By Elizabeth Weinstein
Photos by Jennifer Grimm
Just before 5 p.m. on Sunday, May 31, Seattle-based singer-songwriter Brandi Carlile looked out at the large, energetic and sweaty crowd from her perch, front and center on the Nelsonville Music Festival’s Main Stage, and grinned widely.
“I didn’t know this festival existed,” she said, pausing to wipe her brow and take a swig from a Mason jar full of spiked iced tea between songs. “But I feel like my bus just pulled up here and I woke up in heaven.”
She had arrived earlier in the day, she said – the last of the four-day-long festival that kicked off May 28 – with her bandmates and family, and that they had gone fishing, explored the festival grounds, and shopped for local goods.
“These are the kinds of days where I think, ‘this is the life,’” she explained to the audience. “There’s nothing hard about this.”
Welcome to the Nelsonville Music Festival (or NMF), Ohio’s own modern-day Woodstock, where the living is easy – like the best summer camp you never attended – and where rock stars that easily sell out nationwide tours, mix and mingle with their fans in the rolling hills of Appalachian Ohio.
Billboard once called this rock, Americana, and folk-tinged music party, which celebrated its 11th birthday this year, “one of the best-kept secrets of the U.S. music festival circuit.”
But, as Brian Koscho, marketing director for Stuart’s Opera House (the historic performing arts center and theater in Nelsonville, Ohio, which created and runs the annual festival), said in an interview during the festivities, “the secret is not as secret as it used to be.”
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Just over 5,000 people call Nelsonville, a former coal-mining city that’s located in the foothills of Athens County’s Appalachian Mountains, home. The closest large city is Columbus, which is about 60 miles northwest; arts and culture enclave Athens, which is home to Ohio University, is a short 13 miles southeast.
For decades, Nelsonville was known primarily as the home of Hocking College (a technical school that offers associates degrees and certificate programs) and of Rocky Shoes & Boots, which remains headquartered there today, though the company closed its local factory in 2001 and outsourced its manufacturing jobs. Generations of Ohio University students and business commuters knew of it as that little stretch of town they had to drive through on their way to the campus – that is, until a Nelsonville bypass was built in 2013, so that drivers could fly right past the town in the blink of an eye and shave up to ten minutes off their drive.
…there’s “a certain resiliency that comes from people, whether they’re from Appalachia or the Rust Belt, that makes what they do, a lot of times, more genuine.”Nelsonville is also known as the birthplace of Sarah Jessica Parker, but let’s just say that while the actress does not hide the fact that she spent part of her childhood in Nelsonville – she doesn’t exactly flaunt it, either.
The cultural narrative of Appalachian Ohio, after all, is not unlike that of the Rust Belt. Just ask Koscho, who was born and raised in Lorain, but has called Nelsonville home ever since graduating from Ohio University in 2006.
“Appalachia is a very familiar thing to me because it’s a lot like the Rust Belt,” he said. “In some ways it’s worse. It’s a hard comparison to make, but extractive industries that used to be here destroyed things and left; coal here is just like steel up there. People [in Appalachia] are poor and have had a hard life, and they get stereotyped and typecast.”
In recent years, however, the Rust Belt has reemerged in the national media as a hotspot for reinvention and innovation, and Koscho said he sees the same thing happening now in Southeast Ohio.
That renaissance, he said, “comes from a place of passion and realness,” and there’s “a certain resiliency that comes from people, whether they’re from Appalachia or the Rust Belt, that makes what they do, a lot of times, more genuine. They are doing [what they love], regardless of whether anyone’s paying attention, and it’s just nice when [people] do pay attention.”
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When Tim Peacock, the executive director of both Stuart’s Opera House and NMF was a college student in Athens in the early 1990s, it was not uncommon, he said, for people to say, “Let’s go up to ‘Nelsontucky,’” in a “derogatory, not endearing way. It was a pretty low rent jab at local country culture.”
“People even had bumpers stickers,” he added. “I think it was mostly a joke but it was [also] pretty insensitive to Kentuckians.”
Peacock worked for years as a local music promoter before being hired as director of the then-struggling Stuart’s Opera House in 2002. The opera house sits in the heart of Nelsonville’s Public Square, where it was built in 1870, during the town’s railroad expansion and coal mining boom. For 54 years, it served as both an entertainment destination and a gathering place for the community, until closing to the public in 1924, a victim of both the increasing popularity of the cinema and the end of the region’s coal boom.
The Hocking Valley Museum of Theatrical History tried to restore the building in the 1970s, but failed to complete the project after a 1980 fire caused significant damage. It wasn’t until a second restoration effort that the 400-seat theater re-opened in 1997. It has since become, once again, a focal point of the community’s blossoming arts scene.
In addition to bringing in some of the biggest names in contemporary music for packed concerts, the non-profit opera house also runs an afterschool music program, and puts on free music events throughout the year in Nelsonville’s Public Square. And Public Square itself is home now to a handful of art galleries, studios, and cooperatives, including Paper Circle, Starbrick Cooperative Gallery, Majestic Galleries and Nelsonville Emporium. On the last Friday of every month (except December) the galleries stay open late for the town’s Final Fridays.
But back when Peacock first started working at the opera house, he had his work cut out for him; keeping a historic theater open in a blue-collar town was a financial challenge. But in 2005, he had an idea for a new kind of fundraiser – one that would (hopefully) raise more money, but, more importantly, generate goodwill in the community.
The first Nelsonville Music Festival took place on July 23, 2005, in the downtown Nelsonville Historic Arts District. More than 700 people turned out to see a half-dozen bands perform. According to a 2011 article in Columbus Alive, “Though the fest packed bars and restaurants along the square, it didn’t resonate with Nelsonville residents quite like Peacock had hoped. Under political pressure from residents who didn’t want beer gardens in the street, the fest relocated to the banks of the Hocking River [in the field behind Rocky Boots] for the next two years.”
Then, in 2008, Peacock and company extended the festival from one day to three, and moved it to Robbins Crossing Historical Village, a restored 1850s-era village, complete with a collection of tiny log cabins, on the sprawling Hocking College campus. That year, 1,200 people came to the festival (which featured the popular Avett Brothers as a headliner) and many of the attendees camped out on the village grounds.
Every year, NMF, which still takes place at Robbins Crossing, grows a little more in size (musicians now perform on three stages, and Peacock said he plans to add a fourth in 2016) – and scope.
The staff of Stuart’s Opera House consists of six full-time employees, including Peacock and Koscho. Planning for the festival is a yearlong, all-hands-on-deck project – and very much a labor of love.
“Our staff is small, and every time we try to add something new, it’s difficult,” Peacock said. But that hardly stops them from trying.
“This festival allows us to just be creative,” he explained. “But, more than the fundraising and more than the creativity, we want something for our community – where we live – to really dig into; to either escape from day-to-day life for a few hours, or a few days, or at least take a break. And, hopefully, [it will] positively impact people.”
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Wayne Coyne, lead singer of the Flaming Lips, yelled out to the crowd from the Main Stage, on Friday evening: “We hope this festival goes on for another 100 years! We play festivals all over the world and this is just a really beautiful, cool thing you’ve got going on here.”
Still, it’s hard to put into words exactly what makes this festival feel special.
“We’re not the super hip festival, and were fine with that,” Peacock said during a Q&A session with the staff on Sunday morning. Which, of course, makes Nelsonville totally cool.
As does the fact that no matter how popular the festival becomes, organizers plan to cap the number of tickets sold at a reasonable limit – probably 6,000 or 7,000 tops.
“We’re not the super hip festival, and were fine with that.”Ohio-based sponsors such as Snowville Creamery, WOUB Public Media, and Rocky Outdoor Gear Store, and an army of 400-some volunteers keep the show running from year to year. Ticket prices are relatively low, at least compared with other national music festivals. This year, a weekend pass cost $130, and Peacock heard some grumbles about that.
“You know, when people complained about the cost, we added it up – there are 61 bands, over four days, and 75 hours of music. If you divide up the cost of a weekend pass it… averages out to [paying] about $2.14 per band.”
The beauty of this festival, Peacock said, is it’s intimate size, and the fact that people like the Wayne Coyne can walk through the crowd virtually unbothered and enjoy the music, too.
“It’s very accessible, and I think that’s part of our charm,” he said. “I think that’s what people like. I know it’s what I like.”
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Allen Tate, a member of the Brooklyn-based baroque pop band San Fermin, could not stop grinning throughout the group’s energetic Saturday afternoon set on the Main Stage. After the show, he motioned to fans to meet him by the side of the stage, where he cheerfully shook hands, posed for selfies, and answered questions.
With a brand-new album, Jackrabbit, generating lots of buzz, San Fermin has been touring the major music festivals this year, including Sasquatch and Hangout Music Fest, but Tate said he personally prefers smaller festivals like Nelsonville, because the mood is more relaxed and the crowds are friendlier. Plus, “they rarely book these festivals in non-beautiful places,” he said with a laugh, nodding in the direction of the hills visible in the distance.
Across the field, on the mid-size Porch Stage (so named because the best view of the stage is on a log cabin’s spacious, covered front porch), singer-songwriter Adam Torres tried to unwind after playing songs from his recently re-released album, Nostra Nova. But every time he sat down on a dusty couch off to the side, old friends, and eager fans approached to give him a hug or a high-five – or to take a selfie with the shy musician.
“I’m sorry – I just haven’t seen a lot of them for a really long time,” he said.
Torres is now a resident of Austin, Texas, but he first fell in love with folk music at Ohio University in the early 2000s. At the time, he played in a band called Southeast Engine, and he released Nostra Nova – his only record – in 2006. The record quickly earned a fierce and loyal following, which led to its re-release earlier this year.
Torres said that the years he spent in Southeast Ohio “really changed how I thought about music, and I still hold onto it even though I live in Texas now. It’s still a part of me.”
Torres performed at NMF from 2008 through 2010, and again this year. Looking out at the festival grounds, he said, “I feel really happy to be part of it, and I’m happy to see that there are a lot of people in the audience, listening… I can’t believe how big it is. I can’t ever remember so many people camping here. It’s really neat to see what [the organizers] have done with it.”
Koscho said that the extra kindness and attention paid to the bands is one thing that really sets this festival apart from others.
“It’s great for people, who don’t know where the hell [Nelsonville] is, and they get out of their van, and they’re like, ‘what am I doing?’ And then, within five minutes, the hard shell has been crushed away and they are happy and like, ‘this is beautiful!’ We…treat them like real people,” he said of the bands and musicians – whether they are living legends (like Mavis Staples or Merle Haggard) or up-and-comers (like the hard-rocking Good English, from Dayton).
“The music business, just like anything else, can be a tough place to exist in, and I think we’re a refreshing change, probably, for a lot of people, who show up during maybe a month-long tour, and this is one of the nights,” he added. “They can go lay down under a tree, get a home-cooked meal, and meet good people. It makes people comfortable and even the most cynical people get real soft this weekend. We love that.”
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Arguably one of NMF’s hottest attractions – and one of the things that makes it, well, Nelsonvillian – is the No-Fi Cabin. This tiny cabin resembles an old-fashioned one-room schoolhouse (chalkboard at the front of the room and all) and has benches that seat 20 or so people. For the chance to hear the buzziest of bands play in such an intimate setting, fans may line up hours early.
When frequent NMF guest Samantha Crain, from Shawnee, Oklahoma, performed her soulful, sad folk-rock songs in the No-Fi Cabin on Friday, for instance, several dozen people of all ages crammed into every spare inch of space. Some sat cross-legged on the floor, so close to Crain that she joked she could hear their thoughts.
And when Scandinavian folk singer-songwriter duo My Bubba (Guðbjörg Tómasdóttir and My Larsdotter Lucas) arrived for their No-Fi set on Saturday afternoon, the women could barely even make it into the cabin – they had to step over the crowd that had already spilled out from the cabin doors and onto the porch steps, in anticipation of their set.
The festival is also a boon to local businesses of all types and sizes.
Jewelry-maker Katie Guagenti, who owns the Columbus-based business, Poor Sparrow, spent the long weekend working at her merchandise booth across from the Porch Stage. She comes back to NMF year after year, she said, because “everyone is so friendly and so kind. It’s seriously one of the best festivals, and everyone is so well-organized.”
This festival more than others, she explained, has brought her repeat business from year to year – especially from customers who travel to the event from outside of Ohio.
Throughout the weekend, near the festival’s main entrance, a little purple food truck, the Athens-based Chelsea’s Real Food, saw a steady stream of people line up for its fresh veggie burgers, salads, frittatas, smoothies, and sweet treats – all gluten-free and many vegetarian. “You’ll be really happy you came here,” one Chelsea’s employee said as she quickly (and correctly) me sized up.
“Many of our food vendors say this is their biggest show they do all year-long. They make a big chunk of their income, and all of that is related to our community, which, in turn, is part of Stuart’s Opera House,” Tim Peacock said of NMF.
“People leave the campground and eat breakfast or lunch in town, in Nelsonville, Athens, or Logan. Most of the hotels around here are sold out, and all of the hotels see business from it.”
In 2014 more than 7,000 people attended NMF, and 20 percent of ticket buyers came from out of state. Total festival expenditures that year were $673,290, said Stuart’s Opera House development director Emily Prince. And, according to the Americans for the Arts’ Arts & Economic Prosperity Calculator, she added, the festival generated $26,079 in local revenue and supported the equivalent of 20.7 full-time jobs.
The Nelsonville Kroger has reported that NMF weekend is more lucrative for them than the winter holidays, and the local carryout, the Pit-Stop, also sees record sales during NMF. The corner coffee shop, FullBrooks Café, hires extra staff to meet the demand of the weekend, and most of the businesses downtown in Nelsonville close shop the week after the festival, because, Prince said, “it’s like their Christmas.
Getting Nelsonville residents on board with the festival has sometimes been challenging, Peacock said. “We often hear, ‘I don’t know who any of those artists are!’… [But] over time, locals have become less afraid of what we’re doing here, and they weigh into it because it brings them business.
“Sometimes,” he added, “I feel a little bit like, it’s not unlike when a city neighborhood gets gentrified – I feel a little guilty sometimes for bringing perceived weird stuff and a bunch of hippies, or whatever you want to call it, to town. But I don’t feel too bad.”
“One of the things that’s great is being able to have an economic impact on an area that needs that,” Koscho said. “We’re in one of the poorest parts of the state, and so to be able to have a place, whether it’s Stuart’s Opera House or Nelsonville Music Festival, that people are attending from all over the world – or even just from Columbus or Cleveland – and coming down and spending money, and seeing how beautiful it is down here – that’s part of it too, because people come back. … Nelsonville becomes this state of mind, almost. It sounds really cheesy, but that’s what you hear from people.”
“Nelsonville was always sort of perceived as this country hick town, not by folks in Nelsonville, but especially from college kids coming from (other cities) to Athens,” Peacock said. “Athens is a definitive college town, and Nelsonville was the neighbor town that was way poorer and had generational poverty and higher drug problems and whatnot. … And now I hear college kids and young people say, ‘Hey, are you going to Nelsonville next year?’ And what they’re talking about is this festival.”
Elizabeth Weinstein is a freelance writer living in Columbus, Ohio. Her articles have appeared in RollingStone.com, Billboard.biz, The Columbus Dispatch, Columbus Monthly, Columbus Alive, The Cleveland Jewish News, Ohio Magazine, Oberlin Alumni Magazine, and more.
Jennifer Grimm is a travel and lifestyle photographer based in Columbus, Ohio. She works with both digital and film and carries a camera most everywhere, sometimes even while riding her bicycle. Although she works full time as a nurse, photography is her heart and passion. You can find her at Fox & Twig, an online photo blog that is a collection of both travels and everyday life.
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