The 2014 Nelsonville Music Festival begins on May 29. Produced by Stuart’s Opera House, the festival will once again feature an impressive slate of performances in “the beautiful, rolling hills of Southeast Ohio”. In anticipation of the tenth annual festival, PopMatters interviews the organizers about its history and growing reputation.
Tim Peacock, executive director of Stuart’s Opera House, describes the event as “an unlikely festival in an unlikely town” and says, “Nelsonville, with its… hills and forests… is in the most beautiful part of Ohio.” Marketing director Brian Koscho speaks in similar terms of the festival as “a special event in a great place”. He says, “I’m biased, but it is. Southeast Ohio is my home and it is a beautiful part of our world. It isn’t the most obvious place for a festival to be, but once people make it down for the first time we hope they see why it is here.”
It’s against this scenic backdrop that Peacock, Koscho, and others at Stuart’s Opera House have created a unique festival experience that began in 2005 as a single-day concert but has grown into “a four-day event”. Koscho describes Stuart’s Opera House as “a local historic, non-profit theater, which has hosted everyone from Arcade Fire to Yo La Tengo to Dr. John”, and points out that “any money made at this event goes back into the festival, back into Stuart’s, and back into the arts in Southeast Ohio”.
Regarding the festival’s raison d’être, he says, “We have some fantastic music from all kinds of genres and places, our lineup over the years has included everyone from rock and roll’s biggest (The Flaming Lips in 2011, Wilco in 2013) and most respected (Dinosaur Jr. in 2014, Mudhoney in 2009, Guided By Voices in 2012) bands to country legends (Willie Nelson in 2009, George Jones in 2011, Loretta Lynn in 2010) and Americana and folk music’s top acts (The Avett Brothers in 2014 and 2008, John Prine in 2013).
“Those headliners get added to a huge assortment of all kinds of genres and bands. But that all happens in a comfortable, relaxed setting and you can see all the bands you want without feeling overwhelmed by the event itself. At Nelsonville Music Festival we do everything we can to make the event about the music and the experience.” Peacock adds that unlike most festivals, they are able to create an “eclectic” lineup “while avoiding any jam bands or EDM on the bill”.
Though Peacock is hesitant to identify a certain profile that the festival’s acts have in common, beyond the simple characteristic of “a good song”, Koscho does see some kinship among the acts. “I think our headliners are artists who have stayed around and continued to produce quality work and in some cases rising stars who have shown an awful lot of excitement and potential in even a short period of time. Those two categories mix in with other bands from every genre you can think of, great Ohio music, and smaller bands touring all over the country and making great albums, who are just on their way up. That all makes for a great mix.” If there is one “thing that unites them all”, he says it is that “they are making interesting music and creating great art.
“I think great music can connect people from all walks of life to come together and enjoy the power that live music in the right setting can have, in other words a diverse and unique lineup brings out a lot of different people of all ages. Someone may come to see the Avett Brothers headline Saturday night and leave the weekend with a brand new favorite band they had not heard before. It’s all good stuff, like Tim said maybe it’s as simple as a good song, or just a certain creative element.”
The arrangement of the festival’s separate stages does create distinct spaces for different sorts of performances. For instance, Peacock describes “the second stage (what we call the Back Porch stage)” as the one that features “usually smaller artists and tends to be more loud and more rockin’, especially later in the day/evening”. Conversely, “the No-Fi cabin (our third stage) is only acoustic stuff with no electricity.”
While the headliners and other main stage acts are often the top draw, Koscho points to these secondary stages as highlights of the festival. “I always love to see who will end up being in the No-Fi Cabin each year, and I think the Porch Stage has some awesome music every year. I always tell people who ask that they should make sure to watch bands in the afternoon and try to catch a few things that they aren’t familiar with.”
The No-Fi Cabin, in particular, creates conditions for one-of-a-kind live shows. To have an entirely unplugged roster was Peacock’s idea, though he says he’s “sure it is a stolen idea”. He observes, “Even the most comfortable performer feels a little naked when there isn’t a mic and mic stand to stand/sit behind. Though only 30 people can squeeze into the No-Fi cabin, it is probably one of the most talked about components of our festival. People just love it.”
According to Koscho, not only does the No-Fi cabin “[make] the music the exact center of attention and focus”, but it also contrasts with the larger scale of the festival in a way that enhances the experience. “Even at a four-day festival with 5,000 people you can sneak away to an old schoolhouse cabin and watch an intimate performance with 30 people and no electricity. It makes what can often feel like an impersonal experience (a big festival) into an experience and performance that is personal. Bands and musicians seem to really love it and there have been some incredible moments in there over the years.”
Other contributing factors to the balance of big festival with personal experiences are the community-minded approach to sponsorship and attention to environmental concerns. Koscho explains, “Money is raised for the festival with sponsors and individual donations along with ticket sales and revenue. I think the places we work with for sponsorship are an extension of the philosophy of Nelsonville Music Festival and its staff. There’s a lot of good local business and people from Ohio supporting this event that celebrates those things. It is a great thing to have that support from the community we are in and our region. We work with a lot of places on in-kind donations, too, for everything from advertising to food for the green room and backstage from local farms and businesses.”
Last year, as a result of the festival’s Zero Waste initiative, Nelsonville was included in Outdoor Nation’s list of “the six most sustainable music festivals” in the United States. Koscho says the “initiative is an unbelievable thing. I am serious. Every person attending our festival should stop over at their tent for a minute and watch those volunteers sorting through every ounce of waste at that festival and sorting it all. That’s on top of the plans made in advance such as composting silverware and serving ware for all the food vendors and backstage and everything else. We want people to think about where that stuff they throw away goes and we do everything we can to keep it out of the landfill. We were around 90% landfill diversion last year, which is incredible. And that whole idea has developed and grown from working with like minded people and community minded organizations like Rural Action who believe in all of this.”
As with many other events in an increasingly crowded festival season, Nelsonville faces certain stresses common to festivals of all sizes. “Unfortunately the biggest pressure or stress is always related to money,” Peacock says. “Nelsonville Music Festival doesn’t ever have intentions of making huge sums of money, but we also can’t afford to lose money, which is easier to do than one might think. Once we break even, a huge amount of pressure is released.” Koscho adds, “It is always easy for an event like this to lose money, you just hope and hope that it doesn’t.” He sees the festival — “a huge undertaking” — as being worth the risk because “it is one that we feel benefits our community both culturally and economically.” Peacock identifies weather as “the second most stressful part… Throwing a party for 5,000 people is a lot of work and when a spring storm shows up uninvited, it really puts a damper on things.”
For Peacock, the moment those stresses pass is often the most memorable of the entire festival. “That is the moment where I take a breath and all of the work from the last eight or nine months releases. It comes at a different time every year. Last year, it didn’t really come at all because it was stressful all the way through the end, even after it was over. When this hard to describe feeling comes, it is one of the best things I know.”
Koscho cites musical moments as highlights of his years with the festival. “Each year (especially if it is a good one) there is a moment if I’m lucky where it all is worth it. It comes at different times but I have often found it happen when a certain band is playing and I stop for a second and realize that, ‘Whoa, Willie Nelson is playing in a field in Nelsonville, Ohio to a bunch of very happy people and this is my job’ and that is awesome when it happens.
“Last year was a stressful one, but the moment came when John Prine closed it out on Sunday and I got pretty emotional for a couple reasons: first it was a great performance, and second that I knew it was going to be done soon. And that as crazy/tired/stressed as I was at that point I still didn’t want it to end. Meeting musical heroes is always fun when it happens. Robert Pollard (of Guided By Voices), Mark Arm (of Mudhoney), and Wayne Coyne (Flaming Lips) were all people I never thought I would meet when I was younger! I loved Michael Hurley’s music before I even worked here, and since then he’s come to Nelsonville Music Festival every year since 2008 and I have got to introduce him on stage and talk with him over the years.”
Ultimately, Koscho says, “it’s the people” that make Nelsonville a festival to remember. “All of the people I love the most in the world try their hardest to get here and be in one place for the weekend and I love seeing everybody!” He says that those who plan to attend this year’s festival should expect to see some new features and activities, such as a “tent in the campground with some late night parties. One night will feature a square dance with old time music and a caller, the other night will feature Heatwave Dance Party from Columbus spinning records of fantastic classic soul, funk, R&B, and more. That’s exciting. Also, more great stuff going on in the kids’ area, too. Each year there’s something new happening over there.”
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The 2014 Nelsonville Music Festival will run from May 29 to June 1 and feature performances by the Avett Brothers, Dinosaur Jr., the Head and the Heart, Jason Isbell, and many others.