I met Grateful Dad at my own festival, The Mad Tea Party Jam, when he so graciously helped us power the other vendors after the infamous hail storm! He had a huge smile on his face and continued to be a source of light and laughter whenever I saw him. His unique fabric paint art and pin art, particularly the pins he contributes to The Flock, make his work recognizable in the scene, but it’s his honest attitude and loving heart that makes him a friend to all!
Hey Dad, can you first tell me your name and where you are from?
My name is Stephen Troy Pemberton. I’m originally from Washington DC, then Harford County Maryland. I went to college in Richmond, VA, and then life started over in Ocean City, MD. I currently live in York, PA.
When did you start going by the name “Grateful Dad”?
I guess that became a nickname in the early 2000’s after my kids gave me a father’s day present that was a blue t-shirt that read “Grateful Dad” in the original band’s font.
Tell me about your musical history, what was one of the first concerts you went to? What was your first festival? What are some bands you have followed or festivals you’ve attended since?
My very first concert was actually Iron Maiden and Judas Priest in 1981. My father took me and three of my friends. It was funny because he bought three seats in one row and one seat in the row behind, directly behind the three other seats so he could watch us.
In my early years I saw Rush, Ted Nugent, Whitesnake, ZZ top, Tom Petty, and more I can’t remember. I was a Zappa head as well…however at Richmond Coliseum on 10-6-84, I saw a band called the Grateful Dead, with a guy named Jerry Garcia playing lead guitar and a guy named Brent Midland on the keyboards. My life changed that day. I had tagged along with a group of my buddies in a 1977 white Trans Am that ran horrible. We drove from Springfield Virginia down to Richmond with no tickets. I was just along for the ride. I got a ticket on shakedown, for I think 9 dollars and a joint. My entire life changed that night.
I graduated high school in ’85, went to beach week, then went on tour…75 shows later I came home.
My first Festival was Lollapalooza 1993, which turned me into a grunge kid, so it was into Stone Temple Pilots, Nirvana, Jane’s Addiction, Chili Peppers and Rage Against the Machine.
I had a pretty good Megadeath phase, too. I was obsessed with Rush as well (it was my older brother’s favorite band). In 2014 I went to my first small Pennsylvania Festival called Zucchini Moon, and I took my daughter and I became enamored with the current jam band scene and community. I felt like I had revisited “the lot” from 85 and 86 again. That year I went to four or five more festivals and then the following year 2015, I vended 16 festivals in that 1 season. That was a lot–one of which was “Domefest” and that changed everything about everything.
What is currently your favorite band?
I can’t name just one. In no particular order: Goose, Pigeons Playing Ping Pong, The Main Squeeze, Eggy, and Float like a Buffalo.
What is your favorite festival?
I’m gonna have to say Domefest and Mad Tea Party ran pretty much neck-and-neck, so currently Domefest.
When did you start making tie-dyes?
I made my first tie-dyes in a hotel bathtub in late 1985, fall tour with a guy named “veggie” and his buddy “chicken.” We ruined that bathtub before we checked out and then we went and ruined a laundromat around the corner and boom that’s how it began
What did you like about this art?
Initially it was not terribly difficult and it was steady solid profit on lot. We could buy everything we needed from a local hobby store no matter where we were in the country. We used to have to use phone books to find them and maps to get to them, though (lol).
How has tie-dye art evolved since you first started?
Personally, my technique has become very specific. There’s an absolute almost spiritual occurrence each time I make dyes now. I use only water from the sky, I use only dyes that are responsibly manufactured and sourced and Earth-friendly. I use sinew instead of rubber bands and I’ve learned to let nature create the blends and not try to force them…at least not for my art. But the changes in the industry? Business itself…oh man?! Like everything about it.
You can order every color, any fabric, sinew or rubber bands to come straight to your door.
It’s become such an acute art style; the methods and techniques have changed so dramatically. The shirts we used to see on lot back then were just giant patches of random color, spirals, V’s, double spirals. Those were normal but stitching techniques, intricate folding and clamp techniques were experimental. No one had ever seen anything like the art that happens today with the real serious Dyers…and I know you didn’t ask but Josh Shep is my absolute hero.
What other kinds of art do you enjoy making?
I love to doodle and I love to make cartoon style images of people and things that I know, which led me to begin making pins to honor moments that I experience. I really feel like pins are little tiny 3D paintings of doodles that came straight out of my head. I love to build stuff, too! I would say my entire house is actually sort of a wood sculpture that I’ve been working on for a little over a year now. My media really changes with my moods. Sometimes it’s an airbrush, sometimes it’s a paintbrush, sometimes it’s a squeeze bottle, sometimes it’s just a stick! Sometimes it’s my fingers…well, usually it’s my fingers, but I love to paint on raw fabric primarily. I love the feeling and reaction of the paint with the raw canvas.
When did you start exploring other mediums?
At a festival one day in 2016, a kid asked me to draw on his shirt and at that time I was learning to deal with my own empathic resources and abilities. I was still trying to figure out if it was something I could do or if I was just crazy, and it soon turned into me drawing pictures with snippets of people’s lives on shirts that they brought me. A couple of times some things were discovered! Some were really fun, and some were kind of scary. So for a while I was doing a sort of “reading” using dye and your energies, but when I realized that people were not wearing the shirts that I had drawn on because they considered them a piece of art, I decided to just start drawing directly on pieces of dyed canvas, and that blossomed into something I never could have anticipated. So I started basically “reading the whole show.” I approach each live painting with the intent of capturing the physical energy at the event between the band and the fans as accurately as I can one moment, one note at a time. The very first time I ever painted anything, I was close to the stage at a show and the reactivity of the lights on my canvases were changing what I was seeing and I fell in love with that! So I began painting under rotating colors of lights. While the paintings are being created I’m seeing them in many different colors, so I began to try to develop images that would only show in certain colors, and that’s when my fabric paint addiction really began–ultimately realizing how much I loved performance painting.
When did you start designing and producing hat pins?
2015 was my first pin. I did a drawing for my logo, and it was produced and some were sold by another pin maker who really helped me a lot in the beginning and gave me the tools to chase a manufacturer myself.
What are some of your favorites that you have produced?
My absolute favorite of mine has got to be the Suicide Prevention Pigeons version 2-the glow variant! Then the Space Geese I did for the Goose boys. They are the cutest little thangs!
I also have a real special place in my heart for the Flock Peace Officer Badge and what it stands for and when I see people wearing them at shows it makes me proud to know there’s a bunch of good guys out there.
Are you still vending at festivals?
Yes but much fewer…and my focus has changed a lot for my reasons to be there, but I think you’re going to ask me about that in a few more lines
What do you like most about vending?
My favorite thing about vending is interaction with people that I’ve only ever met online, but I get to hug and realize how “family” we have become. And to be real honest…vendors always get the best view of the stage for the whole weekend! And it’s usually a really short walk to the food spots.
What do you dislike about vending?
Wind. Rain kinda sucks… but wind is the ultimate enemy. And thieves…
What was your favorite festival vending experience?
I’m glad I took my time to answer this question because I just remembered one of the best times I’ve ever experienced. For people that don’t know my art, my paintings have a lot of texture. There’s a lot of physical dimension and depth and different kinds of textures. That’s important to this story. A guy and his girlfriend came into my booth and they were clearly having an exceptionally good time, and he was amazed at the color changing magic that was going on around him, he seemed to be narrating the whole experience and I noticed his girlfriend just sort of tucked into his side as they walk through the booth. I saw them talk for a while and he approached me and asked if it was okay if his girlfriend touched my paintings. Then he explained to me that she was blind. I said of course, then we walked as a group through my booth. As she touched paintings she would describe what she saw to me, with her fingers, and it really was amazing to me to experience the way she saw with her mind. The best part of that story was that they ended up buying a painting that she had described to me that she fell in love with that looked merely a little bit like she described it, but to see the joy in her face as she purchased a piece of art she knew she could “see”? That moment meant more to me than anything I can remember.
There was also a time that a guy came in the booth and stopped in front of a painting of Ganesha that I had done. Dropped his chimichanga to the floor and knelt and begin to pray and mumble nonsensical words. He then left, leaving his chimichanga on the floor. I assume that he had some sort of spiritual message happen, but either way I didn’t eat that chimichanga.
What was one of your craziest vending memories?
That is the easiest question so far! Mad Tea Party 5–the year of the hailstorm and tornadoes! Hail the size of golf balls…that look like rock crystals! They were flowing like a river through the middle of our booth while my wife and I hugged each other and said our goodbyes, and came to grips with our own death. Then it all stopped, and we emerged and the terror of ruined merchandise, demolished art, and tents everywhere was so distressing. Tut I saw a community come together and lift each other up in the next couple hours like I’ve never seen in my life! The other crazy story is about that same festival. The vending coordinator came into my booth and asked to borrow some sunscreen, and then proceeded to empty half of the bottle into a plastic bag hidden in her fanny pack! It was one of the weirdest wook moments I’ve ever seen.
Many people in the jam scene look to you as a friend and are very supportive of your projects. How did you build such a following and how do you feel being a sort of role model in the scene?
I like to think that I’m too humble to even answer that question. I’m just a real honest person who’s been through a lot of real tough s*** and I’m not afraid to talk about it. I don’t mind crying in front of people. I’m not afraid to talk about the times that I felt like I would be better off dead. I’m not afraid to talk about the times that I was immersed in drug addiction. I’m not afraid to talk about the times that I lied, cheated, and stole. I was a terrible person who just got it all out of my system and now I want to let people know that you can still be cool, fun, and enjoy the scene without being one of the bad parts. And any following I have are there because they know that I love them honestly and I think most of them love me the same way. I have people out there that don’t like me I’m sure. I’m positive, but I hope that whatever lessons we each learn through negative experiences can create positive ones in the future.
You’ve been sober for some time now, when did you become sober and how has that shaped you as a person over the years?
My clean date is December 5th 2001–that is also the anniversary of my suicide attempt. I started my clean time involved very heavily with Narcotics Anonymous, after going through an intensive outpatient program, because my family was worried about me. At that time I was rigid! By the book! I was the most twelve-step person you ever met–90 meetings in 90 days, the whole bit. And that worked for me, but then I realized I was becoming addicted to Narcotics Anonymous. So I had to accept the fact that I am going to be addicted to something forever, so the addiction that I chose was helping people and making people smile.
What advice do you have for an avid music fan who is first becoming sober or would like to be?
I’m not going to sit here and say “just don’t use,” because that’s what everybody says and it’s really hard. You may need to stay clear of unbridled festival or bar nights, but there’s a ton of live music to watch from your home or your buddies’ home on screens.. and maybe that’s where you need to be to be safe sometimes…and it’s not that easy.
But if you want to brave the elements, here’s what you do: You find somebody else who doesn’t want to use either, and you hang out with them and you talk about how much you do and don’t want to use together (away from people, privately) and you support each other through cravings and temptation with unyielding vigor. Don’t try alone at first! It’s important to know when to remove yourself from situations. It’s important to know when to stay places and not move, and it’s important for your friends to know what your triggers are. The most important thing is to be open about it. Talk about your desire and ask somebody for help.The minute you really want to ask for help it’s easy, and there’s a million people out there who want to (me being one of them) and have a “filterless confidant.” Have somebody you can talk to with no filter and no judgement ever and be there for them in the same way.
Tell me a little bit about your project Let Me Know How You Are Today.
Letmeknowhowyouaretoday.com is a nonprofit organization with an ultimate goal of creating an app that people can use to anonymously talk about how they feel judgement-free. With people who are capable and ready to help them get through the problems, anonymously, without the threat of police or medical personnel being contacted. The ideal goal is to create an awareness around the problem of suicide and an awareness around the therapies that can help like art therapy or music therapy or even pet therapy. I want to create a community of non-judgemental people who are healing, to help people who need help healing.
When and how did you get the idea for this and establish it as a non-profit?
The original idea came after an unfortunate loss: my brother-in-law’s best friend who I had recently met and begun to establish a friendly relationship with took his own life. It happened on a day just as I was putting in a pin order, so I decided to dedicate all the proceeds from that pin sale to the “suicide prevention of York,” which I did, and afterwards the outpouring of support within the community was so notable I realized that Suicide Prevention needs to go much further than just York. So I decided to start a nonprofit organization around suicide prevention through art, communication, and awareness that was centered in the jam band scene. We are a special kind of people. sometimes we take advice better from our own. So I thought if people could see me, somebody who’s out there having fun and know that my history is probably just as bad if not worse than some of theirs, maybe that could be helpful. So I started to talk to people.
I started to make myself available and I realized there were so many people that wanted to help, too, and I had to make it a public forum I started the paperwork process and application on April 24th 2019…my 52nd birthday, and got my last piece of paperwork finally finished! I am now all official as of January 1st 2020! With the IRS numbers and all that jazz.
What are some goals you have for this project and its growth and evolution?
My goals for this are to develop an app that costs nothing to the user, that’s available for anybody to use when they need it and to create a line of awareness merchandise that everybody can afford. To create a network of people that are inherently available to talk about anything. Sometimes somebody just needs to see you respond to their text to feel better. I want to make sure that there’s enough of us out there that know how to do that. Long-term I would like to see community art therapy projects on my property with some huge found items sculptures created by people to last forever.
Are you working on any cool pins, art, or projects right now?
There may be a couple things in the works that I’m not really at liberty to talk about, but yeah I’m always trying to come up with something. I do have a whole lot of new canvases stretched in my studio and a new propane heater in there, so the goal over the next month or two is to isolate in my studio and get some of what’s inside me out.
What are some events that you will be at in the near future?
That all depends on if I’m accepted through the application processes! I hope to be at Domefest this year and I’m hoping to be invited as a live painter at a couple of other events. Hoping to go to Valley Fusion again! And if things go well there, I could possibly be doing some live performance painting dates that coincide with a couple of tours from a couple of feathered bands that I really like.
Can you please leave us with your favorite quote?
Be grateful, be kind, be love where there is none. (My own interpretation paraphrased from the prayer of Saint Francis)