‘Where there’s a Willie, there’s a way’
A musical odyssey, from a Maryland farm to King Harbor
by Katie Henley
Saturday morning, before he went on stage, Moi from Tomorrow’s Bad Seeds asked how long I’d been working on BeachLife. I said, “Since December I’ve done nothing but work on this festival.” He laughed and said, “Katie, you’ve been working on this your whole life.”
I fell in love with music as a small kid. I remember listening to Willie Nelson under my “me ma’s” kitchen table, as she was “fixing supper.” We were farmers in a small town in Maryland, and we heard mostly country music. Johnny Cash, Waylon Jennings, Garth Brooks, Reba, Brooks and Dunn, George Strait. Alan Jackson…The good stuff. But there was no one better than Willie. He had that unmistakable Nelson voice. “Always on My Mind” was my mother’s favorite song, and to this day, I consider it the most beautiful song of all time..
Willie Nelson was my first concert. When I was 11 years old, my mother took me to see him at the Great Frederick Fair. I was blown away by the whole scene. The stages, the crowds, the noise, the smells, the energy in the air. In between songs, when it was super quiet, I yelled out, “I love you Willie!” He said into the microphone, “I love you too.” I completely lost my mind That was when I officially fell in love with live music.
Over the years, my taste in music expanded considerably, but the live show was always the most important. I’ll go see any band, and if they can bring it on stage I’ll be a fan forever. I grew to appreciate a lot of classic rock, southern rock, reggae, punk, and jam bands. In middle school, I was obsessed with Green Day and Nirvana. Yes, I went through the blue-hair grunge phase. In high school, I discovered the Grateful Dead, and I don’t think I’ve been the same since. Fast forward to college, and I wanted to start booking bands at local spots. I had my friend Donny design a business card and called myself Kool Kat promotions. My mom still has that card. I booked my first show at 20 years old. It was band from Baltimore called Can’t Hang, at a Dive Bar called Down Under. I wasn’t even old enough to go in. I still did, but not legally. Sorry Doug. I made flyers in my college house and passed them out on campus. I booked bars and house parties and threw some massive ragers on my mom’s farm. I graduated from college in 2004. After an epic graduation party (people camped out in our field. My flyers said, “Katie’s graduation party. If you get too bent, pitch a tent.”) A month after graduation, I sold everything I had and moved to California.
I did a few promo tours. I met a lot of musicians and started helping them promote. I developed a network of local bands and promoters and booked shows all over LA. I worked in radio and managed bands and tours. I promoted weekly shows at Patrick Molloy’s on Pier Plaza in Hermosa for years. (I used to book Rebelution for $200, and now they headline Red Rocks.) In 2010, I was in the place where I wanted to stay put for a bit. I also found out about this cool club in Hermosa Beach called Saint Rocke.
I had been hearing of awesome shows going on at Saint Rocke, and started doing my research. I reached out to owner Allen Sanford about some ideas I had. When we first met, I remember saying, ‘I’ve been working with musicians for a while now. I should work here. Yeah…. I’m going to work here. I mean, I’ll prove myself. I’ll start out answering phones, or waiting tables, or whatever. But I want to start throwing shows here and promoting bands. I’m going to be here for a long time. This is going to be awesome.” I didn’t really give him a choice. He gave me a job in the Saint Rocke office, doing social media and answering phones.
There was a Monday night I wanted to take over in April. I told Allen I needed a budget to book a 420 show. When I sold out that first show, he told me, “Great job. Our manager meetings are on Wednesdays. Don’t be late.”
I ran Saint Rocke for six years: talent buying, managing, marketing, events… everything. Then I got an email from Live Nation, offering me a position at House of Blues in New Orleans. I was sad to leave Saint Rocke, but this was an iconic venue in an amazing city. I had to go. So I worked at HOB and loved it. New Orleans is magical.
Last November, Allen called to tell me about BeachLife. He said, “I’m doing this festival and I want you to run marketing for it. It’s perfect for you.” I said, “Thanks but I’m having a blast down here. New Orleans rocks.” He said, “Oh, did I tell the headliners?” Willie Nelson, Bob Weir, Slightly Stoopid.” I said, “Dammit Allen. You had me at Willie. I’ll see you in a few weeks. ” I packed up everything I owned, and moved back West. It was the single best decision I’ve ever made.
I went from working at the oldest venue in the country, to creating an event out of thin air. It’s never been done before in this city. I had nothing to compare it to. But Allen had the vision, and he put together a rockin’ team. His guidance. His insane work ethic and creative passion. I’ve never met someone with so much drive. He won’t settle for mediocrity. If anyone else pitched me this idea, I probably would have said no. But Allen won’t fail. When you are offered a seat on a rocket ship, you don’t ask questions. You get on board.
It demanded long hours, soul crushing anxiety (ha), managing droves of people, keeping the budget, and keeping it fun. I was working with artists who I’ve respected and admired for decades. Artists who’s posters I had on my wall. At the end of the day, I’m a music fan.
On the Friday night of BeachLife, I was sitting in the photo pit for Slightly Stoopid when Bob Weir came on stage. Two of my all-time favorite artists were playing together. I’m about to take my phone out to snap a pic, and I realize I’m looking over the shoulder of a photographer from Rolling Stone. If I could pinpoint the exact moment where my dreams came true? Yup. That. Was. It.
The entire festival, I was running around and occasionally, I’d stop and take it all in. The smiles, the happy fans. The high fives and hugs from all my friends. Then I saw Willie Nelson’s set, and it was just a full circle moment. I cried like a baby and called my mom. I said, “Mom I did it.” She said, “Of course you did! When there’s a Willie, there’s a way.”