It’s almost surreal to me, as Rio Semione has been a presence in my working life ever since I started covering music at the paper, and longer, in fact. The longtime artist relations representative at FloydFest died unexpectedly on Saturday at her home in Floyd County. Semione was 60, and had lived in Floyd for about 36 years.
I didn’t know Semione extremely well, as many did, but every time I ran across her — either in real time or online — she was interesting, with a lot of spirit and a legitimate point of view about music and culture. And let me tell you, to be an artist relations rep at a festival like FloydFest, a person needs to be firm but cool. She was both.
She had also been events planner at The Sun Music Hall and Cultural Arts Center and had booked and promoted shows at The Pine Tavern in those venues’ previous iterations. But she had been involved with FloydFest in one way or another since the first year, when she supervised hospitality for the musicians.
George Penn Jr., a drummer with several local acts, has been a stage host at several FloydFests and got to know her well. In response to an e-mail query, he wrote: “She was a positive force, an integral part of the Floyd community. I always enjoyed seeing her behind the scenes at FloydFest and other musical events in the area. We bonded over reggae music, especially Awareness Art Ensemble (1st popular reggae at in VA). Bless Rio’s sweet soul.”
She was an artist in her own right, as well. Among her other talents was pumpkin-carving, and not just gashing out some rough teeth and eyes. Check out this soundslide from 2006, with her describing her process and talking a bit about herself and life in her county. She taught pumpkin-carving, too, and I’d imagine her method was sound.
UPDATE 5.24.13: In response to phone and e-mail queries, I have gathered responses to Semione’s death from several FloydFest folks. I used portions of these for the column that runs in Saturday’s paper. Below are fuller thoughts on their good friend.
Erika Johnson, FloydFest co-founder:
Personally, although Rio has always been at the core of the original center of the ‘Floyd Community’ (and Kris and others know her from those days as well), I got to know her, of course, through FoydFest. She was our earliest and most enthusiastic submission for our first annual ‘Floyd World Music Harvest Festival (can you *believe* that?! – thank God ‘FloydFest’ just kind of naturally came out of that!) artwork competition, and entered a beautiful, hand drawn black and white graphic design. We were equally taken by both her design, and the colorful, dancing flowers by Rick Cooley, and thus just called it a ‘tie’ and split the prize money between the two of them.. Rio was thrilled with the $500, but even more than that, just so happy that we liked what she’d produced, and that her own art would be part of the inaugural event.
Her artistic touches were part of the earliest success of FloydFest, and continued throughout the years, in hand-drawn signs and banners she would do for us. More than that, though, what Rio became known and loved for, despite the exasperation it would at times elicit, were her deeply-rooted ‘old school’ ways. We posted on FB recently that she “resisted the ‘digital age’ as an encroachment on both her processes and mental space, which was devoted to a healthy balance of music, friends, poetry and paganism, yet was one of the most thorough, detailed, and reliable members of the team. She cared deeply about her position, and the artists she was responsible for advancing- often repeating the AR mantra ‘Artists are royalty, treat them as such.’ She had a very funny, self-deprecating sense of humor, and was never a groupie- just a true lover of music and art, both of which she practiced herself, quietly, humbly.. She truly cared about everyone; time spent with her was never inconsequential, she was insightful and in the moment and we will miss that like crazy. We at Across-the-Way and FloydFest will Rise & Shine again, but our light has dimmed with her passing”
One of my favorite parts of FloydFest was the afterparty on Sunday night.. and I so looked forward to finally having that relaxed time with other FloydFest staffers, and particularly with Rio and processing our experiences over the weekend.. . we’d end up laughing so hard about things that one or the other of us had been in tears over just a little while before.. she had deep-roots in the understanding of the impermanence of life, in all it’s passing drama, and was quick to laugh and to find the positive.
I’ll leave it for others to weigh in.. but Rio was true ‘old school cool’ in just her genuine, unpretentious, kind, creative spirit.
Kris Hodges, FloydFest co-founder:
Thanks so much for your concerns and inquiries surrounding our beloved friend and longtime Artist Relations Coordinator Rio Semione. Its difficult to put into words how someone like Rio affects your life after they’re gone. I can say right off the bat that I’ve never been affected like I have since her passing. She was more than a deep friend of 22 years as she truly was one of the integral philosophical pieces of what AtWP and FloydFest stands for. Rio and I met playing music together at Travianna Farm through another mutually beloved friend and mentor Acourt Bason. If you didn’t know, our company name comes from Travianna (latin for Across-the-Way). Rio and I were somewhat schooled from the idea that you could remain an artist and bring art to the world in a dignified, sustainable and important way…this notion came from our experiences living at Travianna Farm and learning from Acourt. Travianna was an intentional community that fostered creativity and art in students and travelers from around the world. But more than an artist residency, Travianna touched the lives of artists in a way that developed the subtle spiritual nuances of an artist…simple stuff that seems easily forgotten in today’s world; respect for nature, authenticity, family, rhythm, melody, local and global effects that ones actions have, and the importance in effecting your community positively…with music and art. Rio understood these things implicitly and simply loved sharing these ideals with artists everywhere. This is what made her the perfect AR for AtWP and FloydFest specifically. We’ve always prided ourselves in being artists for artists and lending that little bit of extra magic to their performances at FF. Rio’s passing is an immeasurable loss. In the scheme of Production she was at the top level. There are special characteristics that make an AR Coordinator special, and Rio had those and then some. There is no replacement for that. I can only hope to carry our integrity forward with only her spirit to assist me/us. In a lot of ways Rio was the only link to the very foundational core of Across-the-Way Productions. I’ll feel alone without her.
Linda DeVito, FloydFest communications director:
Rio was such an important part of FloydFest or our FloydFest family. Her artistic creativity from the beginning to the care with which she managed all of the artists that have appeared at FloydFest was impeccable. I worked closely with her on artist relations needs such as lodging and artist supplies but more then that we were friends, comrades in arms. Her vision and desire to always do a good job was something we could always count on. I will miss her friendship, her laugh and her smile but know she is dancing with the angels.
Kellee Barbour, longtime assistant artist relations coordinator, now artist relations coordinator:
I came on to work as Rio’s assistant 4 years ago. We have done 3 FFs together — this year would have been #4. Prior to that (for the first 9 years) of FF, she did it all by herself. I still look at everything she does (and that I am now attempting to do) and am in awe of just how she did it all by herself. But, I digress. I should add that she was really reluctant to even bring on an assistant, but agreed to do so after Erika, Kris, Svetlana, and Linda told her she REALLY NEEDED the help. I drove to Floyd to be “interviewed” by her and she agreed to let me be her assistant.
That first year was tough. She was not really adept at delegating responsibility, and still wasn’t sure of my abilities. I convinced her to let me handle some areas, and she reluctantly did so. It was also challenging because it was my first year doing anything with artist relations, so I was learning not only the job, but the job as Rio saw it. By the end of that first FF that we worked together, my place in her work was solidified, and our friendship stood on solid ground. I learned to love her in that first year, idiosyncrasies and all. One of the production staff called me “the Rio whisperer” because we seemed to really listen and communicate with each other in productive ways.
The second year I took on more, and we were able to bring on some more staff for AR. Again, it was a delicate dance of convincing her to let go of some of her tasks and trust that others would do a good job. She held herself (and AR) to such a high standard, I can see why it was hard for her to trust that someone else (especially strangers) could give the artists and the job itself the level of attention that she (and they) expected.
The third year was the same; I took on more, and we hired more staff. BY the end of the last festival, she lad let go of many areas in AR and put those tasks into the capable hands of her outstanding team. She even told me at the end of last year just how proud she was of the team WE had built. I agreed, and we looked forward to the next season with a sense of accomplishment under our belts.
This year, Rio turned 60. She had told me from the beginning that when she was 60, she was going to reevaluate her role with FloydFest. She wasn’t sure about how long she wanted to put everything she had into AR, and that she might like to actually enjoy more of the festival.
Well, 60 came and went, and she was as strong as ever. We were still doing the delicate dance of convincing her to delegate more tasks, but thankfully, the convincing had become easier over the years. The last time I talked to her on the phone, I reminded her of what she told me in the beginning about turning 60. She said there was no way she was ready to step aside, and didn’t know when that day would ever come. I know her well enough to say that she couldn’t ever see a day when she wasn’t doing AR for AtWP, and especially FF. During that conversation, I told her that if she even had a notion of “retiring,” that she still had a hell of a lot to teach me before she could do so. She chuckled, and said for me not to worry — she wouldn’t leave me hanging.
The last time I saw Rio, I was in Floyd for a meeting about Vintage VA. I told her I would be up there and might stop by to see her. She said she was going to be out and about with Triona* and wouldn’t be at home. I requested that she swing by the office for 2 minutes just to give me a hug since I hadn’t seen her all winter. She did. And we hugged. And I would have held on for a few minutes longer had I known it would be the last time.
*Triona is a young lady in Floyd who has Downs Syndrome who Rio looked after a few days a week.
Rio and I had a special kind of relationship. We rarely got off the phone with each other without saying “I love you,” and we never parted ways without hugging first. We worked incredibly long hours side by side, and still managed to laugh so hard we would cry (or pee — haha). And when we cried out of exhaustion or frustration, we would find someplace to laugh in the middle of that, too.
She was easily one of a kind, and probably the most unique person I will ever have the pleasure of knowing. She hated thunderstorms — something from childhood — and if I was at her house working and it would start thundering, she would unplug the computer and other electronics, and thank me for being there. She admitted that if I wasn’t there, and the storm got too bad, she would crawl under her desk and hang out until it passed. That always made me chuckle and I teased her about it (in a nice way).
I am going back through her communications with artists to see where she left off, and her energy and love for music and FF is so very clear. FF was her “baby,” and she loved every aspect of her role in it. The outpouring of support since her passing has been tremendous. One big name act contacted us to see where they could make a donation in her memory; they wanted to know what she would have wanted to support. The responses we have received are a true testament to her passion for her work.
Rio was humble to a fault. She didn’t like attention for the work she had done. She loved her job so much that garnering her with added kudos seemed redundant and embarrassing. (if that makes any sense) She was a generous spirit, an artist, a mother and grandmother, a mainstay in the community, a friend, a soul sister, and beloved by almost every musician with whom she ever worked. I can’t begin to explain the hole her absence has left in my life, both professionally and personally. She is missed.