At the South by Southwest music festival earlier this year in Austin, Texas, Jay Sweet was on a panel charged with a lofty mission. “The United States of Americana” tried to pinpoint what, exactly, that genre even means these days. It has become shorthand to describe a youthful resurgence of interest in American roots music, from Neko Case to Mumford & Sons (who happen to be British).
Like everyone else on the panel, Sweet, hiding behind sunglasses and a cap pulled close to his eyes (best not to ask about the crazy night he just had), couldn’t define Americana in a simple sound bite. But as the producer of the Newport Folk Festival, he has become emblematic of its freewheeling and collaborative spirit.
This weekend’s Newport Folk Festival, which sold out three months ago, is distinctly the vision Sweet had for the venerable event when he was first brought on board as a consultant in 2008.
Sweet, 41, has now officially taken the reins, and his imprint feels indelible. He and his team programmed the entire roster this year, from Friday’s kickoff concert with Wilco to Saturday and Sunday’s lineups at Fort Adams State Park. Mixing vanguard acts with up-and-coming bands, Sweet has ensured Newport is a living, breathing event while staying true to founder George Wein’s original mission.
Taking a break from packing his bags to spend the rest of the week in Newport, Sweet talked to the Globe earlier this week from his home in Essex.
Q. Before you started working with Newport, what was your impression of the festival? You had attended before, right?
A. I had. I went by kayak one year, which was really funny because when the tide came in, I got a better view. I snuck in another year. I once went as a fake roadie, which the person — it was Martin Sexton — didn’t know I was his roadie. I just started carrying Martin Sexton’s stuff because it was right there by a van. Then I went as a writer, first for a defunct environmental magazine and then for Paste.
Q. What was your advice when you pitched work for the festival as a consultant?
A. First and foremost, we had to get the artists back and have them be a part of it. We don’t have [a big] budget. We also had to make sure we didn’t become corporatized. At the time we were the Dunkin’ Donuts Newport Folk Festival, and I said, “Look, we can’t let the brands run this event. It has to be the bands that run this event.” It was bands over brands. I said, if we do that, we can limp by on ticket sales. And then, little by little, if we built up the reputation of what Newport Folk means to a lot of people, we’d be in a position where people would come to us. And that’s what has happened.
Q. It’s been interesting to see how you guys have honored your legacy while also adding to it with younger acts.
A. Part of the success of the past few years is how much less people even mention 1965 [the fabled year when Bob Dylan went electric at Newport]. More people are saying, “Two years ago, this happened.”
Q. If you and I were to look at Newport’s lineup from a decade ago, what’s the biggest difference we would see compared with what’s happening this year?
A. I truly think there’s a curatorial aspect mixed with a familial aspect. And there’s a spirit of collaboration. It’s this weird thing where certain events only happen at Newport.
Q. Like the Decemberists’ Colin Meloy joining Mavis Staples during “The Weight” last year.
Q. What do your critics say about you?
A. The biggest criticism is that we are popular now. I think a lot of people don’t like it when something’s successful. You have to imagine why that hurts. That’s my everyday dream: to sell this thing out. That’s literally why I wake up in the morning, to serve these people who love this festival so much that they sell out tickets before the lineup is even announced. We also get: “This isn’t folk music. We’ve been coming to this festival for 35 years, and what you have booked is not folk music.” These are the first people to claim pride that they were there when Dylan did what he did in 1965. I always tell them, “These young people who are coming to our festival now? This is their folk music.”