Karen Nash, from ‘Department of De-Fence,’ Keeps Campground Organized

Karen Nash R&RRhythm & Roots fans will tell you that the festival’s laid-back, family-friendly, inclusive atmosphere has as much to do with the music and dancing as it does with the after-hours camping and jamming.

For many years, Karen Nash has helped create that hard-to-describe community vibe at the festival campground in Charlestown’s Ninigret Park. The construction crew, or Department of De-Fence, as Nash puts it, erects the fences to create neighborhoods for 1,500 campers, some of whom stay in the same spots with the same folks year after year.

Nash and the crew lay out the campsites in a grid, complete with fire lanes and street names, and make maps available so campers can find their way home after dark. There are camping spots for performers, handicapped patrons, vendors and RV owners, “glamping” sites in the French Quarter village, where tents and supplies are set up ahead of time, the “Bermuda Triangle” staff camping area, a bike corral, quiet zone, showers, and 11 “streets” of camping for everyone else.

Every year, the crew studies how people use the campground and look for improvements. “The whole idea is to make sure that all of the paying customers have a great time, and that we have a great time too,” Nash says, “and we do.”

Nash says it’s common for campers to decorate their tents in wild colors, make new friends and gather under big shelters for informal acoustic jams after the stage shows. “Every single year there’s a heart-warming moment, if not many of them.” Nash, a self-described live music junky, says the campground’s funky charm is in keeping with roots music that isn’t slick and over-produced. “It all just works.”

Her love affair with Rhythm & Roots began more than 20 years ago when it was called the Cajun & Bluegrass Festival and held in Escoheag. “Some friends were going, and they said, ‘C’mon,’ so I threw my stuff in my old Volvo and off I went.” It looked like the volunteers were having a lot of fun, so Nash got involved, and ended up with far more than free tickets in exchange for her work. She gained a festival family who treasure their once-a-year connections. “It’s a fleeting but wonderful time. It’s a real community,” Nash says. “Many, many of us have been doing this forever.”

Nash, now in her 70s, plans to volunteer for as long as she’s “upright and taking nourishment.” And she’s not the oldest volunteer out there, she says. “Live music keeps you young!”