HOT SPRINGS – Though organizers of one of Madison County’s most anticipated festivals of the year deliberated about whether to postpone the event, it will still go on as planned.
French Broad River Festival will take place Oct. 1-3 on the Hot Springs Resort & Spa campgrounds. The three-day event will mark the first festival since 2019.
During a typical year, the festival features live music, a raft race and numerous kid-friendly events.
Matt Kern, one of the festival’s co-organizers, has been involved with FBRF since 1998.
According to Kern, the festival team was intentional about providing as many kid-centric activities as possible.
“At the point when we all started, we were all single guys,” he said. “Nobody was married and nobody had kids. Then as we progressed, and the festival had progressed, we made a conscious effort to make it very kid-friendly about 16-17 years ago.”
Due to COVID-19 concerns though, the FBRF team implemented a number of changes for this year’s event.
For one, this year’s festival marks the first time the event has happened in October, as it typically takes place the weekend after Mother’s Day weekend. Attendees who are not fully vaccinated will need to have a negative COVID-19 test result obtained within 72 hours of the festival.
“We’re scaling it back a little bit this year,” Kern said. “In a normal year, we have a Kid’s Village, which is several camps that are run by Woodson Branch (Nature School). We have a climbing wall, and a Euro bungee – where you strap the kid in and it shoots them up in the air like a slingshot.
“We have Becky the Balloon Lady, who has been coming for at least 20 years. She’s very popular with the kids, making balloon animals, hats and costumes. We have a kids parade, a kid’s concert, as one of the bands – Sol Driven Train – does a kids show and then leads a procession through the campgrounds with their horns and kids in tow.”
The 2022 festival will be held during the spring, Kern said.
As for this year’s event, Kern said the festival team spent a lot of time deliberating about whether to postpone the festival.
“We definitely discussed (postponing it), almost ad nauseum amongst ourselves,” Kern said. “I stayed in constant contact with (management at) Hot Springs Resort & Spa. I’ve spoken with Mayor (Abby Norton) and just trying to be communicative and let people know where we are in our thinking, and all that we are doing to keep things as safe as we can.
“These (attendees) are our friends. These are people we don’t want to harm, obviously. We have a vested interest in keeping people happy. We don’t take this lightly, and we definitely respect everybody’s opinion.”
The festival has given more than $100,000 to a number of local organizations, including Cullowhee-based American Whitewater, Hot Springs Community Learning Center (now Woodson Branch Nature School), Verner Center for Early Learning and Manna Food Bank, Kern said.
“The first probably 10 years, we gave everything we made to charity,” he said. “We still give a large amount of what we earn. We’ve never made a lot of money with the festival — that was never really our goal. Our goal was to have an event that felt like a homecoming for people, and to attract boaters and people who love the river, Hot Springs, hiking and the Appalachian Trail.”
For the past three years, the event team has given Stacey Geyer, Hot Springs Tourism Association administrator, a $1,000 check to do a weekly environmental cleanup throughout the town.
Geyer credits Kern for serving as an example and helping to pave the way for future litter cleanups.
“He is the one that came up with the idea back in 2019,” Geyer said. “He’s the one that promoted it. He was walking around picking up litter for free, especially on Andrews Avenue, where people park in the public parking lot. After a weekend, there would be cans and bottles and everything else that would fall out of people’s cars. They still donated the $1,000 in 2020 even though they lost all their revenue by not being able to have the 2020 festival.”
Bands include Town Mountain, John Stickley Trio, Joe Hertler and the Rainbow Seekers, Empire Strikes Bass, Snake Oil Medicine Show, Phuncle Sam and Bald Mountain Boys.
Kern said he and the festival organizers are simply relieved to be able to put on the event this year.
“It does feel good to have it back,” Kern said. “There was a little trepidation, of course, because of COVID. But we know our crowd, and we know that the vast majority will be vaccinated, and the rest of them will not care to get a test. It’s family oriented. People can bring their kids. It’s just all-around good folks.”