My First Festival: Gary Chetkof, Founder of Mountain Jam

Article by: Evan Levy

Wed June 17, 2015 | 00:00 AM

Mountain Jam is a music festival set against the scenic backdrop of the Catskill Mountains. The event serves up an eclectic mix of acts from a variety of genres including classic rock, alternative rock, reggae, blues, and some EDM acts for their late-night shows. Since the festival’s inception in 2005 as a one-day event to celebrate the 25th anniversary of Woodstock radio station WDST, station owner and festival founder Gary Chetkof (pictured above, in the middle of The Black Keys) has steadily expanded the event to become a four-day extravaganza, most recently hosting over 15,000 fans over each day during its 11th installment June 4-7. It featured headliners Robert Plant, The Black Keys, Alabama Shakes, and moe., as well as sets by Gov’t Mule, The Wailers, Grace Potter, Dopapod, and Big Gigantic.

While Chetkof’s earliest memories of attending music festivals were one-day events sponsored by radio stations in his hometown of Long Island, New York, his first multiple-day camping festival experience was Woodstock ‘94. Chetkof, whose radio station partnered with the event’s organizers, says Woodstock ’94 had a profound effect on him.

“The coolest part of the festival was the people,” he reminisces. “I was really taken by the attractions, the surreal feel, and the whole fun atmosphere.” Another memory that sticks out about Woodstock ’94 was the overwhelming amount of mud that plagued the festival grounds. “I remember walking back to my camp site at 2 am on Saturday night, and the mud was so deep that literally there was a guy who was sleeping while buried in the mud. All that was showing was his head. I almost stepped on him.”

Mountain Jam 2015 Joshua Timmermans Ambience

When it came time for him to put together his own camping festival, Chetkof felt prepared because of his experience as a part of the production team for Woodstock ’94. “I got to see how they planned the festival, and all the politics of dealing with local government,” he explains. “I would also go to the site quite often, and I saw it being built from start to finish. I really think I learned through osmosis what it was like to put a festival together.”

Chetkof also credits Woodstock ’94 for teaching him a valuable lesson about what can happen if you’re not properly prepared to handle your festival crowd. “The disorganization resonated with me,” he declares. “The minute the gates opened on Thursday, all of the security broke down. People were just streaming in without tickets. It was total chaos.” In addition to concerns for the crowd’s safety, Chetkof was disheartened by vendors’ price gouging fans for food and water.

Mountain Jam 2015 Joshua Timmermans Michael Franti

Michael Franti performing at Mountain Jam 2015. Photo by: Joshua Timmermans / Mountain Jam Festival

After witnessing everything that went wrong at Woodstock ’94, Chetkof made sure his festival would be run the right way, with the festival-goers’ experience being his first priority. “You need to treat people the way you want to be treated when you go to a festival,” he explains. “That’s the biggest thing that I wanted to do with Mountain Jam.”

Mountain Jam has already posted the dates for next year’s event. It will take place June 2-5 at its home on Hunter Mountain. Visit for more information.