It all started with a wagon in 1973. And Jimmy Neil Smith didn’t really think it would work.
Smith brought Jerry Clower, the comedian, onto the stage at the Washington County Courthouse Square in Jonesborough, Tenn. But Smith also had a backup for his marquee - he hired Bill Monroe and the Bluegrass Boys as the main stage entertainment.
Maybe he didn’t need to.
As it turned out, the festival-goers clamored for Clower and cheered for the tales told by mountain man Ray Hicks. These performers made the first National Storytelling Festival such a success that it happened again. And again.
Today, it’s still happening. Each October, a faithful crowd of about 10,000 people from all over the globe make Jonesborough’s National Storytelling Festival one of the most successful weekend events in the Appalachian Mountains.
“It has spawned the revival of storytelling across the country,” said Smith, the festival founder and president of Jonesborough’s International Storytelling Center.
“There was not another event dedicated to the art of storytelling.”
It has also since spawned similar events like the Cave Run Storytelling Festival, held in September at Morehead, Ky.
All over the Appalachians, festivals sprout like wildflowers, especially during summer with happenings like the West Virginia State Folk Festival.
Held June 15-18, the West Virginia State Folk Festival dates to 1950 at Glenville, a small college town on the Little Kanawha River. Most activities take place on Main Street and include workshops in old-time fiddle, banjo and mountain lap dulcimer. You can toss horseshoes. You can also attend a nightly square dance on the street.
Later in the year, you can find the West Virginia Black Walnut Festival, held Oct. 12-15 at Spencer.
One of the South’s biggest events is The Kentuck Festival, held Oct. 21-22, with more than 250 artists at Northport, Ala.
And one of the biggest events in the North Carolina High Country is the Mt. Mitchell Crafts Fair, held Aug. 4-5 at the Town Square of Burnsville, N.C., near the shadow of Mt. Mitchell - the highest mountain in the Eastern United States.
At the edge of Virginia’s coal fields, St. Paul throws its annual bash called Clinch River Days on the first weekend of June.
“We’re wanting to celebrate the scenic Clinch River,” said Suzy Harrison, an event organizer.
Each year, Harrison and her husband, Bob, spend endless hours preparing for the St. Paul festival’s wine-tasting, fishing tournament, magic show and country music concerts.
Clinch River Days raises money to help community projects. It also has an environmental theme with representatives of The Nature Conservancy often conducting field trips on the Clinch River - a watercourse noted for having more freshwater mussel diversity than any other river in the world.
St. Paul’s event attracts about 2,000 people each year.
Clinch River Days boasts what every other great summer festival serves in the Appalachians - food, music and crafts.
That’s what you’ll find at the Best Friend Festival at nearby Norton, also held in June. That’s the mainstay of the Steppin’ Out Festival in Blacksburg, Va., in early August. And it’s the core of the Mountain Heritage Day Festival at Western Carolina University in Cullowhee, N.C., in September.
The emphasis shifts slightly - if you go from a festival to a county fair.
Fairs feature more agricultural contests plus four-wheeler racing, rodeos and demolition derbies. Also, carnival rides light up the nighttime sky at the Rich Valley Fair near Saltville, Va., the Virginia-Kentucky District Fair at Wise, Va., or the Appalachian Fair at Gray, Tenn.
This year, FunFest in Kingsport, Tenn., runs July 14-22, with children’s activities, food and games. Events envelop nearly ever corner of the industrial city near the Tennessee-Virginia line. This year’s performers including LeAnn Rimes, singing on July 22, 7 p.m., at J. Fred Johnson Stadium.
One of the biggest - and newest - festivals in the mountains celebrates eclectic musical tastes at Floyd, Va.
Dubbed FloydFest, this three-day World Music Festival is held annually with bluegrass, reggae, folk, African and Appalachian music. This year’s event, running July 28-30, includes performances by Iris Dement, Eddie From Ohio, Los Lobos, Appalachian Roots, The Lee Boys, Sun Dried Opossum and Blue Mule.
Also in July, the Tazewell County Old Time & Bluegrass Fiddlers Convention runs July 14-16, with Friday night performances, Saturday instrument and band competitions plus a Sunday morning gospel sings.
In August, check out Galax’s Old Fiddlers Convention, held since 1935. Now, the contest featuring banjo players, guitarists and other musicians attracts thousands. There’s also just as much a concert happening off stage - in parking lots or campgrounds - as there is on stage at Felts Park.
If there is a trend to festivals, it might be the explosion of new mountain music events.
Part of that success could be owed to the promotion and popularity of various mountain music trails, such as Virginia’s The Crooked Road, stretching from the Blue Ridge Institute at Ferrum College to the west at Breaks Interstate Park on the Kentucky border.
All along the route, various festivals have shown up on the map. Breaks, for one, holds a gospel singing on Labor Day weekend.
Near the center of The Crooked Road lies Bristol, the home of the Rhythm & Roots Reunion. This festival - on the third weekend of each September - regularly attracts thousands to the downtown corridor of Bristol’s State Street with a mix of bluegrass, acoustic, country and Appalachian tunes. Performers have included Dave Loggins, a Mountain City, Tenn., native who grew up in Bristol, had a Top-10 hit with “Please Come to Boston,” and later wrote songs for Alabama and Wynonna Judd.
The festival has been a surprising success for the city situated on the Tennessee-Virginia line.
Once, in the 1990s, Bristol hardly had luck gathering a festival crowd - unless it had something to do with its massive NASCAR track on the southside of town. Bristol’s Autumn Chase Festival simply withered away, for lack of interest, and bad weather plagued Bristol’s short-lived Racefest until, finally, the city just stopped having festivals.
Now, Rhythm & Roots Reunion goes to Bristol’s roots. It capitalizes on the city’s tradition as a bluegrass mecca and its fame as the “Birthplace of Country Music” - a claim made for being the place where both Jimmie Rodgers and The Carter Family were discovered in 1927.
High gas prices may have affected turnouts to last year’s smaller events, like the Burke’s Garden Fall Festival, held near Tazewell, Va., in September, and large festivals, like the Virginia Highlands Festival, stretching for two weeks in early August at Abingdon, Va.
Originating in 1949, the Virginia Highlands Festival was founded by Robert Porterfield, who also started the town’s Barter Theatre. In its early years, the festival was simply a great way to promote the theatre’s summer season. Now, the Virginia Highlands Festival includes Barter Theatre performances plus a Celtic music weekend, art shows, and an antiques market.
In recent years, an increased number of outdoor activities have also been scheduled for the festival, including hikes to Mount Rogers, the Pinnacle Natural Area
Preserve, the Great Channels near Hayter’s Gap, and the Virginia Creeper Trail.
But weather can dampen more spirits.
Last summer, the Virginia Highlands Festival was simply drenched as a cloudburst arrived on the festival’s middle Saturday. The thunderstorm brought all to a standstill - at what should have been the festival’s busiest time.
At Whitetop, Va., Buryl Greer blames Mother Nature for lower attendance at some of his community’s festivals, including the Maple Festival in March, the Ramp Festival in May and the Molasses Festival in October. All three are fundraisers for the Mount Rogers Volunteer Fire Department.
“At our Maple Festival, we had bad weather. We had snow both days,” said Greer, who helps oversee Whitetop’s festivals. “Our attendance kind of goes with the weather.”
So far as attendance, Smith blamed rain for lower numbers at the National Storytelling Festival.
“I think we were actually down a little last year,” Smith said. “And I think it was because of the economic atmosphere generated by Katrina, Rita and the high gas prices.”
Still, things are looking up, Smith said as he announced a mix of 30 old and new storytelling performers for this year’s event, held Oct. 6-8, with fan favorite storytellers Kathryn Windham of Selma, Ala., and Donald Davis of Ocracoke Island, N.C.
“It’s very important for us to deliver to our audience what they want to see and what they want to hear,” Smith said. “I often say that our success is because we do the same great thing every year.”