Local Music Festival is Bigger Than Ever As It Celebrates 5 Years
It’s an unlikely story. Five years ago some music-loving friends decided to host a day of live music on Buchanan Street. With a wooden pallet stage as their only platform, four bands performed to a “crowd” of roughly 100 people, sustaining a broken generator after just the first set.
Fast forward to Spring 2017 and that unassuming day of music has grown to epic proportions—50 live bands, national headliners, five stages, dozens of food trucks and vendors, thousands of festival goers, and, best of all, a front row seat in the heart of Downtown Lynchburg.
“It was always about the music,” says Jonathan Smalt, co-founder and current director/producer. “It was about the art, and it’s about the community that starts when you are creating with other people.”
Riding the wave of this unlikely story from the very beginning, Smalt surveys the current developments with a mix of awe and excitement.
“When we first said our vision was to create a music festival that gives to the city and happens in the heart of Downtown Lynchburg—for that vision to be happening now is very humbling,” Smalt remarks.
To hear him tell it, the first festival in 2013 was a long shot, but it clearly filled a void. At the time there were no regional music festivals to showcase local talent like Glass Oaks, of which Smalt was a member. So, as he says now, “If it’s not there, do it yourself.” By 2014, they hosted Lynchstock at Keep Colony, which at the time was a communal arts collective housed in the former Seven Hills School building on Rivermont Avenue. They sold over 800 tickets, but with open-air stages and an outdoor setting, Smalt says plenty of people snuck in, pushing their numbers closer to 1,200.
Going into 2015, the amount of time and energy invested in planning and logistics was rapidly growing, plus they were unable to secure a venue large enough to host the festival inside city limits.
So, in the interest of growth, they relocated to The Yard at Benjamin’s Restaurant in Forest.
“It gave us a concise festival footprint,” Smalt says. “We knew we were going to outgrow that space, but we did so in a way that we learned how to really run a festival.”
Things really caught steam by their fourth year in 2016. With closer to 3,500 people attending the festival at Benjamin’s, some food trucks were selling out completely while others picked up more burgers in the middle of the day just trying to keep up with demand.
“Several vendors said it was the best sales they’d ever had in Lynchburg,” Smalt recalls. “That is exactly what we wanted—everyone is walking away successful.”
This year, Lynchstock is poised to grow by even more leaps and bounds. Not only are they relocating to the heart of downtown—where they always wanted to be—the festival is also partnering with the Academy Center of the Arts to kick off a summer concert series.
“It’s been a slow crawl where we could get to the point of having national headliners,” Smalt says. But that time has finally arrived, and it’s a match made in heaven for both sides.
In addition to being a lover of all things music, Smalt also champions the continuing resurgence of downtown life and culture in Lynchburg. Having spent his college and graduate years at Liberty University prior to moving to Nashville in 2015, Smalt now returns to town every few months.
“What’s been refreshing is seeing a lot of these new restaurants popping up,” he says. “We really think changes are happening in Lynchburg on the cultural front.”
It’s a sentiment echoed by Geoffrey Kershner, Executive Director of the Academy Center of the Arts, who thinks anchoring Lynchstock in the heart of downtown is a “huge win.”
“The artists that Lynchstock will bring to downtown and the careful curation of the event as a youthful, community-building event will take our cultural life up a notch,” Kershner says. In a word, it brings “validity” to the concert series that both organizations are putting together.
Kicking off on April 22 with the Lynchstock Music Festival, the Academy’s Riverfront Park Concert Series will continue with a free concert on June 10. The remaining three concerts—July 8, August 12, and September 30—will feature a variety of musical genres at $10 a piece. While produced by the Academy, the series is organized by Lynchstock and is partnering with Lynch’s Landing and various community sponsors.
Kershner describes the purpose as two-fold: “accessibility and experience.” More people can come due to the size of Riverfront Park, plus community members will enjoy the cultural benefit of live musical performances “in a beautiful location where our city skyline meets the natural beauty of the river.”
Expanded arts events are a win for downtown businesses as well. “Cultural events like Lynchstock are extremely important to a vibrant and successful downtown,” says Lynch’s Landing Executive Director Ashley Kershner. “They increase tourism, drive traffic to local businesses, introduce new people to what downtown has to offer, and provide the vibrant, cultural scene that helps shape the identity of our city.”
For Smalt and Lynchstock organizers, having a partnership with the Academy has opened doors and opportunities they desperately needed.
“Geoff has been speaking for us and going to bat for us and really helping establish Lynchstock as a festival for all ages,” says Smalt. It’s a goal they both hold tightly—to reach young and old with great music.
This Year’s Festival
Pops of pink and turquoise greet visitors to the official Lynchstock web site, a purposeful rebranding choice. Smalt and his co-organizers asked, “How do we make this year really fresh and celebrative and fun?” The vibrant redesign is one part of their overarching goal of cross-demographic reach. “Kids are the future artists and musicians,” Smalt says of why the festival is free for those 12 and younger; it also makes it easier for families to attend as a whole.
Inclusivity and creativity go hand-in-hand for organizers. “We want to make this as cool and unique an experience as possible for everyone,” Smalt says.
Headlining this year’s festival is classic rock band Dawes—“one of the best in the nation today” Smalt says—and Oddissee, an “up-and-coming, hip-hop sensation” who is in the midst of a national tour. This year, Smalt explains, “We are wanting to diversify and be more accurate to what the community wants.”
The festival will include a stage dedicated to metal and hard rock—a “huge scene” in Lynchburg according to Smalt—plus blues, soul, folk, singer-songwriters, EDM, electronic, and DJ sets.
And while national acts bring a level of credibility to Lynchstock as a whole, it will still include the best of local music, a foundational element of the festival from the beginning. Local musician Lee Campbell and his Indie/Emo Rock-inspired group, Quick On My Feet, were one of the bands selected to perform this year—no small feat. Smalt says choosing talent is one of the hardest aspects of the entire festival especially when you have more than 250 submissions like they saw this year.
“I love that it has become more versatile and dynamic,” Campbell says of Lynchstock. “It really allows individuals to gain a larger appreciation for different styles of music, sheds light on unique artists that are coming out of Lynchburg, and puts a spotlight on the music scene here in the Hill City.”
For all the effort and months of planning, one thing remains to be seen, and that is the weather. Regardless of what Mother Nature decides, the show will go on rain or shine.
Says Campbell, “This year has many more diverse bands and allows the city to come together under the umbrella of music and arts, which seems to spark an interest in other creative endeavors here in Lynchburg.”
View a short documentary about the festival’s complete history at
By Jennifer Redmond