JONESBOROUGH, Tenn. — As Donald Davis sauntered down Main Street wearing a khaki suit and a bow tie decorated with pumpkins and orange foliage, he elicited little gasps from the people he passed, a vigorous handshake or two, the occasional star-struck murmur: "Is that Donald Davis?"
It was the first weekend of October 2012, when autumn was just beginning to creep rusty reds up the tips of the leaves, and some 10,000 visitors had flooded Tennessee's oldest town (usual population: 5,100) for the National Storytelling Festival — the crowning event, now four decades old, of the self-proclaimed storytelling capital of the world.
Passing street corners festooned with hay bales, corn husks and other odes to harvest time, the mostly-gray-haired masses hustled between five white circus tents that rose like sails above the 18th-century buildings, filling every chair to hear their favorite tellers tell folk tales or weave personal narratives that might leave them in stitches — or tears.
It was like a rock concert for hippie boomers. Except in the mountains of Appalachia.
"He could say to me, 'Your breath smells like sauerkraut and fish tails,' and I would think that he was sweet-talking me," an emcee purred in a dripping Southern drawl as she introduced Davis, a storyteller of some renown, the first morning of the three-day festival.
I had arrived just in time for Davis' set to begin after a morning spent driving up the winding paths of Roan Mountain, about an hour east of Jonesborough near the North Carolina border, where the trees were splotched with the fiery golds and reds that fall enthusiasts travel long and far to see.
Jonesborough itself is ablaze as a painter's palette by mid-October, the locals told me, but early in the season you have to travel to nearby higher elevations to find the most vibrant hues.
Still, the town bursts with color of its own.
Take Davis, a former Methodist minister from North Carolina with a professorial white beard and a slow, folksy drawl. Standing onstage before a capacity crowd of 1,600, he recounted a 600-mile road trip as a child in his parents' new "monkey-vomit green" six-cylinder Pontiac, in which "you could slide across the seats in wool pants in winter and generate enough electricity to flat-out kill a 10-pound dog."
Later, Carmen Agra Deedy, a Cuba-born, Georgia-raised children's book author, was another of the 19 featured storytellers of the weekend. She described her high school principal leaning forward to scold her for pulling the fire alarm as a prank, her bosom "moving over that desk like slow-moving lava."
As night fell, many people put on sweaters against the evening nip and set up blankets beside a glowing park gazebo to hear renowned tellers share ghost stories. The park was lit with tiki torches. A drooping willow tree cast spindly shadows. A creek gurgled nearby. I dare you to design a better ghost story venue.
"This is how we do fall," said Charles Allton, of Houston, who has been coming to the festival for six years. "Even though the trees haven't turned yet, it's the atmosphere."
Allton, an engineer, and his, wife, Judy, a geologist, were eating dinner in a back room of a candy store called the Lollipop Shop, one of several temporary buffets that pop up to accommodate the long lines that spill from Jonesborough's handful of restaurants at meal time.
It's a big event for a small town, with loyal fans returning year after year, so the choicest housing and eating venues fill up fast. When I inquired about availability at the historic Eureka Inn downtown, the innkeeper told me, "We're booked until the end of time."
The festival has come a long way since Jimmy Neil Smith rolled a wagon into courthouse square in 1973 and six tellers performed for 60 people seated on hay bales. Smith, a high school teacher at the time who pioneered the effort to help revitalize the decaying town, continues as head of the three-acre International Storytelling Center that gives Jonesborough its main identity.
Though festival attendance, which peaked at 12,000 in 2007, comes from far and wide, about 60 percent of visitors come from six Southern states, so there's an affinity for Southern humor, said Smith, a striking figure in a black cowboy hat and bolo tie.
It is the pre-eminent event for professional storytellers.
"It's Carnegie Hall, it's Broadway," explained Corinne Stavish, a Michigan storyteller who on this weekend served as emcee for several performances.
But it also has the feel of a family reunion.
"You just sit down and talk to someone and they're your friend," said Martha Scott of Harrisburg, Pa.
Leah Carmichael of Athens, Ga., whose family has been attending the festival for years, said she and her relatives always feel inspired to go back to the hotel at the end of the day and tell their own stories. Her favorite teller was the late, great Kathryn Windham, who would warn that "when stories get lost, you lose the continuity of generations," said Carmichael, who was attending with her husband and young son. Patti Miller, of Blountville, Tenn., who has been attending the festival for 30 years, said listening to other people tell stories "helps you get in touch with who you are."
"It makes me think I know them," Miller said. "In fact, I know that I do."
If you go
The National Storytelling Festival takes place Oct. 4-6. Tickets cost $165 for adults. Special rates for children ($145), seniors ($150) and families of four or five ($535) are available.
Getting there: Fly into the Tri-Cities Regional Airport, about 15 miles from Jonesborough. The nearest big airports are in Asheville, N.C. (60 miles away), and Knoxville, Tenn., (90 miles away). Special airline rates on Delta are available to festival attendees; call Summit Travel, the official travel agency for the festival, at 800-264-1223.
Eating: Pack a granola bar. It can be hard to find time to eat as you shuttle between shows, and the lines at the most popular dining venues can stretch long. Make reservations weeks or months in advance for The Dining Room, a Cuban restaurant and probably the most formal option (148 E. Main St., 423-753-6400). Try to hit Main Street Cafe (117 W. Main St.; 423-753-2460, mainstreetcatering.net) during off-hours for salads and sandwiches. A new barbecue joint called the Ghost Town Diner (103 E. Main St.; 423-218-8648), owned by the operators of East TN Ghost Tours, sounds enticing. You can always get a burger at the Jonesborough General Store and Eatery (107 E. Main St., 423-913-8003), hit the outdoor festival food courts or go to one of the buffets that some businesses and churches set up for the occasion.
Staying: Jonesborough hotels are booked far in advance, so your best budget bet is to stay in Johnson City, about 10 miles east. Iron Mountain Inn in Butler, Tenn., adjacent to the Cherokee National Forest, is a beautiful option about a 45-minute drive from Jonesborough. A list of lodging options is available at storytellingcenter.net. Some residents rent out rooms. Get a list from the Jonesborough Visitors Center, 866-401-4223, historicjonesborough.com.Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun