Inaugural Gratifonia Music Festival comes to Lycoming Count Fairgrounds this Labor Day Weekend
HUGHESVILLE — This sleepy little town will get loud Labor Day weekend when the inaugural Gratifonia Music Festival takes over the Lycoming County Fairgrounds. The festival brings together local and national acts from the worlds of country, hip hop, folk, bluegrass and rock to deliver a diverse musical lineup headlined by country recording artists Rodney Atkins and Colt Ford. The logistical aspects of an event like Gratifonia mirror the festival’s jam-packed, three-day schedule in terms of size and complexity but the people tightening the screws know what they’re doing.
Anthony Dittmann built a career of planning, organizing and executing successful events. His various projects put him in contact with professionals behind an event’s myriad aspects, such as lighting, scaffolding, public relations and vending. When Dittmann decided to coordinate an event that allowed him to work with a hand-picked team of people he calls colleagues and friends, he grew it from the ground up on a solid foundation.
“Doing events, you run into a lot of great people,” Dittmann said. “We were able to engage those folks into partnering up with us and trust us with their brand. We don’t have a major financial backer and we’re not involved with any of the big agencies that help produce these festivals. We’ve contacted all of our friends, colleagues and vendors, told them we’re doing this event and asked them to come on as a partner.”
After Dittmann formed his team, the first order of business was securing a site. It was a difficult endeavor – one that almost saw the music stop before it ever started. After glimpsing Williamsport, Pennsylvania’s Little League World Series and the 50,000-plus patrons in attendance, the team was reinvigorated. The LLWS proved the Williamsport area had the infrastructure to handle a large influx of people and, as an added bonus, was within driving distance of a number of colleges and major metropolitan areas. Gratifonia spokesperson, Melissa Gullotti, said finalizing the site came down to help from friends.
“We have some friends in the Williamsport area who said this is a great place to do it,” Gullotti said. “They said there’s a huge musical movement in this area but there’s not a large festival that’s taking place in this location. We thought we’d give this a try. The Lycoming County Fairgrounds are big, established and beautiful and we found them to be a really nice fit for this first year.”
Team Gratifonia had its location; now it needed a reason for people to attend. Dittmann and his team could get stages up, lights on and vendors out, but when it came to attractions, their connections fell short. That’s when the seemingly impossible venue search became a blessing in disguise.
“That was certainly difficult for us,” Dittmann said. “That was the one element that we did not have a direct connect with – the music talent. While we were looking for a site, we ran into some folks in Nashville called Average Joe’s Entertainment and they essentially asked. Average Joe’s came to the table and said they know we do good work. We said,‘“That’s great, let’s do this thing together.’”
Bubba Sparxxx, Sarah Ross and Nappy Roots are among Average Joe’s artists scheduled to perform at Gratifonia and will share the stage with Ford, Gratifonia co-headliner and Average Joe’s co-founder. A successful recording artist who also co-wrote the multi-platinum single “Dirt Road Anthem,” Ford made a change in his trajectory when he left the world of professional golf to pursue a career in music. Writing and performing songs is something he had tried before, but he decided to ditch anything that wasn’t genuine and take one more run at it.
“When I finally decided to be honest, that’s when things came together for me,” Ford said. “I went in there and said, I’m gonna be honest and make the kind of songs that I make and be who I am, which is a country boy. That’s when the album ‘Ride Through the County’ came together. I literally wrote and recorded the whole record in less than two weeks; it just came out.”
Ford is looking forward to Gratifonia because festivals bring together different artists – some he’s friends with, some he’s seen perform before and some he’s excited to see for the first time. Atkins, Gratifonia’s other co-headliner, echoed Ford’s sentiment.
“It always feels like a really great family reunion,” Atkins said. “It’s that sense of community. I’m a firm believer that there are two kinds of music – good and bad. I listen to a lot of different kinds of music and I find something I love about all of it. I catch myself (at festivals) just sitting out there going, wow, this is killer! Oh, I have to go play! It’s a great way to experience a lot of different kinds of music.”
Atkins’ parents had an extensive vinyl record collection they encouraged him to utilize, filling his youth with different kinds of music. Artists like Charlie Daniels, Ray Charles and Charlie Rich influenced a young Atkins, who won a poetry contest in grade school and started songwriting as soon as he learned a couple chords on the guitar. He loved song as a medium but wrote off becoming a recording artist and was content to paint portraits for others to hang with their gallery-sized voices.
“I went to college in a town about an hour and a half outside of Nashville,” Atkins said. “I’d go to Nashville with some friends and play writer’s nights, where you get up and you play your songs with other songwriters. Somewhere in there I got offered some publishing deals as a songwriter. I moved to Nashville in ‘95 and actually got offered a record deal in ‘96.”
A burger-eating contest at Scranton’s Steamtown Mall was one of Atkins’ early stops as a professional musician. Atkins was on his first radio tour and was booked as live entertainment to accompany the battling burger eaters. He had no idea where his career was going to take him, but recalls members of the audience coming up to him after his performance and telling him, “We love what you do. Keep doing it, don’t quit, just keep doing it.” Six No. 1 singles later, Atkins is excited to return to a part of the country he calls “a very special place” because it supports its musicians. Gullotti learned that first-hand when she asked residents in the Williamsport area for advice booking local bands for Gratifonia.
“We talked to bar owners; we talked to people who live there and I asked who we should have at the show,” Gullotti said. “Clyde Frog. They were universal; anybody that we talked to said they need to be on our bill. We knew they were in.”
Clyde Frog, named after “South Park” character Eric Cartman’s stuffed frog (which is named after a ’70s children’s program), came together when guitarist Torey Harding was in high school. Harding has since graduated from Berklee School of Music in Boston, moved to Nashville and joined the band of country singer/songwriter Caroline Kole. When Gratifonia called Harding to book Clyde Frog, he saw an opportunity to get Kole involved, too.
“Once they booked Clyde Frog, I said we should get Caroline on the bill as well so Caroline is playing Sunday,” Harding said. “This festival is going to be really cool. It’s my hometown. I get to play with my hometown rock band that I’ve had for a couple years but I also get to come in with one of the main headliners. Every time I see the poster, it definitely puts a big smile on my face.”
Dittmann, Gullotti and Team Gratifonia have worked for years from a ground-up philosophy to put together a festival that lives up to its namesake – a slang term referring to the feeling of euphoria experienced while listening to music. If their Labor Day labor of love delivers, a feeling of Gratifonia could be experienced in Hughesville for years to come.
Reach Gene Axton at 570-991-6121 or on Twitter @TLArts
IF YOU GO:
What: The inagural year of a three-day music festival featuring country, hip hop and rock artists.
When: Doors open at 5 p.m. on Sept. 4 and 11 a.m. Sept. 5 and Sept. 6.
Where: Lycoming County Fairgrounds in Hughesville, Pennsylvania
How Much: Single day passes are available for Friday, Saturday and Sunday at $25, $40 and $50 respectively. A three-day pass is available for $74, while a VIP pass that includes all-you-can-eat food and drink, special seating and charging stations. Parking, camping and RV passes are also available. for complete pricing, visit gratifonia.com.
More info: To view the latest information about Gratifonia, learn more about the artists performing and purchase tickets, visit gratifonia.com