Julia Remp and her two sons packed up her vehicle and traveled last summer from Montana to the Alive Music Festival in Ohio.
A tent and camping gear were loaded up. So was a cooler. But it was the 46-year-old single mother’s first time camping just with her boys, and it didn’t go well.
Food spoiled and camping was a borderline disaster.
Remp, however, didn’t let it ruin her experience at the annual Christian music event at Atwood Lake Park, 9500 Lakeview Road, at the boundaries of Carroll and Tuscarawas counties in the Mineral City area.
Atwood Lake Park and the Alive Music Festival are accessed from Route 212 outside Somerdale.
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“The whole event is amazing,” she said. “We met so many wonderful, caring, nonjudgmental, loving people. The second we got into the line to (wait to) get in, we felt the love. Everyone who we encountered, workers and attendees, were so friendly and helpful.”
Remp is among thousands who are making their way to this week’s festival, which runs Thursday through Sunday, with more than two dozen bands and musical artists. Hard rock, pop, hip-hop, rap and worship genres among them.
“We are beyond excited to be attending again this year,” she wrote in an email earlier this week. “And I can’t wait to see what God has in store for us this year.”
Nighttime headliners are: TobyMac Thursday; Skillet Friday; for King & Country Saturday; and We The Kingdom on Sunday. Other acts include Danny Gokey on Thursday; We Are Messengers and Andy Mineo Friday; Britt Nicole, KB, Riley Clemmons and TAYA Saturday; and Tauren Wells and Trip Lee on Sunday.
For a complete list of performers and to purchase tickets, go to https://www.alive.org/.
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After 35 years, Bill Graening, who oversees the festival with his wife, Kathy, said he still gets excited.
“There’s something about camping and being together outside … under the stars with the big stage and the music … and the fellowship and all the people who are there,” said Graening, festival director. “The anticipation is still always there.”
Worshipping with thousands of Christians is ‘best feeling ever’
Longtime attendees and newbies show up every year, Graening said.
Fans travel from across the country or even overseas, he said. Crowds average 12,000 to 15,000 each day, with peak attendance between 7 and 10 p.m.
“We’re in the top three, I’d say now, the faith-based contemporary Christian music festivals,” Graening said, noting that while some events “have come and gone, there’s still a lot of them out there.
“We are one of the bigger ones,” he said. “We have some of the biggest names in the contemporary Christian world … as well as some artists that have crossed over, as we say, into the pop.”
Remp of Billings, Montana said her family is eager to see several musical artists.
“My youngest son’s favorite artist is Tauren Wells, and he gets to do the meet and greet with him,” she said. “My oldest son gets to meet for King & Country. They are both beyond excited to do this.”
But the festival experience goes beyond music, Remp said. Following her camping miscues last summer, she was reinforced and uplifted by her fellow concertgoers who expressed both support and encouragement through social media.
“Many of the people told me we could have come by … and (they) would have fed us and taken care of us,” Remp wrote in an email. “This was amazing for them to offer.”
And she’s back this year with her 16 and 12-year-old sons. She’s a year wiser in terms of camping, but she’s no less enthused about the overall fusion of worship, people and song.
“We get to be so far away from home with like-minded people,” said Remp, a special needs assistant at an elementary school. “We get to worship with thousands of other Christians, and that to me is the best feeling ever. It’s not just one day — it’s five days of worship together.”
Kimberlie Bossone, 42, of Cleveland, is attending her first Alive Music Festival.
“I have just given my life completely to God, and became Christian back in November,” she said.
A longtime music lover, the home health nurse said she used to attend “very worldly music festivals, with nothing but sin, thinking it was the greatest time ever.
“I now know how wrong a life I was leading,” Bossone said in an email. “God has such an amazing way of making all things new, and for His good. His way!
“To be able to now attend the Alive festival, with thousands of like-minded followers in worship, is something I have been looking forward to since I first heard of it,” she said. “I have attended other Christian concerts recently, but there is something extraordinarily special about this many people coming together in praise and worship for days together to our Lord. I am extremely thankful and grateful to be able to be a part.”
‘The beginning was very modest.’
The festival was cancelled in 2020 due to the pandemic.
“That was tough for all of us … and we lost some very close friends,” Bill Graening said of the virus.
“We’ve had a lot of people who just said we can’t wait for this thing to relaunch,” he recalled of the buildup for last summer’s event. “And to just be able to be back together.”
Graening has seen the event grow and change over the decades.
Technology has evolved with digital ticketing, social media and the way in which people listen to music.
“We’re seeing, I guess, the automation of things,” he said. “We used to print and mail a lot, and we don’t mail that much anymore. We don’t mail wristbands, (and) we scan phones (for tickets) and give (fans) wristbands. We don’t sell tickets at the event. People buy them (online) and come, or they buy them from their cars on phones.”
Launching the festival in the late ’80s, Graening admits he had a lot to learn.
“The beginning was very modest,” he said. “We had no idea what we were doing. We were bringing in bands we didn’t know a lot about.”
“If Kathy and I knew what we were getting into when we were young, we may have been scared to do it.”
Life was hectic for the Stark County couple. Booking acts, advertising the festival, attracting sponsors, figuring out logistics and selling tickets, all while raising four children at their Canal Fulton home.
Bill Graening, a former member of a Christian band, would eventually leave his job as a trust officer at a bank to devote his energies to the Alive Festival full-time.
Kathy was just as busy, jugging motherhood with festival duties at their home office
“To take a ticket order, she would slide off into a closet or quiet room to take a phone call,” Bill recalled with laughter.
The couple now lives in Jackson Township, and their children are adults, including son Tyler, who is on the festival staff. Their other kids help out, too. And festival headquarters are still based at home.
Event changes have included a different configuration and layout of the Marketplace, where exhibitors and vendors set up in tents, including to sell clothing and Christian-inspired jewelry. Non-profit groups also attend, and food vendors are on site.
Video screens near the stage have gotten larger. Audio has improved.
Graening said he’s thrilled to be holding the event at Atwood Lake Park for the twelfth year; he complimented the camping and RV sites and amenities, including the beach, welcome center, and bathroom and shower facilities.
Clay’s Park had been a good fit, too, he said, but Atwood Lake offered more recreational options for families, including boating.
Alive Music Festival plans to remain at Atwood Lake long-term, Graening said; the current agreement extends through 2025.
Graening calls the festival “generational.”
“People who came in the early years now are bringing their families,” he said. “We have some diehard fans who have been coming since ’88 and ’90.”
New attendees continue to discover the festival, however.
Tina Fronheiser, 54, of Reading, Pennsylvania, is looking forward to watching for King & Country.
Following COVID-related restrictions, attending music festivals is invigorating while restoring a sense of normalcy, she said.
Fronheiser said she now travels to Florida and other places for festivals because “Christian music has been a place of rejuvenation to my spirit.” Vacations are scheduled around the events, she noted.
“As a nurse, I have had to distance myself from life for two years, and attending these festivals is healing all the damage isolation did from COVID,” Fronheiser said. “I will live with PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder) for ever for what I saw during COVID, but I am not afraid to live life because of fear of it anymore.”
Graening also praised the roughly 400 volunteers who help with the event, which he said has been family owned and operated since 1990. Some volunteer mangers have been involved with the festival for around 30 years.
“Now we are seeing millennials and Gen Z folks helping us,” he noted.
Family-friendly festival with ‘lyrically safe’ music
Musical trends have come and gone. And the festival circuit has grown. But the spirit of Alive is unaltered, Graening said.
“We had some years where the genre of music was changing a little … and there were more events coming,” he said. “We weren’t the only Christian music event, so there was a period of time (where attendance decreased).
“It never dipped incredibly bad … but we’re seeing a surge back, which really started last year,” Graening explained. “We’ve seen a real surge in people wanting to go to events … and listen to music that honors God.”
The event remains “family-oriented” with “lyrically safe” music,” he said. Alcohol isn’t sold.
“There’s nothing against the other events and what they do,” Graening said. “But (the Alive Music Festival) is an option.
“It’s about the gathering, it’s about bringing people together through faith in Christ,” he added. “And our beliefs are obviously a big piece of this … and it’s a great thing to gather together people from all across the country — it’s from every background, it’s from every race, it’s from every denomination.”
Reach Ed at 330-580-8315 and [email protected]
On Twitter @ebalintREP