“First it’s hello, goodbye
Then push and then crash
But we’re all gonna make it
At that million dollar bash”
It’s highly likely that the guest of honor will be a no-show again, but that won’t stop local devotees and faithful fans from coming and commemorating Bob Dylan’s birthday in Market Square yet again this year.
Of course, it takes a certain amount of optimism — some might say naiveté — to believe Bob might be there. Yet though the birthday boy will be absent, Bob Dylan’s Birthday Bash has remained an annual East Tennessee tradition for the past 15 years.
Even though the odds of its namesake attending were always minimal, it didn’t prevent musician and avowed Dylan enthusiast Steve Horton from initiating the event.
The fact that Horton’s own birthday is on May 24 and coincides with Dylan’s provided a convenient connection. However, Horton said that at first the idea didn’t go over as well as he originally thought.
“The Dylan Birthday Bash started as a grand idea — a big concert on Market Square, involving vendors, a charity and a radio station,” Horton said. “But one by one, people decided it wouldn’t make money. Others didn’t have time for it. So I decided just to take a shot at it, and I organized the original bash at the Laurel Theater. About 75 people showed up, and we made just enough to pay the rent on Laurel and pay the sound man and buy pizza and beverages for the musicians.”
The initial lineup included Nancy Brennan Strange, the MacDaddies, Dana Paul, Danny Gammon, and the PlumBobs and the Lonetones.
“Phil Pollard was drummer for the Lonetones, and we were all blown away that he performed Dylan’s ‘115th Dream’ without printed lyrics in front of him,” Horton said. Encouraged to continue, Horton moved the event to the East Tennessee History Center during years two and three. The funds that were raised went to the Knoxville Public Library.
“Each year, the bash grew exponentially,” Horton said. “The fourth year year we took it to the Tennessee Amphitheater, making it a benefit for Community Shares. The following year we hooked up with WDVX.
Parking was a problem in that area of town, so Roger Harb suggested we try moving it to Market Square. Roger and I decided to move the date from the actual birthday to the first Friday in June to take advantage of Knoxville’s First Friday celebration. That’s how we ended up in our most comfortable spot yet, kind of fulfilling the original idea of attracting a grand crowd to Market Square. It just took six years to get to that point.”
Horton credits Harb, who was marketing manager of WDVX at the time, and Linda Billman, the station’s former general manager, for getting the radio station involved. He calls longtime WDVX deejay and website manager Grace Toensing an “unsung heroine.”
“She’s always doing the nuts-and-bolts things, like making the poster every year and starting up the event publicity. I went from doing it all, to just lining up the acts.”
This year’s talent roster includes the Will Boyd Group, Eli Fox, Left Foot Dave & the Magic Hats, Crawlspace, Griffin Vann Band, Y’uns, Jubal and Colonel Williams House Band. As always, David Dwyer and Steve Dupree will emcee.
“Musically, it’s been hugely entertaining to me to hear the variety of takes on Dylan’s songs,” Horton said. “We’ve had blues, bluegrass, jazz and swing variations of his tunes. My favorites have been Will Boyd’s jazz takes; Alexia Pantanizopolis’ string quartet interpretations, including a rousing version of ‘Rainy Day Women;’ the Pinklets’ powerful reading of ‘Masters of War;’ the Black Cadillacs rocking ‘From A Buick Six;’ Garage Deluxe digging deep into their bootleg tapes for their material; and Wendel Werner, who put together impressively orchestrated shows the two years he participated. Michael Crawley has performed at nearly every bash. The second year, I didn’t have him on the bill, but he showed up anyway and performed with every act.”
Horton takes particular pride in the fact that the Birthday Bash attracts an audience of all ages.
“I’ve always been proud of the cross-generational range of folks interested in Dylan,” he said. “My son, Will, participated in the Second Dylan Bash while he was still in high school. The Pinklets are the youngest group to have ever played. When they participated two years ago, I think they were only 16, 14 and 12 at the time. Two years ago, we had Eli Fox when he was still in high school. On the other hand, we were also lucky to have had the Carawans involved in years three and four. I think Guy Carawan was around 80 at the time.”
As far as the possibility of Dylan himself showing up, Horton thinks a sighting isn’t out of the question.
“Some folks are pretty sure they’ve seen him incognito at a couple of these,” he said.