Sevier County is a unique spot in East Tennessee. The cities of Sevierville, Pigeon Forge and Gatlinburg – each well under 10,000 in population – exist almost solely as tourist destinations. Think of a beach town without the beach – with the Smoky Mountains in its place.
It all started in the 1930s with the opening of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, which brought roads into the community, which in turn brought visitors. The park is today one of the most visited in the National Parks system, where you can witness large herds of deer going about their business, and if you keep a keen eye, the odd black bear. You really can’t overstate the beauty of these mountains.
By the ’60s businessmen and land developers began to take advantage of opportunities presented as large family farms passed over into subdevelopment, and started looking for ways to capitalize on interest in the park. Campgrounds popped up, along with eateries and theme attractions. Silver Dollar City had a presence in the ’70s after taking over a property with a Wild West theme, and the main drag from Interstate 81 became a draw for the outlet mall craze.
But it all exploded in 1985 when Dolly Parton got involved. At the height of her popularity as a country star, she became a part owner in the Silver Dollar City venture, which was drastically expanded and updated, and reopened as Dollywood. Since that time, Pigeon Forge and Gatlinburg have been top tourist destinations, having developed a loyal return following within middle America, including a good many visitors who are choosing to retire in the area.
Now, from the moment you exit the interstate, you’ll see commercial development all along through Sevierville into Pigeon Forge to Dollywood, and after a short drive through the mountains, it picks up again in Gatlinburg. Modern concrete hotels abound for the budget conscious vacationer, while bigger spenders have their choice among hundreds of mountain chalets for rent. Every chain restaurant imaginable is ensconced along the main road, along with any number of locally-owned spots, many with a hillbilly or mountain theme.
The vibe throughout is kid-friendly, with rides large and small on offer, and a seemingly limitless supply of shows, theaters, shopping centers, museums and other tourist attractions. There’s even a minor league baseball team when shopping, rides, and driving through the mountains gets old.
So what does all this have to do with bluegrass?
Over this past weekend, I was the guest of the Sevierville Chamber of Commerce at the 10th annual Bloomin’ BBQ & Bluegrass festival. As I was driving into town on Friday morning I saw workers setting up a stage in the courthouse parking lot, which was to be the festival site. It was just near the intersection of routes 66 and 441, the two primary traffic arteries into town.
After a spot of rain things got started near dinner time on Friday. Everyone parked in the K Mart lot and crossed Parkway Rd over to the courthouse to set up their folding chairs. Locals and tourists enjoyed music from Jeanette Williams and Jimbo Whaley, and mingled on the several closed streets behind the site where food and craft vendors occupied several blocks.
Jeanette made reference to the fact that she hadn’t performed here since the inaugural event in 2004, and put on a fine set with husband Johnny on guitar, Rusty Breedlove on banjo and Ryan Blevins on mandolin. Whaley appeared as a local favorite, born and raised in the vicinity, and won laughs and nods from the crowd as he shared anecdotes about his football carer at Sevier County High School.
Friday’s headliner was Russell Moore & IIIrd Tyme Out. I hadn’t caught them live since Russell welcomed two new members to the group earlier this year. For a band as storied as his, bringing in new bass and banjo players – who also would form the other two voices in their vocal trio – was rife with risk. But they sounded as good as ever. Blake Johnson on bass is a very powerful vocalist, and a great addition to the rhythm section. Likewise Keith McKinnon on banjo turned in a solid performance on the five, and filled in the trio admirably.
And Russell has developed into a likable and effective MC, a role previously filled by departing banjoist Steve Dilling. His voice was strong over the course of a lengthy evening set, without the faintest trace of the problems he suffered with his voice in January. Of course, Wayne Benson on mandolin, and Justen Haynes on fiddle turned in typically fine efforts, and IIIrd Tyme Out had the audience eating out of their hands.
Saturday morning saw the festival’s annual Mountain Soul vocal competition, during which judging also took place for the BBQ portion of the festivities, sanctioned by the Tennessee State Championship Competition. Sounds and smells covered the festival grounds until the stage show started at 2:00 p.m.
It was dry, but chilly when Willow Osborne and her band ran through at set of standards. Dale Ann Bradley was in fine voice for her two sets, with duet partner Steve Gulley taking his own star turn during the second when Dale Ann broke a string. It was marvelous to see Phil Leadbetter on stage again, looking none the worse for his serious illness this past few years.
Chris Jones & the Nightdrivers also turned in pair of strong performances, highlighted (for me) by his hilarious duet impressions of Lester Flatt and Willie Nelson singing Crying My Heart Out Over You. As always, Ned Luberecki and Mark Stoffel were razor-sharp on banjo and mandolin, and bassist/vocalist Jon Weisberger kept everything under control.
Overall, this was a tough crowd to win over, both for the chill in the air, and because the free admission brought a lot of people who were more bluegrass curious than savvy. But when Bobby Osborne took the stage, they all knew they were in the presence of music royalty. Even with his voice and his mandolin playing showing their age, the crowd hung on his every note, rewarding him with applause as one Osborne Brothers hit rolled into the next. They created an impressive line a block long waiting to have a word with Bobby, or get an autograph, and he stood at the table until every fan had their moment.
As it came time for The Steeldrivers to come on Saturday evening, I was uncertain how they would be received by the festival audience. They had been spellbound by Bobby Osborne, and The Steeldrivers show is a horse of a different color. But from the first song, folks were nodding along, clearly taken by Gary Nichols and his growly vocals. There were also a number of Steeldrivers fans in the crowd, singing along with every tune.
Bloomin’ BBQ & Bluegrass makes for a fine music weekend. You’re right downtown, hearing road traffic behind while blue herons fly across overhead. It’s not a bit like heading out into the country for music in a field, but given the wet weather, everyone was plenty glad to have been on asphalt instead of sod.
For families where not everyone is a bluegrass fanatic, there are plenty of attractions close by to occupy those whose threshold for music runs to less than two full days.
Put this one on your list.