The University of Tennessee Volunteers football team may be off to a sloppy start, but fans will get a little Neyland Stadium relief in November, when country superstar Garth Brooks plays the first concert there in 16 years.

The event is prompted in large part by a new state law that allows alcohol sales at public university venues, but Brooks, who’s sold 148 million records over the course of his career and been named the Entertainer of the Year by the Academy of Country Music and the Country Music Association a combined 12 times, doesn’t need a lot of help selling tickets.

(Speaking of, they aren’t cheap. Tickets start at $94.95, but organizers expect a sellout, according to a press release. To get them for the Nov. 16 show — they go on sale at 10 a.m. Friday — visit

brooks, or call 1-877-654-2784. There’s a limit of eight tickets per buyer.)

The last time Neyland hosted a concert was June 7, 2003, when Kenny Chesney, a native of Luttrell (and whose father, David, is a former Townsend resident), came back to East Tennessee and brought a few friends — Brooks and Dunn, Rascal Flatts, Keith Urban and Deana Carter among them. Before that, you’d have to go back to August 1984, when the Jacksons — including Michael, at the height of his fame — did a three-night stand that sold more than 146,000 tickets.

Despite Brooks’ stardom, however, there was a time he played Knoxville when nobody knew his name. The year was 1988, and Brooks was a struggling Nashville singer-songwriter just starting to get out of Music City. Back then, Knoxville’s Old City wasn’t the nightlife hotspot it is today, but it was home to a club called Ella Guru’s, owned by Ashley Capps. Capps was destined for greatness as well: He would go on to establish AC Entertainment, the premier concert agency in East Tennessee that also has organized festivals around the country, including Bonnaroo.

Back then, however, both dudes were working hard to make their bones. I was still in high school at the time and wouldn’t discover Brooks until a few years later, but the show apparently made an impression: Brooks would later reference the club in the lyrics to his song “Old Stuff.” Seeing longtime local music scene fans reminisce on social media about that show got me thinking about other artists who once played smaller stages and second-tier shows in this area on their way to the top.

The Avett Brothers

On Oct. 27, if you have between $29.50 and $75, you can be in the audience when The Avett Brothers play at Thompson-Boling Arena. The guys have a new album coming out that month, and if it does as well as their last three, it’ll land in the top five of the Billboard 200 albums chart. There was a time, though, that the Avetts were a struggling three-piece band out of North Carolina who came over to play a Thursday night free show at Preservation Pub in downtown Knoxville.

I interviewed Scott Avett for the Feb. 18, 2005, edition of Weekend, and he told me at the time, “Emotions still drive a lot of what we do … getting out and living and experiencing life and emotions gives us the subject matter to draw on. The subject matter — the emotions and experiences — are sculpted by the music.”

The band has gotten bigger, but that formula has proven successful. That 2005 show — which was free to attend, by the way — is still big in Preservation Pub lore, because the guys were so enthusiastic, they stomped a hole in the stage floor.

Chris Stapleton

Speaking of Thompson-Boling, country maverick Chris Stapleton played there last October, and when your opening act includes the great Marty Stuart, you know the headliner has earned some respect.

Stapleton, though, has been playing these parts for almost 15 years, first with the bluegrass band The SteelDrivers, and later with the rock outfit The Jompson Brothers, which played at both Preservation Pub and The Shed here in Maryville.

Back in 2011, he talked to me about his penchant for cranking up the amps and blowing the doors off with the Jompsons:

“There’s nothing like being in a room with a bunch of people really into heavier rock,” he said. “It moves people in a different way than bluegrass or country or even a singer-songwriter show. People get excited, and it’s a very tangible thing. You can just feel it. And it’s meant to be that way. It appeals to that primal caveman thing in each of us. It’s meant for that, and it’s why rock ’n’ roll exists, at least for me.”

Taylor Swift

Earlier this month, Swift proved she’s still one of the biggest stars on the planet, when her latest album, “Lover,” notched 679,000 album sales and 226 million in-demand streams during its first week of release, putting it in the No. 1 spot on the Billboard charts.

However, the first and only time I interviewed her, she was the 17-year-old undercard on a Knoxville bill that featured George Strait as the headliner. Even back then, she had a feeling that bigger things were on the horizon.

“It never crosses my mind, ever, that this is crazy,” she told me. “This is what I’m wired for. I’m not exactly as natural in a high school setting as I am in front of 20,000 people. … I’ve always put myself in this position, since I was 13 years old. I had an idea that something like this could happen, that I could be a role model for people younger than me and people older than me, so when all my friends were experimenting, I never took a drink of alcohol, I never tried drugs and I stayed away from guys because there was this huge, big career dream that

I had. And thankfully, it came through.”

Bob Dylan

Perhaps my favorite story about an artist’s early days (relatively speaking, by Dylan standards) in East Tennessee comes secondhand, from spoken word poet and local writer Jack Rentfro.

It was sometime in the winter of 1979-80, and Dylan was in town as part of his “Slow Train Coming” tour. At the time, Rentfro was a journalism student at the University of Tennessee, and he heard Dylan was headed over to Krystal on the Cumberland Avenue “Strip” for a snack. So he decided to stalk him.

“I heard that from somebody, and while I was staking it out, I found this harmonica lying in the snow,” Rentfro told me back in 2011. “It was just crazy, like some sort of talisman. And I thought, it had to be Dylan’s. And

sure enough, I looked up and saw him coming, this little banty rooster surrounded by these tall, beautiful soul singers, and I thought, ‘It’s now or never.’

“I stepped up and asked if he’d dropped it, and he took it from me, turning it over like he was looking for some identification that it was his. He handed it back and said, ‘No, I don’t think so.’ But I still have that harmonica, and as far as I’m concerned, it belonged to Bob Dylan.”

Steve Wildsmith was an editor and writer for The Daily Times for nearly 17 years; a recovering addict, he now works in media and marketing for Cornerstone of Recovery, a drug and alcohol treatment center in Blount County. Contact him at

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