Tyler Childers-Fronted ‘Healing Appalachia’ Is More Than Just a Festival

photo via Healing Appalachia

There are now numerous 3-day megafestivals that have emerged in the increasingly popular independent country and roots space across the United States. All of them are unique, but none of them is as unique as Healing Appalachia, set to take place in Lewisburg, West Virginia on September 21st-23rd at the West Virginia State Fairgrounds. Started in 2018, it will be the fourth year of the event after having to take a couple of years off due to COVID.

The lineup is reason enough to attend Healing Appalachia. It’s a who’s who of the Appalachia roots resurgence that has been so integral to the rise in popularity of independent country. Led by Tyler Childers who is the patron saint of the event, he’s being joined in 2023 by Trey Anastasio of Phish, Charles Wesley Godwin, 49 Winchester, Arlo McKinley, John R. Miller, Katie Pruitt, Kelsey Waldon, and so many more (see full lineup below).

But it’s the mission behind Healing Appalachia that makes it most notable, along with the strong grassroots approach of the festival organized by a not-for-profit organization.

Every single performer who appears on the stage of Healing Appalachia volunteers their time. The grounds are staffed by individuals in recovery programs who stay in a recovery village called Camp Grindstone. The local high school band handles parking, walking away with about $13,500 in proceeds. The middle school also pitches in as a fundraiser to help with the trash. And according to the festival’s founder Charlie Hatcher, 97% of the revenue generated from the event goes right back into the community to those in need of services for addiction and recovery.

Though it’s a festival, patrons who happen to be sober or in recovery don’t need to feel like they’re entering an environment where temptation is lurking around every corner.

Some major festivals are setting up sober tents for certain folks. “I have 40 of them,” Charlie Hatcher says.

Some festivals set up Narcan stations due to the excessive amounts of overdoses. “Last year we worked with the West Virginia Drug Intervention Institute to set the record for the largest Naloxone training. From the stage WVDII staff trained 11,000 people at one time. They gave out a truckload of Naloxone (sponsored by WVDHHR and Kloxxodo) and partnered with Gibson Gives to hand out free ONEboxes—the Naloxone is inside, and a little video starts playing on exactly how to administer it. It’s really cool.”

But that doesn’t mean that’s all that Healing Appalachia is about. Ultimately, it’s still a music festival. Beer is still sold on the grounds (proceeds go to help pay for agriculture scholarships). Like any live music event, at times you might get a whiff of someone burning a strange incense. But it all feeds into helping those who need it, and without judgement.

Charlie Hatcher first got involved in the recovery community via Grateful Dead tours when so many in the community ending up getting addicted to heroin.

“I dreamed the whole thing up on a riverbank after I got word that a friend of mine’s son had passed away,” Hatcher says. “He had just finished a 90-day program and she was afraid of him relapsing, and we tried to get him a bed at a facility. He couldn’t get one until the following Monday, and she called me on a Sunday when I was down at the river, and told me he was found dead that morning. I had just buried three friends earlier that year.”

This was shortly after 26 people overdosed in one day (August 16th, 2016) in Huntington, West Virginia. The moment helped underscore that overdose is the leading cause of death for people under 50 in the United States. The epicenter of the epidemic is West Virginia and the greater Appalachian region. This led to the formation of the non-profit Hope in the Hills, LLC, which produces Healing Appalachia.

“I feel like the government is just not paying attention to us,” says Charlie Hatcher. “I called Tyler [Childers]. He used to sleep on my couch. I’d been booking him at club gigs throughout West Virginia. And Tyler said, ‘Yeah man, I’ll hitch my horse up to this.'”

The first year Healing Appalachia drew 2,400 fans. They were initially hoping for 500-600. In year two, they hit 8,000 tickets sold in a week, and shut it down and declared a sell out to make sure they could handle the capacity. In 2022, Healing Appalachia had so much interest, they expanded to two days and drew over 11,000. Now in 2023, they’ve expanded to three days.

“You can see the gratitude in the air. It’s so thick,” says Charlie Hatcher.

There’s only one stage at Healing Appalachia. During the 30 minute set changeovers, speakers come up to talk about various issues affecting the recovery community, as well as people giving confessionals and testimonials. In 2022, son of John Prine and emerging songwriter Tommy Prine came out and told his story. So did an 11-year-old girl who had found her father overdosing twice. “There wasn’t a dry eye in the audience,” Hatcher says.

The event has round-the-clock recovery meetings going on that include virtually all the various approaches to tackling addiction from 40 different service providers. This includes faith-based initiatives, non faith-based initiatives, and everything in between. “We don’t advocate for any specific type of recovery,” Hatcher says. “We advocate for what works best for you. All you have to do is look in the back for the yellow balloons. They’re everywhere. And there’s someone there to hang out with, help you, and understand where you are.”

The mission of the festival is also interwoven with it’s distinctly non-profit, non-corporate approach.

“What I absolutely will not change is that this is a grassroots event,” Charlie Hatcher assures. “I decided to start using the tools in my toolbox as opposed to just sitting back and bitching about the problem. I refuse to let this event feel like it’s a corporate event. But it’s the best of the best production-wise to create the best experience for folks that we possibly can.”

“When you get too big, it loses touch. It turns into a big corporate event,” Hatcher continues. “That’s not who Tyler is. He doesn’t want this turning into something where we don’t even know who the people are. These are our neighbors. These are our friends. These are our family members. I can’t stand a carpetbagger. I live a mile from where the festival takes place. I incorporate as much local flavor in this thing as I possibly can. I do not hire any services outside of West Virginia unless it’s not offered. I’ll pay more for a West Virginian than someone from out of state. We’re here because our community put us here, and we want to take care of them.”

Healing Appalachia is hoping to raise $2 million in 2023, with 97 cents of every dollar going back into the community. But raising awareness of the addiction problem and recovery solutions is just as important.

“We want people to feel like they’re there for a reason. It’s more than just seeing a show. Some people will think that it’s only for people in recovery, but it’s not. It’s a concert. But if you walk into one of those booths, you might not have a drug problem, but maybe you know somebody who does. And if you go home and hand something to them and it works, then we won. We did the whole damn thing for that one person.”

With the money generated, Hope in the Hills helps fund initiatives big and small throughout the Appalachian community. Sometimes it’s funding bigger initiatives, like integrating music into local recovery programs. Sometimes it’s helping specific individuals to overcome individual challenges.

“There were four ladies getting out of Southern Regional Jail, didn’t qualify for any assistance,” Hatcher explains. “None of them had work histories, they all had done drugs all their life, and they all four had felonies. So we put them through truck driving school. All four of them now own their own rigs and are making over $100,000 a year. That’s what we do.”

“We’re not out here reinventing the wheel, we’re just filling the gaps,” Hatcher says. “We’re not doctors. We’re just people with a collective mindset that are tired of watching our people die at exponential rates.”

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Tickets for Healing Appalachia are on sale now, and are significantly more affordable than other independent country megafestivals, and include car/tent camping.

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