Jeremy D. Wells
Carter County Times
Sometimes my brain works in funny ways. It’s like a free association free-for-all, and a morning that starts with making an omelet for the toddler and changing his wet diaper leads me to brainstorming ideas for a storytelling festival.
It’s a leap, I know. I don’t even remember how I got from point A to point B myself. This is nothing new, and while I could easily spend the better part of an evening trying to remember exactly where the idea came from, I learned long ago to move on. (After all, there will be plenty of time for obsessing once my head hits the pillow and sleep refuses to come.)
The point is, Carter County needs a storytelling festival, and I think Olive Hill is the community to host it. A while back, in the days before the pandemic, Chamber of Commerce President Lisa Messer Conley spoke with the Olive Hill city council about capitalizing on the town’s connection to Tom T. Hall. Conley referred to Hall’s legacy as a piece of “low hanging fruit” the community could use to draw visitors to the town. People already visit because of the famous singer-songwriters connection to the town, she noted. But the city is failing to properly capitalize on that and keep those visitors in town with activities, exhibits, and other things to do.
One of the things Conley and the Chamber were working on at that time was the planned Welcome Center for the Olive Hill Depot. In addition to being a spot to highlight local musicians and entertainers like Hall, the Welcome Center could help visitors find other things to do while in Carter County – from places to eat to outdoor activities at Carter Caves and Grayson Lake, or kayaking Tygart Creek, horseback riding on the Trail Town trails, and more.
The idea is to let Hall draw in the country music fans, to let Matthew Sellers draw in the aviation buffs, and let places like the Welcome Center show them activities to keep them here overnight, or over the weekend.
But something like a storytelling festival might be another way to capitalize on the legacy a singer-songwriter like Hall brings to our county. While he is best known for his music career, what made Hall so outstanding as a song writer was his propensity for telling a good story. He didn’t limit himself to songs either. Hall also wrote poetry, novels, and non-fiction. It seems like a no-brainer to establish a regular annual storytelling contest to honor our native son’s achievements while also improving sales for our local restaurants and merchants and creating new job opportunities for the area.
Tom T. might be the draw, but it will be the talent of our local and storytellers that will make any such event a success, and I have all the confidence in the world that we have the talent needed.
Categories could be created for tall tales or a liars contest, traditional folk stories, poetry with an Appalachian or rural theme, dramatic telling of family or personal histories, and – of course – a singer-songwriter contest.
Different events could make use of venues in both Olive Hill and Grayson as the event grows. Existing groups and events like the Carter County Public Library or the Trail Town Stage could sponsor or host some portion of the event, or help with organization. And the people it draws could benefit businesses and provide opportunity for entrepreneurs across the county.
It’s not a fully formed idea, but it’s an idea – and one I’d wholeheartedly throw my support behind.
Jeremy D. Wells can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org