Site of major music festival this weekend.

What began as an informal riverside party for a bunch of paddling buddies has become one of Western North Carolina’s favorite grassroots festivals. For the 15th straight year, the French Broad River Festival returns this weekend to the Hot Springs Campground and Spa in Hot Springs, N.C.

The music, arts and outdoor sports bash on the banks of the French Broad is anchored by an impressive lineup of roots acts. This year national headliners include Lukas Nelson and Promise of the Real, the Gourds, Sol Driven Train and Balsam Range, playing alongside local favorites like the Pond Brothers Trio and Sirius B, the Ashville Citizen-Times reported.

“We try to mix a lot of our favorite local acts with some up and coming bands that don’t make it to the area very often,” says Justyn Thompson, one of the festival organizers.

The festival also features a handful of organized outdoor events, including an annual raft race, a mountain bike race, a river clean-up and paddling clinics with professional kayakers. The family friendly event also includes plenty of children’s activities in the Kid’s Village.

During the festival’s decade and a half, organizers have donated more than $100,000 to local charities, including river advocate American Whitewater and the Hot Springs Community Learning Center.

“Every year we like to add something new,” Thompson adds. “It still has the fun feel of the early days, even as the amount of activities increases. We’re still just trying to throw a good party and give back at the same time.”

French Broad organizers are promising surprises to celebrate Cinco de Mayo on Saturday. Also, since today’s opening of the festival falls on May 4, there will be a “May the Fourth Be With You Masquerade Ball,” which Thompson describes as a costume party for fans of the “Star Wars” film series.

Additional music on the bill includes David Gans and the Reckoning and Kung Fu Dynamite on Friday, as well as Grant Farm, the Legendary Singing Stars, Caroline Pond and Blind Boy Chocolate ’n the Milk Sheiks on Saturday.

The festival’s flagship event, the French Broad Raft Race, starts at 9 a.m. Saturday. Known as the biggest mass start whitewater raft race in Southeast, the course takes rafters down a nine-mile stretch of the river from Barnard to the festival site.

“At first this festival was just a raft race between some buddies with a keg of beer and some bluegrass at the take-out,” Thompson says. “By word of mouth, it’s gradually grown every year, but we try to stick to our original roots.”