Huntington has traditionally been a workingman’s town, a city literally built up on steel, rail and coal.
But over the past few years, a burgeoning arts and music scene in the city has transformed it into the new hot spot for paint flickers and string pickers.
The Huntington Music and Arts Festival is a celebration of that transformation, a change city leaders say could spell prosperity and hope for a city that has had its share of hard times.
Going on its eighth year, the festival started as a day-long event according to organizer Ian Thornton. The idea of the event was to shine some light on a growing, yet little known music scene in town.
“There are a lot of talented musicians in the area, but there just wasn’t a lot of attention drawn to them,” Thornton said. “During the summer there are a fairly decent amount of events in the city, but a lot of the musical events catered more toward cover bands.”
Providing a space for indie bands, like the increasingly popular Tyler Childers and The Foodstamps and Ona (both headliners this year), grew into a week-long event.
Its growth included incorporating visual artists, video makers and now, a comedy night.
Thornton said the festival helped foster the explosion in arts and music all around the Jewel City.
“Well, people are definitely doing more than what they’ve done in the past,” Thornton said. “I have a friend who said, ‘what draws a crowd is a crowd.’ So the interest in the arts kind of breeds more art.”
“I mean, no one wants to jump in the water. And art and music is great to do, but sharing it with the community is important. When one musician plays, there might be someone in the crowd who thinks, ‘well maybe I can do that,’” Thornton said.
That growth in the art scene is also good for the city, said Bryan Chambers, the city government’s spokesman.
“It’s all about quality of life,” Chambers said. “It’s not just moving to a community with good jobs anymore, particularly for young people. They want culture and an eclectic menu of places to eat. A large part of this is the music and arts scene.”
Chambers noted that Huntington is quite the festival town already—there’s a hotdog festival, a chili festival, a Greek festival and the music and arts festival.
These other festivals typically only run for a day or two.
This celebration “brings together the community in a positive way,” since it also shows off the city’s diversity, he said.
“He (Thornton) has various events spread from the West End to the other side of town,” Chambers said. “That really shows off what this town has to offer to folks from out of town.”
That’s been Thornton’s goal from the beginning, because he wanted the festival to be “not only a staple for the city, but for the state.”
“I know a lot of people look at the problems in this city, like the heroin and what not. But guess what? Every community has its problems,” Thornton said. “So what I’m hoping is this festival helps with improving the image of the community not just outside the state, but in the state too.”
The national media’s crowning of Huntington as “America’s Fattest City” a few years back, and last summer’s shocking mass overdose has definitely tarnished the city’s image.
But Huntington is far from the desolate, backwards wasteland some outsiders make it out to be, said Tyson Compton, president of the Cabell-Huntington Convention and Visitors Bureau.
“There’s not a huge number of people who come to the festival from out of town, but we’re seeing more and more every year,” Compton said. “But speaking generally about our visitors, I hear over and over about how they’re surprised we have so much to offer.”
“The biggest challenge we have is the misconception that we have nothing to do here,” Compton said. “But that’s not the case, especially when it comes to music and arts. There’s almost always something going on.”
That kind of a draw is good for business, according to Huntington Regional Chamber of Commerce President Bill Bissett.
“I was out with some friends from Charleston at the Bahnhof (a local restaurant and beer garden), and they were absolutely ecstatic that we had such a place,” he said. “That shows Huntington is quickly becoming a place people want to spend their money.”
“I think this art scene, as it becomes more accessible to people, is just the beginning.”
But for Thornton, it’s just about celebrating the music and the community.
“I was born in this town, and I plan on staying here,” he said. “I just want to help my community and make it better. And as it turns out, there’s a lot of people here who want to do the same thing.”
The Huntington Music and Arts Festival kicks off with an Appalachian crafts show on Monday, August 28, in Old Central City located on the West End.
It will culminate with the music festival, which will consist of 13 bands and 10 acoustic acts on Saturday, Sept. 2., at the Ritter Park Amphitheater.
A schedule of events can be found at the festival’s Facebook page.
Most of the events are free, however the music festival itself costs $20 at the door, $17 if you buy a ticket in advance.