The Hills Are Alive…; Nelsonville Music Fest brings the sound of music to Ohio

Nelsonville Music Fesival (Photo by Joel Prince)

Stuart’s Opera House presents the Nelsonville Music Festival, June 2-5, 2016 on the campus of Hocking College in Nelsonville, Ohio. Returning for its 12th year, the festival features world-renowned headliners Courtney Barnett (Thursday), Gary Clark Jr. (Friday), Gillian Welch (Saturday), Randy Newman (Sunday) and more than 60 acts over all four days. This year the festival’s organizers are working to add new elements in to NMF and continue to develop existing ones.
In this spirit, the festival is launching an online fundraising campaign to support a brand new stage at this year’s NMF—but not just any stage, this one is from an old boxcar on loan from the Hocking Valley Scenic Railway. And in addition to hosting 22 more sets of music over four days, the boxcar will also be a public mural created at NMF by artist Barry O’Keefe. In addition to a new stage, NMF continues to set the standard for music festivals that really understand their fan base, the music lover and aficionado, with the inclusion of sets by Mac DeMarco, The Tallest Man on Earth, Nathaniel Rateliff + The Night Sweats, Charles Bradley & The Extraordinaires and dozens of others.
Ghettoblaster recently spoke with NMF marketing director Brian Koscho about the festival’s roots, history and future.
Under what circumstances was NMF conceived?
NMF is a production of the non-profit, historic theater Stuart’s Opera House in Nelsonville. It started back in 2005 as a one day event right outside of Stuart’s Opera House on Nelsonville’s Public Square. Tim Peacock is the Executive Director of Stuart’s Opera House and this was his idea and vision, I did not start at Stuart’s until 2007, so I wasn’t there for the beginning. I think the idea was to bring the work of what Stuart’s did year round out directly into the community, in this case right in front of the Opera House and in the middle of town.
NMF was (and is still) meant to be a fundraiser for Stuart’s Opera House so that was in the forefront of the idea too. For the first three years it was a one day festival with six to eight acts and artisan vendors, food, kids activities, and all that. And then in 2008, we decided to expand it to a three day festival and move locations from a spot on the banks of the Hocking River behind Rocky Boots to the historic village of Robbins Crossing on the campus of Hocking College in Nelsonville.
Before 2008 there had been a weekend long folk festival named the Hockhocking Folk Festival that took place at Robbins Crossing and in 2008 they had decided to discontinue the event. Tim and Stuart’s were involved with the Hockhocking Folk Festival and I think that transition into having Nelsonville Music Festival grow a bit and keep a festival on that site made sense.
That first year in 2008, The Avett Brothers headlined and in 2009 Willie Nelson was our headliner. From there it continued to grow and develop every year. I think the involvement of Stuart’s helps make NMF unique, any money raised at NMF goes right back into Stuart’s and into the festival.
What made Nelsonville the right destination for this?
Well Stuart’s was already here. The idea initially with the festival I think (I started around the third annual in 2007) was to bring the work we do at Stuart’s out in the community and on a bigger scale. And as the event has grown over the years we have continued to make sure it also celebrates our community and has a positive economic impact here in Nelsonville and Athens County.
How does this festival set itself apart from other festivals?
We have often heard from people that NMF has a certain atmosphere, something that comes out of the four days that they can’t quite put their finger on. I don’t know if I have exactly figured it out either, but I know that there are several things that I believe come together that sets Nelsonville Music Festival apart from other festivals. For one, I often hear that people love NMF and do not enjoy other music festivals, I think that comes from a few things. One is that there is a serious focus on the music and the lineup at NMF, there are great bands of all genres playing all day and night, it really is a festival full of music for people who love music. That diversity then also draws out a more wide ranging crowd than you would maybe find at your regular festival. We have all ages, a huge kids area with great activities encourages families (and kids 12 and under are free too) to come and enjoy themselves.
The atmosphere at NMF puts a focus on the music but we also work hard at making sure all the aspects are contributing to that full experience too. So you will find lots of artwork and aesthetic pieces around the grounds (including our newest stage, an old boxcar that we are also having a live mural made on throughout the weekend, indiegogo here through mid-June, and artisan vendors from around Ohio and the region, awesome food from around Ohio, midway games, etc.
What are your favorite moments in NMF history?
Each year there is always great moments of being able to see it all come together. On a personal note, I have been lucky enough to see some of my favorite bands (Built to Spill, Dinosaur Jr, Yo La Tengo) and I have gotten to see some legendary musicians too (Willie Nelson, George Jones, John Prine, Loretta Lynn, Mavis Staples, Merle Haggard) so those are always special too because you are watching it in a field in Nelsonville, Ohio, which is pretty surreal even after so many years.
With so many festivals going under on an annual basis do you ever worry that NMF might be economically unviable some day?
I think anyone who does anything worries about it becoming economically unviable some day. But I also think our model is a bit different than most other festivals. It was started out of community and by an important part of that community (Stuart’s Opera House) so that strong foundation helps a lot. Being a non-profit organization helps too, it makes what we do more transparent, you know exactly what the money you spend on a weekend pass goes to, it goes to Stuart’s and it goes to NMF. Your support of this festival helps make arts programming happen year round at Stuart’s too, that includes arts programming we present year round (live music, theater, dance, film, art) and also arts education programming for over 7,000 K-12 students in Southeast Ohio. Students in our area of the state experience the arts with the help of Stuart’s including music, international artists, visual art, drama and theater, and even forming rock and roll bands in our Afterschool Music Program (AMP). The AMP students perform at Nelsonville Music Festival at the end of their school year! Some of those students have never picked up an instrument before their involvement in the program, while other have but haven’t played in a band or written songs. It’s pretty incredible. And people should know that when they come to NMF and have a great weekend and buy a weekend pass and t-shirts, or beer, or food, that money is going to support things like that. The good work goes beyond that weekend.  
Are there artists who have told you that NMF stands head and shoulders over others or is their favorite?
We’ve heard from lots of artists over the years about how much the love NMF; very kind words from people like The Flaming Lips, The Avett Brothers, Andrew Bird, Shovels & Rope, and Brandi Carlile, which is always great to hear. And across the board, bands seem to really enjoy the festival too. That’s the idea, we want all of the musicians playing to have a good time too, they end up going around and seeing music (Wayne Coyne, J. Mascis, and Wilco have all been spotted walking around the grounds taking in sets), and talking with other musicians all weekend. I think making musicians feel comfortable and well taken care of and putting them in a relaxing and creative environment is a great thing for performance too.
Do you get to enjoy the fruits of your labor at all?
Yes! It’s a crazy weekend of course, but I am very lucky that at the festival I tend to move around a lot and help out with a lot of different things so I do get to catch music occasionally and I think get a pretty broad experience of it myself. I try to introduce bands throughout the weekend so I get a chance to catch a few minutes of a set at the beginning and always try to make sure to take some time out when I can.
Do you think NMF sets an example for how other festivals should operate and if so, why?
We hope that this is a sustainable model with Stuart’s involvement, and NMF celebrates Stuart’s Opera House’s mission on a big stage and one that we think has a positive impact on our community economically but also in the quality of life too.
How important is the inclusion of musical acts from the region in the festival?

Tim Peacock (our executive director) does all of the booking for NMF, so I can’t speak too much to specifics on this one. But, I do know that it has always been an important part of what the festival has done. Every year there has been incredible music from right here in Ohio, and right here in Athens County too but also Columbus, Dayton, Cincinnati, and everywhere else. As the festival’s lineup has grown and now being four days long, that inclusion of Ohio music has grown along with it. NMF has had some incredible Ohio acts over the past 12 years; Guided By Voices, Wussy, Buffalo Killers, Moviola, Motel Beds, Southeast Engine, and countless others. I think it is an important part of NMF to showcase music from the state to all of the people at the festival.
What is on hard lesson you’ve learned doing this? What has been your most rewarding moment?
The hardest lesson I’ve learned is that you have to always remember that sometimes things are out of your hands, elements like weather or even last minute changes are sometimes completely out of your control and might not take into account how hard so many people work to make something happen. And along those same lines I think my most rewarding moments are when I can see the whole vision right in front of me, at the festival with a huge crowd of happy faces of all ages and amazing music happening all over the place. The Stuart’s Opera House staff puts a ton of work into this event and to be able to essentially put on a giant party that is curated in all of these different ways and then to see people come and have an amazing time is very, very rewarding.
What are you loftiest goals for the festival?
As a marketing director, I selfishly have to say that I would love for it to sell out before it starts! That would be a nice goal, our crowd is great and has grown the last couple years without taking away from any part of the event. But I would love to get a to a point of something like a Newport Folk Festival where it sells out based on the fact that you know it is going to be an incredible experience in a smaller setting. In my line of work I often daydream about the amazing things we could dream up in that scenario. Ultimately, my loftiest goal is to keep this thing going for years and years and years, to build it into a sustainable event.
Have you started thinking about NMF ’17 yet?
I am sure Tim has some ideas already, hahaha. I think we have a little bit, it’s unavoidable, it’s a constantly growing and changing thing and you want to make sure it continues to get better and grow in the right ways so I am always attempting to think about not only the year coming up, but NMF as a continual event and something that is a sustainable thing.
(Stuart’s Opera House presents the 12th annual Nelsonville Music Festival, June 2-5, 2016 at Robbins Crossing on the campus of Hocking College in Nelsonville, Ohio. Tickets, more information, and the full lineup so far are available at or by calling 740.753.1924.)