The 9th Annual Athens Storytelling Festival is just around the corner, and it is an event that both our town and the ‘tellers look forward to every year. In less than a decade, our festival has become well known nationally, and award winning regionally. In fact, this year the PEAK award, which is the “Oscar” of the Alabama Mountain Lakes Tourist Association, went to the Storytelling Festival for the Best Event of the Year. Tami Reist, President and CEO of AMLTA, had this to say, both about Storytelling, as well as the Spirit of Athens, which won the Organization of the Year Award: “The PEAK Awards provide an outstanding platform to recognize top performers and industry leaders in tourism, and this year’s recipients all have done an excellent job in the marketing and promotions of tourism and travel for the North Alabama region.” This year’s Storytelling Festival is being held from October 20th through the 24th.
So, how did Storytelling get “from there to here?” Several years ago, a group of Athens natives, headed up to Jonesborough, TN to attend the National Storytelling Festival held there each year. They came back with a vision to bring an event comparable in quality to Athens. Since then, a long list of hard working volunteers and local businesses has kept the tellers happily coming back each fall. In addition, the police, Athens State University, legislators, teachers, and just about the whole town comes together to pull it off without a hitch.
To gain some perspective, there are approximately 300 storytelling events held all over the country, and the tellers are on the road far more than they are at home. When they tell you that they greatly love coming here, it is not a political statement, they genuinely are blown away each year by how we take care of them. I got to chat on the phone with Andy Offut Irwin, one of the ‘tellers on the 2015 docket, and this is what he had to say: “The Athens festival is one of our very favorites. Every year, we get to be ‘world famous in Athens, AL.’ This festival is one of the only places where it becomes the center of the town. We’re not off to the side somewhere, we are right in the middle of town on the Square. We get vouchers for food from the restaurant owners. The merchants come in to hear us, and the welcome from the town is palpable. It is so warm and inviting,” he said. He went on to tell me that because they get to “play to a million kids,” they have so much more fun than at the events that are only attended by adults. Basically, his question was, “what’s not to love about the festival director shooting a marshmallow gun at the kids?”
Speaking of the kids, there will be an extra day for them to hear the ‘tellers this year. That is because our local state legislators have once again gotten funding for public school, private school and homeschool students to attend for free. Wayne told me, “We are the only festival in the nation where this happens, and we owe our thanks to our representatives that understand how important this is for our kids’ education.” Our students are going to get to hear one of their all time favorites this year, three time Emmy Award winner Bobby Norfolk. The last time he was here, I got to see Bobby additionally perform for the kids at Johnson Elementary school, and the comedic energy in the room was electrifying.
So, what is new for the 2015 festival? “For the first time, this year we will be hearing from Michael Reno Harrell,” Wayne told me. Michael is from the Appalachians, has won numerous awards for both his songs and storytelling, and has toured throughout the British Isles and Europe. His song, “Southern Suggestions” is a true classic, along with many others, and I am glad he is in the line up.
The rest of the troupe is legendary in the storytelling world: Donald Davis, Carmen Deedy, Bil Lepp, and Andy Offut Irwin. They have honed their craft to the point that they are as comforting as a hand stitched quilt, while being as sharp as a pearl handled barber’s razor in the hands of an expert, and I can’t wait to hear them!
For the third time, there will be an amateur night, which is being hosted by Charlie Hughes. It has been renamed “The Dan Williams Memorial Annual Storytelling Night” in honor of our recently departed Mayor and State Representative, who was ‘teller in his own right. There is still room for competitors, the list is not full, and interested ‘tellers from our area are encouraged to call him at 256-431-9054 to find out how to audition.
Also, there are custom designed T shirts for sale at the ASU Center for Lifelong Learning for $12, and you’ll have to see one to understand what they mean when they say, “The Legend Lives On!” We hope to see you and your tribe “laugh ‘til you cry, and cry ‘til you laugh at Storytelling 2015.
Tickets can be purchased online at www.athensstorytellingfestival.com, or for more information, call Wayne Kuykendall at 256-232-0400.
By: Ali Elizabeth Turner