Every January, we try to map out where the local entertainment scene is headed in the coming calendar year, and every year, we end up shortchanging it.
That’s not to say that we don’t deliver a lot of information — some of it you might already be familiar with, some of it new — but the local scene is so vibrant, so dynamic and so ever-expanding that various events, venues, festivals and activities always slip by us, either because they’re still top secret or because they’re ideas that organizers haven’t even thought of yet.
That said, here’s a look at the things that’ll bring you entertainment opportunities in 2018, but keep in mind: Each event is a ripple made by a stone that’s skimming across the surface. There’s a whole lot more for you to discover on your own, and within the pages of this section in the coming 12 months. As always, we look forward to telling you about all of them.
The cold weather means a lot of Blount County-related entertainment activities are in hibernation until the temperature rises above freezing. That’s not to say that there’s nothing to do in the winter; the Winter Heritage Festival at the Great Smoky Mountains Heritage Center in Townsend takes place next weekend and celebrates winter in the Blount County high country, and every weekend, there’s live music to be found at venues like Two Doors Down, Brackins Blues Club and Barley’s Maryville, among others. But once spring arrives, things pick up in earnest. The Harley Owners Group — H.O.G. — will hold a regional rally in Maryville May 29-June 2, according to Kim Mitchell, tourism director for Blount Partnership; it’s not a statewide rally, but the event will still see roughly 3,000 motorcyclists come to town, and plans are afoot, Mitchell said, to close off Broadway Avenue through downtown Maryville for one evening during the rally. A similar closure took place during the 2013 rally, which featured vendors, entertainment, downtown business specials and more.
The following weekend will feature a rally in Townsend — a scooter convention known as the Smoky Mountain Crawl, Mitchell said. It takes place June 8-10 and brings a few thousand visitors to the “Peaceful Side of the Smokies,” Mitchell said.
“They come from all over the U.S. and bring in these little scooters to do rides like the Harley guys do, and they’re going to have some big names — some daredevils — who will be performing while they’re up there,” Mitchell said. “They’ve got some (scooters) that are just amazing how they’ve tricked them out. It’s really cool, and they’re getting some major sponsors and some big names to be a part of it.”
Those aren’t the first major Blount County events of the spring; the Smoky Mountain Scottish Festival and Games will return to the campus of Maryville College May 19 and 20, featuring athletic competitions, live music, vendors, food and activities centered around Scottish culture and the Scots-Irish ties to East Tennessee. And before the folks at Smoky Mountain Harley-Davidson on West Lamar Alexander Parkway throw themselves into the planning and organizing of the regional H.O.G. Rally, they’ll throw open the doors for the 2018 concert season, which kicks off April 7. There’s still live music at The Shed during the colder months — singer-songwriters Nikki Lane and Becca Mancari perform an indoor show Friday night in the “Smokin’ Monkey Lounge” — and there are three shows scheduled for February and one for March before the AC/DC tribute band Big Gun kicks off the outdoor concert series.
“One of the biggest things for us is that we’ve finally got a staff that has been together as a team now for multiple years,” said Josh Formont, entertainment director for The Shed. “That’s incredibly difficult to keep together; a lot of times, sound and lighting guys tend to jump from band to band and crew to crew, but we’ve got a team that’s been together for three years now and moves like a well-oiled machine. That makes a huge difference for the bands that play here every year, like the Kentucky Headhunters, because they don’t have to worry about going through their sound and light spiel with a whole new group of guys.”
In preparation for last season, Formont and his team updated the lighting at The Shed; this year, the plans are to capitalize on all of the overhead upgrades and put on a season that’s a mix of roots-rock originals and cover bands that play the classics.
“The trick is finding the right mix of talent that people want to see,” Formont said. “If we just had all tribute acts, it would be a terrible idea; and as cool as it would be if we just had all local bands, it just wouldn’t work. The trick is finding the right mix of national touring acts, paired with local bands, and mixing it in with the rising Americana scene we stay super-devoted to. It’s just finding the balance between all the different things we do, and we do a little bit of everything, with the exception of hip-hop, which we have nothing against, but we just haven’t been able to make it work.”
But hip-hop — along the lines of Yelawolf or country-rap acts — isn’t out of the question for coming seasons. Already, Formont is working on lining up dates for the 2019 season, and last month the venue rolled out the dates for the first month: Big Gun on April 7; Wrecking Crue, a Motley Crue tribute band, on April 14; the Red Not Chili Peppers tribute band on April 21; and Tuesday’s Gone, a Lynyrd Skynyrd tribute act, on April 28. The next weekend kicks off with an outlaw country bang, as David Allan Coe returns to The Shed on May 5; the following weekend, the “Black Dragon Breakdown” will feature a lineup of local acts, including Kevin Abernathy, Handsome and the Humbles, Andrew Leahey and The Homestead and the Barstool Romeos.
For Memorial Day, the rock band Blackstone Cherry will headline, and in June, three acts are on the books — Sister Hazel, Unknown Hinson and Ray Wylie Hubbard. The Kentucky Headhunters will return for their annual Labor Day weekend gig, and the Southern rock outfit Whiskey Myers also has a date on the season’s schedule, along with a number of other events.
“Pulling in some of the non-music events like our Bike Nights or the Valor Fights has made a huge difference,” Formont said. “Stuff like that is really starting to bring people in that wouldn’t be as interested in music, but they see the atmosphere and think, ‘Those tickets are inexpensive; I think I’ll check one of these shows out.”
Back in downtown Maryville, one business that promises to add to the entertainment scene is St. Taylor’s, located in the old Sandwich Shop location between Brackins and Two Doors Down. Owned by local filmmaker/entrepreneur Storm Taylor, it’s been under renovation for several months, and he’s aiming for a spring opening, he told The Daily Times this week. Also downtown, the annual “Summer on Broadway” bash will take place at the end of June, combining the “Hops in the Hills” craft beer festival, the Maryville Farmers’ Market, the “Friday Night Lights” showcase of downtown businesses and the Big BBQ Bash barbecue contest.
“We’re also hoping to line up a few more music acts this year,” Mitchell said.
Back up in Townsend, the Great Smoky Mountains Hot Air Balloon Festival will return on April 18, Mitchell added; like last year — which was timed around the total solar eclipse — it will feature hot air balloon exhibits, live music, craft and food vendors and more. Organizers are looking at the possibility of pre-selling parking passes to avoid the traffic congestion of last year, as well as adding more balloons to the event. Another Townsend festival — in addition to the spring and fall Heritage Festival and Old Timer’s Day events at Townsend Visitor’s Center — is the Grits and Grains Fest, scheduled for November and pairing gourmet food with fine spirits.
Over at the Clayton Center for the Arts on the Maryville College campus, General Manager Blake Smith is also working on future events — albeit ones for the 2018-19 season. Speaking to The Daily Times from New York, he feels like he and his team have managed to hit their stride in booking a balanced schedule of family events, live music, Broadway shows, film, theater and off-the-beaten-path exotic shows.
“We really know what the baseline market is looking for, and we’ve season our season subscriber numbers increase,” he said. “The challenge now becomes maintaining that level while still achieving our goals of trying to continue to broaden the cultural offerings, especially to the Blount County region. There are a lot of art programs we’re not yet bringing in, so right now I’m spending time in New York at conferences, talking to agents and trying to find out what the right acts might be to continue to enhance the reputation of the Clayton Center.”
While this season — which picks up this weekend with the Broadway musical “The Sound of Music” — comes to an end in May at the end of the college’s academic year, Smith is looking to leave the light on during the typically dark summer months. Right now, he said, plans are to announce in the coming months two summer shows that will appeal to a number of different audiences, he said.
“I think even though summer time is a busy time, and people have a lot of options, I think having them be able to come back to the Clayton Center provides them with an opportunity they might not have had,” he said. “We’re looking at such a resurgence of really phenomenal acts doing tribute work and bands that have been on the road in various incarnations for years and years, and we thought summer would be a great time to bring back some musical memories for people and set the tone for future summers. And of course, we’re going to continue next year with a season coming together that looks fairly similar.”
One big announcement for the Clayton Center, in conjunction with Knoxville-based radio station WDVX-FM: The Clayton Center will serve as the home of the station’s “World Class Bluegrass” concert series starting in October with a performance by the Del McCoury Band.
“Del’s played the market a lot of times between us and Knoxville, and there’s such a strong following for he and the rest of the boys that we felt like that was a great way to open the season,” Smith said. “If we can pull it off, it will put us on the map a little bit more, and we can see the potential for increasing the number of shows WDVX does at the Clayton Center. We’re working on things we’ll announce in the future.”
Speaking of WDVX, the nonprofit station, which is a bastion of roots music throughout the region, continues to increase its role in 2018 as a purveyor of live performances in addition to those heard over the airwaves. As it stands, according to Marketing Director Roger Harb, the station sponsors live performances daily (except for Sundays) on the “Blue Plate Special” at the Knoxville Visitor’s Center and four to five nights out of the week as well — Mondays “Shindig at the Wing” bluegrass show at Wild Wing Cafe’s Powell location (as well as a series hosted by local artist Will Carter at Maple Hall), Tuesdays “Shindig” gig at Wild Wing Farragut, Wednesdays at Boyd’s Jig and Reel for the “Tennessee Shines” radio show, Thursdays at Barley’s Knoxville for the “6 O’Clock Swerve” radio show and, on the first Friday of the month, “First Friday Live” at the Visitor’s Center. Oh, and the second Saturday of the month for the family-friendly “Kidstuff” show at the Visitor’s Center.
“We’re hoping in 2018 we continue to be the purveyors and discovery source for a lot of great live music experiences,” Harb said. “Many of them are free, and we’re talking about great acts. We get close to being a part of over 400 live broadcasts a year, when you take into consideration the ‘Blue Plate Special,’ and then we’re probably involved with another couple hundred shows a year that we’re planning and putting on. We like to think that we’re the champions of real live music.”
The WDVX Camperfest celebration, which returned last year for the station’s 20th anniversary, will be back in 2018, again at Dumplin Valley in Kodak. The annual “Bob Dylan Birthday Bash” will return in May, as will the City of Sevierville’s “BBQ and Bluegrass” festival, of which WDVX is a sponsor. In June, WDVX heads up to Townsend to help sponsor the returning Appalachian Bear Fest, benefitting Appalachian Bear Rescue; and in July, WDVX will be the media sponsor for the Sunset Arts and Music Festival in World’s Fair Park, which will feature headliner and red-hot Americana act J.D. McPherson, Harb said.
McPherson, incidentally, is a veteran of the Rhythm N’ Blooms Music Festival, a subsidiary of the Dogwood Arts Festival that returns April 6-8 to Knoxville’s Lld City. Already, the first round of performers has been announced — Dr. Dog, Paul Thorn’s Mission Temple Fireworks Revival, Lilly Hiatt, The War and Treaty, The Young Fables and more will be a part of this year’s lineup — and the next round will be announced by Feb. 6, according to Chyna Brackeen of Attack Monkey Productions, the event’s planner and coordinator. (She’s mum on the next Americana/roots-rock headliner, but she does allow for a single hint: Think Lyme disease.)
“I think the reaction so far is that everybody seems to be pretty excited,” Brackeen said. “The secret shows will be bigger and better than ever. Those were a lot of fun, and this year, we’re breaking them up a little more and putting them in all the venues throughout the weekend. That gives us the opportunity to use varying levels of artists in terms of name recognition and have some more fully formed plugged-in shows — and there will be some headliners doing secret shows.”
In addition, a relatively new tradition — the “Midnight Merry Go Round” slot, named after the old WNOX-AM show that helped put Knoxville on the country music map, this year will feature an ode to “One Hit Wonders,” hosted by local electro-dance pop ensemble Hudson K.
“Christina (Horn, Hudson K’s frontwoman) is just a rock star, and she’s bringing in a bunch of friends, so we’ll have Knoxville’s finest holding down the fort. We went back and forth, and there could have been some pretty major artists we could have done tributes to, but by the time April gets here, a lot of those tribute shows will have already happened, and we didn’t want to do the same thing everybody else was doing. So we went in a totally different direction, and we want to get the audience involved with social media requests.”
Rhythm N’ Blooms takes place two weeks after one of Knoxville’s most prestigious events, the annual Big Ears Festival. The brainchild of AC Entertainment founder and music mogul Ashley Capps, the festival is now in its fifth year (not counting two festival before Capps gave it a three-year break) and has grown from a celebration of off-the-beaten-path genres — drone, minimalism and more — to include not only an emphasis on jazz this year, but a focus on bluegrass and traditional Appalachian music, Capps told us last fall. The new elements began, he said, with a conversation he had with Anna Roberts-Gevalt of the duo Anna and Elizabeth.
“She’s been here as a fan of Big Ears for the last few years, and when we met last year and started talking about all of the connections, I learned she comes from a really diverse musical background,” Capps said. “She went to Wesleyan College and spent a lot of time visiting fiddlers up in the hills who are preserving so many of the Appalachian traditions. She was sharing her fascination with the way these traditions are linked, and from that conversation, I said, ‘You need to curate this for me.’ What you’re seeing right now is really only the tip. Square dancing, a Big Ears fiddlers’ convention, jam sessions — it’s going to be quite a celebration, and it’s going to be all over the city, even on the sidewalks and in Market Square.
“That’s the single most exciting new development about Big Ears that I can think of, and I should also point out, the Appalachian themes are reflected in some of the other programming also. The Bang On a Can Allstars will be performing ‘Anthracite Fields,’ which is a tone poem or song cycle about coal mining in Pennsylvania that won a Pulitzer in 2015; and Jenny Scheinmann is performing ‘Kannapolis,’ which is an exploration of small town life in the South, particularly in Tennessee and the Carolinas. This theme is emerging with something of an organic life of its own.”
The festival will take place throughout downtown Knoxville, from The Bijou Theatre over to The Mill and Mine, the newest AC-related entertainment venue on Depot Avenue; next door, incidentally, is the location of a new venue scheduled to open later this year, Sweet Audrey’s — billed as “a cozy venue featuring jazz, blues and a funky good time,” according to a placeholder website. Over in West Knoxville (on Old Kingston Pike, specifically), the soon-to-open Troubadour Roadhouse and Performance Hall will pay “tribute to the long hours on the road for traveling musicians and vacationers by offering a place to sit and relax, grab some great food and drink and listen to live music by today’s troubadours,” according to the venue’s Facebook page. Second Harvest Food Bank of East Tennessee — headquartered in Maryville — is putting together a new fundraiser concert series for the spring and summer called “Music Feeds,” and while additional details will be announced, some of the series headliners include Devon Allman and Duane Betts (sons of Allman Brothers Band legends Gregg Allman and Dickey Betts); Ben and Noel Haggard, sons of Merle; and Billy Bob Thornton and the Boxmasters. Another new music festival — Second Bell Music Festival — is also scheduled for later in 2018 at Suttree Landing Park on the other side of the Tennessee River; it’s being organized by Rusty Odom, the publisher of Blank Newspaper who put together the annual Blankfest up until a year ago.
Two of Odom’s presenting partners were Scott and Bernadette West, who continue to grow their Market Square empire in 2018 with a new facility. Technically, it’s an expansion of Preservation Pub, but the new property will be called Bernadette’s.
“It’ll feature 30,000 pounds of crystals, a deejay on the rooftop and geodesic domes,” Scott West told us this week. “The rooftop space is going to triple, and I’m having to put an elevator in this building. It’s non-smoking, filled with crystals and glowing. I’m also working on getting the eight books done I’ve written and putting on live music every night of the week in Preservation Pub and Scruffy City Hall.”