Nelsonville Music Festival for Families

Staff Writer
Columbus Parent

Music festivals can be loud, crowded, even dangerous places for kids. Not the Nelsonville Music Festival. This weekend-long fest, which takes place May 29 to June 1, is located just an hour southeast of Columbus and is tailor-made for kids, who get in free if they're 12 and under. Organizers say making the festival family-friendly was a goal from the very beginning.

"It's something, to be honest, we all noticed not being prevalent at other festivals," said Brian Koscho, marketing director for the festival. "I don't even know if we ever discussed not doing this kind of stuff. As we were planning that first weekend festival (in 2005), we wanted it to be an inclusive environment where anyone can come."

The festival is a production of Stuart's Opera House, a renovated 1879 theater in downtown Nelsonville. The facility has been revitalized in recent years with a steady stream of music, theater and dance performances, not to mention an education program that brings more than 6,000 students per year through the nonprofit arts center's doors.

The festival began nine years ago as a one-day event in downtown Nelsonville and has grown to a full weekend festival (Thursday night to Sunday evening) held on the beautiful campus of Hocking College. Performers have ranged from iconic country acts such as Willie Nelson and Loretta Lynn to indie-rockers Mudhoney and Yo La Tengo, plus numerous singer-songwriters and Ohio bands. Of the acts announced so far, this year's headliners are the Avett Brothers, The Head and the Heart, Dinosaur Jr. and Jason Isbell.

Nelsonville's kid-friendliness extends to more than harmonica workshops. There's an entire children's area run by Ellen Hadley, an art teacher at Federal Hocking Secondary School in Athens County, and a bevy of volunteers.

"Over the last six years, it has grown from two high school art and drama teachers with 11 student volunteers making a mural, twirling fire and telling ghost stories," Hadley said, "to last year when we had 20 teachers leading 27 students in running seven activity areas with a variety of programming all of the days of the festival."

Some of the programming for this year's festival was still being finalized as this story went to print, but there will be age-appropriate workshops to please kids 8 years and younger (yoga, a mural, science experiments, dress-up stations, theater games) as well as older elementary up to high school ages (yoga for teens, a photo booth, video blogging, journaling and reading spots, and a "Postcards from the Festival" project).

One of the highlights each year is an all-ages parade on Saturday, and this year kids can make masks for themselves and/or help prepare giant masks for parade characters to wear. Children can have their faces painted, interact with huge puppets and watch fire-twirlers at night - all for free. In previous years, balloon artist Dizzy Doc also set up under a tree and made free creations for kids, and the Bindlestiff Family Cirkus put on performances with tightrope walkers and acrobatics every few hours.

When face-painted children roam the grounds shirtless with balloon jetpacks on their backs, it lends the entire festival a casual, laid-back vibe, especially during the day. (If you plan to camp, there's also a section set aside for family camping.) Because of that safe, easygoing atmosphere, little ones don't have to stay cordoned off in the kids' area the entire weekend.

"Even if the parents want to watch a few bands, there's a good way to trick the kids into chilling out," Koscho said, laughing. "And then moms and dads can see some bands they want to see, too."

Families often bring blankets and claim spots in the grassy field by the main stage or in the shade of the porch stage. But with dance-inducing bands such as the Latin fusion of Grupo Fantasma or the New Orleans brass/funk hybrid of the No BS Brass Band, your kids may not stay put for long.