Nelsonville Music Festival debuted 15 years ago, no one imagined the sleepy six-band bill would evolve into a four-day spectacle. Over 60 bands now appear on multiple stages at NMF — names like Willie Nelson, the Flaming Lips, Loretta Lynn, Emmylou Harris, Neko Case, Wilco, and Gillian Welch have stretched across festival fliers.
NMF celebrates its 15th birthday this year with Mavis Staples, the Breeders, Death Cab for Cutie, and other household artists. But while prevalent names abound, regional, rising, and obscure talent have long made the festival great.
“It’s the perfect size festival,” said Andrew Bird from the Nelsonville Music Festival main stage in recent years. “Any bigger and you’d lose something.”
NMF’s remote location is partially responsible for its right size. Nestled in the bucolic foothills of the Appalachian Mountains, the festival offers guests a window into a forgotten corner of America. Nelsonville was once at the heart of Southeast Ohio’s vibrant coal mining industry — located in an area dubbed the Little Cities of Black Diamonds.
“This is a wonderful place you got here,” said John Prine in 2013, the verdant landscape rolling behind him.
Anchored on the corner of Nelsonville’s historic public square is Stuart’s Opera House, a beautifully restored theatre that hosted vaudeville, melodrama, and minstrel shows from 1879–1924, but now promotes concerts, art openings, and, of course, Nelsonville Music Festival.
The brainchild of Stuart’s Opera House Executive Director Tim Peacock, NMF is held at Robbins Crossing: a pioneer village on the grounds of Hocking College. Peacock — a musician himself — hails from Ohio, cut his teeth on punk rock and the Grateful Dead, and has consistently booked phenomenal regional, rising, and obscure talent.
Here are five must-see artists at this year’s Nelsonville Music Festival…
Mourning [A] BLKstar
From Bobby Womack to Pere Ubu to the Moonglows, Cleveland, Ohio, has no shortage of soulfully singular artists. Once the nation’s fifth largest city, Cleveland has a heavy musical legacy.
Mourning [A] BLKstar carry the torch for Ohio’s toughest town.
Led by producer RA Washington; amplified by vocalists LaToya Kent, Kyle Kidd, and James Long; and carried on the shoulders of gritty, adept musicianship, Mourning [A] BLKstar are a self-described “amalgam of Black Culture”.
The band awakens the spirit of Curtis Mayfield’s short-lived disciple, Baby Huey, spreading an eerily odd and warm R&B sound — deeply soulful, brilliantly defiant, and tremendously beautiful.
Thee Oh Sees
For over two decades, San Francisco’s
Thee Oh Sees have thoroughly confused their fanbase. In fact, that seems to be the point. Frontman John Dwyer, a psych-punk with a penchant for hooks, has hit every hue on the color wheel.
Whether quiet or loud, folk or punk, playing with obsessive focus or falling off the rails, the band takes pride in their colossal versatility. Thee Oh Sees pugilistic live shows do not disappoint — though they’re Ill-advised for the faint of heart.
In the 1990s, Chris Biester fronted the Athens, Ohio, garage rock power trio, Appalachian Death Ride. Since that time, Biester’s sound has skewed more folk — likely the result of decades spent in nearby Appalachian Ohio. Biester has toured with Guided By Voices, appeared on NPR’s Mountain Stage, and become a mainstay of Nelsonville Music Festival.
Melbourne, Australia, singer-songwriter
Julia Jacklin will perform some 10,000 miles from home when she hits the NMF Main Stage Friday afternoon. But Jacklin has traversed far more daunting paths. Crushing, her latest release, finds her reflecting on the often unglamorous life of a touring musician: failed relationships, unmet expectations, and pure exhaustion.
While many reviews rightfully focus on Jacklin’s lyrical ability, her musicianship and band are often overlooked. A remarkable use of space defines
Crushing. And I’m sure it will define Julia Jacklin’s NMF performance as well.
Michael Hurley is the ostensible Nelsonville Music Festival mascot. Now 77, the legendary purveyor of outsider folk was the very first artist NMF Founder Tim Peacock ever booked. In recognition, Hurley has performed every year for over a decade. With albums released on Smithsonian Folkways, Warner Brothers/Raccoon, and Rounder, Hurley has been active for well over half-a-century. And he doesn’t seem to be stopping. Timeless and wildly unique — a “songwriter’s songwriter” — Michael Hurley is a national treasure.