Hugged By Life: Behind the Scenes at "Live in the Vineyard"

"his lips drink water but his heart drinks wine" ― e. e. cummings
Live in the Vineyard founders Claire Parr (left) and Bobbii Jacobs (right) with performer Idina Menzel (middle)

Nine years ago, long-time friends and collaborators Claire Parr and Bobbii Jacobs founded “Live in the Vineyard” because, Parr says now, “our artists needed to be hugged by life.”

Both women had been in and around the music business for years, promoting and developing artists. Back in 2007, while working on promoting Jason Mraz’s “I’m Yours” and Matt Nathanson’s “Come On Get Higher”, they were hungry for a new way to capture the interest of radio programmers, the media and influencers – those with the ability to anoint their artists as worthy of the public’s time and attention. Would they be able, they wondered, to present their artists to gatekeepers in such a way that might be unforgettable? Not only for the audience, but for the artists themselves, of whom they were, and remain, fiercely protective and supportive?

After all, between them they’d worked with some of the most legendary artists around. While Jacobs worked with a number of record labels and music magazines, Parr worked on “making records, pairing producers with musicians and song choices, and the overall packaging of creative projects – the creative side of the artist’s world.” Her past roster includes Joni Mitchell, Peter Gabriel, Don Henley and LeAnn Rimes, to name just a few. But with the advent of the technological and digital age of music, both women were keen to maintain a highly-personalized, humane, hands-on approach to promoting their clients.

At the time, Jacobs shared with Parr that she’d just had a great trip to the Napa Valley, where she enjoyed a private dinner at Chalk Hill Winery that she’d won at a school auction. “The only thing that was missing was music”, Jacobs says of the otherwise spectacular dinner. Inspired by this visit to the Napa Valley, she and Parr conceived of an event that would allow them to host their artists in wine country, while inviting radio programmers from around the nation to spend an extended time in vineyard settings listening to new material in small winery venues.

Enter “Live in the Vineyard”. Nine years later, it’s one of the nation’s most exclusive music festivals. Tickets cannot be purchased. Attendees, who are mostly radio programmers from throughout the US, must either be invited or must win tickets in sweepstake giveaways around the nation. Average citizens, then, also have the chance to win, as many did, what amounts to a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to see great live music in private settings across the Napa Valley.

The first “Live in the Vineyard” event in 2007 was modest. Held at the Silverado Country Club’s Ballroom, there was one winery host and just a handful of artists in attendance, but the event proved to be successful enough to warrant a second go-round. In 2008, Parr and Jacobs ramped up the roster, with Sarah McLachlan and Colbie Caillat heading up the talent line up. More wineries joined. Restaurants came on board, and soon they were off and running.

Earlier this month, I headed to the Napa Valley to attend my first “Live in the Vineyard.” After obtaining my media pass at the Westin Verasa, a large, modern hotel walking distance from the popular Oxbow Market in downtown Napa, I made my way to The Greenbelt where I was informed the first live performance would take place. A new downtown Napa venue developed by the local Parks and Recreation Department, The Greenbelt is located somewhat improbably under an overpass, just a stone’s throw from the Napa Valley Wine Train station. A sprawling lawn surrounded by a large concrete patio-like space that extends beneath the overpass, The Greenbelt was being transformed into an intimate concert venue when I arrived by foot a couple of hours before the actual concert. Food trucks organized in a half-circle surrounded an outdoor living room space, if you will, dotted here and there with sleek sofas and low-lying coffee tables, complete with floral arrangements.

While flocks of Canada geese rising up from the shores of the nearby Napa River flew overhead through the sunset, The Head and The Heart soon arrived for the first small concert of the nearly four-day event. Known for their wistful, beautifully written songs, like “All We Ever Knew” and “Rhythm and Blues”, The Head and The Heart receive a lot of air play these days, especially on satellite radio stations like XM radio’s The Coffee House.

“Every artist in our lineup has a brand new project they are promoting,” Parr tells me. She and Jacobs, along with their extensive marketing and sponsorship partnerships, have resolved to create an atmosphere wherein their artists feel comfortable and confident enough to present their latest music, oftentimes for the first time, in public. “We give them the best sound, great lodging, we surround them with friends and good people, with incredible Napa wines and beautiful food. It's easy to get an artist to relax when you've worked with them and their teams and they know you personally. We don't ‘buy’ talent, so when you come to our event, there is a deep and profound bond between Bobbii and me and our artists,” Parr says. Indeed, the two women hand-select venues, wines and chefs to compliment the personality and work of each artist.

Ultimately, ticket winners benefit from Parr and Jacobs’ careful choices as much as do the artists. Throughout the four days I attended, I spoke to a number of relaxed and jubilant ticket winners from around the nation. Some had won by entering contests sponsored by their favorite radio stations. Others had won tickets from sweepstakes held by several event sponsors, including Southwest Airlines, Stella Artois and Sutter Home. Whether because they were attending the event entirely for free (Live in the Vineyard covers lodging, food and events for all ticket winners), or because they were getting to see some of their favorite performers up close and personal, I ultimately did not meet one attendee that didn’t seem elated by the opportunity.
Colbie Caillat

The next day was a full one. It began with a small, intimate, mid-day concert featuring Colbie Caillat, performing work from her ruminative, hazy-days-of-summer effort The Malibu Sessions. (The album itself begins and ends with ocean sounds recorded off the Malibu coastline). While a small, polite crowd of ticket winners and radio programmers made their way to the intimate venue, I stood back and wondered what it must be like for an artist to play a venue such as this one. Caillat emerged for her set fresh-faced and seemingly at ease. She performed alongside her fiancé, Justin Young, and chatted easily and often with the small crowd. During “Try”, an empowering ballad she co-wrote with Babyface, the crowd seemed particularly still and moved. After her set, we all dispersed and reappeared at the next venue, Biale Vineyards, along Napa’s Big Ranch Road corridor.
Mike Posner (left) and Spencer Ludwig (right)

There, among a rustic winery and vineyard setting, we again gathered, this time on hay bales and wooden farm tables, to listen to Mike Posner perform his popular hits “I Took a Pill in Ibizia”, “Be As You Are” and “Buried in Detroit.” I happen to be a big Posner fan, so this was the highlight of the weekend for me. Posner, who is a self-effacing, Detroit-born, tender and toughened performer, was joined by the young trumpet playing genius, Spencer Ludwig, who improvised his way through “I Took a Pill in Ibizia”, while Posner looked on, pleased, strumming his guitar. Ludwig’s lithe body, dressed all in black, and topped off with a stylish black hat, cut quite a figure in an otherwise very rural environment. The two created no small amount of melodic magic together that afternoon.

Also joining Posner that day was Stanaj (pictured left), a genteel, handsome, young performer, possessing of some silly swagger, as well, whose meteoric rise in recent months culminated in a much-viewed appearance on “The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon” earlier this year. He performed “Romantic” a modern-day torch song, with a small grove of oak trees and a vineyard as his background. The afternoon at Biale Vineyards was rounded out by James TW, performing his chart-topper “When You Love Someone”, which has lit up the UK charts and is steadily climbing the charts stateside. It’s a heart wrenching song that James TW wrote for a young student (he used to be a music teacher) whose parents were divorcing at the time. His performance was stripped down and raw, and left more than a handful of audience members in tears.

After the crowd dispersed, we made our way back to the hotel in Napa where a number of Napa wineries hosted a grand tasting in the hotel’s courtyard. I sneaked out of the tasting early to rest up for that evening’s concert at downtown Napa’s historic Uptown Theatre. That night, a startlingly great line up of performers, which included Calum Scott, JOHNNYSWIM, Wrabel, Phillip Phillips and O.A.R., performed to an enthusiastic, packed house. On Saturday, small break-out performances by Drake White, Brendan James and Zach Heckendorf, to name just a few, took place in St. Helena, while back at the Uptown Theatre that evening, The Rua, Walking on Cars, Mike Posner, Pete Yorn and Blue October took the stage for yet another crowd-pleasing, foot-stomping, high-energy show.

On Sunday morning, the final day of “Live in the Vineyard” we all descended on Liana Estates, a small winery in the Carneros appellation of the Napa Valley, to listen to an elegant, highly-anticipated performance by Idina Menzel (“Let it Go”, “Defying Gravity”) off her new album, Idina. A deeply personal body of work that she tackled after a difficult divorce, it’s my favorite work by Menzel to date. I found the lead single off the album, “Queen of Swords,” to be immediately likeable and relatable upon the first listening.  

By the final day of the event, both Jacobs and Parr seem exhausted but contented. Jacobs is anxious to return home to Parker, Colorado, where she has two small children. “I miss my children so much when I’m doing these events and they miss me, but then they see how happy I am when I return home. They know I’m fulfilled, doing this work, and it’s important to me that they have a mother who is fulfilled in her life. I do think that a woman can have everything – a meaningful career and a family. You just have to be very focused.”

Both women spend a fair amount of time, on this final festival day, saying good bye to sponsors, artists and ticket winners. “Almost without exception, all our events in the past nine years have been followed with emotional, heartfelt, beautiful letters from guests and our own staff, telling us that our event made them care about music again, about life, about getting closer to their love ones. ‘Live in the Vineyard’ encouraged them to look up and out and spend more time with their friends and family. We’ve even had a few letters that told us the event's bonding experience had helped them reconnect in their marriages. It's a great and big responsibility for Bobbii and me that we won't take lightly,” Parr says. “Those emotions are about the total experience – the love, the passion, our flawless team's quest for the ultimate performance for our guests – and we always aim to improve that collective experience from one event to another.”

I was especially impressed by the charitable arm of “Live in the Vineyard,” which is important to both women, but especially vital to Parr, who has battled and survived cancer numerous times. “After having had 16 surgeries, chemo, radiation, and being basically duct taped together by some of the world's finest doctors, I learned what any person learns when facing their mortality or a significant trauma: I live each day with gratitude, love, excitement, an open heart, and I try to be kind,” says Parr. “I am easily annoyed because I spend a lot of time in pain and don't take opiates anymore for that. I find I prefer to be in the moment. LITV has given me and Bobbii the chance to help our most important charities, like City of Hope, Kidds Kids, VH1’s Save the Music, Music Cares, Napa Food Bank, Pathways, Do It for The Love and a few more. To be involved with these organizations is completely gratifying, and ultimately, this is the legacy I personally crave,” Parr adds. Throughout the weekend, there were silent auctions featuring high-ticket items held at various venues, the proceeds of which went to these charities.

Next up for Parr and Jacobs? “Yountville Live”, which unfolds March 16th through the 19th of 2017 in the small, beautiful township of Yountville, California. Unlike “Live in the Vineyard”, tickets can be purchased for “Yountville Live.” So far, chefs Graham Elliott, Gale Gand, Ernesto Martinez, and Bob Hurley, to name just a few, are slated to prepare delicious meals throughout the four-day event, while performers like Five for Fighting, Rodrigo Y Gabriela, Brendan James and The Rua, will be performing live. More musical performers are being added to the roster almost daily, and are subsequently announced on the event’s website []. Unlike “Live in the Vineyard” though, a lifestyle component will be added to “Yountville Live” wherein participants can learn to garden, tend to vines, make chocolate, or cook a gourmet dish, all alongside some of their favorite performers. There will be dinners prepared by the chefs of REDDWOOD, Lucy’s, Mustard’s Grill, Bottega, Hurleys and more, in addition to tented wine and bubbly tastings at the Villagio Resort. Both women want ticket holders of “Yountville Live” to have the same experience that attendees have at “Live in the Vineyard.” “We want them treated like kings and queens,” they tell me. “We want them to be pampered and given some excitement and inspiration, which they’ll hopefully take home and share with their friends and family.”

Indeed, I’ve been to many live music events in my lifetime, but “Live in the Vineyard” stands out as an unforgettable one. If you happen to love music, wine and food as much as I do, there’s hardly a better event to be embraced by all three in ways that are relaxing and transcendent.

“Live in the Vineyard” Spotlight on JOHNNYSWIM:
JOHNNYSWIM duo Abner Ramirez (far left) and Amanda Ramirez (far right) with Phillip Phillips (middle left) and Calum Scott (middle right)

I caught up with Abner and Amanda Ramirez, who together form the popular duo JOHNNYSWIM, during “Live in the Vineyard” for a brief chat about their new album, Georgica Pond. As a quick aside, I must make mention of the fact that I found them to be overwhelmingly earnest and warm. For years, I have brushed up against the entertainment industry and attended many industry parties wherein a stranger might embrace you with abandon and tell you how much they’d love to get to know you better, all the while looking over your shoulder to see if anyone more important or influential has walked into the room.

When I was introduced to the Ramirez’s, they both immediately offered an unguarded embrace that was, by contrast, natural and sincere; refreshing traits in the otherwise oftentimes convoluted entertainment industry landscape.

RH Drexel: Let’s start off by talking about one of my favorite songs you both perform – ‘Villains’ – which is about the sometimes complicated aspects of living and working side by side with one’s spouse. Natalie Hemby, a great Nashville-based songwriter, wrote that song for you both. Did you commission her to write it?

Amanda Ramirez: We had been writing with her for a chunk of time in Nashville, and we were kind of talking about life and relationships one day, and she had this idea for a title, ‘Villians.’

Abner Ramirez: Because we would just start writing together while hanging out, just talking about life. We weren't having the classic Nashville writing sessions with Natalie. Instead, we’d be hanging, and things would come up. So the theme of the song kind of came up in conversation between the three of us. She [Hemby] asked us, ‘don’t you guys ever feel like you make each other into something you’re not?’

Amanda: And there was this very real moment where I just came out and said that I’m sometimes really shy and I just want to hide away, and Abner will say, ‘What are you doing? Get out here!’ And that’s easily one of my favorite things about him; I love that about him. But that’s also something about him that makes me crazy. And isn’t that the way it is with most relationships? Not even just romantic relationships. But with people you are close to and whom you love; oftentimes what you love most about them can be that thing that ends up being something you want to punch them for if they take those traits too far.

[Here Abner laughs heartily.]

RH: Let’s talk a little about ‘Georgica Pond’, the title track off your new album. I just love that opening line: ‘One day when I'm gone, scatter my ashes on Georgica Pond.’ How does a lovely line like that come to you? Does it just appear to fall from the sky?

Amanda: That line absolutely fell from the sky. I was in Georgica Pond, a little neighborhood in East Hampton, New York. It was my mom’s favorite place to be. Growing up, my family had a little property on Shelter Island, which is not too far from Geogrica Pond. When I was a kid, we’d take a ferry over from Shelter Island and ride bikes, look at the flowers, eat great meals there… So the first time I went back there with our son was very bittersweet. It’s the place where I feel my mother’s spirit the most.

One day, on a perfect day very much like today, I was out on Georgica Pond, on a hammock, looking out at a fountain, while our son lay on me sleeping, and that line just came to me.

RH: Do you ever wake up in the morning and decide, between the two of you, ‘Okay, today, we’re not going to talk about music or songwriting or none of that. We’re just going to take a little break.’

Abner: I’m a morning person, and a night person.

Amanda: I’m more of a noon person, myself.

Abner: And at the middle of the day is the only time I’m like a zombie.

[They both laugh.]

Abner: So I’ll get up in the morning with a million ideas on my mind – especially when we were working on this album. Players, song ideas, just so much I wanted to tell her. So I’d just start dumping all these ideas while she was trying to have her morning coffee, and she’d just be like…SHHHHHHH.

Amanda: Yes, I’d be saying SHHHHHH while quietly just trying to wake up. I’d tell him, ‘Please, let’s just chill for an hour. Let me wake up. Then we can talk.’ So, there’s never a whole day where we don’t talk about music. We’re in the music business, after all, so you’re always working.

Abner: But now I give her enough time to wake up before the ideas come spilling out.

Acclaimed husband and wife band JOHNNYSWIM will be performing as part the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade, which is celebrating its 90th anniversary this year. Broadcast live on NBC, the parade will feature additional performances from the likes of Tony Bennett, Aloe Blacc, De La Soul, Fitz & the Tantrums, Sarah McLachlan, Regina Spektor and more.

To view concert footage and photos Drexel shot during “Live in the Vineyard”, please visit her Instagram account @rhdrexel.

More articles from this author