by Charles McGuigan
Snowflakes form blizzards, and a single voice, of the right pitch, can create an avalanche. Disgusted by the views of the president-elect, Teresa Shook of Hawaii created a Facebook event inviting folks to march on Washington, D.C. the day after the inauguration. People would also take to the streets in more than 600 sister cities nationwide, making last year’s Women’s March the largest single-day demonstration in American history. Less than a year later actor Alyssa Milano tweeted #metoo. Since that moment, stories of sexual assault, harassment and rape have been shared by millions. And men of seeming limitless power have been toppled like hollow bowling pins. It just takes one person to start a movement.
A couple years back, Beth Stanford, a local singer with the MelBays, was teetering on the edge, felt like she was going to lose her toehold, and go tumbling down. She was in the final throes of a relationship that had been plummeting south for years. There was control and manipulation, and a little gaslighting, for good measure.
We’re sitting in Beth’s dining room in a classic Sears bungalow just off Route 1 in Glen Allen, the remnants of one of the early streetcar suburbs that sprang up along the defunct Richmond-Ashland Railway. “It’s almost unbelievable the amount of s*** someone has gone through or has had to deal with,” she says. “You’re right there on the edge of the abyss when you sense, as a victim, this is so bad no one is really going to believe you. Your toe is hanging off the edge of the cliff, and you might not survive this abuse. Whether it’s emotional, physical, social. Whatever it is.”
She pauses, almost breathless, and then continues in a rhythmic and sonorous voice: “And so I deliberately hung there at that point. And it’s a scary place to be standing, but goddamned it, it is real, and I’m not jumping off the cliff. I’m not slipping. I’m on the edge, but I’m firmly rooted on this ground. And I’m not scared of you, or scared of it. I’m not afraid of the abyss.”
Gradually, Beth pulled back from the edge. “This is where I came two years ago to my own sense of self,” she recalls. “Once you’re there, there’s this illumination that occurs, and this sense of empathy and understanding overcomes you, and you can then turn away from the edge of the abyss, and go back into your community, and be a better person and more supportive.”
About a year ago, Beth’s son, Sam, the oldest of her three children, became president of the VCU chapter of Women Matter, an organization, founded in 2013 by Eileen Davis, and dedicated to the ratification of the Equal Rights Amendment and the International Women’s Treaty. “It’s not about just women,” Beth explains. “It’s about understanding women and supporting women so much that it actually just becomes organic and invisible to our culture. I am very proud of my son.”
And the year before that, on about the same time Beth was staring into the abyss, she finally did something she had only dreamt about her entire life. She backs up in the telling of her story to her childhood. “From the time I could stand up, I loved music,” she says. ”I was always dancing and singing in front of the mirror.” In the car with her father, George Stanford, Jr., she would sing along with whatever song blasted from the grills of the speakers. “‘Wow, you just naturally harmonize,” her father would tell her. And he knew a thing or two about music; he played bass in a local band called Nickel Bridge, and later became a disc jockey. She describes her father as a cross between Richard Pryor and Mell Brooks. “I get my sense of humor and my love of music from him,” says Beth. “Neither one of us could breathe without music.”
“I was always very musical,” Beth tells me, “But I had a lot of self-esteem issues. I was outgoing, but really self-conscious.” She has spent the bulk of her adult career as a teacher, and that helped with her dreams of performing, at least to a degree. “When you teach, you’re on stage all day,” she says. “You’re engaging a 25-person audience that has the attention span of a ten-year old. So you’re tap dancing and trying to be funny. So I would get it out that way. Somewhat.”
Yet there was still the yearning to let loose on stage, belting out songs that could knock you over. And two years ago, as she was backing away from the lip of the abyss, Beth decided to give it a rip. “I finally got up the nerve to sing back up for a band,” she says. “I met Gary Eaton and Ron Faw and Mark Seccia, and they folded me into their band, the MelBays. And once I got comfortable, look out. I found out it wasn’t that scary to perform and talk into a mic and sing into a mic. I’ve been in the MelBays for a couple years now. Like me, they all love music. They’re great guys, and so down to earth. Our mission statement, or tagline, is: No drama. “I finally got to kind of express the musician and the singer that I am, even though it’s later in life. And I had a lot of mental and emotional hurdles to do that.”
All of these things would lead her to one moment this past year when Beth was on a long, solitary walk, her mind drifting over the events of the recent past, the relationship gone sour, the abyss, a childhood dream realized, her son Sam and his role with Women Matter.
‘I was just walking along and it all came to me in one big chunk,” Beth remembers. “How about a Women Rock Festival? First it was going to be just a musical thing and it could be a fundraiser for Women Matter.”
The air seemed electric with a kind of synergy. She considered the Women’s March of last January, #metoo. “It coincidentally dovetailed with my personal life,” Beth says. “But none of this is really coincidence. It’s the climate, the atmosphere we’re all in.”
As soon as the idea of the Festival began crystalizing, Beth immediately thought of Hardywood Park Craft Brewery on Ownby Lane. She’d been there for many events, and it would fit the bill for what she was hatching out. But Beth was a little reluctant at first, worried that her idea would be shot down.
And then she remembered a message painted on a rock.
“When I had my kids and I would go to my midwife’s house for checkups, on her front porch she had a rock that was painted with one word, ‘Ask,’” Beth says. “What’s the worst thing that can happen if you just ask people? The worst thing that can happen is that they can say, ‘Hell no, go away.’ So that is now my thing. I just ask.”
Beth sent an email to Hardywood. And waited, and waited. But there was no response. Three months later she received an email from the new manager that read, “Hey, I’m sorry nobody answered, but I’m really intrigued. Can you tell me some more?”
In short order, Beth set up an interview, though puzzled over how to frame her pitch. It was straightforward enough, a day of music celebrating women, and benefiting Women Matter and the Richmond Peace Education Center.
“So I went in,” says Beth. “And they were like, ‘You can do whatever you want within reason. We’ll handle getting the food trucks in that are women-owned. We’ll handle getting the vendors in the right place, and organizing who’s going to be here, and we’ll pay the bands.’”
To put it mildly, Beth was blown away. She immediately created a Facebook page for the event. “And that’s when I was really amazed,” Beth says. “So many people responded, ‘Can I be a vendor? I have a food truck. Can our band play?’ In just a few weeks there were about eight hundred people saying they were going. I was overwhelmed. It caught on fire so fast.” Four bands–The New Misty Centrals, The MelBays, Suzie and the G-Tones and Janet Martin—have already signed on, and because the event will run from 1-9 pm on March 24, there are still plenty of other slots to fill. “But they would have to donate their music,” says Beth.
She fairly gushes about Hardywood, their staff, and all they’re doing for this event. “Five percent of all the beer sales the whole day will go to Women Matter and the Richmond Peace Education Center, and the vendors don’t pay anything,” says Beth. “Bikini Panini will be there, and Hardywood is going to draw from their own well of women-owned food trucks. The people at Hardywood are the best, and they’re all about the community.” It was, by the way, the good folks at Hardywood who recommended the date—March 24—because of it’s proximity to International Women’s Day.
“The thing about the Women Rock Festival, is it’s not a corporate thing,” she says. “It’s a community thing, and that’s what I wanted for it to be. About women, and men who support women, who come together and realize how much beauty, and creativity and joy and positivity and energy there is in Richmond. I want it to be totally grassroots tolerant, because that’s the nature of women, bringing people together, whether it’s family or friends. We’re nurturers, we’re community-minded.”
“If you give it just a little nudge, it will snowball,” says Beth Stanford. “You don’t have to micromanage stuff or have corporate funding. This is just us as human beings coming together. I’ve been brought to my knees many times in my life, but I always get back up. And sometimes I don’t think I’m gonna, but then I’m standing up and I don’t know how.”
To learn more find RVA Women Rock Festival on Facebook.