THE YEAR IN PREVIEW: Local entertainment moguls talk of what awaits fans in 2013
By Steve Wildsmith (firstname.lastname@example.org)
It was a banner year for East Tennessee entertainment in 2012, and the next 12 months appear as if they’ll continue that trend.
From nearby Knoxville to the “peaceful side of the Smokies,” nightlife, live music, art, drama and dance make null and void the familiar refrain from those who say, “There’s nothing to do around here.”
In Blount County, the Tennessee State H.O.G. (Harley Owners Group) Rally scheduled for May 28 through June 1 will bring thousands of motorcycle enthusiasts to town, and City of Maryville officials plan to welcome them with a street festival. A full weekend of live music will be take place at “The Shed” at Smoky Mountain Harley-Davidson in Maryville, but that’s par for the course at the establishment, which will kick off its 2013 “Shed” season in April.
Add the opening of Barley’s Taproom in downtown Maryville to the mix alongside established venues like Two Doors Down, Brackins Blues Club, The Thirsty Turtle Pub, Nater’z Sports Grill and countless other venues around Blount County, and those in search of live music never have to cross the bridge to find entertainment in Knoxville.
It’s a good time to live (and play) in Blount County. Here’s a look at what 2013 holds for some of Blount County’s hot spots and activities:
“The Shed” at Smoky Mountain Harley-Davidson
1820 W. Lamar Alexander Parkway, Maryville. Phone: 977-1669. Online: www.smh-d.com
The venue will be announcing the lineup for its “Shed” season in the coming weeks, and once the weather turns warm the outdoor stage will come alive every weekend through October. Although, marketing and special events director Aaron Snukals pointed out, there are several indoor shows taking place at “The Shed” during the winter months.
Already confirmed for 2013 are names familiar to regular “Shed” patrons: The Kentucky Headhunters, Blackberry Smoke, Mustang Sally, Todd Snider, Billy Joe Shaver, Ray Wylie Hubbard and James McMurtry. Returning from last year: The Flatlanders, Marty Stuart and Drivin’ N’ Cryin’. The legendary Leon Russell will perform over Memorial Day weekend, and the aforementioned H.O.G. rally will mean five nights of music at the venue.
“We’re stepping it up a notch because of the rally coming in this year,” Snukals said. “We’re looking at a lot of improvements in the next 30 to 60 days to get ready for this season. And our new rider services program will be bringing in large groups of riders all year. We take care of booking their meals and hotel rooms, and in return they help out the local economy.”
City of Maryville
For their part, city officials are planning to block off part of Broadway Avenue in downtown Maryville during the H.O.G. rally.
“It’s an exciting little way to welcome the rally and show that we appreciate the folks who come in and spend time and money in the community,” Community Relations Manager Jane Groff said. “We’re in the preliminary stages of figuring out what that looks like, but we want to pull together all of the downtown businesses and create a day of entertainment at all of the venues downtown. Most likely that will include blocking off part of Broadway so people can walk from venue to venue.”
An estimated 2,500 riders are expected to come to Maryville for the rally — a healthy number, but not quite up to the level of visitors who flock to Maryville every fall for the Foothills Fall Festival. This year’s festival, also coordinated by the city, will take place Oct. 11-13, and while headliners won’t be announced until spring, city officials are extending offers to various touring acts and taking stock of lessons from festivals past.
128 W. Broadway Ave., downtown Maryville
The work is going on behind closed doors and papered-over windows, but conversion of the former Roy’s Record Shop location into a Barley’s Taproom for downtown Maryville continues, according to Randy Burleson, founder of Aubrey’s Restaurant Group, which includes Barley’s Tap Room and Pizzeria in Knoxville’s Old City, as well as six Aubrey’s locations, Sunspot, Bistro by the Tracks, and Stefano’s Pizza.
Burleson opened the first Aubrey’s in Farragut in 1992; in August, it was announced that Barley’s — now located in Knoxville’s Old City — would be expanding to Blount County. Burleson closed on the Roy’s location in October, bringing new life to a historic structure once owned by Roy Garrett, who ran a music store in downtown Maryville since 1965.
“We’re still doing cleanup right now and putting in the elevator shaft, but the contractors are still saying they’ll be finished by April, so we expect to be open by the first of May,” Burleson said.
Unlike the Knoxville Barley’s, which hosts live music five nights a week, the Maryville location will feature entertainment every night. Talks have taken place with Blount County singer-songwriter couple Jeff Barbra and Sarah Pirkle to bring back “Behind the Barn,” the performance series the duo once hosted at the Knoxville Barley’s, as well as giving Blount County songbird Robinella a regular venue in which to perform, similar to her long-time Sunday evening residency at the Knoxville location.
“In Maryville, the music will be more country- and Americana-driven,” Burleson said. “Our general manager in Knoxville has been talking to some people and bands that would like to play there. Right now, we’re in dreamland with all of the possibilities.”
Smoky Mountain Highland Games
May 17-19 on the Maryville College campus. Online: http://www.smokymountaingames.org
For the past two years, the Maryville College campus has resounded each May with the sounds of pipes and drums playing music from the Old World, as thousands of members of various Scottish clans around the country have descended on Blount County.
Before 2011, the event was known as the Gatlinburg Scottish Festival and Games and was held each year at Mills Park in Sevier County. When organizers of the nonprofit event began looking for an alternative location because of traffic congestion and growing competition from other events and tourist attractions in Sevier County, Maryville College officials stepped in and made the board an offer. The deal was signed, and the festival was renamed the Smoky Mountain Highland Games at Maryville College.
The first year, more than twice the number of people turned out for the Blount County games as they had for the final event in Gatlinburg, but attendance remained steady in 2012, according to Clifford Fitzsimmons, president of the Games.
“It was a little disappointing in that our crowd didn’t increase, and maybe dropped just a little, from the first year in Maryville,” he said. “We think we didn’t focus enough of our attention and advertising on the entertainment and the pipes and drums, and maybe put too much focus on the athletics.”
To that end, organizers have already booked two marquee names in Celtic music circles for the 32nd annual games, which will return May 17-19: The Martin Family Band, which delighted audiences last year, and Enter the Haggis, a half-Canadian, half-Scottish ensemble that plays a rousing, primal brand of Celtic music.
“We’ve made changes to try to bring the games up another level and tried to bring the focus back to the events that appeal to everyone,” Fitzsimmons said. “We’ve altered the budget to bring in more pipe bands, and we’re trying to focus more on entertainment than we have in the past.”
One major change to the schedule: The downtown parade that’s kicked off the games on Friday nights of weekends past will not be held this year, at least not by Games organizers. The Downtown Maryville Association and the Blount County Chamber of Commerce, Fitzsimmons said, have been encouraged to do something on their own in conjunction with the event, but exit surveys last year showed that many potential attendees didn’t attend the Games because they were able to see the bands for free during the parade and ensuing block party on Founders Square.
The Clayton Center for the Arts
502 E. Lamar Alexander Parkway, Maryville. Call: 981-8590. Online: http://www.claytonartscenter.com
Some big names stopped by the Clayton Center in 2012, from Ronnie Milsap to Amy Grant, but live music wasn’t the only thing going on there.
“The theater festival was bigger than it had been the year before,” said Robert Hutchens, the center’s executive director. “We sold 2,500 tickets last year instead of 2,000 from the year before. All of the theater troupes came back, and everyone’s scheduled to come back for 2013.”
The weekend-long event, which brought groups from around the region to the Clayton Center for a weekend of musicals and stage dramas, will take place again in the summer, as will the second annual “Music in the Air” Festival. In addition, the Clayton Center will put on its own dramatic production next month with a version of Shakespeare’s immortal classic “Hamlet.”
“We have a very fine cast with three professional actors along with students and community actors,” said Hutchens, who’s also directing it. “I think it’s going to be one of the most effective productions of ‘Hamlet’ that will people ever have the chance to see. I’m really proud of the in-house productions we’ve done — we did ‘The Glass Menagerie,’ which was a small, modest production but one of the most personally satisfying ones I’ve ever directed. It was a beautiful and very professional thing, and I was very proud of it.”
The marquee name left on the 2012-13 season is country star Travis Tritt, who’s scheduled to perform Feb. 2, although the Clayton Center will host a number of activities in the coming months — from the “side-by-side” performance of the Knoxville Symphony Orchestra and the Maryville High School Chamber Orchestra to Martin Luther King Jr.-related events to “3 Redneck Tenors” in February to the Celtic group Leahy in March. By the end of the academic year, Hutchens added, an announcement should be in place for performers scheduled for the 2013-14 season.
When it comes to live music and entertainment in Knoxville, one company towers above the rest: AC Entertainment, the brainchild of founder Ashley Capps. Over the past two decades, Capps has grown his company from a small, Knoxville-based booking agency to one of the premier talent conglomerates in the nation, organizing and booking shows for Knoxville as well as festivals like Bonnaroo, Forecastle (in Louisville, Ky.) and Moogfest in Asheville, N.C. (which has been re-branded as the Mountain Oasis Music Summit for 2013).
For Capps, one of the highlights of 2012 was the “Gentlemen of the Road” stopover by hot roots band Mumford & Sons, which turned downtown Bristol into a daylong festival.
It was “really spectacular ... one of those days where we remember why we do what we do,” Capps wrote to us from a holiday retreat in the mountains of Mexico. “(It was) one of the most enjoyable days I’ve ever had in this business. It was such a remarkable experience on almost every level, and the setting in downtown Bristol was perfect.”
Other 2012 highlights, he said: “Presenting the touring Broadway production of ‘Les Miserables’ at The Tennessee Theatre in January was a great testament to what the theater’s renovation several years ago was all about. It was truly a special event. I also really enjoyed seeing John Prine, Lyle Lovett and Hall & Oates at the end of the year at the Tennessee. The Bijou also had a banner year this year ... its best year since it reopened as a performing arts venue in 1979. A couple of standout shows for me there were St. Vincent back in May and Sarah Jarosz in July.”
AC-related shows are already on the calendar for the first quarter of 2013, and as usual, there are bigger events in the planning stages that may or may not come to light in 2013.
“We always have more projects under consideration than we are able to actually produce in any given year, and new ones emerge all the time,” Capps writes. “Right now, we’re looking possibly two new festival projects in 2013. But one of those could get pushed to 2014. We’ll see. It’s definitely an exciting time for us.”
And there’s some exciting news for fans of the avant garde festival Big Ears, which took place in Knoxville in 2009 and 2010, bringing off-the-beaten-path artists and performers to East Tennessee for an eclectic gathering for fans of unconventional and outside-the-mainstream music. Big Ears will be back, Capps said: “It’s possible there might be a smaller event in 2013, but we expect to be back with a full-blown Big Ears in 2014,” and it’s expected the festival will remain in Knoxville.
Already, the AC team is teasing fans of Bonnaroo, the massive music festival that takes place each June in Manchester with clues to this year’s headliners. The full announcement will come in February, Capps said, and Halloween weekend will bring the Mountain Oasis Music Summitt to Asheville.
“In addition to Bonnaroo, we’ll once again be staging the Forecastle Festival on the riverfront in Louisville in July,” Capps said. “We’ve got a great line up for the coming year and will build on the tremendous success of last year’s festival. We’re discussing another ‘Gentlemen of the Road’ festival with Mumford & Sons, but we can’t say where yet. Mountain Oasis will continue in Asheville. As for the others ... we’ll have to wait until we’re ready to reveal more.”
Speaking of festivals, another Knoxville event that’s gained steam in recent years is Rhythm N’ Blooms, a part of the annual Dogwood Arts Festival. The three-day event of live music is on track for April 5-7, with the first two nights taking place at various downtown venues and Sunday’s shows staged at Knoxville Botanical Gardens. Already a few acts have been confirmed — Justin Townes Earle, Bombadil, My Brightest Diamond — but Chyna Brackeen, the owner of festival organizer Attack Monkey Productions, has her fingers crossed that two big acts will soon confirm as the festival’s headliners.
“We have offers out, and if it comes together the way I think it’s going to come together, I’m really excited,” Brackeen said. “This is a festival that seems every year to get better and better. Last year, we took a major step up in terms of the size of artists we were able to book. I think this year is going to be a really good mix — already, Justin Townes Earle and My Brightest Diamond cost more than my headliners the first year, so it’s a lot of fun to see what we can do each and every year.”
Changes to Rhythm N’ Blooms 2013: The venues will spread out and include some in Knoxville’s Old City, and Dogwood Arts Festival organizers are putting together a trolley service to ferry patrons from venue to venue.
In addition to Rhythm N’ Blooms, Brackeen’s Attack Monkey Productions is now presenting shows at The Square Room in downtown Knoxville, and she’s looking to expand into other venues: Relix Variety Theatre in Downtown North Knoxville and a new venue scheduled to open in May: The Standard, located in the former Standard Wilson Glass Co. building at 416 W. Jackson Ave. in downtown Knoxville.
“They’ll have two different rooms — one that will hold 400 to 500 people and another that will hold 700 — and also a ton of outdoor space, and because it’s across Jackson from the city-owned parking lot next to the McClung Warehouses, parking won’t be an issue,” she said.
Attack Monkey will continue to present the “Scruffy City Ramble” performances on the third Thursday of each month at The Square Room, and in the spring the taped shows will be broadcast on PBS — locally at first, and then statewide.
“That’s pretty exciting,” she said. “It’s been fun to watch the show evolve and grow. Each show features at least one musician with ties to East Tennessee, and a lot of times more than that.”
Already on the “Ramble” schedule for 2013: appearances by Holly Williams (granddaughter of Hank Sr.), Henry Wagons and Chuck Mead, formerly of BR549.
“We get a lot of emerging artists because of our budget constraints, but every single show seems to be better than the one before it, and people come up at the end to tell me how excited they are to discover a new artist,” she said. “We’re starting to teach people they actually can come out to hear a band they’ve never heard of and they’re still going to have a good time.”
One band many people around East Tennessee have heard of: The Black Lillies, which Brackeen manages. Featuring singer/multi-instrumentalist (and former Blount County resident) Cruz Contreras, the group is on track to release its third album in March. “Runaway Freeway Blues,” Brackeen said, will be celebrated with a March 23 CD release show at The Tennessee Theatre in downtown Knoxville, and the band will hit the road afterward to promote the record. The album has a “Garth Brooks meets Grateful Dead, ‘Smokey and the Bandit’ feel to it — very 1970s-ish,” Brackeen said, and will satisfy long-time fans who have followed the band since its debut record, “Whiskey Angel.”
“They did 230 dates on the road in 2012, and it was a great year,” she said. “The video for ‘Same Mistakes’ was in the top 12 for four solid months on Country Music Television; they’ve played the Grand Ole Opry 15 times now; and we’re seeing orders come in from Walmart stores in places like the Pacific Northwest, Colorado and Texas where people want to buy the music. In fact, they may be more popular in the Pacific Northwest than they are here. When they tour there, they sell out shows and people know all of the words. It’s a little bit crazy, but we’re trying to build on that for 2013.”