Harvesting a community at the Lost Sierra Hoedown

“Community” is a word tossed around a lot when people discuss music festivals. Promoters are always talking about how they are trying to foster a sense of community, and attendees talk about how being a part of community is a big draw for them. But in the current festival landscape, it’s hard not to feel like the term “community” has been cheapened by corporate sponsorships and by people who are investing more in their appearance than in their experience. It’s one thing to get a bunch of people to congregate; it’s another for them to connect.

That’s where the Lost Sierra Hoedown at Johnsville Historic Ski Bowl differs from the rest. It’s an intimate musical experience that gives participants an opportunity to celebrate the beautiful Johnsville ski area, located an hour north of Truckee in Plumas-Eureka State Park, while also investing in its continued use by the greater community in the future. What was once a service learning project by a group of Sierra Nevada College students has turned into an annual event now in its seventh year, and it’s a shining example for what a music gathering can be when profit isn’t the driving force.

For one, it’s a hoedown, not a festival. That classification speaks not only to its folk, country and bluegrass roots, but also to the times when tiny enclaves of settlers would unite for a night of communal dancing, drinking and socializing. The Hoedown’s simple wooden stage and impeccable place among the pines at Johnsville certainly add to its appeal and the spot is just a beautiful natural amphitheater to hear music. That’s exactly what crossed the mind of one of Lost Sierra’s founders, Azariah “Z” Reynolds.

Tahoe Onstage

Lost Sierra Hoedown founder Azariah “Z” Reynolds grew up skiing Johnsville.

Z and Johnsville go way back. He had grown up skiing the trails and slopes of Johnsville as a kid during the winter months and his mom had been an employee there for a long time. He skied there throughout his youth, until the mountain shut down the year of his high school graduation. Reynolds eventually found his way onto Chico State University’s music production company and spent years cutting his teeth putting on concerts, both independently and for the college. In 2002, Reynolds happened to be up at his old ski hill for job interviews when he reminisced about his history there.

“By the time I went back there, I was skiing again and fully in love with it. I walked up there and it was misty and overcast. It had an eerie feeling to it. That was the day it struck me about how sad it was, it was all gone. It was all my childhood memories, all the years my mom worked there, a lot of stuff,” Reynolds said

That’s when the idea hit him that it could be a great spot for concerts. At the time he was looking at different venues for a String Cheese Incident concert and Johnsville became a contender. Reynolds eventually decided on a more suitable place for SCI’s sizable following and the idea for concerts at Johnsville laid dormant in the back of his mind for years.

We don’t do cordoned-off VIP areas, places where some people can go and others can’t. The whole event is open to everyone.

It wasn’t until he returned on a backcountry ski trip a decade or so later with friend Drew Fisher that the idea began to gain traction. Reynolds shared his past stories about Johnsville and the incident with String Cheese, almost as a nostalgic joke about what could have been. But Fisher had bigger plans and began to grow the idea of putting on a festival at the site as a senior Service Learning Project for Sierra Nevada College, where he was a student.

Eventually, Fisher brought in friends and SNC students Cody Wilkins and Rachael Blum and the group presented an idea to Reynolds — together they would create a music event to help raise funds toward reopening the ski hill and to shed light on the historical and cultural importance of the site and the greater Sierra Nevada. Reynolds was initially reluctant.

“Something about Drew’s energy and the energy of Rachael and Cody, they had that fire in them to go do it. I honestly wanted to tell them that they were crazy to get involved with it, as far as liability and risk and money and a lot of things. But to be perfectly honest with you, I thought back to 1998 when I was young and inexperienced at that job at Chico State and there was someone then that was about my age at the time. They took a chance on me and didn’t tell me I was crazy and they let me take on projects that were my ideas, and I couldn’t tell Drew and Cody and them they shouldn’t do this. Let’s start digging under the mats and knocking on doors and find out if this is possible,” Reynolds said.

It was a huge financial risk, but thanks to the planning and manpower of SNC students and Reynolds’ experience and relationships within the music business, Lost Sierra Hoedown’s inaugural year was successful. “That first year was really a combining of our two circles of people we knew and it spread from there,” Reynolds said.

It’s now spread to the seventh year and that initial small group of organizers and attendees has grown into a sustainable community whose values have only become more steadfast as time has passed. Proceeds from the Lost Sierra Hoedown continue to benefit Johnsville Historic Ski Bowl and its partners Plumas Ski Club and Plumas Eureka State Park. SNC alumni and students still make up a portion of the event’s workforce, much of it through volunteering, and attendees are strongly encouraged to unplug from daily life and connect with both the beautiful environment and the people around them. The Hoedown has made its wishes very clear: go outside, make some friends, dance around, appreciate what you have.

This communal vibe certainly isn’t quarantined to the audience. Many of the bands and musicians who come to the Hoedown have been multiple times, some have attended every year, and Reynolds likens them all to being a part of one large family. Collaborations between artists is the norm not the exception and fans are seen as a natural extension of both the show and greater musical experience. Reynolds has done everything in his power to make sure communal deterrents such as VIP and Artist sections are not a part of the Hoedown.

“Something we’ve pushed hard on is we’re not big on the ego-trip, rock-star thing. We don’t do cordoned-off VIP areas, places where some people can go and others can’t. The whole event is open to everyone. The only place you can’t go is onstage when someone is performing, and even then you could probably pull it off without too much trouble (chuckles). There’s not a lot of separation — you can see the artists and talk to the artists. They’ll come off stage and they probably got a tent next to you or are in a van down in the parking lot, you got direct access. We’re not designating one group as more important than the other, we’re building a community,” Reynolds said.

You tend to get what you give and nothing could be closer than the truth than Lost Sierra Hoedown and the community it has fostered. The organizers and crew have given their time and vision, the attendees have given their money and support, the musicians have given their music, the Johnsville Historic Ski Bowl and state park system have given their trust and land. In return, everyone involved gets to enjoy a long weekend of music and camping in a beautiful venue and an investment into the continued stewardship of the land. For Reynolds, he gets to come back to this community, his community, every year and continue to marvel at what they’ve accomplished.

“When we get there and everyone shows up and you see it work the way you wanted it to work, the way you intended it to work and then blooms into things you don’t see coming, every year that happens and it feels bigger than you. When you see it work, it is an unbelievably gratifying thing and it feels like it was meant to be,” Reynolds said.

— Garrett Bethmann

About Garrett Bethmann

Garrett Bethmann is a graduate of University of Mary Washington with a degree in English. He moved to Lake Tahoe in summer 2012.

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