First Ever Open Mic Night Sparks a New Creative Community in McDowell County

Photo by Terry Bartley/The Hub

As I pulled into the lot, I could already hear music coming out of the building.

I walked in and saw a packed room, buzzing with positive energy. Everyone was there, at the Sterling Drive-In in Welch, West Virginia, to hear creative people express themselves.

This open mic night in McDowell County was one of several efforts in southern West Virginia to support a burgeoning local arts and cultural community funded through our Innovation Acceleration Strategy program, or IAS.

This first piece of their project involves a series of open mic nights as a way to pull artists together. Lori McKinney, of the Riff-Raff Arts Collective in Princeton, was pretty instrumental in putting this first event together. She strongly believes that open mic nights are essential in building a creative community.

“Creative people need to discover each other, and they need a reason to come together,” Lori says.

McKinney teamed up with McDowell County locals Craig Snow and Derek Tyson to pull it together. It was McKinney’s idea to use a place that people are familiar with, like the Sterling Drive-In, so that artists would feel more comfortable coming out.

I think this is a key reason this open mic was so successful – the environment was low-key, and everyone felt at ease.

Then it hit me. This really could work in basically any other community that wants to bring out creative folks.

In community development circles, we talk a lot about the idea of a “third space” – a location that isn’t work or home that the community can get together and casually talk about their community.

When I first started working with IAS, I thought that many of our communities didn’t really have a third space. I wouldn’t have even really thought of Sterling’s as one. The community seemed to think of it just as a place to grab food.

But the open mic night transformed a quiet little diner into an energetic third space. There is no reason this couldn’t happen in every other IAS community, or any other small town in Appalachia for that matter.

This first event cost them $100 for a sound engineer. That’s a small price to pay to provide a space for creatives to get together.

Now, I’m looking forward to attending another open mic night at the next small town in West Virginia that wants to follow Welch’s lead. Who’s up next?

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