Since 2005, NMF has managed to grow gracefully, keeping its laid-back vibe and charitable, community-centered mission at the center

Back in 2005, the very first Nelsonville Music Festival was a humble, one-day affair held just outside the historic Stuart's Opera House on Nelsonville's downtown square. About half a dozen bands performed.

This year's fest, held at Robbins Crossing on the campus of Hocking College over four days (May 31-June 3), will feature dozens of bands on multiple stages, including headliners George Clinton & Parliament Funkadelic, the Decemberists, Ani DiFranco and others. Up to 7,500 people will go through the gates each day.

And yet, as much as the festival has grown, much has remained the same. “If you went back [to 2005] in a time machine, it would be a big jump to where we've ended up now, but you would see a lot of things you're familiar with if you're an NMF attendee: kids' areas, local food vendors, local beer, recycling — thinking about the event more as a whole, and its impact, and the good things you could bring in that were outside of the music,” said Brian Koscho, marketing director for Stuart's, which puts on the annual festival.

When people talk about the Nelsonville Music Festival, they often mention the laid-back, community vibe of the fest as much as the headliners. Nestled among the rolling hills of Southeast Ohio, attendees can watch a band like Wilco on the main stage, but they can also settle into the No-Fi Cabin with 30 other people to take in an intimate, unplugged performance.

“What makes it special and unique, that's something that's always in the forefront of my mind. It's sometimes a feeling. There's that vibe, that element, and it permeates through different parts of the festival, and we realize that's something that makes us different and unique,” Koscho said. “That feeling, while we always are concerned about making sure it's there, it's in the festival's DNA at this point.”

Unlike most other music fests, Nelsonville serves as a fundraiser for a nonprofit, in this case Stuart's Opera House. “It's way more than just a music festival. Buying a ticket to the Nelsonville Music Festival, by doing that you're buying into and supporting something that's so much bigger than those bands,” Koscho said. “Stuart's has this huge arts education program. Seven thousand K-to-12 students a year get exposure to the arts from Stuart's programs. And that's in not only one of the poorest parts of the state, but one of the poorest regions in the country. That stuff has a huge impact. Being at the festival for four days, you can see that.”

More than 500 volunteers work shifts at NMF, and the festival aims to keep the event accessible by allowing kids 12 and under to attend for free. And anyone can show up to take in free performances on the Boxcar Stage, which is located just outside the gates.

While Nelsonville is known for booking country legends like George Jones and Loretta Lynn and popular Americana artists like Gillian Welch and the Avett Brothers, NMF has also brought in rock acts of all stripes, from Dinosaur Jr. and Built to Spill to the Flaming Lips and Kurt Vile.

“It's all great music and all great art,” Koscho said. “Even if you think it might not be for you, you can still check it out and you might end up liking it. Whether it's a new artist or an established, legendary creative person, they all have that common theme of being amazing at what they do and making great art.”

In the end, though, much of the festival's ongoing success can be traced back to that feeling and sense of community, which is hard to put your finger on and even harder to leave. “On Sunday you can walk around and it's a big love fest, and everyone gets really sad all of a sudden,” Koscho said. “The real world is not [the same]. You've spent four days at this beautiful example of humanity.”