South Fork festival supports youth music programs

Photo courtesy Natalie Carpenter
The 10th year of the Rhythms on the Rio music festival kicks off Aug. 2 near South Fork, with the fundraising festival spanning three days.

By Natalie Carpenter
Special to The PREVIEW
Astute travelers through the San Luis valley near South Fork may notice a lonely wooden stage next to an abandoned historic home east of town. For three days each summer, the stage comes alive with music and excitement from the Rhythms on the Rio music festival. Aug. 2-4 marks the 10th year of the festival at the current location on 50 acres along the banks of the Rio Grande.
The land for the stage is donated each year by South Fork residents Kurt and Leah Carlton in support of the South Fork Music Association (SFMA), the nonprofit hosting Rhythms on the Rio as a fundraiser for the organization that “provides musical instruments and lessons, free of charge, to children throughout the San Luis Valley.” Board member and festival production manager Paul Orr is the caretaker of the venue that is maintained by the nonprofit, dozens of volunteers and the Town of South Fork.
“The festival was started to create live music for people to engage with,” explained Orr, who has volunteered with the SFMA for 13 years after he and other South Fork musicians watched art and music programs being cut from schools. “We realized, though, that people needed more than just live music.”
From Rhythms on the Rio proceeds, the SFMA supports children’s music learning programs at schools in the San Luis valley. Many of the funds raised by the festival are given directly to schools to purchase musical instruments or pay for instrument repairs. Over 100 free eight-week music lessons have been sponsored and, upon completion, the student is awarded the instrument they used in the class.
After beginning in 2005 at a community park in South Fork with a few local bands intent on introducing kids to live music, the Rhythms on the Rio three-day festival now brings in over 1,300 people to the family-friendly event that includes on-site camping, a free kids’ tent with interactive activities, art installations, a VW bus camp and 16 bands chosen by Orr as “quality acts of different genres that people will buy tickets for.”
Festival ticket sales are what supports the music association and the annual lineups feature national acts and musicians such as renowned flatpicking guitarist Larry Keel; Bill “Hershey” Nershi, a founding member of the String Cheese Incident; the Travelin’ McCourys, winners of the 2018 Emmy for Best Bluegrass Album; the Dirty Dozen Brass Band from New Orleans; and Fruition, a Portland, Ore., group with “folk-rooted sound crafted with elements of psychedelia and soul.” Perennial Durango favorite Elder Grown returns to the event for 2019, bringing their funk/rock/pop/hip hop sound generated by musicians that are graduates of Pagosa Springs High School.
Including SFMA founding member Scott Stecken and the rest of the board, Orr estimated there are more than 70 volunteers that work to make the festival happen. Attendees never know who they might see lending a hand or jumping on stage for an impromptu set.
“One of our volunteers is a two-time Grammy winner,” shared Orr.
Kids under age 15 are admitted free and are encouraged to attend the festival. On-site camping is available and music lovers can attend for a single day of fun or stay for the entire weekend to enjoy all the venue has to offer. Through Rhythms on the Rio, the SFMA strives to “keep music alive — one child at a time.”
For more information about the event, visit