When Cathy Varnadore came up with the idea of Papa Joe’s Banjo-B-Que & Music Festival six years ago to honor the legacy of her late father, Joe Pond, she wanted to create an event that showcased his love of live bluegrass music, down-home barbecue cooking and, most importantly, family.
Six years later, it’s clear Varnadore and her dedicated team at A.B. Beverage Company, Inc. have succeeded in putting together a music festival that would make “Papa Joe” Pond extremely proud.
“Oh, my dad would love this festival. He would absolutely love it,” said Varnadore, president of A.B. Beverage. “I remember, as kids, he would take us to different festivals throughout Georgia and South Carolina. We would end up in some small town and they would be playing bluegrass music or sometimes he would take us to these shag music events, which were fun, too.
“My dad pretty much took us everywhere and exposed us to a lot of good, family fun events and that is what we are trying to do here.”
Over the years, Banjo-B-Que has featured a variety of outstanding musical acts including The Avett Brothers, Drive-By Truckers, The Whiskey Gentry and Old Crow Medicine Show.
This weekend’s two-day festival at Evans Towne Center Park will continue that tradition by showcasing an impressive line-up of two dozen bands, including Duluth, Minnesota-based bluegrass band Trampled by Turtles, Australian singer Vance Joy, Texas singer-songwriter Robert Earl Keen, Charleston, S.C.-based Shovels & Rope and the jam band Leftover Salmon from Boulder, Colo.
“We want to bring bands through here that are new and different and try to get more exposure for this area,” Varnadore said. “We work hard all year long to make sure this is an event that the entire community can be proud of.”
Gates open on Friday, May 22, at 4 p.m. and the live entertainment will continue on Saturday, May 23, starting at 11 a.m.
“We branched out this year a little in the music area,” Varnadore said. “We changed our name from Papa Joe’s Banjo-B-Que & Bluegrass Festival to simply (Papa Joe’s Banjo-B-Que &) Music Festival, so we could explore a little more music and include more folk, Americana bands.”
One of the bands that Varnadore is probably most excited to hear this year is the American bluegrass/folk-rock band Trampled By Turtles, who will close out the festival on Saturday night.
“Trampled By Turtles is the closing act and they are one of my favorites,” Varnadore said. “The year that they were here before was in 2013 and I had to go out of town unexpectedly at the last minute and I did not get to hear them live.”
That was the year that her son, Joey Varnadore, who was only 14 at the time, was named the 2013 Junior World Finals Show Champion in the National Cutting Horse Association.
Joey was competing in his last show before the World Finals and the competition just happened to fall on the weekend of Banjo-B-Que.
While Cathy Varnadore hated to miss part of the music festival that year, as her dad always taught her family comes first.
“I was so upset,” Cathy Varnadore said, laughing. “But it was totally worth it to go back and be there for Joey. He did really awesome and I was so proud of him.”
As always, Banjo-B-Que will continue to be a family affair this year with her husband and vice president of A.B. Beverage Doug Varnadore concentrating on barbecue side of the two-day festival.
The festival, which is sanctioned by the Kansas City Barbeque Society, will bring more than 70 barbecuers from all across the country to compete for more than $40,000 in prize money, she said.
“It is fun to have two different aspects in the event with the music and the barbecue, especially it being Memorial Day weekend,” Cathy Varnadore said. “People obviously love barbecue in this area, but it is especially neat to bring people in from all over the country for competition. Some of them will also be selling barbecue.”
While the Kansas City Barbeque Society helps set up the competition and organizes the judges, Cathy Varnadore said A.B. Beverage works hard to make sure everyone enjoys the experience.
“We help to make sure things run smoothly because we want everybody to have fun and we want them to come back to the event every year, including the cookers, the judges, everybody,” Cathy Varnadore said, adding that word is spreading across the country about the quality of the Banjo-B-Que festival and barbecue competition. “We actually have a cooker coming from Australia this year. I can’t wait to meet that guy.”
There also will be an extensive craft beer selection, a petting zoo, pig races and a variety of vendors on hand during the festival.
As her three sons get older, they also enjoy lending a hand and helping out with the festival, she said.
“One year, my oldest son really helped us out and took ice to all the barbecue people and made sure they had everything they needed,” Cathy Varnadore said. “And this year, my middle son is going to have a drone because he’s really into photography and he’s going to take pictures at the event.”
But one of the biggest moments at the annual music festival is when Joe Pond’s grandchildren take the stage on Saturday night, she said.
“There’s 10 grandchildren in all for Papa Joe and they all get to go up on stage and introduce the last act on Saturday night,” Cathy Varnadore said. “They have a lot of fun doing that. It’s nice because they all come down and they’ll all be there together.”
All proceeds raised at Banjo-B-Que benefit the Joseph R. Pond Memorial Foundation, which donates to charitable organizations through the CSRA Community Foundation. A special focus is given to cancer-related organizations because “Papa Joe” Pond, who was a second generation owner of A.B. Beverage, died in 2006 after a seven-year fight against cancer.
“We wanted to do something in his name because he did so much in the community,” Cathy Varnadore said. “He always sponsored so many events and charities throughout the CSRA and we just wanted to remember him that way.”
Last year, Cathy Varnadore estimated that about 8,000 people attended the festival on Friday, while 9,000 to 10,000 people came to Saturday’s events.
“That was tremendous,” she said. “Having The Avett Brothers here last year was pretty unique. It was like the stars aligned for that one. And we are really excited about this year’s line-up, too.”
As the festival continues to grow each year, Cathy Varnadore can’t help but chuckle when she recalls the first few years of Banjo-B-Que, back when it was held at the Hippodrome in North Augusta.
“The band, Old Crow Medicine Show, have been with us in some form or another every year since the beginning,” she said. “They were here the first year when we were over at the Hippodrome in South Carolina. We were just small potatoes back then and I remember last year how really excited they were to see how much we had grown.”
Unfortunately, Old Crow Medicine Show is on tour in Virginia during Memorial Day weekend and couldn’t be a part of Banjo-B-Que this year, but Cathy Varnadore says she will never forget how she first convinced the band to be a part of the inaugural festival in 2010.
“We wanted Old Crow to play the festival really bad the first year, so we got tickets to one of their show up on Morgantown, West Virginia,” she said, laughing. “There was a group of us who rented an RV and we went up there to see them in concert. Well, we parked our RV right in front of their bus so they would have to come ask us to move our RV in order to get their bus out of there.”
Cathy Varnadore said she was determined to persuade Old Crow Medicine Show to be a part of Banjo-B-Que.
“We sort of stalked them after the concert and waited for them to come out,” she said, chuckling. “When they came over, we had some brochures ready and we gave them some T-shirts and things.”
She remembers that Ketch Secor, who sings and plays fiddle, harmonica and banjo with the band, stayed for a little while and really took the time to talk to her about Banjo-B-Que.
“Ketch talked to us, so when we finally did convince them to come to the festival, they definitely remembered us,” Cathy Varnadore said. “They remembered the crazy people who drove up to West Virginia, blocked them in and begged them to come play at our concert. But that’s just how much this festival means to us.”
For more information about this weekend’s Sixth Annual Papa Joe’s Banjo-B-Que & Music Festival, the band line-up, the barbecue competition and tickets, visit banjobque.com.