Hootenanny founder bringing free music to the masses

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Josh Windmiller firmly believes that music brings people together. He doesn’t claim to have originated that philosophy, but he’s undeniably putting it into practice on a local level.

Four years after starting his North Bay Hootenanny series, with live music by local bands, Windmiller now presents free concerts at five Sonoma County venues, with shows running at least weekly at each place, and sometimes several times a week.

Windmiller (that’s his stage name) also presents special one-shot shows, and even organizes bus trips for local fans who want to see North Bay bands perform in San Francisco.

“From the very first North Bay Hootenanny, my goal has been to make music accessible, and create an atmosphere for interesting collaborations between members of the community,” Windmiller said.

Windmiller, 31, was born in Marin County and grew up in Santa Rosa as Josh Stithem, the son of local physical therapist John Stithem, who runs Orthopedic and Sports Physical Therapy in Santa Rosa.

“Sometimes, when you’re starting something new, it’s good to change your identity a little bit,” he said of his professional name. He took the name from a literary hero, Don Quixote, who battled a windmill that he imagined was a giant, he said.

“I made it a verb: to windmill, to battle giants,” he said.

That makes him a “windmiller.” The “giants” are the Internet, television and other media mammoths that mass-manufacture culture and create a gap between performers and their audience, Windmiller reasoned.

He brings a well-educated perspective to his endeavors, with three degrees from Sonoma State University — bachelor’s degrees in liberal studies and theater, both from 2005, and a master’s degree in education from 2010. He also studied arts education in England for a year in 2003.

A seasoned performer as well as a self-made impresario, Windmiller first established himself on the Sonoma County live music scene in 2007, as front man, lead singer and guitarist with the eclectic folk, rock and blues band, The Crux.

In 2008, he participated in a show called “The Hootenanny” at the Phoenix Theater in Petaluma, and went on to spend several years working with two major local festivals, the now-defunct Handcar Regatta in Santa Rosa and later the Rivertown Revival in Petaluma.

His first official North Bay Hootenanny was held in 2010 at the Arlene Francis Center in Santa Rosa, and the idea caught on immediately.

“Something really clicked, and people started coming out in big numbers,” Windmiller said. “That really got my wheels turning.”

Starting in 2011, the North Bay Hootenanny ran weekly for a year at the Last Day Saloon in Santa Rosa, which has since closed. Last year, Windmiller began expanding his venue base.

He also found time for another project last year, creating a musical play called “The Ratcatcher,” based on the Pied Piper fairy tale, in collaboration with The Crux band and Santa Rosa’s Imaginists Theater Collective.

Most of the music Windmiller presents can be loosely categorized as Americana, a collection of blues, folk, rock, country and bluegrass, both acoustic and amplified.

“I don’t call it a genre exactly,” he said. “It’s a useful term for a lot of innovative music.”

The shows draw a wide variety of talent from all over the county, but regulars include the Heather Van Cleve Band, the Bad Apple String Quartet, the Timothy O’Neil Band and Alison Harris.

North Bay Hootenanny currently presents the following regular, free concert series, sponsored by the various venues:

*Forchetta Bastoni Italian Restaurant, 6948 Sebastopol Ave., Sebastopol. 7-9 p.m. every Thursday. 829-9500,

*Red’s Apple Roadhouse, 4550 Gravenstein Highway N., Sebastopol. 6-9 p.m. Wednesdays and Fridays. 861-9338,

*The Epicurean Connection, 122 W. Napa St., Sonoma. 7:30-10 p.m. Thursdays and Fridays and 1-3 p.m. Sundays. 935-7950,

West End Farmer’s Market, 817 Donahue St., Santa Rosa. 10:30 a.m.-1 p.m. Sundays. Market hours are 10 a.m.-2 p.m. every Sunday through Dec. 14. 477-8422,

You can reach Staff Writer Dan Taylor at 521-5243 or

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