MOUNT VERNON – For the month of May, the fate of the Dan Emmett Music & Arts Festival – one of Mount Vernon’s proudest traditions – was up in the air.
After longtime festival directors Pat and Sandy Crow resigned in late April, organizers had to regroup and move quickly to make this year’s festival possible. The festival board and operations committee – many of the members brand new this year – had just eight weeks to prepare.
This weekend, their hard work will come to fruition.
“I think that we’ve just spent a lot of hours, we’ve really put a lot of thought into what we wanted to do,” festival co-director Trina Trainor said. “We didn’t want to do too much and make too many changes right away, anticipating what we can be later is going to be completely an open book, which is great.”
The 32nd annual Dan Emmett Music & Arts Festival will be held Thursday-Sunday in downtown Mount Vernon. Local, regional and national performers will grace the three stages around Public Square, while artists and entrepreneurs will line South Main Street. Despite a tumultuous spring, organizers made sure this summer’s festival stuck true to its roots, as an opportunity for Knox County to celebrate its musical and artistic heritage.
“As a performing artist and a visual artist and an educator, it’s vital,” festival co-director Joe Bell said of the annual event. “It’s the blood of our community. You know, you have your businesses, you have your education, you have your sports, and you absolutely have to have your arts.”
While the festival will appear largely similar to those in years past, some changes have been made.
KNOX IDOL GONE: Knox Idol, a 13-year festival tradition, was taken off the schedule due to time constraints. The event took the Friday night primetime slot last year, offering an opportunity for the public to determine Knox County’s top musical performers by age group. The winner of the oldest age group, ages 19 to 29, took home $1,000.
Bell said organizers could not have planned the event in just eight weeks.
“We’re not doing it, just because of the time frame. I mean, we’re under the gun right now,” he said. “We had eight weeks to put this together and something had to go. It had to be done.”
There were also copyright concerns associated with the event. Trainor said Pat Crow informed incoming organizers of a potential copyright conflict with the hit TV show American Idol, which had recently warned festivals across the country not to tinker with its name. The Dan Emmett Festival did not receive a personal cease-and-desist notice, Tranior said, but the Fox show’s public warning was enough to make the festival reconsider its name.
Bell said the Dan Emmett Festival could have an event similar to Knox Idol in the future, just under a different name.
“We’re not doing it because of time constraints, scheduling, making things work, and that’s where we are today,” he said. “Where we are a week from Monday, when it’s all over with? That’s a different story.”
KIDS’ ZONE ESTABLISHED: Knox Idol’s absence aside, this year’s festival will feature several new initiatives aimed at improving the experience for people of all ages. This includes the first-ever ‘Kids’ Zone’, which will be located on South Main Street, between Ohio Avenue and Gambier Street.
The area will feature bounce houses, face painting and daily entertainment geared toward the community’s youth. The Ice Sisters will perform on Friday night, and superheroes will populate the area on Friday and Saturday. Young adult author Kerry Winfrey will be in the Kids’ Zone on Saturday night as well.
Alyssa Gomez Lawrence, who also serves as the marketing committee chair for Main Street Mount Vernon, will run the Kids’ Zone this weekend. She said the area was established to provide a more well-rounded festival experience for local families.
“We found that there’s just never been anything specifically for kids. And yeah, it’s great to walk around and listen to some music, but it’s never really necessarily kids-related,” Lawrence said.
“If parents want to go to the festival, the young children don’t necessarily want to because what are they going to do? So this is kind of a way to give them an outlet and more of an experience, to kind of grow up with the festival.”
WOODWARD DEBUT: The Woodward Opera House, America’s oldest authentic 19th-century theater still standing, will also be open for the first time at this year’s festival. Crow and the Woodward Development Corporation completed the 20-year, $21 million renovation project this winter. The first level will be open on Saturday afternoon for live art demonstrations and dance performances.
“If anyone hasn’t been to the Woodward, they can go in and we’re going to have tours. And we also have live art happening in the promenade, so that’s going to be really neat for that same time period,” Trainor said. “We’re just really excited to showcase such a wonderful, beautiful place.”
HOSPITALITY AREA FORMED: There will be a hospitality area in the back parking lot of First-Knox National Bank off of West Vine Street. This new feature will include a place for people to sit, eat and talk. There will be a nursing and baby-changing tent, and there will also be a free shuttle service for those who need assistance in getting around the festival.
“The hospitality area will be one area that people can go and anticipate getting from Point A to Point B, wherever that is,” Bell said.
VENDOR SURGE: There will be more vendors this year, according to festival organizer Linda Oviatt. Oviatt expects two street blocks – from Public Square to Ohio Avenue – to be full of local and regional vendors. The side streets will contain booths as well.
“This year we are trying to get a few more vendors, so we’re filling up two full blocks and side streets of vendors this year,” Oviatt said. “It’s kind of fun to see that happen. Everything from beads to art to essential oils, you got it, it’s going to be down there. There will be something for everybody.”
The regular food vendors will flock to downtown as well, bringing barbecue and ice cream trucks. That selection also grew this year, Oviatt added.
“You won’t go hungry,” she said with a smile.
This year, festival organizers worked with downtown businesses to form a more inclusive selling environment. Unlike before, business owners were offered the space in front of their store if they wished to set up a vendor booth. Oviatt said many downtown businesses took advantage of the offer, including Woolson Spice Company, Crickets, Knox Labs, FitMix and Y-Not Cycling.
Oviatt, who is new to the festival’s operations committee, said this move was made “out of respect for the store owners” downtown.
“In previous years, they would have vendors in front of their storefronts. So this year, we let them have their storefronts and the space in front of their stores, for their own,” she said, “which is going to make it expand.”
ICE CREAM EATING CONTEST: Perhaps the tastiest addition to this year’s festival will be the ice cream eating contest, sponsored by Velvet Ice Cream and The Joint. The “Ice Cream Eating Championship of Mount Vernon” will be decided on Public Square on Friday afternoon. It will feature five age groups (5-8, 9-12, 13-15, 16-20 and 21+) and a ‘Local Celebrity’ division.
“We are a huge supporter of both our Mount Vernon community and Velvet Ice Cream,” The Joint owner David Stein said in a press release. “After meeting with the Dan Emmett Festival’s new organizers, we really wanted to find a fun way to be involved.
"Seeing the entertainment and popularity of the Utica Sertoma Ice Cream Festival ice cream eating contest (held every Memorial Day weekend in Utica), it was natural for us to reach out to Velvet. Their superior community involvement is only surpassed by their quality of ice cream.”
The contest is free to enter. The first 20 contestants to register in each division will be eligible to compete on a first-come, first-in basis.
Each division will be assigned a competition start time and length. Participants will have the opportunity to eat as much Velvet Ice Cream as possible, with times ranging from 60 seconds for younger kids to up to four minutes for adults. The winner from each group will receive a special championship prize pack from The Joint and Velvet Ice Cream.
CAR SHOW MODIFICATIONS: Sunday’s car show will look slightly different this year. Instead of having two classes of cars in the competition (classics and antiques), the competition will be open to all.
First-year car show chairman Nate Thomas said this decision was made because festival organizers did not have enough time to adequately advertise the show this spring. Word is mostly spread through fliers at other car shows, he explained, and those start in April.
“Just with time and consideration, there were some things that we weren’t able to pay as close attention to and thinking on, as far as classes. We kind of opened it up a little bit because of advertising,” Thomas said. “So [it’s] kind of opened it up to everything… to really make it so that it’s for full-spectrum automotive enthusiasts.”
Newer cars will be able to enter alongside classics, Thomas said, in hopes of drawing the biggest crowd possible.
“People would cruise in in their newer stuff, but it wouldn’t be judged,” Thomas said of past festivals. “Now it can be judged and you can win an award for your 2003 Viper that comes in, whereas before it was just, you come in and sit.”
FIDDLE CONTEST SIMPLIFIED: Saturday’s fiddle contest endured similar changes this year due to time constraints.
There will be no banjo contest this year, organizer Brad Oviatt said, only a fiddle contest. However, Oviatt said this year’s contest will likely appeal more to Dan Emmett’s roots as a musician.
“I needed to simplify it because it was done on such short notice,” Oviatt said, “so just taking it right down to just the fiddle contest made that happen. But we’re also focusing on the old-time, dance-style fiddle, which is what Dan Emmett did. That was his thing."
The contest will also be open to all, unlike other fiddle contests where there is a selection process for who gets to perform and place.
“If you’ve got the stuff, come on in and take it,” he said. “Come on in and win it.”
Many aspects of this year’s festival will also remain the same.
Phil Dirt & The Dozers will still perform on Thursday night. Each day will feature an Arts, Crafts & Trades Show and youth talent showcases. The cheer competition is still slated for Thursday night, and the Dan Emmett Unsung Hero Award will be given out then as well. This year’s Saturday night headliner is Lee Greenwood, who played in front of a sold-out crowd in 2017.
“We’ve made some subtle changes. We’ve got a few ‘wow’ factors, we’ve got some things going on that are different,” Trainor said. “But the gist of everything is pretty much the same this year, just due to time constraints.”
Organizers have said that this year will ultimately serve as a transition year for the festival. The festival board issued an online survey to the public last month, asking for feedback on things like the festival’s name, location and length.
Bell said the board received thousands of responses, and they will sort through those after this week’s festival is over. Public feedback will play a key role in determining which direction the festival takes next year, Bell said. Right now, everything’s on the table.
“What happens next year, we don’t know,” Bell said. “But I can tell you, both [Trina] and I are incredibly excited about next year. We have no idea what it’s going to be. But from what we’re hearing from within this group, from what we’ve heard in the little snippets from what I’ve gotten off the survey, it’s going. People want it. And what it evolves into, who knows? But boy is it exciting.”
Trainor commended the Mount Vernon community for supporting the Dan Emmett Festival. When the chips were down this spring, people rallied behind the idea that it couldn’t go away, not this year. Nearly 40 community members have volunteered to help at the festival this weekend, she said, which is quite the turnout for such a short notice.
“We have a lot of wonderful people in place,” Trainor said. “The community has rallied together, and we’ve really had a great, great group of folks putting this together.”