Nelsonville, Ohio doesn't have much going for it. There used to be a shoe factory in town, but it closed up shop a long time ago. Now 10,000 people hang out and don't do much of anything. There isn't much w0rk outside of the fast-food restaurants and gas stations. The more enterprising citizens run meth labs out on the Back 40, and there's plenty of open spaces right outside of town to raise illegal cash crops to sell to the college kids in Athens, 15 miles down the road. And that's about it.
Or was about it, until about ten years ago. That's when a couple idealistic entrepreneurs bought an old, abandoned opera house in the center of town, refurbished it, and started bringing in national music acts. People trekked down from Columbus, 60 miles north. People trekked up from Athens, 15 miles south. It's not exactly a rags-to-riches story, but they made enough cash to do something truly audacious: start a major music festival out in the middle of nowhere, in the Appalachian foothills where nobody with any sense ever stops.
That was seven years ago. And it's taken off, sort of. By that I mean the musical acts have gotten bigger, the scope has gotten grander, and the three days in mid-May that it all goes down are the musical highlight of the year for quite a few people. But this isn't Bonnaroo or Coachella, where you can watch your favorite band from half a mile away. This is Nelsonville, Ohio, where 5,000 people show up, maybe 10,000 if the weather is nice, where you can cozy right up to the stage, and where you're liable to run into Willie Nelson or Loretta Lynn strolling the grounds. For some of us, it's just about the best music event in the world.
It's happening again, starting Friday afternoon and extending through Sunday evening. That's Sharon Jones and her Dap Kings up there to the left, who put on one hell of a show last year. Sharon won't be there this year, but here's who'll show up:
Yo La Tengo
Justin Townes Earle
Over The Rhine
Ghost of a Saber Tooth Tiger
Lost in the Trees
Ned Oldham & Old Calf
Y La Bamba
Cheyenne Marie Mize
Sgt. Dunbar & The Hobo Banned
Nick Tolford and Co.
Wheels On Fire
The Black Swans
Octopus & Owl
Duke Junior + The Smokey Boots
Jess & Kyle
The Lovesick Blues
Bill Wagner & Brett Burleson
That deck is stacked, but clearly the aces are on top. Most people will come for The Flaming Lips, and that's fine. If it brings people to Nelsonville, Ohio, I'm for it. Personally, I'm most excited about George Jones (who will, I trust, show up) and Neko Case. I look forward to seeing rockabilly queen Wanda Jackson and indie stalwarts Yo La Tengo for the first time, and Justin Townes Earle and Over the Rhine for the umpteenth time. Some of those folks farther down the list make me pretty happy, too. Michael Hurley is a freak-folk original, a guy who's been writing wonderful and bizarre songs since the '60s. Drakkar Sauna recorded an album of Louvin Brothers covers a few years back that I thought was just swell. Doug Paisley is a Nashville renegage who writes literate, thoughtful, and wryly humorous country songs. I've already told my kids we need to get on the road early Saturday so we can catch Baby Dee. Baby Dee used to be a he, is now a she, and writes some of the most transparently beautiful piano ballads you will ever hear. My longtime buddies and Athens favorites Southeast Engine are playing Saturday afternoon, right on the heels of their new album that has received ecstatic reviews almost everywhere. I can't wait to see them. Jerry DeCicca and his fine Columbus country-noir band Black Swans are playing separately and together. Eve Searls, who I've only encountered in her fine band Super Desserts, is apparently playing a solo set. Oklahoma singer/songwriter Samantha Crain, whose 2009 album Songs in the Night knocked me flat, is playing a solo set. And my buddy Professor Josh Antonuccio, who doubles as an extraordinary music producer, is playing with his band Scubadog.
There is so much to see and hear. Couple that with anticipated reunions with lots of friends I haven't seen in a while, and a chance to spend three days with my daughters, both back home, albeit momentarily, from farflung universities, and you have the makings of one fine extended weekend. I suppose it's also worth mentioning that this is the biggest bargain in the music world. Three days of non-stop music will set you back a whopping $70. You should come. You won't regret it.
If I had the dough I'd definitely make the trip to catch fellow Okie Samantha Crain among several of those on the list.
Wayne Coyne I can avoid without ever crossing a state line, though ;-)
Jess and Kyle? Did you make that up?
Hey, hadn't caught that until you mentioned it, Bill. But no, I did not make it up.
As a former Clevelander who went to OU, I still can't believe this is in Nelsonville. If I were home (Cleveland) I'd drive down for this. Wow.
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