In recent years, Kelcy Warren, the billionaire CEO of Energy Transfer Partner, has been best known for building fun things. In 2007 it was folk label Music Road Records; four years later, it was a music festival on his property in Cherokee, Texas; and in 2012 it was the popular downtown Dallas gathering spot Klyde Warren Park.
But this year what Warren's building with Energy Transfer, the Dakota Access Pipeline, is much more controversial — and it's casting a shadow on his other pursuits.
Energy Transfer doesn't drill for oil and gas; they move it from one place to another. In this case they want to move it 1,170 miles through four states, including North and South Dakota, where Native Americans say the pipeline being constructed will encroach on their sacred land and damage the environment. Protests in Standing Rock, South Dakota, have attracted thousands as well as the support of celebrities including Orlando Bloom and Shailene Woodley.
Given the intensity of the protests in North Dakota, it's ironic that Warren's music festival is named after a Native American tribe. Cherokee Creek Music Festival is a folk-heavy series of concerts held on Kelcy Warren's private ranch, and it donates its profits to children's charities. It's a well held event, befitting the 372nd richest man in America. (Warren's estimated worth is $4.2 billion.) The second question on Cherokee Creek Music Fest's FAQ page is for guests who intend to fly in via helicopter. Musicians including Don Henley, Jackson Browne, Dwight Yoakum, Lucinda Williams, Jason Isbell, Amos Lee, Bob Schneider and the Indigo Girls have all performed in past years.
But several of the artists who've played since 2011 have recently spoken out against the pipeline and cut off ties to Warren. In a Sept. 6 statement to Indian Country Today, Jackson Browne — who was on the inaugural lineup — denounced Warren as well as the tribute album to him that Music Road Records released in 2014.
"I will be donating all of the money I have received from this album to date, and any money received in the future, to the tribes who are opposing the pipeline," Browne's statement read. "I routinely vet the companies who ask me to perform for them. I do not play for oil interests. I do not play for companies who defile nature, or companies who attack demonstrators with trained attack dogs and pepper spray. ... I certainly would not have allowed my songs to be recorded by a record company whose owner's other business does what Energy Transfer Partners is allegedly doing."
The Indigo Girls, who have played the festival twice, wrote an open letter to Warren on Oct. 26 that was signed by Browne, as well as other former participants Shawn Colvin, Joan Osborne and Keb’ Mo’.
"Many of us, as artists, take offense and are mystified by how someone with such a deep passion for organic and traditional music can own a company that is so blatantly tearing at the heart of the fabric of our American community," the letter reads, published on the Indigo Girls' Facebook page. "In order to stay true to our music and respect the Native Nations that are united against the Dakota Access Pipeline, we will no longer play your festival or participate in Music Road Records recordings."
The letter does acknowledge that the artists have had positive experiences playing Cherokee Creek Fest, and applauds its support of charities benefiting children, which in the past have included St. Jude's Hospital, the Ronald McDonald House and Shriners Hospitals.
Kelcy Warren responded with a letter of his own, thanking the artists for their support but trying to dispel what he called "deliberate misinformation" about the pipeline:
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His full letter can be found at the end of this article.
The Observer spoke with Scott Beasley, the festival manager, who said the festival would return in spring 2017, citing the importance of continuing to donate to their usual charities. They are in negotiations with artists to perform now and the lineup will be released mid- to late January.
"It hasn’t [affected our plans] at all, quite frankly," Beasley says. "It’s a wonderful event at a fabulous venue and it benefits a tremendous amount of children here in the state. After last year’s event we will have donated right at two million dollars to children’s charities. ... They’re dependent upon it quite frankly. We’re almost their entire annual budget. We’re going to make sure that continues."