When Nicholas Leffler was 20, he envisioned a Tuolumne County music festival at the scenic River Ranch Campground in the Stanislaus National Forest, where the North Fork of the Tuolumne River and Basin Creek join as one.
“I was out there, walking up and around the river,” said Lefler, now 40 and living in Sonora. “There was already a stage built. Basically, the campground told me, there’s supposed to be music here.”
Two decades later, The River Ranch Music Festival still holds true to its original grassroots ideal — an inclusive creative event made for locals, by locals.
"So many people tell me what a magical experience they had at the festival. Hearing all of their stories about making new friendships, following new bands and supporting local artists is what inspires me to continue this festival year after year," Lefler said.
Lefler is a multi-instrumentalist musician who grew up in Modesto and graduated from Turlock High School. He was first interested in music through the classics — The Beatles, Bob Marley, Jimi Hendrix, Nirvana and Pink Floyd. Lefler started playing the drums at 15, and within a year, he was self-taught in guitar, bass and keyboards.
“I just kind of had this feeling that music came naturally to me. When I heard songs I could analyze each instrument. I kind of thought that what’s what everyone did,” Lefler said. “It came super easy to me so it made sense to pursue something that seemed so natural.”
Lefler has organized the River Ranch Music Festival like a labor of love rather than a strict business endeavor.
“Some years you break even, some years you lose money, some years you make a little. But you see people just so grateful for all your work, that’s what makes it worth it. I get paid in laughter and smiles and hugs. I can’t let people down. I feel obligated to provide this space,” Lefler said.
And with much of his focus on frequent gigging, booking talent for River Ranch Music Festival and other musical endeavors, Lefler employs some promotional help from locals like Michael Miller of Sonora.
“To have this type of eclectic event last 20 years in such a small market is significant in my opinion. I know people who have been going for years. It’s just really impressive,” Miller said.
Miller had organized local events with touring and national bands since 1995, such as AFI at the Mother Lode Fairgrounds in 1995, the Reverend Horton Heat in Modesto in 2006 and with The Risky Biscuits at the former Gypsy Shack in Jamestown.
Miller said it was a “natural progression” to work with Lefler from a logistical angle, helping with marketing, ticket sales and other organizational duties to keep the festival afloat. Miller has worked the River Ranch Music Festival since 2016, he said.
He can’t remember if he went to the early days, he added, but he said recent years have lived up to his expectations for what a locally organized festival ought to be.
“It's something that people from the area, from the 209 or the nearby, can go and swim and hear music and dance and it's right here in their backyard,” Miller said.
At the time of the first River Ranch Music Festival, Lefler was enrolled at Columbia College and finishing his degree in liberal studies. Lefler was in a band called Alma Melodiosa with bass player Damian Dianda. The friends, who met in a psychology class at Columbia College, dubbed their amalgamating musical style “flamencadelic reggae,” which more simply means Latin dance music, Lefler said.
When he toured the River Ranch Campground at about 20 years old, he was convinced he could set up a non-corporate gathering place for he and his musicians friends to hang out, jam and pow-wow.
“It was ideal. It's far enough from town where noise won’t be a problem, but close enough to Sonora to get the locals,” he said.
The stage was 30 feet from the water and surrounded by old growth oak trees on all sides.
“It was about how untouched it was. There’s very little traffic there. There was a serenity and beauty of the space itself,” he said.
The River Ranch Campground is located on Fish Hatchery Road and Cottonwood Road more than five miles east of the township of Tuolumne.
There were about 150 to 200 people in attendance the first year. Alma Melodiosa, Clan Dyken and Loco Amor were among the players.
Lefler said the festival immediately established itself as “people powered” and a “music festival for musicians.”
“The main thing that defines this festival is how many lifetime friendships that have been created through the festival. You’ll see people there maybe you met 15 years ago,” Lefler said. “In a way it's turned into a tradition not only for bands but for new friendships to continue to last.”
After the festival, Alma Melodiosa had finished their first album and was earning name recognition throughout town. Lefler decided to take the band on a national tour and abandoned his Columbia College degree one month before graduation.
Alma Melodiosa will reunite at River Ranch Music Festival this year after an eight year hiatus.
Lefler’s solo project — which he refers to as a “one-man gypsy band” — is shaped by world music, with influences in Latin, Arabic and reggae styles. His primary instruments are a Cordoba Spanish guitar and a percussion octapad. On stage, Lefler can create a whirlwind of sonic tones, beats and vibes with a loop pedal and a guitar processor to change and layer sounds.
“I try to pursue every musical style known to man. If it seems challenging, that’s what I’m doing,” Lefler said.
Lefler also acts a producer of other music acts. He plays between three to five shows a week, mostly in Murphys, and supports himself completely through music.
The River Ranch Music Festival is an all ages event. It will be held this year on Friday, Aug. 16, and Saturday, Aug. 17. Musical acts on the bill include Alma Melodiosa, The Hot Dark, Shotgun DJs Rob I & Pirate Mundo, The Brothers Strong, Pacific Lung, Dandelion Massacre, Clan Dyken and Green Machine.
The festival also includes belly dancers, glow artists, live artists, DJs and hula-hoopers.
The festival typically draws about 500 people.
Advance tickets are $50 from Lefler, Miller and at Live Oak Music in Sonora. Tickets are available at the gate for $60 and single-day tickets will also be offered for $30. All tickets include access to the campsite to stay overnight.
Music begins at 6 p.m. on Friday.
“It's very difficult for a lot of festivals. Some kind of implode,” Lefler said. “But it's really just the fact that these bands have been willing to keep coming back. We still have the campground and the people are still coming back.”