Note: This story appears in the Wednesday, June 12 newspaper on Page A1.
NELSONVILLE — Laura O'Neil remembers the early roots of the Nelsonville Music Festival as a one-day event showcasing high school bands.
She has witnessed the festival's growth as it began drawing in well-known performers like The Flaming Lips and Willie Nelson. And O'Neil, a longtime festival volunteer, was among the thousands who enjoyed the 15th anniversary — a four-day spectacle that wrapped up on Sunday.
“I just love helping and I love being there,” O’Neil said. “It’s a pretty magical experience, and I don’t think I’m going to quit.”
In 2005, O’Neil graduated from Ohio University and was hired as a vista for Rural Action and placed at Stuart’s Opera House. That same year, she volunteered for the first Nelsonville Art and Music Festival, the event's original name. She recalls one band in particular from that first year, the winner of the 2005 Athens High School Battle of the Bands — Slaughter Drive.
“At the time of the first festival, there was no after-school music program for school kids, and the festival still gave them that outlet,” she said. “They still put them in front of an audience before all of the thriving music education and programming that’s happening now at Stuart’s.”
Four other bands performed that first year, and the festival was a single-day event held in late July. From the beginning, O'Neil said, festival organizers tried to foster an inclusive environment. This included providing young musicians with a platform to perform, or including accommodations like American Sign Language interpreters.
“The Boxcar Stage, which is the free stage located outside the festival, has really grown in the past two years,” O’Neil said. “That was a way of trying to make it accessible and affordable to people that maybe can’t afford to come to the festival. It gives everyone an opportunity to enjoy some music and have a good time together."
Over time, the festival was able to attract many notable performers to the main stage.
“I think the one that really put the Nelsonville Music Festival on the map was Willie Nelson,” O’Neil said.
Nelson performed at the festival in 2009 and was welcomed by eager fans and attendees. City Council even renamed the town “Willie Nelsonville” for a day, and those driving into town for the festival saw the new name displayed on a sign at city limits.
By 2012, the festival had grown to a 4-day event. That same year, O’Neil said she was captivated by a performance distinct from the rest.
“For me personally, the one performance that stands out is Shovels and Rope,” she said. “I caught them on the back porch stage. Their songwriting is just so spellbinding and I was totally arrested. And now I’m a huge fan.”
As a longtime volunteer, O’Neil said the commitment has grown considerably from the early days of four-hour shifts. Now, her festival weekend includes four 16-hour days of supervising merchandise tents and overseeing the management of volunteers.
Though the weekend is exhausting, O’Neil said she has enjoyed watching the festival grow and adjust.
“I think that we get this feeling of connection because (the festival) started so small and it has grown from the ground up,” she said. “The staff has been able to grow it in a very intentional way. We hear from the tour managers all the time just how much they enjoy coming here because the staff is so welcoming and chill.”