We seem to be in a growth period again for music festivals in the south. Just this week, Macon announced plans for a new one. The gulf coast has a major new one.. they're popping up all over.
But it's hard to keep them going. Just ask Birmingham (City Lights), Atlanta (Music Midtown) & Nashville (any number of them). They all had bigger and better events. But they each fizzled, while Riverbend keeps chugging along.
Now that we've hit 30 years, let's take a look back at the first one at Ross's Landing.
In 1982, downtown Chattanooga was a ghost town after work. There was no Aquarium, no Coolidge Park, the Walnut St. Bridge was closed & the restaurants had fled.
So Riverbend was created to bring folks back to the city.
It was a tough sell at first. The city held pep rallies to convince citizens that this was going to be a big deal. Senator Jim Sasser came to town to dedicate the Coca Cola barge.
Here is one of those ceremonies weeks before the festival.
The first festivals were actually held in August. That lasted for a few years, until organizers decided the heat was just too much. So they moved it to June.
Riverbend was modeled after the Sploletto Festival in South Carolina. The idea was to mix a variety of musical styles.
The first headliners were the Count Basie Orchestra, Roberta Flack, Gospel singer Andre Crouch, Banjo master John Hartford, and local country-rock group Overland.
But there was even more variety around town. Classical ensembles played during the day around town. Their was a Bluegrass competion at the County Courthouse. And the first Bessie Smith Jazz Strut (as it was called back then) brought folks to The Big 9 for a mix of Jazz and blues.
So did it work? Enough people did come down to sweat it out at Ross's Landing to keep it going, and going, and going.
And while Chattanoogans love to criticize the Festival for not topping competing events, it has certainly stood the test of time.
The early festival brought leading Jazz, Blues & Zydeco acts to town. Not so much anymore. And the classical influence was completely dropped. That's a shame.
And so is the fate of the Strut.
These days the sound is awful.. the headliners are old.. and the Powers That Be still argue over what kind of music is fit for Chattanooga stages.
But no matter how much we complain, for the last 30 years, there has always been some great music at Riverbend. And our neighbors in Nashville, Birmingham, Knoxville & even Atlanta, can't make that claim.