Linda Maddox was quite literally flooded with memories of her husband last week, when she found out Taste of Minnesota had to relocate because Harriet Island was underwater.
Ron Maddox’s name came up after someone floated the seemingly preposterous idea of moving St. Paul’s July 4th festival to Somerset Amphitheater. That would mean Taste of Minnesota — which Linda revived this year in tribute to her late husband, its co-founder — would actually happen in Wisconsin.
“Ron might have been able to put his own kind of spin on that one,” she said, laughing, as she and her crew frantically looked for a new location. “I know Ron would have wanted to keep the festival in St. Paul, but I’m not sure we’re going to be able to do that.”
She eventually settled on a site to the west: the Carver County Fairgrounds in Waconia.
Similar tough decisions have been made without the principal founder of another resilient rock fest, Moondance Jam, in the northern Minnesota resort community of Walker. It didn’t miss a beat after Bill Bieloh died in 2010, thanks to his widow, Kathy Bieloh.
“I did strongly consider ending it, but I thought, ‘We have to at least make it through the 20th year,’ ” Kathy recounted of the 2011 season. “That anniversary just meant so much to Bill, and was a symbol to all the hard work he put in.”
Three years later, “The Jam” is still in full swing, with a July 16-19 lineup that includes REO Speedwagon, Styx, George Thorogood and the Wallflowers. Advance ticket sales have Bieloh believing it’s going to be the festival’s best year yet.
Back from the brink
Both women worked side-by-side with their husbands for two decades on the festivals, so taking the reins was not too daunting. However, Ron and Bill were the ones who did the schmoozing and glad-handing.
“I was never that good a promoter — Bill was — so I definitely had to step way outside my comfort zone,” said Bieloh.
She was hardly the silent partner, however, as the Jam grew into two big festivals with the 2006 addition of the Moondance Jammin’ Country festival (held again last weekend).
“I was the one who was more hard-headed and tough on the business end,” she said. “Bill was too nice of a guy. He’d give and give and give, which isn’t a great way of running a successful business. But it is one of the reasons he was so well-liked by so many people.”
Bieloh talked candidly about their business being in dire financial straits when Bill died suddenly of a heart attack at 51. They came close to filing bankruptcy.
“I do believe the stress of it is what killed Bill,” she said, noting the rising costs that every festival producer has faced, plus the economic turmoil of the late-’00s.
But the goodwill he built up bought time for Moondance, and with her shrewd business eye, Bieloh cut expenses by about a third.
Bouncing back, however, has been bittersweet.
“I cry every time we have a good weekend, thinking about how much Bill would’ve loved it,” she said.
‘It would’ve broke his heart’
Maddox, on the other hand, is dealing with a festival that did go under — though not under her husband’s watch.
In 2009 Taste of Minnesota, which Ron Maddox managed for 27 years, was sold to a new crew. Months after Ron’s death in 2010 from a stroke, the owners filed for bankruptcy when their attempt to reinvent Taste fell flat. The festival has been dormant since.
“I’m glad all that happened after he died,” Linda Maddox said. “It would’ve broke his heart.”
With help from their old staff and business partners, she pitched the city last year on restarting the festival. “It’s a testament to Ron that many of the vendors who never got paid [in the bankruptcy] are back with us this year,” she said.
She couldn’t keep the festival entirely free, the way Ron always thought it should be, but admission will be free from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. People who enter after 3 will pay $10, but get $5 in food tickets.
Maddox also broke one of Ron’s rules by booking a country music night: Joe Nichols headlines Saturday. Otherwise, this year’s lineup is heavy on the retro rock that was Ron’s mainstay, including Friday’s headliners Starship and the Marshall Tucker Band.
“There were always complaints about the music,” she said. “Then on the day of the show, you’d look out and see a field of people having a good time.”
Of course, one thing Maddox will miss is the familiar sight of her burly husband rolling around the grounds in his golf cart, carrying a signature baseball bat that read, “You agree with me, don’t you?”
“People knew him as this real tough guy, but he was really a teddy bear,” she said. “It was a big loss in my family, and then I also lost my entire Taste family. At least I can have that family back.”