Craven, 58, has served as master of ceremonies at Live Oak since 1999.
“People get to know me as the constant, consistent voice of the festival,” he said. “I’m very proud of that. It’s an honor.”
Held every Father’s Day weekend at Live Oak Camp in northern Santa Barbara County, the festival celebrated its 25th anniversary in 2013. The event, a fundraiser for public radio station KCBX-FM, features three days of concerts, camping and more.
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Craven described Live Oak as a life-affirming, consciousness-raising celebration for concertgoers of all ages.
“They come because there’s fellowship. They come because of the entertainment. (They come) to be moved and inspired by the music,” he said.
Craven, who grew up in the Southeast, graduated from the University of South Carolina with a degree in museology in 1979. Heading west, he landed a job as a curator at the Nevada Museum of Art in Reno.
“I never gave up my love of music-making and my identity as a weekend warrior doing so,” said Craven, who balanced his museum duties with early-morning gigs at local casinos.
Eventually, he quit his day job in order to focus on music, moving to the Central Valley around 1986.
Craven currently lives in Dixon southwest of Sacramento, where he works as an educator, storyteller and performer, among other things. Winner of the 2009 Folk Alliance Far-West Performer of the Year, he has played with artists including banjo player Alison Brown, guitarist Jerry Garcia, mandolin player David Grisman and multi-instrumentalist David Lindley.
Craven’s connection to Live Oak dates to the beginning.
He performed at the first festival at Biddle Regional Park in Arroyo Grande as part of the trio Way Out West, and returned over the years with other groups.
Then, in 1999, Live Oak organizers approached Craven to serve as a replacement for folk singer, storyteller and activist Utah Phillips, who was stepping down as emcee.
Some KCBX staff members had seen Craven emceeing at the Strawberry Music Festivals near Yosemite National Park — “adding some edginess and flair to the proceedings,” as he put it. (He’s also served in the same capacity at the Telluride Bluegrass Festival in Colorado.)
Craven agreed to “come (to Live Oak) and take a test drive for a year,” he said. He’s never missed a year since.
“Live Oak has a very, very special place in my heart,” said Craven, who loves the festival’s family-friendly vibe and eclectic music offerings.
He also appreciates its relatively small scale. “Because of the intimacy, for me, there’s a greater sense of community in terms of people really getting to know each other,” he said.
Craven and his family – usually his wife, his daughter and one of three grown sons — typically arrive at Live Oak Camp on the afternoon before the festival begins. They set up camp in a trailer parked backstage that serves as Craven’s office and dressing room, as well as storage space for his vast and unconventional wardrobe.
“I’m a self-proclaimed fashion insultant,” quipped Craven, who’s known for his colorful costume changes. “I’m helping to be a cheerleader to encourage people to let their hair down.”
At the same time, Craven strives to provide thoughtful, well-researched introductions for each musician.
“That’s a big part of my gig — to be informative, but also be entertaining at the same time,” he said. Craven is sometimes asked to sit in with bands performing at the festival. And he occasionally takes the stage with his daughter, 14-year-old Hattie Craven, or one of his own bands.
This year, Craven will perform as part of the trio Mamajowali, along with Marin County-based guitarist Walter Strauss and Mali-born musician Mamadou Sidibe, who specializes in the kamale ngoni, or, hunters harp. They play a blend of American and West African folk music that Craven describes as “Afromericana.”
“We’re just interweaving all this music together,” Craven said. “It’s really fun.”
In addition to his other duties, Craven views himself as an unofficial ambassador for Live Oak.
“Whenever I have the opportunity to … move away from the stage, I want to be very engaging and very friendly,” he said. “I want to keep that sense of goodwill and good vibes going.”
Live Oak Music Festival
2 p.m. to midnight June 19, 8 a.m. to midnight June 20, 8 a.m. to 8:30 p.m. June 21
Live Oak Camp, Highway 154, near Cachuma Lake
$20 to $55 day pass, $40 to $130 festival pass; $10 parking; camping varies
781-3030 or www.liveoakfest.org