Together once again: WNC festivals, events slowly return to normalcy
It’s been just about three years since the Cold Mountain Music Festival took place in a large field within earshot of the picturesque Lake Logan. And, for Jeff Whitworth, although the long road back to the stage has been arduous, he’s starting to see the light at the end of the tunnel.
“The landscape of the music industry right now is one of cautious optimism, but everybody’s ready to get going again,” Whitworth said. “And we did everything safely for so long, that I also think everyone is pretty well-trained on what to expect, as far as expectations for event organizers and concertgoers.”
Whitworth is the owner of Worthwhile Sounds, a renowned Western North Carolina booking agency. The company puts together performance schedules for not only the CMMF and other regional gatherings, but also The Grey Eagle, New Belgium Brewing and Downtown After 5 (all in Asheville), as well as the Bijou Theater in Knoxville, Tennessee.
And on Saturday, June 4, CMMF — dormant since 2019 — will once again rise to the occasion when the likes of national touring acts Hiss Golden Messenger, Futurebirds, and The Mother Hips, amongst others, will step up to the microphone, the melodic sounds of passion and purpose ricocheting off the nearby mountain ridges cradling the facility.
“Everybody still expects to take their lumps here and there as we continue to navigate through ‘all of this,’” Whitworth noted. “But, nowadays we’ve all learned how to be flexible and have the ability to make changes on the fly, ensuring everyone’s safety while we’re still able to push forward and make events happen.”
J.S. Ondara onstage at the Cold Mountain Music Festival in Lake Logan. (photo: David Simchock)
With CMMF now full steam ahead amid easing government restrictions and mandates, the festival itself is a beacon of light heading into the summer tourism season, ultimately signaling what may come to fruition as another record-breaking year for visitation and spending numbers.
“I expect us to have a very busy travel season this summer,” said Nick Breedlove, executive director of the Jackson County Tourism Development Authority. “And our strategy this year is to encourage visitors to kind of be their own tour guide — fly-fishing, breweries, farm-to-table cuisine, hiking, you can go do it all here.”
By the numbers, the “heads in beds” hotel room tax for Jackson County is already over $2.2 million for 2021-2022, with Breedlove expecting that amount to rise to $2.5 million once the fiscal year comes to an end in June. In comparison, the 2020-2021 fiscal year collection was $1.9 million.
“And with the [record] visitation numbers [during the shutdown] in our area, we’re trying to be more selective in our marketing, where we don’t necessarily want to have less visitors, but a visitor that contributes more to the economy and [preservation of] the environment,” Breedlove said.
Looking at the CMMF, Whitworth said the early bird ticket sales are double compared to previous years. That’s an encouraging sign for the festival’s return, especially with the event calendar around Western North Carolina filling up with countless gatherings aiming to make a comeback.
“There’s more demand than ever to see live music — supply has increased as demand has increased,” Whitworth said. “Everyone wants to go to a concert after having to sit still for so long. That, and every band in the country is seemingly on tour right now to make up for not being able to work and perform during the shutdown.”
Another encouraging sign was the annual Greening Up the Mountains — the unofficial kickoff to the WNC festival season — taking place in downtown Sylva last month. Normally held every April, the 2021 edition was pushed to August to coincide with declining COVID-19 case numbers. But, organizers felt confident in bringing GUTM back to April for 2022.
“This time around our festival was larger this year than the one we had in 2021,” said Kendra Hamm, event coordinator for GUTM. “Our attendance for 2022 was double what we saw last summer. And although we’re still not a full-size festival yet [compared to pre-COVID numbers], I would say we’ll return back to our previous numbers within the next two years.”
Attracting tens of thousands of locals and visitors in 2019, GUTM usually brings in around 175 vendors. Though that number drastically dropped in 2021, this go-round saw an uptick with over 90 vendor spaces in place.
“Under the conditions, we’re happy with this year’s attendance and the vendor turnout,” Hamm said. “And the festival was also a testing ground for the new social district [for open containers of alcoholic beverages] in place for downtown, which was a success in what we saw and observed.”
Greening Up the Mountains festival in downtown Sylva. (photo: Jeff Bean)
In an effort to find, perhaps, a silver lining amid the day-to-day chaos of unknowns during the pandemic, Hamm said the shutdown also gave a much-needed pause to recalibrate GUTM: what it is, can be, and could be. Many events and organizations worldwide have also constructively used the downtime of the pandemic to reevaluate and implement new, positive growth.
“This is a great time to assess everything and ask ourselves — do we want to go back to what it was or do we want to do something different?” Hamm said. “[For many of us], nobody really remembers what we were doing before COVID, so this is the time to explore new ideas, new ways of doing things, having new leadership, and a new vision for how to run things.”
And with CMMF just a week away, Whitworth is standing at the crossroads of what was and what will be moving forward. He remains genuinely optimistic as he navigates the sometimes-choppy and unforgiving waters of the music industry and festival environment.
Regardless, the CMMF stage in that vast field is ready to go. The production gear will soon be installed and ticket tents put up. And, soon enough, the gates will open once again at Lake Logan for musicians and concertgoers alike.
“The return of Cold Mountain [and other events around Western North Carolina] is a testament to the people that really stuck it out, and were able to stick it out,” Whitworth said. “There was a point in the middle of pandemic where many of us were fearful if the live music world would ever fully come back — [next week] will be symbolic of how far we’ve come.”
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Where can we find a list of WNC festivals and dates for this summer?