One of the more fun outdoor bluegrass festivals early in the season is the annual Bloomin’ BBQ & Bluegrass in Sevierville, TN. Located right along the tourist strip just before you enter Pigeon Forge, this event is put on by the Sevierville Chamber of Commerce, and a number of corporate partners.
Several things make this festival unique. It is paired with the Bush’s Best Tennessee State Championship BBQ Cook Off, which draws cook teams from all over the state to compete for $17,500 in cash and prizes. It also hosts the Mountain Soul Vocal Competition, the only singing contest that specifically honors the music of Sevierville native, Dolly Parton. Plus there are two full days of music from top bluegrass artists on the main stage.
And it’s all free! That’s right, sponsors pick up the costs of running the show, so that Sevierville can welcome visitors to town to see all the natural beauty and family fun available in the region.
Everything is held around the courthouse, with the front parking lot cleared for music lovers, and the BBQ cook teams lining the streets behind. People bring lawn chairs or blankets and enjoy the bands, or wander through the vendor and cooking area for a smell and a taste. Bloomin’ BBQ & Bluegrass ensures that things are family friendly, and it’s a great way to introduce youngsters to bluegrass.
A big treat for 2019 is the first local appearance by The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, a venerable act that has been going since the mid ’60s. From the start, they have blended bluegrass into their pop and country rock sound, even on their big radio hits like Mr. Bojangles in 1970 and Fishin’ In The Dark in 1987. Probably their biggest recorded success came with the 3-LP set, Will The Circle Be Unbroken, which matched the band with bluegrass legends like Earl Scruggs, Jimmy Martin, Doc Watson, and Vassar Clements, as well as traditional country icon, Roy Acuff.
NGDB has seen a lot of personnel changes over these 53 years, but one man who has been there from the start is guitarist, mandolinist, and lead vocalist, Jeff Hanna. With drummer, Jimmie Fadden, Jeff launched the group in Long Beach, CA in 1966, alongside banjo player and fiddler, John McEuen. Hanna and Fadden are the lone constants among the many members who have come and gone.
We had a chance to speak to Jeff about working the Sevierville show, and he remarked right away the they have always loved the bluegrass scene.
“Bluegrass has always been part of what we do, and those festivals are a lot of fun. There’s such a wide range these days, from MerleFest and Hardly Strictly, to the traditional fests like Bean Blossom. We have a real blast at these things.
I hope they like us – I think they will.”
Hanna also mentioned how his own musical tastes keep drawing him to the grass.
“As a fan, a lot of my listening these days is coming from the bluegrass side of things – love Sierra Hull and Molly Tuttle, I’m With Her, Traveling McCourys, Greensky Bluegrass. There’s so much great stuff going on in that world. It’s a testament to bluegrass fans, and the healthy environment for good music.”
And thinking about Nitty Gritty Dirt Band’s long tenure in the business, and the wide variety of musical styles they have recorded, he reflected on the good fortune of their longevity.
“It dawned on us a while back that we were really lucky to play in a band like this. We have a great fanbase – they’ve been really patient with our changes.
We’re just grateful to be able to keep doing this. Health and father time will be the ultimate decider, but we’re having a blast out there.
It’s the most fun we’ve had in a decade.”
Bloomin’ BBQ & Bluegrass will run May 17-18 with sets from Michael Cleveland & Flamekeeper, Dale Ann Bradley, and Balsam Range also on the schedule. You can see full details, including a list of nearby accommodations, online.