Wallypalooza the product of one man’s lifelong love of music and his knack for throwing one heck of a party
By Steve Wildsmith (email@example.com)
At some point during last May’s Wallypalooza, organizer Wally Miles staggered bleary-eyed into the late-evening sun and suddenly felt like the late actor Roy Scheider.
Up and down U.S. 411 South, people were converging on Big Daddy’s Bar and Grill where what had started several years earlier as a birthday celebration had grown into a two-night festival of live music and mayhem of legendary proportions. At that moment, Scheider’s “Jaws” character, police chief Martin Brody, sprang to mind, in particular the scene after the shark takes a bite out of the back end of the fishing vessel: “We’re gonna need a bigger boat.”
“Think of (New York nightclub) Studio 54, and how you’d see documentaries back in the day of how people lined up, waiting for somebody to leave so they could get in,” Miles told The Daily Times during a recent interview. “I tell people that if you want to sit down and enjoy yourselves at Wallypalooza to get there right at 6 -- otherwise, you’re going to be standing and waiting. Last year, people were patiently waiting to get in, but nobody wanted to leave. People were lined up down the street and parking across the road. It looked like the old video game ‘Frogger’ with so many of them trying to cross and get in line.”
With buzz building over this year’s Wallypalooza -- which returns this weekend -- for the past several weeks, chances are good the demand to get into Big Daddy’s will again spill out into the parking lot and down the street. For Miles, the response is both humbling and gratifying, especially since the festival began as a simple celebration of friends for his birthday.
A 1997 graduate of Maryville High School and a lifelong resident of Blount County (although he’s currently living in West Knoxville for the time being), Miles invited friends to the lake in 1998, and they enjoyed an afternoon of music blaring from an old boombox. The next year, someone came up with the idea of getting a rock band to play for the annual gathering.
Over the next 14 years, the event was christened Wallypalooza and grew into the monster that it is today. And starting in 2008, when he booked three bands (Middle Finger, Stonemosis and Half of Something) at Nater’z Sports Grille in Maryville, it’s become a beast over which he has little control, at least in terms of how many people show up.
That year, word-of-mouth brought in more strangers than friends, although a few minutes around Miles with his easygoing sense of humor, infectious laugh and laid-back attitude is enough to forge a friendship rather quickly. After it was over, even more people expressed regret that they weren’t able to attend.
The next year, he moved it to Big Daddy’s and spread it out over two nights. And still the buzz continued to grow, he said. And that’s why it’s taking place a couple of months earlier this year instead of being held around his birthday.
“Last year, there were cakes, lap dances and I had ‘Happy Birthday’ played to me so many times in so many different renditions,” he said with a chuckle. “But over the past couple of years, I noticed that a lot of bands and musicians would come to me wanting to play instead of me coming to them, and I realized that it’s become bigger than me. This year, I wanted it to be about the bands.
“Last year, everybody was saying, ‘Happy birthday, Wally,’ and I was saying, ‘No, no -- happy rock ‘n’ roll!’ It has my name, but I’m just the guy who throws the party. I wanted it to be about the bands.”
His love of music isn’t some late-in-life development, however. He got his first guitar when he was 4, and when he went to see KISS in the fourth grade, rock ‘n’ roll obtained a piece of his soul. Ever since, he’s been involved in music in some form or fashion, helping to found local glam-rock band The Dirty Gunnz and serving as the group’s original drummer. After stepping down as an information technology employee at Blount Memorial Hospital to deal with health issues, he took up amateur wrestling and now travels the local circuit as the persona known as “Jagger Sterling, the Thrill Pistol.”
This year, as part of his ongoing quest to raise the Wallypalooza bar of expectations, he’s bringing a little bit of that wrestling glamor to the festival. He and a fellow wrestler, “Willie B. Badd,” are debuting a new project called Thunderhead -- nothing special, he emphasized, because he wants the bands who have worked longer and harder to get the attention. But the two will find time to sneak in a song or two, he said.
“I don’t want to make this a platform for my musical failures or aspirations,” he joked. “It’s just something fun.”
His time as a musician, he added, inspired him to add a new feature to this year’s Wallypalooza -- a “Wallypalooza Hall of Fame” induction ceremony for bands that have a history of association with his annual shindig. It’s the least he can do, he said.
“I used to play music, and I didn’t want my stuff to be forgotten and discarded,” he said. “The way the music industry has changed, people forget about stuff, but I don’t. The induction ceremony is nothing major -- there aren’t any statues or a physical building. It’s more like a hall of fame in my heart, but we wanted to recognize some of these bands that make it so much fun.
“Besides, if you can survive more than two Wallypaloozas -- that’s like dog years. A band like Stonemosis, this is their fourth Wallypalooza. That’s like 40 years.”
The same, he added, is true for fans -- which is why he’s having special “I survived Wallypalooza” T-shirts made for this year. Festival-goers have been asking about shirts for the past several years, and given the staggering amount of work that the crew at Big Daddy’s puts into making the festival a success, no doubt they’ll want a few as well.
“They’re overwhelmed, on the verge of tears sometimes,” he said. “At the end of the night, it’s like we’re war buddies. But everybody comes out and has a good time, and we’ve not had one fight at Wallypalooza.”
As corny as it sounds, Miles believes it’s because of the music. The people come out because it’s a social event, but they stay because they hear something that grabs them the way KISS did when he was a boy. And the bands usually keep the fans they make at Wallypalooza. That’s why he books such a broad spectrum of acts for the event -- everything from a deejay to techno that death metal to country -- because doing so means that anybody, from his friends to those who show up with no idea of who Wally Miles is, can hear something they like.
Add to that a music video for a wrestling show, a possible comedy routine, coverage by the online site “The Whiskey Chronicles” and of course the ever-popular pastime of people-watching, and Wallypalooza 2011 seems poised to become one for the history books ... at least until next year.
Because it’s all about good times. And as exhausted as the weekend leaves him, after a few days of recuperation, Miles is already thinking ahead to the next Wallypalooza.
“I’ve found a way I could continue my passion for music,” he said. “I enjoy hearing it, seeing people perform, just being around it. I’ve been in the scene for 18 years, and I’ve seen bands come and go, and I want to see it stay alive. Local bands inspired me, and I don’t want to see them forgotten. The music and the people and everybody coming out and having a good time -- that’s why I do it every year.
“We’ve been cooped up all winter long, and it’s been a horrible winter -- just brutal. I’m ready to have fun, so now that it’s here, let’s just heat it up and kick off spring a few weeks early.”