festivals, with bigger headlining bands. My ticket price will never, ever, be like they are at other places, I’m trying to keep our prices no higher that eighty or eighty five dollars.
I’m in this to create the perfect festival park. I want it to be the perfect place to bring your family, your friends, meet new family, meet new friends, and to experience a great weekend in an atmosphere that’s not only safe and enjoyable, but also absolutely phenomenally beautiful. I think we’re doing a pretty good job, of course, I’m not done, I’ve still got at least another three years before I’ll be satisfied with the park’s condition. We’ve got a lot of things that we want to do to the place. But the real reason I’m here is that I grew up in this atmosphere, I grew up around a lot of music loving kind-hearted people who raised me to believe that that is what I should be doing. And I do it for a lot of these kids that come up here. We’ve got a really big family oriented fan base that comes here now, lots of little kids, so we’re building a playground this year.
AH: What are your favorite shows and favorite bands you’ve had over the last few years?
TM: My favorite show of them all is the Brewglass Festival. Even though it has been the smallest in terms of income and attendance and things like that. I love bluegrass, my favorite out there is Leftover Salmon, hands down. I love Yonder Mountain String Band, and I can’t wait for them to be here this year, but Leftover is my favorite bluegrass band. Ekoostik Hookah is probably up there as my favorite jamband, as far as that goes. I don’t really consider the Dead a jamband, though. I consider them the Grateful Dead. They’re something beyond category. I love the All Mighty Senators, insane, they’ve been great friends and have been here every year for the past four years, and we’re looking to have them back. They got a big break and got to go out on tour with Chrissie Hynde and the Pretenders. That just excited me beyond all beliefs, to see them finally after all these years get a big break and get to go out and do something like that. I’m sure they had a blast doing it. Donna the Buffalo sticks out in my mind too, we enjoy their music a lot up here.
AH: Last year’s All Good festival brought more fans to Sunshine Daydream than ever before, along with incredibly inclement weather, and an overall darker vibe. The local papers had a field day with the weekend, reporting incidents of drug overdoses and general chaos. How did you deal with the situation?
TM: I made the front page of the local newspaper seven days in a row, I don’t even think the president’s done that. It was odd feeling. I’m not really one that likes to be in that position. When you have a large group of people, whether it’s a music festival, or it’s a football game, you’re gonna have some knuckleheads. People who that just can’t get along with everybody else, and can’t just seem to keep their composure that’s what we have here. We had a large group of people here, more people than had ever been here before, and they were put into an environment of some of the craziest weather conditions that I’m sure most of them had ever been in. So yeah, you’re gonna have some problems. When it comes down to the drugs, that is a part that I frown on. That’s not what we’re about here. I’m trying to create a family atmosphere. I personally feel that some of the extracurricular activities that some of these kids use should stay in the ghetto. You know, in the country, these folks, they don’t want it, and I don’t blame them. I left the city because I didn’t want to deal with that kind of problem either, granted, it’s music, and you’re gonna have it.
There was a lot made of the whole Tim Walther-Sunshine Daydream thing. I would like to just let everybody know that Tim Walther does business his way, and I do business my way. We’ve come to the common conclusion that the two of us don’t want to do business together in the future because of our two different ways of looking at things. I don’t have any hard feelings against Walther Productions, or Tim, I just would like everybody to let that thing rest.
AH: Walther Productions now throws their festivals at Marvin’s Mountaintop, located less than twenty miles from here in nearby Masontown. What were your thoughts on that?
TM: Well, I will say this, that I got a phone call when I moved up here, from Tim Walther, who said that I was taking bread and butter off of his table, by opening this business. My response was, I moved two hundred and fifty miles away from where you do business as not to step on anybody’s toes, so that I could open my own business and do my own thing here. Part of me would like to pick up the phone and use those exact words to him. At the same time, this is business, he has every right to be here as I do, but I’m not real thrilled about it. We do have the common courtesy to each other, and business common sense, not to compete against each other and put festivals up against each other on the same weekend. He has his weekends, I have my weekends, we try to keep them the same so we don’t conflict. It will be an interesting year, it will. I know that with the drug overdoses and the problems that happened at the All Good, where other festival promoters who travel, when somebody overdoses on the venue’s land, those traveling promoters don’t feel the impact, because the next day they’re gone, they’re in another town, and it doesn’t mean shit to them. Me? I’ve had to live with it, I still live with it, this is my home. I still get grief about kids overdosing up here. I walk around on eggshells until each tent is out of here after a festival in fear that there is someone who overdosed inside.
Me, I try to run a very clean festival. As everybody in the music scene knows, I’m not gonna mention band names, there are some bands out there that party a bit harder than other bands do. Those bands, I don’t want to take the risk of bringing them onto my land because of an overdose. And in the four years that I’ve been here, before the All Good, we only had one ambulance on the property, and that was a kid who had cerebral palsy and he drank when he shouldn’t be drinking, but he was back the next morning to enjoy the rest of the festival. We’ve never had that problem here, and it was a big shock to the townfolks to have something like that happen. *AH: How do the local authorities feel about what goes on here? *
TM: We do work with the local sheriff. He and I meet in the spring and throughout the summer to discuss the shows we’re having, the attendance expected, are we going to have any kind of problem bands, things like that. He’s been completely upfront and honest with us, as we have with him, and our relationship has gone very well. The chief of police in Terra Alta, which many folks travel through, got on our message board the other day just to let everybody know, "Hey I’m still the chief of police, and I want to remind you guys that it is illegal to drink and drive, wait until you get to the festival, please obey the speed limits, and we won’t have to pull you over and everybody will be just fine".
Well our sheriff is the same way, told us flat out, "Yes, Trip, I’m going to put out some extra officers on the road". It’s a dark road, we’ve had a lot of people getting lost at three o’clock in the morning and knocking on somebody’s door. Well, I can understand how some people in the county would get upset with that. I wouldn’t be real thrilled if some people I didn’t know showed up at my door at three in the morning, wanting directions. So he’s working with us on getting some more street signs put up for the winding turns and things like that. I would have to say that our relationship is pretty good. He knows that we are trying to present, not just to our fans but the entire community, that we are doing our part to make the festival a safe environment. *AH: One of the issues with last years All Good Festival was the use of an outside promoter. How have things changed for the Higher Ground Festival, presented by Joker Productions? *
TM: Being here the past four years, going on five years now, I’ve learned my land. I can tell you where there’s gonna be a puddle when it rains. Where there’s gonna be a puddle five days to seven days after the rain. I can tell you where your car’s gonna sink, I can tell you where your car’s gonna be just fine. By allowing Walther Productions to come in here and pretty much and take over and have them tell me that, "Trip, this is my show, I can do whatever I want", then a lot of bad things happened, like people’s cars getting stuck.
I can now throw a festival with Joker Productions coming in here as an outside promoter and they understand that, we have complete control over the park. Their area is the production area, and their job is to make sure all the bands are there on time, onstage on time, the changeover goes well, the catering is handled, that’s their deal. For five years, my staff and myself have been working this park, and we know how to work it we know the best way to do things. We personally feel that working with Joker Productions is going to be a great and growing experience, we’re already chit-chating a little bit about possibly doing it again next year. I think it’s going to be a fantastic show. In fact, weather permitting, I think it will be the best show we’ve ever had here, and that’s what I’m shooting for, I try to make each and everyone of my shows, the best show people go to. *AH: The Roots were originally announced as the headlining act for the Higher Ground festival, but they have since been replaced by Jurassic Five. Can you give us insight into what went down?*TM: An unfortunate secretarial mishap, it’s not my show so I won’t really go into it much, and it was not Joker Productions fault. I think Jurassic Five is a great band, It’s a shame that The Roots couldn’t be on there, I know a lot of people looked forward to it. Hopefully we can work something out and get the roots out here at a future date.
AH: Finally, what is your personal philosophy for Sunshine Daydream?
TM: My goal is to try and keep it as simple as possible, be honest with people, try to offer them everything that they would want at a festival, which is a really difficult task. There’s just no way to please everyone. We’re just shooting to make the perfect festival park, and going to whatever extremes it takes to make that happen is what we’re going to do.