Music to Make Money By

Sevier cities are humming as music theaters settle on Highway 66

It's a drizzly, miserable Monday night in Pigeon Forge, but there's a near sellout crowd packing T. G. Sheppard's Theater in the Smokies. A hush falls over the plush 1,500-seat auditorium as lights dim and tense synth notes swell, presaging the grand entrance of the venue's dapper namesake.

A massive red velvet curtain opens abruptly on a six-piece band bathed in fluorescent blue, and the crowd nearly explodes as Sheppard, nattily attired in black tux and spats, strolls out of the wings and soars into the evening's opening number, a cover of Ronnie Milsap's "Smoky Mountain Rain."

His affable baritone in fine form, Sheppard leads crack sidemen through a two-hour set that encompasses three costume changes and a passel of aim-to-please favorites, including several of his own swaggering country and crossover hits, some Vegas flourishes and a set-closing patriotic medley. The audience, solidly salt-of-the-earth and middle class, loves every God-fearing, multi-platinum moment.

Operating since Aug. 1, Sheppard's is the first celebrity theater to open its box office in Sevier County, but it certainly won't be the last. On April 1, Lee "God Bless the U.S.A." Greenwood's palatial new $10 million, 1780-seat theater off Highway 66, just outside the Sevierville city limits, held its black-tie grand opening before a capacity crowd of local celebs and politicos that included former President George Bush and his wife Barbara.

One mile south of the Greenwood manse, B. J. Thomas, he of raindrops fame, is set to break ground on his concert house across from the Sevierville Chamber of Commerce. And on the nearby 300-acre, $150 million Echota resort development, various partners (including the Southern Gospel Music Association) plan a three-story, 40,000-square-foot Southern Gospel Hall of Fame and Museum with ties to an adjacent 1,000-seat dinner theater to be headlined by gospel legend and SGMA head J. D. Sumner.

All told, Sevier county is now home to eight major music theaters featuring various national and homegrown (or at least locally cultivated) stars, and a host of smaller venues and music-related attractions, like Eddie Anders's Heart and Soul Cafe in Pigeon Forge and Ronnie Milsap's Keyboard Cafe in Gatlinburg.

Since 1993, investors both public and private have sunk close to $100 million into music-related projects, with more on the way; rumors of other celebrity theaters abound, swirling around every pristine inch of property on the (relatively) unsullied eight-mile stretch of 66 that runs from I-40 exit 407 to the bustling Highway 411-441 intersection in the heart of downtown Sevierville.

Of course, neon tourist traps and big-dollar developments are hardly new to Sevier County. With three burbling mini-metropolises sprouting strip malls and amusement parks in the shadow of the country's most-visited national park, the county's sales tax revenues have more than doubled since 1988. And even the most conservative estimates place its annual visitor count at more than 12 million.

What is new is that the latest wave of growth banks on stars, not bumper cars, inviting comparisons to Branson, Mo. Once a two-lane, one-horse wonder tucked away in the Ozark Mountains, Branson wrote its own chapter in national tourist guides when more than 15 celebrity music theaters popped out of its scrubby hills between 1976 and 1981.

Unlike Branson, Sevier County adds its new attractions to an already impressive tourism portfolio, building more muscle in an economy that generated more than $1.2 billion in fiscal 1994-95, and hosted twice as many visitors as its midwestern counterpart.

"I felt we already had the infrastructure, and we had the people here, with nothing for them to do at night," says Sheppard, who's been talking up music theaters ever since he moved to Sevier County 10 years ago. "I think you'll see a phenomenon similar to Branson, with four or five more major stars coming in the next couple of years alone."

And it may not end with theaters. The county is already home to one major recording studio, and some theaters will sport in-house recording, broadcasting and production facilities. When developers hereabouts stare into their crystal balls, they see more than just sequined songbirds and bright stage lights; they envision a multi-media entertainment empire, a music Mecca for the information age.

"The next big boost to our economy will come from the entertainment industry," says Bob DeBusk, executive director of the Sevier County Economic Development Council. "I see the opportunities first in the theaters, but then in recording studios, sound stages, broadcast facilities. I see a whole avenue of entertainment and entertainment support systems. I don't think it's out of reach to one day broadcast our performances locally or even nationally."

Music History

Although the current music boom banks on Broadway-style glitz and imported stars, it has roots in the hills and hollers of East Tennessee. Bonnie Lou and Buster Moore founded the county's first music show of any note, Smoky Mountain Hayride, in the Pigeon Forge Coliseum in 1972.

The show's down-home hosts had been local television variety show personalities since 1954, and their Hayride offered up clogging, bluegrass, Gospel, country and comedy seven nights a week during its June-to-Labor Day season.

Early guests included Nashville steel guitar whiz Little Roy Wiggins and singer Eva Barber, who went on to croon pop and big band standards on the Lawrence Welk Show, and now headlines Pigeon Forge's Rainbow Theater along with former Elvis mime Eddie Miles.

Gatlinburg was the county's boomtown in those days, and Bonnie Lou Moore remembers Bulls Gap's favorite son Archie Campbell (music and comedy) and Sevier County native Jack Brooms (bluegrass) hosting their own shows in Pigeon Forge's bustling sister city. The Forge itself, however, sported only a handful of motels, a second-rate theme park and "lots of vacant land on the Parkway."

"There wasn't much there when we opened," Moore says. "Lots of people didn't know where the town was, so we advertised on our TV show 'five miles north of Gatlinburg.'"

That program, the weekly half-hour "Bonnie Lou and Buster Show" on Knoxville's WATE, helped the Moores build a regional following and draw repeat visitors from surrounding states.

In the meantime, Pigeon Forge's budding tourist appeal got a shot in the arm from some Branson folks. In 1976, Branson brothers Jack and Pete Herschend purchased Goldrush Junction, an ill-at-ease little Wild West theme park hidden away on the east end of the city, and revamped it with new rides and a Craftsman's Valley better suited to its Appalachian setting. The rejuvenated park was dubbed Silver Dollar City, after a similar Herschend venture that had been pulling visitors into Branson since the 1960s.

In the early '80s, Branson refugee Elmer Dryer opened the city's first real music theater, Smoky Mountain Jubilee. The little theater with the colonial front and the fiddle sign seated 800 and featured local and Nashville performers in a country/oldies/comedy variety show.

But it wasn't until the mid-80s and the appearance of another indigenous talent that Pigeon Forge's growth took on exponential proportions, and that music became a prime factor in the equation. In 1986, Sevier native Dolly Parton entered a partnership with Herschend Enterprises and lent her name, her considerable fame, and her bouffant blonde visage to Silver Dollar City.

The Herschends were spurred by the success of the theme park's annual Mountain Music Festival, a 10-day roots-music extravaganza begun in 1980. The festival showcased country, gospel and bluegrass talent from across East Tennessee, and doubled in size in less than five years.

"It let the tourist and music industry know that the people who come here are the same people who love country music--the same people who went to Branson," says Kathy Brown, a former marketing manager at Dollywood/Silver Dollar City.

But the ascendance of Dolly marked the real beginning of the park's musical evolution, and the county's subsequent musical revolution. In 1988, the 1739-seat Dolly Parton Celebrity Theater opened inside the park and offered daily performances by well-known country artists like Ray Stevens and Louise Mandrell. In 1989, the Barnwood Theater hosted Dollywood's first theme park-style production show, and a handful of other new venues and production numbers followed in rapid succession.

According to entertainment development manager Ray Sanderson, Dollywood 1996 will employ around 200 music-related folks, more than double the number in 1988. The park boasts three major production numbers, three 1,000-plus-seat music theaters, four daily musical performances, and a host of its own homegrown "stars," like the gospel group Kingdom Heirs, and Dolly's kin Randy Parton.

"When Dolly came in, there really was an effort to steer the park toward entertainment," Sanderson says. "And I think it's had a galvanizing effect on other people, driving them to achieve the same benchmarks we have."

In 1993, that spillover was the catalyst for Pigeon Forge's $11 million Music Road Entertainment Park, the project that is arguably most responsible for setting off the county's recent flash-fire explosion of theater activity. Conceived as an industrial park for entertainment, the 45-acre tract sandwiched by the Parkway and the Little Pigeon River was designed to host three large-scale theaters as well as a music-themed restaurant owned and operated by Dollywood.

"The city saw an opportunity to stimulate the entertainment aspect of its appeal at the same time Dollywood was noticing the same trends we were," says John Jagger, director of economic development for Pigeon Forge. "It started a wave, but it was really just a continuation of what's been happening in Sevier County for years."

Music Road's cornerstone theater, the 2,000-seat Music Mansion, opened in 1994 as Dollywood's first off-site attraction, showcasing the talents of James Rogers, the most beloved daily entertainer in the history of the park.

Not quite just a singer, not quite just a songwriter, not quite just a dancer, emcee or comedian, the Chattanooga-born Rogers won the Mountain Music Festival talent contest in 1983, and went on to play in front of more than five million visitors as a spotlight performer in various Dollywood shows.

If Rogers isn't the only focal point in Music Mansion's lavish Broadway-style production, he's certainly the thread that holds the sprawling three-hour stage show together. As props, backdrops, singers, dancers and musicians pop in and out like rabbits out of top hats, Rogers tells Jeff Foxworthy-style redneck jokes, sings a duet with a life-size video image of Dolly and strums a banjo along with folk and ragtime favorites.

At one point, sheathed in a studded leather jacket, skin-tight chinos and black sneaks, a '50s-style Rogers coaxes his audience of predominantly middle-aged and senior tourists out of their seats and into the aisles, where they proceed to wag ample bottoms for all they're worth and sing "Shake It, Baby, Shake It" with all the high-decibel zeal their collective lung power can muster.

The success of Music Mansion (Dollywood officials claim Rogers and company have played to more than half a million people in two years) and the lure of those appealing tour-bus demographics sent a domino-chain wave of construction and speculation rippling through Pigeon Forge and into Sevierville. Within two years, the Sheppard theater was up and running less than a half-mile down the Parkway, Eagle Mountain gave a new home to some old Opry stars, Sevierville developer Pete Maples announced plans for the Greenwood palace...

Forge-ing Ahead

Today, Music Mansion's latticed Victorian expanse, dotted with tiny yellow lights and neat potted plants, announces Pigeon Forge like a monolithic neon welcome mat when you drive down the Parkway from Sevierville. Go another eighth of a mile and you see the garish purple front of the Rainbow Theater, followed by Memories Theater and its blue-bolted Elvis homage.

Then comes Smoky Mountain Jubilee with its famous fiddle sign, moments before you hit T. G.'s place, all gleaming stone and glass as it stares haughtily down from its lofty hilltop perch. Tucked neatly in beside it is Eddie's Heart and Soul Cafe, with plenty of buses in its undersize parking lot and a line of tourists out its door. As you drive deeper into the heart of the city, you can choose from Country Magic's parade of country music impersonators or Eagle Mountain's Opry faves--all before you hit that massive turn sign with the tousled mane that leads to Dollywood.

Yesteryears, featuring different '50s and '60s rock 'n' roll headliners, will add yet another slot to the roster when it becomes Music Road's second theater next year. The lineup is impressive, but city officials believe it's just the beginning.

"Sevier County doesn't need 35 theaters, but I could see more than half that in another five years," Jagger says. "We're not trying to be another Branson, but we are taking a page out of their book."

It's a lucrative page. Jagger estimates that Forge amusements pulled in just over $60 million in 1995 (a 14 percent increase from '94), and City Manager Earlene Teaster says nearly half that sum came from music-related attractions.

And for a city that grew at an unprecedented rate through the 1980s (Pigeon Forge has outstripped Gatlinburg in total revenues for nearly 10 years now), the spark provided by the influx of new music ventures keeps the engines of growth firing on all four cylinders.

Tourist tallies tell the story, particularly at Dollywood, which surpassed Opryland in total number of visitors in 1995. Attendance jumped 75 percent (to 1.3 million) in the first year of the Parton era. After 10 years and some $50 million in improvements, that figure rose to well over two million in 1995--more than 20 percent of Pigeon Forge's total visitor count for the year.

But the biggest hope local officials have for the burgeoning music biz lies in its potential to transform the entire county into a year-round destination. Unlike Branson, which built its tourist base on indoor festivities, Sevier County historically suffers epic lulls during the frigid winter months, when mountain outings lose their luster and amusement parks lock their turnstiles until spring.

While local unemployment figures perennially dropped below the four percent "full employment" level in peak-season summer months, the wintertime jobless rate often soared as high as 25 percent in the mid-1980s. Those seasonal highs have dipped to around 15 percent in recent years, thanks in large part to Winterfest, a countywide promotional effort marked by special events and elaborate lighting displays in all three cities.

But even Winterfest doesn't have all the answers for that bleak late-winter stretch from January to March. Conventional wisdom holds that the only remedy for those post-holiday doldrums lies in solid year-round attractions that bring in steady jobs and draw more patrons to the county's base of motels, malls and restaurants.

And as more theaters break ground and more big-name entertainers ogle Sevier County real estate, Jagger believes that's already beginning to happen. He notes that most local theaters open a little earlier every year, and some now observe a weekends-only schedule throughout the winter.

"I think the theaters will eventually be year-round ventures," Jagger says. "One of the biggest things that appealed to the city when it invested in Music Road was that this isn't such a seasonal phenomenon, and that we can draw people in 12 months out of the year."

Coming of Age in Sevierville

Since the 1970s, Sevierville has played chaste older sister to Pigeon Forge and Gatlinburg's fun-loving tramps. With its stately, spired courthouse and classic small-town ambiance, the city struck a stern, almost paternal pose. Bereft of T-shirt shops and Putt-Putt golf, it was the county seat, home to what few manufacturing plants the region could muster, the town where Real Life took place.

Then something funny happened in the 1990s. Big Sis kicked off her sensible shoes and joined the party. Nowadays, driving down 66 from the interstate at four-week intervals is like watching a new neon metropolis sprout via time-lapse photography. Every time you make the trip, there's a brand new oak and cement skeleton or another bulldozed plot somewhere along that once green and pristine stretch of Scenic Highway.

Music theaters aren't the only thing going on in this fledgling vacationer's paradise. Pete Maples is touching up blueprints for a $30 million freshwater aquarium due to open in 1998 off Highway 66, while the Echota development promises more than $100 million worth of resort and rental properties. The city's hotel/motel capacity has nearly doubled (to around 700 rooms) in the last four years, with three more new motels set to open by the end of '96.

And if Sevier County hooks the much-vaunted Bass Anglers Sportsmen's Society headquarters/theme park/shopping complex (the county has been in the running for the project since summer and is now one of only three sites still under consideration), the development will probably land somewhere inside Sevierville's city limits, or at least within easy annexing distance.

But most local officials say music and music-related attractions will be a linchpin, a focal point around which these and other new ventures coalesce.

With the Thomas and Sumner projects pending, Dollywood favorite the Southstar Band will soon occupy a 1,000-seat theater across from Wal-Mart on the Parkway. The Greenwood theater patiently awaits inevitable annexation (Greenwood already lends his name to Sevierville Chamber of Commerce recruiting efforts) and country stalwarts like Charlie Daniels, the Judds and the Statler Brothers have reportedly given the 66 acreage more than just a passing glance.

"Within the next two years, I expect another three to four theaters to come in, with more major stars, followed by several new restaurant and hotel chains," says Jim Wagner, assistant city administrator and director of planning.

Production Numbers

It's 4 p.m. at Tennessee Production Center in Seymour, and there's not a quiet spot in the house. In a room lined with colorful murals and post-modern furniture, someone is editing a video of a J. D. Sumner performance filmed at Eddie's Heart and Soul Cafe. Down the hall, engineer Trey Lister uses computer software to master a cut from a Knoxville jazz band. And in yet another corner of the building, a T.P.C. employee overlooks the video production set while he listens back to some of his own acoustic guitar tracks.

Former denizens of Nashville's Music Row, producer Norbert Stovall and his wife Debi brought Big Mama Recording Studio (the seed of T.P.C.) to Seymour in 1979. T.P.C.'s growth mirrors that of the county's music scene. Over the last 18 years, the Stovalls have added two more multi-track studios and expanded into karaoke track and video production.

They've also worked with dozens of established pop and country stars, from Dolly to Tom T. Hall, and T.P.C. boasts two gold record compilations, including a Christmas album featuring popular Branson performers. Within the next two years, the Stovalls hope to open their own theater (with rotating celebrity headliners) equipped for live television and radio broadcasts.

Looking beyond the theater boom, lots of people believe the future of the local music industry is vested in businesses like T.P.C.

"I think production facilities will be part of the overall concept as the market matures," Teaster says. "It was always part of our master plan when we invested in Music Road."

If there is such a phenomenon looming somewhere on the horizon, it's still distant, hazy, more speculative than specific. But the elements are slowly falling into place. Besides T.P.C., the county sports two smaller recording studios, Underground Studios in Seymour and Mountain Star in Sevierville. At the Sheppard theater, T. G. and company hope to use in-house facilities to broadcast his performances on national cable networks sometime next year.

Even more intriguing is Echota's Southern Gospel Hall of Fame and Museum, where SGMA leaders will build secondary studios for Gospel Music Television (gospel's MTV) and the Reach Radio Satellite Network. The adjacent Sumner theater will also house a recording studio, and SGMA member and Singing News magazine editor Jerry Kirksey says Sevier County could become a hub for the entire industry.

"Southern gospel doesn't really have a home base right now," Kirksey says. "If we've got our hall of fame there, we'd like to have our promotional elements there as well. Our radio and television outreach may eventually base their operations in Sevierville."

It's too early to tell whether T.P.C., Echota et al. will levitate Sevier County above Branson and Myrtle Beach. If the county doesn't make it beyond the realm of seasonal spurts and tourist traps, it won't have been for lack of effort. But for now, Sevier County's bright star is still rising, and its leaders see a whole new universe of possibilities in the cafes and concert houses shining new lights on its tiny neon cities.

"The entertainment industry gives us a two-edged sword," DeBusk says. "The first edge is the venues and the support systems they foster. The second is the visibility it affords us across the rest of the country. It falls to us as a community to figure out the best way to take advantage of that exposure."

© 1996 MetroPulse. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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