Saint Albans’ three day ‘Coal River Songwriters Festival’ returns Thursday

By Matthew Young, RealWV

SAINT ALBANS, W.Va. – “This whole thing started after I had gotten a standing gig to play at Coal River Coffee every Thursday. A couple guys started coming in, and I knew that they played a little bit, but they had never played live. I thought it would be cool if they had a chance to play a few tunes, so I’d take a break and start letting folks play.”

That’s what James Townsend told RealWV Saturday, during a rehearsal for next week’s second annual Coal River Songwriters festival. Townsend, along with partner Chris Sutton, are the festival’s organizers. Through their group, The Coal River Renaissance, Townsend and Sutton are working to promote community engagement and artistic enrichment in their beloved City of Saint Albans.

“Before Coal River Coffee came to Olde Main (Street), this area of Saint Albans was kind of like a ghost town as far as the arts were concerned,” Townsend said. “Just one small coffee shop opening up simply provided a space for artists and creatives to gather. That alone planted the seed of a scene.”

Marcus Gibbs (drums), Bill Fellows (bass), Bryan Roberts (rhythms guitar), Shawn Lilly (keyboard), and Chris Sutton (guitar) rehearse with Anna Mellon, on April 27. Video by Matthew Young, RealWV.

Townsend’s regular Thursday gig at Coal River Coffee soon grew into a thriving, weekly open mic night which continues to this day. 

“That was the idea behind Coal River Renaissance; we should form this collective of folks interested in the arts, music, poetry, painting – any kind of expression – and give it an outlet here,” Townsend explained. “There are so many talented people around Saint Albans.”

“All we want to do is provide a forum and a space for all these creatives to showcase their work,” Townsend added. “That in itself, I think, can build a scene. It’s a lofty dream, but the comparison is to create a little mini-Seattle of the 90’s. It would be cool to do that here – to put something here that wasn’t here before.”

While not to the scale of Seattle in the 90’s, at least not yet, Saint Albans’ artistic scene is not only alive, it’s thriving. The first Coal River Songwriters Festival in 2023, which featured over 30 performers and saw a packed house at the historic Alban Arts Center, was a rousing success. And with a new partner in the form of WWSA-FM Oldies 96.9 broadcasting night two live on the radio, this year’s festival is shaping up to be even bigger. 

Despite his considerable contributions to the initiative’s success, Townsend credits Sutton with being the “motivator” behind their partnership.

“He’s the prime mover of the duo,” Townsend said. “Chris is the opposite of me in terms of energy. Everything I do spontaneously and relaxed, he does intentionally and planned. We have the same goals, but two different energies go into it.”

“I’m more with ideas, and like, ‘Hey it would be cool if we could do this or that,’” Townsend added. “Chris is more of the ‘here’s the 10-step plan to make it happen’ guy.”

The second annual Coal River Songwriters Festival kicks off on Thursday with open mic night at the Coal River Coffee Company, from 6 to 10 p.m. Night two begins at 7 p.m. Friday, when performances will be broadcast live on 96.9, and free to radio listeners. 

On Saturday, nearly 20 local performers – including Anne Melton, Travis Vandal, Douglas John Imbrogno, and more – will be live on stage at the Alban Arts Center, beginning at 7 p.m. Tickets for Saturday’s performance are available at albanartscenter.com

While Friday’s performances will be taking place inside WWSA-FM studio, the community is invited to listen live while attending the festival’s block party in the City National Bank parking lot beside the radio station. This is a part of the festival Chris Sutton is particularly excited about.

“We’re going to bring food and hang out,” Sutton said. “Rather than bring in a bunch of equipment, a couple of us will pull our cars up in the parking lot and crank our radios. We’ll be simulcasting from inside the building. Everybody can be loose and hang out, and have a good time.” 

Marcus Gibbs (drums), Bill Fellows (bass), Bryan Roberts (rhythms guitar), Shawn Lilly (keyboard), and Chris Sutton (guitar) rehearse with Travis Vandal, on April 27. Video by Matthew Young, RealWV.

Saturday night’s performances at the Alban Arts Center are the only portion of the festival requiring a ticket. Both Thursday and Friday night’s events are free to attend. 

“What makes this festival unique, I think, is that it’s really people who are part of this movement of music and art in Saint Albans,” Sutton said. “We’re encouraging people to come to the show, but we’re here every week. We want it to be very Saint Albans local-driven.”

The Coal River Coffee Company is located at 64 Olde Main Plaza. Open mic night is held every Thursday, from 6 to 10 p.m. The Saint Albans City National Bank is located at 560 4th Street. The block party will begin at 7 p.m. on Friday. The Alban Arts Center is located at 65 Olde Main Plaza. Saturday night’s performances begin at 7 p.m. 

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