10th Annual Nelsonville Music Festival Nelsonvile, Ohio, May 29-June 1, 2014
In what seems like a faraway galaxy a long time ago, there was a special place known as southeastern Ohio, home of Ohio University–guys with ponytails, girls in overall bibs and, in the rural parts of Athens County, hippies hung out with farmers. On summer nights we’d sit on front porches, drink Robin Hood Ale and play the music of our grandparents mixed with that of the day.
The 2014 Festival features the outstanding Americana artist of the year, Jason Isbell, whose recent album topped No Depression’s Best Album of 2013 list and was just nominated for several Americana Music Association (AMA) awards. Plus, the Americana group that began as a rural response to the Ramones, and now tops the charts–the Avett Brothers–and Shovels & Rope, who took home two AMA Awards last year.
Part of the Nelsonville Fest’s success is its diversity. This year it also includes Dinosaur, Jr., Kurt Vile & the Violators, Lucius, Charles Walker & the Dynamites, the Head and the Heart, the Bottle Rockets and Groupo Fantasma. Along with newer artists such as Valerie June (AMA-nominated emerging artist), Pokey La Farge, Lilly & Madeleine, Hiss Golden Messenger and St. Paul & the Broken Bones. Mixed with long time folk poets, Ray Wylie Hubbard, Michael Hurley and Paul Geremia. Those are just some one the highlights of this year’s lineup offering over 55 artists, and many local Ohio-based musicians.
All this occurs on just three stages: a larger main stage, a medium stage and, nestled in a small wooded area at the festival’s far end, my personal favorite, the No-Fi Cabin. As its name implies, the cabin is all acoustic–no electricity, no lights–just wooden benches and a school blackboard that holds only 35 or so people, with a couple of small windows and a door that lets another dozen or so peek into some very special, intimate performances. Live acoustic music all too often involves amplification of some sort and you never get to hear what the music itself really sounds like.
The No-Fi Cabin offers music in its pristine form. Another specialty of the cabin is that, in the late afternoon and early evening, a soft golden light fills the room that makes it an eternal experience. For example, my highlight of last year’s festival–a performance by a very pregnant Anais Mitchell and her collaborator Jefferson Hamer, performing songs with from their then-new album, Child Ballads. The year before, Michael Hurley (with an unplugged electric guitar), along with a local cellist, doing his one of a kind songs, including still-amazing “The Werewolf.”
While the main event of any festival is, of course, the music itself, two other elements of any successful event are becoming important as well. First is the setting. The Nelsonville Fest setting is, overall, the most comfortable and relaxed of any festival I have attended. Driving or biking into the parking area is very easy, and its entrance is no more than a five-minute walk. Onsite, low cost camping is available to make it even more convenient. Once on festival grounds, there are local organic and vegan eateries, artisans displaying and selling their wares.
There are also two large spaces for family and children’s activities, including art murals, costume and giant dragon-puppet-making areas that are featured in a grand parade around the festival grounds. With the assistance of the Federal Hocking High School Art and Drama Clubs, the children’s activities concentrate on creativity, not mere babysitting. (Having an undergraduate degree in early childhood development makes me especially sensitive to this area.)
But the most unique feature of the festival is its sustainability. The festival, in conjunction with Rural Action and the Appalachia Ohio Zero Waste Initiative, has a goal to reach zero waste, with last year’s fest for this year’s fest achieving an 89% recycling and composting rate. Last year the Nelsonville Fest was named as one of the top six most sustainable festivals by the Outdoor Nation Community.