Sitting around Barley’s Taproom in Knoxville’s Old City shortly after Knoxville’s COVID-19 shutdown order was lifted, Aaron Snukals couldn’t help but notice how empty the venue’s stage looked.
Snukals — a familiar name and face in Blount County, having served as director of marketing for almost five years at Smoky Mountain Harley-Davidson, and another 6½ years as director of development and media relations for the Maryville-based Second Harvest Food Bank of East Tennessee — found it disconcerting, to say the least.
So, too, did a couple of compatriots: “Big” Al Braden, a sound engineer who’s been active in the area music scene for decades, and Sean Beaulieu of True Grip and Lighting, a Knoxville production company that’s worked with organizations from NASCAR to ESPN to the Tennessee Valley Fair. The Barley’s stage is usually active every night of the week, but that particular evening, with the restaurant at half-capacity and the staff wearing masks, the three men mourned the lack of live music.
“Then we started talking about how other organizers are doing these drive-in concerts around the country, and we thought, there’s no reason why we can’t do this here and try to put people back to work,” Snukals told The Daily Times this week. “The True Grip guys weren’t working; the sound guys weren’t working; the folks at Smokies Stadium were all for it, because there’s no baseball going on and they want to put their people to work as well. That’s when we said, ‘Hey, we’ll try this.’”
“This” turned into The Drive-In Concert Series, a unique live music experiences at Smokies Stadium in Kodak — a 45-minute drive from downtown Maryville — that resumes this weekend. The first two performances were held in June but were quickly shuttered as Sevier County’s COVID-19 numbers continued to climb, but starting Friday night, they’ll start back up again. It’s being organized by BigWheel Events, the company for which Snukals now works as event director, and it’s a massive undertaking, he said, to do one thing: “Put on a show in the middle of a parking lot.”
“To be out under the stars in the mountains on a summer night, listening to live music once again, provides an outlet for people who want it,” he added. “If you’re really worried about (COVID-19), you can stay in your car the whole time, and we’ll transmit the sound through your radio, so you don’t even have to get out. But if you do want to get out, there will be a space right beside your car, where you can set up folding chairs or dance or whatever, and enjoy the sound coming from the stage.
“This is the safest place we could possibly make for you where you can see live music, maybe for three or four hours, and forget about the pandemic and what’s going on in the world and just enjoy live music again. We’ll probably do one more in October when the leaves are changing, because it’s such a beautiful setting up there in the mountains. But the main reason is that live music is part of East Tennessee’s heritage, and we haven’t had any in so long, it’s like part of us has died.”
Friday night’s performance is by the Dave Matthews Tribute Band, and local singer-songwriter icons Scott Miller and R.B. Morris will perform on Saturday. The following weekend, Here Come the Mummies will take the stage on Sept. 11, followed by the Marcus King Band — a show that’s already sold out — on Sept. 12.
The way the concerts work, according to Snukals, is this: Admission price is per car ($75 per vehicle for a general admission pass to see the Friday and Saturday performances, and $100 for the Sept. 11 show), but each car can include up to six people. That way, Snukals said, a single-ticket price per vehicle, split four (or five, or six) ways isn’t the sticker shock it might seem.
“That’s part of the evolution of what a drive-in concert is,” he said. “You may think $75 is a lot for a local act, but it’s not, for six people in the car. Plus, you get a space for your car, and you also get a space to your right to put out camping chairs, to dance, to do whatever you want. You have to wear a mask to go to the bathroom, or to visit the beer garden that Smokies Stadium is providing, but if you’re in your space, you can do whatever you want.”
Ticket sales are limited to 220 spots. Given that each car will be assigned an adjacent “party zone,” so to speak, that’s the magic number organizers need to break even.
“There aren’t many parking lots around where we can make this work,” Snukals said. “When you factor in a stage, generators, lights and sound, you’re talking about an $8,000 to $10,000 production cost before you even start talking about booking an artist. The production cost of doing these things is enormous. But it’s in a safe setting, and even though it’s a little bit of a drive, if you want to hear some great live music, this is what it takes.”
The first two shows, he added, certainly didn’t make organizers any money, but then again, turning a huge profit isn’t the goal. The only hiccup, he added, was that during the set by the local yacht rock outfit Smooth Sailor, some fans were so enthusiastically into the music that they left their designated areas to get closer to the stage — a no-no in this pandemically challenged time.
“If people get up in a big huddle in front of the stage, then we can’t do it, and the goal is to keep doing these things as long as we have to do them,” he said. “Everybody gets a space for their car, and then the space to their right is where they get to hang out, and then on the other side of that is the next car. So you’re at least 10 feet away from the closest group of people.”
The closest parking area to the stage is only 14 feet away, but limited to VIP ticket holders who pay for a premium spot. Even attendees near the rear of the zone, however, will be able to enjoy the show on a 10-by-17-foot LED wall, which will broadcast the performance shot by four remote cameras on the stage.
It may not be the concert ambience that people want right now, but for those who are hesitant about going out to indoor venues or want to see bigger names, it’s one of the few options available that keeps COVID-19 precautions in mind.
“We’re just trying to create an atmosphere where people can hear live music again, and it takes a stadium parking lot in Kodak to do that,” Snukals said. “Live music is such an important thing for East Tennessee that we’re going to do everything we can to keep it open.”