Only 5,600 people live in Nelsonville, but tonight at least that many are congregated at Robbins Crossing, a grassy field flanked by original 1850s log cabins on the Hocking College campus. It's May 13, opening night of the seventh annual Nelsonville Music Festival, and fans from all over the region are pouring into Southeastern Ohio to experience what is rapidly becoming one of the state's signature music events.
A sizable portion of the audience this comfortable Friday evening is counting George Jones' wrinkles as the aging country icon parades through his deep catalog on the Main Stage.
A few hundred yards away, a slightly smaller throng gathers to watch youthful Columbus combo Nick Tolford and Company pound out old-school R&B on the Porch Stage - literally a log cabin's back porch. Inside another nearby structure known as the No-Fi Cabin, a few dozen faithful observe Athens freak-folk duo Octopus & Owl emitting Joanna Newsom-like squawks without amplification.
Yes, spending a weekend at Nelsonville Fest can feel like living through ComFest and Bonnaroo and an episode of "Hee Haw" all at once - a uniquely stimulating experience akin to one of those jumbled dreams where you're in a grocery store but it's also your third-grade classroom. And just like in crazy dreams, when you're in the midst of Nelsonville Fest, even the strangest juxtapositions seem to make sense.
This year's 6,000-plus crowd can thank Tim Peacock and his staff at Stuart's Opera House for that. Lord knows it ain't easy to make Nelsonville this much fun.
A festival like this one would be notable anywhere in the world, but it's especially peculiar in a hard-luck town that counts a regional jailhouse and Ohio's first Sonic among its best-known features.
Nelsonville isn't a complete hellhole. Sure, it's situated in Athens County, where one in three residents lives below the poverty line. But at least Nelsonville offers a classy town square, a quaint scenic railroad and a badass ram mural. Also, Sarah Jessica Parker was born here, and she undoubtedly enjoyed the carnival rides at the city's annual Parade of the Hills festival. As Stuart's Marketing Director Brian Koscho explained, "Nelsonville's almost ritzy compared to other parts of the county."
Still, if its picket fences are anything to go by, this place is marked by decay. Rocky Shoes and Boots, headquartered here since 1932, shut down its local factory in 2001 and outsourced the manufacturing jobs. The Paul Bunyan Show, a lumberjack skill contest that took place at Hocking College for nearly 75 years, moved to Cambridge in 2006.
The college replaced Paul Bunyan with a fall festival called the Great Outdoor Adventure only to see that event dissolve in economic woes in 2009.
That same year, the state delegated $150 million to accelerate construction of a Nelsonville bypass so motorists would never have to stop there again. Upon learning that Ohio drivers could skip past Nelsonville sooner than expected, ODOT spokesman David Rose told the Dispatch, "We're extremely excited and overwhelmed with joy."
For now, all vehicles commuting between Columbus and Athens must pass through the Nelsonville bottleneck. U.S. Route 33 eastbound forks just past the charred remains of the Coffee Cup Restaurant. Most folks turn right; hang a left instead, and you're headed straight for Stuart's Opera House in the heart of Nelsonville.
There's something happening here
On an unseasonably warm Saturday night last February, Tim Peacock stepped on stage at Stuart's to introduce Americana legend Lucinda Williams. But first he made his sales pitch.
"We work really hard to try to raise money to keep our doors open," said Peacock, who is 41, tall and bespectacled with a gray-speckled black beard. "It is a constant struggle, but we keep doing it with your help."
Peacock recommended the crowd check out this year's Nelsonville Music Festival, tantalizing his audience by name-dropping a lineup that stretches from the traditional (George Jones) to the eccentric (The Flaming Lips) to somewhere in between (Neko Case). He also mentioned some upcoming events at Stuart's, including an Ohio University film festival and performances by an Elvis impersonator and members of Conan O'Brien's house band.
"I don't know if you have noticed," Peacock boasted, "but there's not a lot of little opera houses in small towns in the poorest county in the state putting on concerts."
They've noticed. Some of these people drove from as far away as Bloomington, Indiana, to be here tonight.
Once upon a time
George W. Stuart might have imagined something like that Lucinda Williams gig when he built his ornate second-story playhouse in 1879. Stuart decked out the 400-capacity theater on the Public Square with handmade clay bricks and gold-embossed metal seats, inspiring the area newspaper to dub it "an ornament to the town." Stuart's was a community hub, but by 1924 the popularity of movie theaters helped put it out of business.
The opera house sat empty for decades. Businesses including a pizza shop and the Nelsonville Public Library inhabited the downstairs lobby, but few residents even realized there was a theater upstairs. That started to change in 1976, when the nonprofit Hocking Valley Museum of Theatrical History formed to restore Stuart's.
The group fixed up the building little by little until a fire in 1980. Deflated but not defeated, the members continued to make piecemeal renovations. Stuart's finally began hosting events again in 1997 with most of the original features intact, from stage-side opera boxes to the giant acoustic dome in the ceiling.
"It's got this old-fashioned hardwood floor and this steep staircase on up to the room. You don't know exactly where you're going until you get there," explained Maggie Odiorne, an 18-year-old senior at Grandview Heights High School who visited Stuart's last January to see Chicago indie rockers Maps & Atlases. That show was such a good time that she came back to Nelsonville this weekend to camp out and volunteer at the festival.
"(Stuart's) had a smell," Odiorne said. "I think maybe the smell is what did it, too. It feels like the kind of place cool stuff has happened. It has an aura about it. It's the kind of place you go to and you can tell important people have been there and people have had incredible experiences there. And maybe I could smell that."
From museum to music Mecca
For all its glorious adornments, the resurrected Stuart's was little more than a venue for community theater until Peacock, an independent promoter at the time, booked folk singer Norman Blake in 2000. Despite minimal interest from Nelsonville residents, the show sold out, so Peacock kept scheduling concerts there until the board of directors brought him on as executive director in 2002.
Almost a decade later, the lineup of musicians who've graced the stage is almost comically rich for a tiny playhouse in a Podunk town. Americana staples The Avett Brothers, Gillian Welch and Steve Earle have played there. So have indie rock favorites Yo La Tengo, Califone and Andrew Bird. Arcade Fire took the stage while stumping for Barack Obama in 2008. Charlie Louvin, Dr. John, Richie Havens, Ralph Stanley - the list goes on.
Against all expectations, Peacock and company turned Nelsonville's rickety old theater into a major concert destination.
"I think that there's much more of a purposeful sort of 'whoa!' I like that aspect of it," said Koscho, 28. "Part of the thing I like is working at a performing arts place that puts on all these different things - music and art and film and theater and kids' stuff - but at the same time it's like, 'Oh, it's in this weird little town.'"
Nowadays Stuart's employs four full-time staffers and one part-timer (plus one very busy intern) and schedules about 75 events per year. Besides big-name concerts, the theater hosts music education programming for children, local plays, corporate events, film screenings a la Neil Young's "Le Noise" documentary and even weddings; Koscho got hitched there last summer. About 23,000 people attended Stuart's events in 2010.
The venue's resurgence coincided with a rejuvenated local arts scene. Around the turn of the century numerous galleries opened in Public Square, and businesses began staying open late for monthly Final Fridays events that mimic Short North Gallery Hop. Hocking College founded an audio production program in 2005, drawing more musicians to the area.
Despite the minor creative renaissance, Peacock and his miniscule staff were having trouble keeping Stuart's afloat financially. Furthermore, the Stuart's crew struggled to convince most of Nelsonville's sub-blue collar populace that the venue's programming was more than hippie nonsense. While brainstorming fundraisers, Peacock had an epiphany: He couldn't force the people of Nelsonville to visit Stuart's, but he could certainly export Stuart's to the people of Nelsonville.
Takin' it to the streets
In spring 2005, Stuart's Opera House organized a street fair in Public Square.
"The original idea of the festival was to come up with another way to raise money - and to go out into the community a little more," Peacock explains from across a ping-pong table-turned-conference desk in the Stuart's Opera House office.
"Part of our mission is to reach the community at large around here," Peacock continues. "We draw attention from Columbus and Dayton and Pittsburgh and stuff As a rule, we can get Athens people here, but the folks who are here in this town, who grew up with this building being here and their grandmothers graduating high school in this building, they don't really know what the hell we do. So part of our idea was to go out into the community and do stuff on the street, which for lack of a better word sort of forced upon them what we do."
The inaugural Nelsonville Music Festival presented five acts, including Dirty Dozen Brass Band. 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 for the next two years.
By 2008, organizers sought to attract a youthful audience that would be willing to camp out for a full weekend of entertainment, so they moved the event to its current site at Robbins Crossing. Over three days, 1,200 people turned out for Akron/Family, Bettye LaVette, The Avett Brothers and more. It was a hell of a party, but the Stuart's staff was running ragged with minimal benefit to their organization. Peacock and company faced another big decision.
"We either had to force it to be bigger or we had to consider abandoning the idea," Peacock recalls. "It was a ton of work to at the end of the day maybe make $10,000."
Go big or go home
Monthly board meetings at Stuart's are typically casual, but the December installments are especially informal - more like Christmas parties than business affairs. At the December 2008 gathering, Peacock and the board uncorked a few bottles of wine, then some ideas.
"To me, Willie Nelson was the perfect representative of what we do. He's obviously a country legend. He obviously is cool with the weed heads. In any genre of music he's accepted as OK," Peacock said. "So we decided to try to get Willie Nelson. And we did."
As predicted, Nelson vastly expanded the festival's profile for 2009. Suddenly, Peacock's modest street fair had become a lucrative fundraiser with a national media imprint. The momentum carried into 2010, when the crowd ballooned to 5,000 fans and headliners included Loretta Lynn, The Swell Season and Sharon Jones & the Dap Kings.
"Last year is when I think it started to gel as an event, as a weekend," Koscho said. "What we were trying to do was have this festival in this beautiful setting that was really laid back, that was unique, but still had some really awesome music at it. You didn't have to go to Lollapalooza or Bonnaroo. You could go to this place that was cheaper and closer, and there was 5,000 people instead of 100,000 people."
Romancing the Lips
With 50-plus bands this year, Nelsonville Fest is big enough - and weird enough - for The Flaming Lips to headline. It's not common to find world-class musicians mixing so freely with upstart undergrad rockers the way they do in Nelsonville; rarely can music fans toggle between the intimacy of a house show and the communal bliss of an amphitheater within seconds.
"These sorts of festivals are really all about 'let's build an atmosphere, build a day,'" said Flaming Lips frontman Wayne Coyne, lounging on his tour bus on May 14. "It isn't about 'You're gonna see a big star!' You're gonna have a cool experience. There's more and more festivals that are doing that. They're not in it to make $10 million; they're there to keep this thing going for their own community and do something interesting."
Of course, Peacock is at least a little concerned with money. The festival has a $380,000 budget this year, up from $250,000 last year, and as usual, job number one is raising funds for Stuart's Opera House. So far, he hasn't let the pursuit of a profit get in the way of putting on an awesome show.
"I know that it's about music," Coyne said. "They're not really searching around for the biggest, hippest, coolest thing that's happening right now. I think they've given some thought to who can be available and who can make the legacy of their festival seem like it was done by people who cared."
The audience, in turn, stayed positive despite ceaseless rains that rendered the festival soggy. People seemed happy to don ponchos and keep on rocking. Similarly, when the Lips' equipment showed up late for their May 14 show and set the Main Stage almost two hours behind schedule, the crew shifted into overdrive and the bands willingly shave a few minutes off to help get the show back on track.
Everywhere, from the campground to the food carts to the art vendors, people were in good spirits, rain be damned.
"A lot of things can go wrong," Coyne said. "I mean, this whole thing can be a bit of a disaster if it just rains all day. But that's up to the people who are here. I know sometimes when it has rained it's made it even better for people because it's different."
Who is Tim Peacock?
For his part, Peacock didn't let weather hold him back. If anything, he multitasked even more furiously - fixing the electricity in the press tent, introducing bands on multiple stages, readily scurrying from one job to the next. He's gotten used to bearing a heavy load, and - fortunately for him - he's also gotten used to sharing a heavy load.
"It was all complete naive approach and learn by doing. There's no rocket science here," Peacock said. "But we've been really lucky, and our reputation has grown and continues to be pretty good. There's a lot of people that make it go. My name just is on it."
To give Peacock all the credit for Nelsonville Fest's success and the rise of Stuart's Opera House would be to minimize the efforts of the Stuart's staff and hundreds of volunteers. That said, his role in elevating Nelsonville to prominence can't be understated.
Peacock had been booking concerts for about three years when he went full time with Stuart's in 2002. His first endeavor was bringing freak-folk icon Michael Hurley to Athens bar Casa Nueva in 1999.
"I wanted this guy who was my weirdo folk hero to come play the town I lived in so I didn't have to go see him in Vermont," Peacock said.
In 2002, Peacock became the sixth person in six years to hold the title of executive director at Stuart's. He brought a dangerous amount of ambition to the position; he says he ruined a relationship by working 70-90 hours a week his first couple of years at Stuart's.
The tireless work took its toll, but it had positive consequences, too. At this point, people expect Peacock to work miracles, and he usually does.
"I accidentally caught wind that The Flaming Lips were going to be headlining this year before it was announced, and at first I thought someone was just pulling my chain," said Adam Remnant, frontman for popular Athens folk-rockers Southeast Engine, roaming Robbins Crossing before his band's Main Stage set Saturday.
"Then when Tim announced it, it was like, 'All right, yeah. It makes sense. He pulled it off.'"
If Nelsonville Fest is just about booking the most exciting musicians possible, "pulling it off" will only get easier for Peacock as the festival's reputation keeps building. In another sense, though, maintaining an event's casual charm becomes a lot tougher as more people flock to it. Just ask the organizers of ComFest, who spent the past decade avoiding the press and actively discouraging people from coming to their event.
Sitting at her merch booth Sunday, May 15, Athens-based artist Emily Beveridge speculated that Nelsonville Fest could grow as large as Pitchfork or even Bonnaroo in the coming years. Considering how eagerly the crowd braved the day's mud bath, it's easy to see her prediction coming true.
The Stuart's crew has other plans. They intend to cap off attendance around 6,000, a "comfortable" figure, in order to maintain the vibe they've established so far. It might be more difficult than they think.
As he prepared to take the stage for Southeast Engine's triumphant set on the festival's second day, Remnant said he's confident that the Stuart's crew will figure it out. After all, they've been able to strike a balance of intimacy, eccentricity and big names at 400-seat Stuart's Opera House and transfer the same vibe to a 6,000-capacity outdoor festival - in Nelsonville, of all places.
"(Peacock) started where he needed to start and grew it one step at a time," Remnant said. "He never overshot."