Winstock: How country music saved a small-town school

  • Article by: JON BREAM , Star Tribune
  • Updated: June 7, 2013 - 8:20 AM

The annual hoedown in Winsted, Minn., 45 miles west of Minneapolis, has raised millions for Holy Trinity parish.

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Singer Dierks Bentley

Photo: Dan Steinberg, Associated Press

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Winstock used to bill itself as the little country festival that could. “We got rid of that slogan three or four years ago because we stepped it up,” said promoter Gary Marx.

Indeed, this year Winstock — a country-and-camping hoedown in Winsted, Minn., 45 miles west of Minneapolis — is sold out for the first time in its 20 years. About 18,000 people will congregate Friday and Saturday to see Dierks Bentley, Luke Bryan, Miranda Lambert and others at the town’s airport.

Not bad for a church-school fundraiser put on with more than 700 volunteers.

Last year, with Blake Shelton, Martina McBride and Willie Nelson drawing 15,400 people each day, Winstock raised a record $500,000 for Holy Trinity Catholic School. That brought the 19-year total to $3.8 million.

“Without Winstock, the high school would no longer be running,” said Winstock chairman Dave Danielson, who sent his three children to Holy Trinity. “We’ve renovated the boiler and the building. We’ve supplied the classrooms and teachers with the most current technology. We helped build a new elementary school six or seven years ago. And the big thing is to keep tuition affordable for a parochial school.”

In Winsted, a town of 2,300, the whole community pitches in — from ticket and beer sales to stage crew. The only people who are paid are security staff, public safety officials, the head of production, sound and light operators, the sponsorship coordinator and talent buyer Marx.

This year, Marx spent a record $1 million on performers. By comparison, that sum might buy a single big headliner for Minnesota’s biggest country festival, We Fest in Detroit Lakes. (Keith Urban, Carrie Underwood and Eric Church top the bill at this year’s event, which will draw up to 50,000 daily Aug. 1-3.)

“I have to be creative when booking talent,” said Marx, a longtime Minneapolis promoter who moved to Texas a few years ago. “We’ve had some acts before they broke big, like Lady Antebellum, Sugarland and Little Big Town.”

Marx has made a concerted effort to present some of country’s so-called heritage acts, including George Jones, Merle Haggard and Loretta Lynn, both to educate younger fans and appeal to older music lovers. This year, Marx reached back to country vets Sawyer Brown and Neal McCoy as well as Southern rockers .38 Special.

Lost $300,000 the first year

Every June, Danielson takes vacation days from his job as a sales rep (he sells roof-and-floor trusses) to work at Winstock. All told, he spends 700 to 800 hours a year on the festival. There are lots of phone calls and monthly meetings of the 13-person steering committee, then weekly meetings as the event approaches.

Those meetings mean a two-hour commute from Rochester, where Danielson relocated in 2011 after 35 years in Winsted. “You do it because of your heart instead of your pocketbook,” said Danielson, 57, who seldom gets to meet the stars — though he was charmed by Reba McEntire, who was “as sparkling in person as she is on TV.”

“It makes me feel good to see all of the people have such a big time.”

He can rattle off numbers like a marketing whiz: 3,400 campsites and festivalgoers from 38 of the contiguous 48 states. “We get a lot from St. Cloud, the Twin Cities, Rochester and Iowa and the Dakotas,” he said. “We don’t get many from Wisconsin,” where several other country fests are staged every summer.

He also cited a few more embarrassing numbers, including the $300,000 the festival lost in its first year. Only 1,200 fans showed up to see Waylon Jennings, Crystal Gayle and Winsted native Paulette Carlson of Highway 101 fame. By Year 3, when country-savvy promoter Marx was brought in, Winstock showed a small profit and in the following year wiped out the previous debt.

Marx was impressed by how serious the Winstock volunteers are in learning the festival business.

“They were like sponges: ‘Teach us,’ ” he said. “It’s a professionally run festival run by volunteers.”

 

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