It's a Musical Life

How Ashley Capps and AC Entertainment have changed the way we experience live music

 

Perhaps that gained understanding of the musicians' experience, what they opt for when they choose that fate in life, endowed Capps with an intuitive empathy with the musician's experience.

 

 

 

It's a fitting description, too, of how Capps & Co., no longer responsible for the day-to-day operations of a club, learned the ropes of the promotions business. But there was no real blueprint; they made it up as they went along.

 

 

"We're very fortunate to have someone with that interest around," adds Parris, whom Capps called in 2001 when he was preparing to board a helicopter to fly over the potential Bonnaroo fair site. "I joke about him being the next Bill Graham," the legendary music promoter who boosted the '60s psychedelic scene in San Francisco and booked the Grateful Dead. "He downplays it when we joke around about that. He's not really an egotistical kind of person. He enjoys his work, but I don't think he's much on the 'I'm the celebrity promoter' type of person.

 

Via phone, the voices of two young women stand between Ashley Capps and any caller seeking his attention. Their polite tone is firm enough to intone the importance of their boss. These roadblocks establish the impression that any good businessman should want to send: I am busy and important.

If a minor maze of assistants signals success, how has Ashley Capps, a booking agent and music promoter for 20-something years, achieved it? Namely through that spice of life, variety. His career stands out for its undulating nature and its overwhelming variety of names and places. On the stage of Ella Guru's, a 250-seat club in a warehouse district just starting to be known as the Old City, he booked an unknown Nashville songwriter named Garth Brooks and gave him $20 gas money to drive home. Only a few years later, Brooks referenced that Knoxville debut from the stage of the Thompson Boling Arena and in the lyrics to his 1995 song "The Old Stuff." As managing agent of the historic Tennessee Theatre, Capps makes critically acclaimed songwriters like Emmylou Harris, Lyle Lovett and Nanci Griffith feel so at home there that they come back year after year. And he's helped organize the massive, three-day mudfest called Bonnaroo on 700 acres in the middle of the state. He's introduced Blue Cats audiences to young talents named Norah Jones and John Mayer and, as their careers shot skyward, booked them at ever-larger venues and at increased ticket prices. He's risked losing money to book one of his own favorite artists, and he's probably made those losses back from hundreds of drunk rednecks standing on the scuffed-up World's Fair Park lawn to hear has-been, middle-aged classic rockers wank on their guitars in a last-ditch effort to feel important. Reunion tours of Lynyrd Skynyrd, Bad Company and the Eagles have brought out paying customers like moths to so many Bic lighters. Critically acclaimed nobodies don't always.

That's exactly the kind of variety Ashley Capps has become known for and praised for. Now booking a similar array of artists in a relative breadth of locales—from Asheville, N.C., to Chattanooga, to recent shows west of the Mississippi (with Alison Krauss and Union Station)—Capps' influence has stretched beyond Knoxville. But this is where it all started and where its impact is most felt. And if someone has to talk to two assistants to get to the heart if it, so be it.

Born in 1955, Ashley Capps wasted no time becoming a music fan. As a toddler growing up in Fountain City, he woke up his parents in the wee morning hours putting "Purple People Eater" on the turntable. Perhaps the feel of those glossy black platters between his baby fingers—careful now—instilled within him the sense of sacredness that would lead him to cherish and seek out musical experiences in future years. 

After playing the clarinet and trombone, he settled on the saxophone in sixth grade and continued here and there in varying levels of seriousness through college, though he never played in an organized band, marching or otherwise. Even now, one of his goals is to pick up the sax more frequently. But he says his destiny was never that of a professional player. In 1977, breaking from his studies at UT for a while, Capps spent a few months at the Creative Music Studios in Ulster, N.Y. That's where he figured out he wasn't going to grow up to be a professional sax player. And before he dealt with musicians who, at their worst, are cranky divas whose demands he needs to placate, he perceived them as hardworking disciples of a demanding craft.

"I met all these musicians," he says. "It became a real eye-opening experience about what was involved in that. I was a huge music fan, and I had very high standards. I wasn't ready. And not only was I not ready, I was meeting literally dozens and dozens—and I was convinced that there were hundreds and hundreds, if not thousands—of musicians in that area that were far more ready than I. And it's such a huge struggle, and such a huge commitment to do that. I just wasn't ready to do it. It wasn't my fate in life."

Perhaps that gained understanding of the musicians' experience, what they opt for when they choose that fate in life, endowed Capps with an intuitive empathy with the musician's experience.

 

Many Knoxvillians knew Capps first as a voice on the radio. In the mid-'70s WUOT Program Director Norris Dryer hired Capps, still a senior at Central High School, as a DJ for the non-profit station.

"I've always had this desire to share the music I love with people," says Capps. "I was the kid saying, 'You've gotta listen to this! This is the greatest thing I've ever heard!'"

Capps entered UT and started cobbling together a degree from the classes that interested him—religious studies, Asian studies, philosophy. On the radio, in addition to his ongoing jazz programs, he co-hosted a late-night, early morning weekend show called Unradio with three other DJs. One of those DJs was Paul Parris, who started at WUOT in 1982. An amateur at radio broadcasting, Parris' experience derived from his love of music and his broad record collection, some of which he dragged to the station in a cardboard box for his late-night shift. Those "brutal" hours were halved into manageable shifts by the DJs who ran the program—Capps, Mike Dotson and Cy Anders, who, like Parris, still hosts jazz programs at the station. What these music geeks played overnight, says Parris, was "a hodgepodge of mainly rock stuff. We played the kind of stuff you didn't hear on commercial radio then." In the early '80s, when new wave artists like Talking Heads and Elvis Costello, or early hip-hop provocateurs were defining their genres, they didn't make the radio waves. "We played the kind of stuff that only weird record collectors would have," says Parris. "I think we all felt like we were on this mission to convey this stuff to people in some way," he says. And people were listening, receptive to this random mix-tape programming. "You'd certainly get a lot of phone-call activity late at night, especially when the bars closed. There were people who called every week." 

While the DJs indulged their yen for music through stream-of-consciousness programming, they were also providing a public service. "This was pre-MTV, pre-Internet," says Parris. "You had to search for this music to find it, to buy it, and you certainly couldn't access it through some media channel. Today, you could Google it and read about some weird band and find out everybody's shoe size without breaking a sweat. Back then it was really mysterious and weird."

Of course, radio was different back then, even—or perhaps especially—local public radio. Over the past several years, WUOT has canceled a number of locally produced programs, citing matters of listenership, funding and the station's progression in a certain direction. That's understandable. But the loss of Unradio—and Capps' similarly free-form program Unhinged, which was canceled five years ago—has left noncommercial airwaves bereft of the same adventurousness. But back in the mid-'80s, Unradio was a kind of aural prologue and accompaniment to the other means by which Capps would introduce people to music.

Capps says he got into booking shows accidentally, like someone who becomes a chef merely by cooking meals he likes and inviting his friends to dinner. As a high school student and throughout his tenure at UT, Capps frequently embarked on road trips to Nashville, Atlanta or wherever a good show happened on a particular night. Seeking out musical experiences was worth the drive—even to Birmingham, where British sax player Evan Parker was performing. A fanzine listed the club and a phone number, but no show date. Intrigued, Capps called the club and its owner, Davey Williams, told him, "Yeah, we're just headed out the door to the show."

But arriving with that disappointing news was a silver lining and an unexpected epiphany. A few weeks later, Williams called to alert Capps to an upcoming show by a wildly improvisational cellist named Tristan Honsinger. Capps was curious but not enough to drive to Birmingham. The next words from Williams' mouth set in motion a career: "Instead of coming down here, why don't you just set up a show in Knoxville?"

After a little hesitation, Capps thought, "Why not? This could be interesting.

"So I rented the Laurel Theater for like 10 bucks, maybe 15. I scrawled this little poster with magic marker on an 8 1/2-by-11 sheet of paper, made a bunch of copies at the UT Library and popped it up all over the place. Nobody had heard of this guy, but he was an incredible musician. I threw a couple of quotes on there about what he did and things I thought might interest people."

That was February 1979. The rest is history. "We sold out," Capps says. "For somebody nobody had ever heard of, or even heard.

"It was a great show. It was really avant-garde, but he told stories, and it was unlike anything I'd say 95 percent of the audience had ever seen before. But we were lucky in that it was completely engaging in live performance."

Who was in the audience that night and future nights? A lot of Capps' friends whom he'd begged to come. Some folks who heard his mentions of shows during his jazz programs on WUOT.

Dryer recalls that the station's management raised questions of a conflict of interest concerning Capps' playing on his radio programs artists who he was bringing to town.

"I recall that he was given a couple of mild warnings but the WUOT management never really pursued the issue," says Dryer, who retired from the station last year. "I sort of looked the other way in the early days when he first began bringing shows to the Laurel Theater and promoting them on the station. As I remember, I was supportive of him because he was bringing artists here who would not otherwise be heard in Knoxville."

What did the rest of the attendees know about the young man who made that show happen? Probably very little. Appreciation for that guy didn't matter as much as the resulting experience, the sheer, addictive thrill of seeing something spectacular. Maybe they were hooked from that point on, hooked on the experiences and the idea that amazing cultural events don't just happen in large cities; they can happen here in Knoxville too.

 

Booking that first show and the ones after it was an extension of Capps' desire to share music. And his willingness to book the shows attracted the attention of agents who were passing through Knoxville and had available dates.

"Once you do one of these things, the word gets out that, hey, there's a guy down here willing to do this kind of stuff," he says. "So I started getting phone calls, and the calls started getting increasingly high-level."

Twenty-five years ago, no one major booking agency brought the popular acts of the day to Knoxville's main venues, which were the Knoxville Civic Coliseum and Auditorium, UT's Stokely Athletic Center and Alumni Gym, plus the Tennessee and Bijou theaters.

Local rocker Todd Steed recalls being a Knoxville high schooler in the 1970s, listening to Capps' jazz show and calling to request Eric Dolphy. Steed also eagerly anticipated every rock show to come to the Coliseum—album rock radio stars like Eric Clapton (with supporting act Muddy Waters), the Doobie Brothers, Blue Oyster Cult, and Emerson Lake & Palmer.

"That was the only thing going on from what I remember," says Steed, who notes that the Civic Auditorium would occasionally host concerts by classy, non-rock acts like Pete Fountain. And in the '80s, on-campus venues featured a variety of college rock acts like REM, Pylon and Mission of Burma or off-the-radar punk acts like Iggy Pop and the Dead Kennedys.

Capps contributed to this city-wide scene a burst of jazz, continuing to rent out the Laurel Theater, the Jubilee Center around the corner and occasionally the Bijou for bigger shows.

And maybe because he was young, still in school and not particularly thinking about a full-time-job-style career, Capps didn't think of booking live music as a business opportunity.

"I was a fan," he says. "I was bringing in artists that I was really interested in and sharing it with my friends."

In 1982, Capps enrolled in graduate school and considered becoming an architect or a computer programmer. He left UT for good in 1985 and worked for a time at Camel Custom Canvas Shop, designing awnings. But nothing else resembling a career quite took hold of Capps' interest like his hobby of orchestrating live musical performances.

"I entertained the notion that [booking] could be a way of making a living, but I never worked for anyone, and in some ways I'm a slow learner, which has its advantages," says Capps. "It took me a while to figure it out. And it took me a while to figure out that this was such a burning passion for me that I didn't really have a lot of choice. It was the thing I wanted to do. And even when I tried to do something else, [booking shows] was something that was always just tugging at me really hard—even to the extent that that something else would sometimes be undermined a bit."

In 1987, he took a major plunge into career booking: he started a club called Ella Guru's in the Old City, a warehouse district with very little nightlife. His business partner was Peter Calandruccio, an architect and music fan who saw the potential in this downtown crossroads whose only other club at the time was Annie's, later to become Lucille's. Manhattan's, Capps recalls, was just about to open its doors, but little else about the Old City foreshadowed its future status as Knoxville's nightlife district.

As hypothetical discussions about opening a music club developed into a business plan and soliciting investors, Capps' excitement and inspiration grew, although he recollects that the sight of his new club—located in the basement of the old Hewgley's Music building—was hardly inspirational.

"Oh, god," Capps exclaims with a laugh. "That's where Peter's role as a visionary came in because the first time we went to look at the space, it was literally knee-deep in rubble. It was a mess! Nobody in their right mind would have walked down there and said, 'Wow, this would make a great music club.' Including me."

Ella Guru's, named after a Captain Beefheart song, was in the space now inhabited by the Melting Pot fondue restaurant. And although it's changed a lot, the dim coziness that made Ella's so intimate still exists. The club seated about 200 people, 250 max. Every seat in the house was great, and the sound was phenomenal. The setting itself was perfect for live music, but it was the sheer variety of performers that keeps Ella's alive in people's memories, elevated to mythic and never-again-achievable proportions.

Former Knoxville resident and Rolling Stone editor Chet Flippo held Ella's above all other clubs in the country for its lineup's diversity and excellence. Todd Steed recounts how many international artists, namely African performers like the Bundu Boys and Mahalatini & the Motella Queens, he was introduced to via their shows at Ella's—shows his friends weren't seeing in their cities, and shows of such obscurity that he wouldn't have sought them out in another city but was curious enough to investigate in his hometown.

"Ella Guru's had the combination of being a great room with a true music fan booking it," Steed says. "It changed the palette of choices out there. I was very into punk rock and New Wave and indie rock at the time, and it gave us African music and avant-garde jazz and R&B and interesting folk groups."

As proof that Ella Guru's still echoes in the memories of devout and not-unsentimental local music lovers, a popular local blog site recently solicited posters to list their favorite shows at the much-missed venue. Several people chimed in, creating a lineup that hasn't quite been matched in Knoxville since, at least in one club in just over years: The Neville Brothers, NRBQ, Sun Ra, Adrian Belew, Wynton Marsalis, John Hiatt, John Cale, John Lee Hooker, John Prine, the Roches, Nanci Griffith, Guy Clark, Townes Van Zandt, Taj Mahal, Bela Fleck and the Flecktones, Jonathan Richman, Webb Wilder, Koko Taylor, Dirty Dozen Brass Band, Leon Russell, Richard Thompson and on and on. Plus, there were local bands like the Judybats, who were on the verge of signing with a major record label, plus the Dirtclods, Whitey, the Hector Qirko Band, R.B. Morris and Smokin' Dave & the Premo Dopes, who opened for Loudon Wainwright III on the night of the club's official premiere.

"That was pretty exciting to be there," says Steed. "Loudon Wainwright was my hero. He even said, 'What a great place this is.' So the next night I went to see the Neville Brothers. We'd play a gig there and use that money to pay for the next gig coming."

Steed commends Capps for making Ella's collection of performers diverse and surprisingly educational. "He really knew what was out there," Steed says. "Not only would he bring great shows, he'd bring people nobody had heard of." Ella's reputation for hosting a variety of "you had to be there" shows helped develop Capps' reputation as an aesthetic authority, as that guy who wouldn't lead you astray in his music recommendations. Frequenters of Ella's learned to trust his ear and the bands he brought to the club.

If you're at all familiar with historic ups and downs of Knoxville's venues—and you didn't know this particular Titanic tale—you could probably sense where Ella's story was headed. After producing approximately 600 shows over two-and-a-half years, in May 1990 the club's owners filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy. They owed $35,000 in unpaid amusement taxes in addition to thousands of dollars in other debts. In an attempt to bounce back, they moved to a larger space, the Foundry/Strohaus on the World's Fair Park, in order to be able to draw bigger crowds and make more money, but Capps says now that the action was too late.

"I'll be the first to say I didn't know what I was doing," he says. "In some instances I just plain didn't know what I was doing, and in other instances I was relying on other people, especially on the restaurant end of things. That just didn't work out. And I never really wanted to be in the restaurant business. It was not something that was my level of expertise, and when I needed to try to learn about the restaurant business, I was already in the middle of doing this insane number of shows every week. So it didn't work. Also I think [the club] was too small. You didn't have the upside to make up for the downside. And so when it all boils down to it, it was a failed business model."

Even as their move to the Foundry allowed for some successful shows and significant business profits, on the national scene U.S. troops prepared to invade Kuwait, the government declared a recession, his partnership with Calandruccio was falling apart, and a previously confirmed Black Crowes show fell through. On a Tuesday in December 1990, Capps announced that all future shows were canceled and the doors were closed.

"We went from having our biggest month ever to having our worst month ever," Capps remembers. "I don't think we would've survived anyway, but we were managing the cash flow up to a certain point, and then all of a sudden there were no acts on the road, there were no shows."

Such a story marks the turning point in someone's life, a fork in the road. At that juncture, the biography of Ashley Capps could have taken a dramatic leap in any direction. He'd chosen to open a club and make booking bands a full-time job, and it failed. He failed.

"When we closed Ella's, I had absolutely no idea what I was going to do," he says. "I mean, I had absolutely no idea. One hundred percent of the focus of my life had been on that club, and it was sort of hard to think my way past it."

What allowed him to move beyond that traumatic success-turned-flop was a lot of support from his longtime partner, Birgit. "Through all of this, through the present day, she's been incredible," says Capps. They met at UT in the late '70s and dated for years before tying the knot just a few ago. "She's just a really strong person and very supportive." Plus, he still had his reputation with agents. 

"The industry is an industry of relationships," says Capps. "If you can build those relationships then you'll build your business." And once you start making connections, the music biz turns out to be pretty small.

"So once you get out there and start making a bit of a name for yourself with the agents, they realize that when their artist shows up in town, they're actually going to show up to a reasonably workable situation. That they're going to get paid. That [you're] actually going to get around to promoting the concert. Those things may sound like basics, but they don't happen a lot, which is why it can be difficult for somebody to just pick up the phone and start doing shows. Because there's a certain trust level."

That trust between a booking agent and a band's management remained strong in Mario Tirado, an agent for many bands, including Wynton Marsalis. Just a couple of weeks after Ella's closed, Tirado called him, much like he had for the previous few years. Capps recalls that Tirado wouldn't take "no" as an answer, which pushed the promoter to search for a venue, first in the Bijou Theatre, which was unavailable, and ultimately at the UT Music Hall, where he had done shows before. The Marsalis show sold out, even at a ticket price Capps remembers as higher than most at the time. And when it was all said and done, Capps made a little money which helped him bring Widespread Panic and Drivin' N' Cryin' to the Bijou.

Capps seems still somewhat astounded at the turn of events. He says, "All of a sudden it was like we're back in business."

 

That business was booking and promotion. In 1991 he started AC Entertainment with Troy Sellers, a former bartender at Ella's who had helped during the transition from Old City to Foundry, lining up stagehands, hiring catering, setting up the lights and making sure the sound was as good as it could be.

Those hadn't been major issues at Ella's; relatively few artists brought their own lights or sound equipment, says Sellers. But at the Foundry and later the Bijou, "We were dealing with acts on a bigger scale."

He says he considers Ella's failure to be a lesson, and in some ways a blessing.

"I think maybe one of the biggest steps he ever made, and we ever made, was getting out of the club business and deciding to do something just from the music standpoint," says Sellers. "As AC Entertainment has shown, [booking] is a business itself that can consume you night and day without worrying about what's coming out of the kitchen."

Now a stay-at-home dad living on 18 acres in Blount County, Sellers left AC Entertainment in 1997, somewhat rattled by the rollercoaster nature of the business and its menagerie of stresses. Mainly financial stresses, he says.

"Especially as you get into larger productions, it's hardcore gambling," Sellers says. "You're basically betting whatever amount of money that you can get enough people to support your endeavor. And that's the way it is on a show-by-show basis. You can really watch in larger venues thousands of dollars come and go in a night." But crowds could be fickle, the timing could be wrong, or in the case of some Hot Summer Nights shows, the weather could turn bad. One former AC employee recalled using the proceeds from one night's show to pay for the losses of the previous one. And there wasn't always enough money to get paid.

"We really put that company together on a shoestring," he says. "A lot of times we were digging into our own pockets more often than not in the early days to try to make a deposit on a show or pull together payroll. And a lot of times we weren't taking payroll. Ashley and I went months at a time not getting paid."

AC Entertainment's first office was in Capps' house for several months before they moved to three offices in the upstairs of the Bijou Theatre, home of most of their productions. While Capps handled booking, Sellers oversaw production, what he calls the "nuts and bolts of the business, the details."

"It worked well because it played to our strengths. I'm fairly detail oriented, and Ashley is very idea oriented and the one with the vision. I think he's best or better concentrating on that."

AC's Bijou office also birthed another spin-off project, a little rag called Metro Pulse with editor Rand Pearson, a new graduate from the University of Georgia, and graphics/layout/all-around computer guy Ian Blackburn. Sellers recalls driving around town begging business owners to let him place a small stack of the papers in their lobbies.

"Ashley saw a real necessity to have a publication out there that could do more to promote the arts and entertainment scene," says Sellers. "And Knoxville was begging for it. It was far past due when it started up."

But as the paper developed a life of its own, Capps and AC Entertainment backed away, or shoveled Metro Pulse off its plate and refocused on booking shows.

"Trying to do too much is always the problem in any business," says Sellers. "We certainly wrestled with that. Being able to say 'no' is certainly large part of the learning curve. The quicker that was learned the better things got."

In the summer of '91, the Bijou hosted its first spate of Capps-produced shows since he started Ella's.  Acts included John Hiatt, the Judybats, the Jeff Healey Band, The Replacements and Spyro Gyra. And there was some concern over the theater's wellbeing during and after shows by GWAR, Megadeth, the Ramones and Public Enemy.

In a move that elicits mixed emotions from Capps, Sellers named the company AC Entertainment, using Capps' initials. He recalls asking his partner, "Are you sure?" and Sellers said, "Yeah, that's what it should be."

"In some ways I sort of regret that now," says Capps, "but I've stuck with it. It's like one of those things you don't fully appreciate what you're doing at the time. It's just happening."

It's a fitting description, too, of how Capps & Co., no longer responsible for the day-to-day operations of a club, learned the ropes of the promotions business. But there was no real blueprint; they made it up as they went along.

"Really, the whole time, we were teaching ourselves how to [be promoters]," he says. "None of us had ever worked for anybody else in the business who said, 'This is how you do it.' Which is a double-edged sword. It's sort of cool when you look back on, it in a way, but you miss out on certain experiences too. And it causes this slow learning process."

That "slow learning process" could also be considered a synonym for the open-minded idealism and excitement prodding Capps to start doing bigger shows—meaning, bigger acts in bigger venues.

The Hot Summer Nights series began in 1992, bringing as many as 5,000 or more people to a single show on the World's Fair Park. The series, which continued until construction on the park and nearby Convention Center began in 2000. Some major names took to the open-air stage, performers like Dwight Yoakum, Suzy Bugguss, former Eagles Glenn Frey and Joe Walsh, Ray Charles, Sheryl Crow, the Indigo Girls, and many more.

In the meantime, he had also brought numerous big names—Bob Dylan, John Prine, Rickie Lee Jones, David Crosby and Graham Nash, the Cowboy Junkies—to the Tennessee Theatre, which was owned at the time by Dick Broadcasting Co. (WIVK). In 1996, Dick turned the theater's management over to AC Entertainment, and in early 1997, gave ownership of the historic theater to a non-profit board of directors.

AC continued to put on concerts on a larger scale—one-night concerts, all-day festivals, the two-day "Swing into Spring" festival in May 1998 with a surprising mix of bands like Koko Taylor, Junior Brown, Bruce Hornsby, Ben Folds Five, Shawn Colvin and more. The price was $30 for both days or $20 for one.

And then, he took the festival out of town to North Carolina, a state that for three-quarters of the year is lousy with outdoor music festivals, most of which blend overnight camping with multiple stages, food and merch vendors, and a certain carefree, bohemian vibe. The same went for 2000's Mountain Oasis, the first of which Capps calls "phenomenally successful; in some ways it was too successful."

Tickets for that first festival sold out, and there wasn't enough room on the land to hold all the people who wanted to attend. "We had to turn people away, and we were begging people not to come on the radio." He calls it a learning experience, which pertains to the next year's festival, which Capps calls "a disaster." He says he began to feel uncomfortable with some safety and traffic issues on the festival property, so 20 days before the show was to go on, they changed the location. Ten days before the show, terrorists flew planes into the World Trade Center.

But even as the world was in shock and the heartiest of festival devotees lost interest in a weekend of hedonism, Capps was putting the wheels in motion for another major outdoor music festival, this time west of Knoxville, in the rural community of Manchester.

Bonnaroo, named after Dr. John's 1974 record Desitively Bonnaroo, is now the largest outdoor music festival in the country, if not the world. (Please see the accompanying feature, Bonnaroo or Bust.)

Steed, who has attended the festival for two of its years, says Bonnaroo's variety of musical acts comes closer to what he saw at Ella Guru's than anything Capps has produced since.

"Bonnaroo completely embraces that aesthetic of trying to expose people to new things while giving them what they want," says Steed. "Both years I've gone, there were things like The Bad Plus, a cutting-edge jazz group that doesn't play festivals usually, but there they were. And then you have the Flaming Lips and Granddaddy. So Ashley still tries to throw curveballs and surprise people."

With its high-dollar sponsorships and spin-off DVDs and CDs and merchandising, Bonnaroo has been the financial success that elevates AC Entertainment to another level. Countless musical performers of all ages, styles, and levels of fame desperately want to play Bonnaroo and capture the attention of even a portion of the 100,000-plus people there. And to see how a festival in Manchester benefits Knoxville, just look at the acts playing Sundown in the City and the AC-booked Orange Peel in Asheville, N.C. (That club earns the envy of many Knoxville music fans for its lineup of major and popular acts that don't come here. Capps has responded to these complaints frequently by stating that more people go see live music in Asheville, therefore supporting a larger club.) Bonnaroo is a bargaining chip to bring acts to either or both venues, to the pleasure of thousands of people. Whereas before, AC may have just had money to bring a band to Knoxville, it now has the carrot of Bonnaroo.

And he still books certain shows to suit his ever-broadening and inquisitive musical taste. He's crazy about Iron & Wine ("There were a couple of days where I didn't want to listen to anything else ever," he says), whom he's booked for gigs at Bonnaroo and the Orange Peel. That Capps' musical sensibility has continued to develop to include a number of other and vastly different styles in addition to his enormous appetite for jazz makes Knoxville a more culturally diverse place to experience music.

"His shows have always been to a significant degree a reflection of his record collection," says Parris, who still converses with Capps about music on a regular basis. "A lot of it is music he's enthused about. He's been lucky that he's been able to share that interest with the public at large. And he's just got a personality that lends itself to staying sane and not making a lot of enemies too."

If anything, his reputation as a successful booking agent causes his name to pop up in conversations about who can make things happen in Knoxville. Most recently, he's been called upon by some members of the community to help "save the Bijou."

AC continued to book shows at the Bijou Theatre until 2001 when the theater's board of directors installed a producing theater company led by Cumberland County Playhouse director Jim Crabtree. Local audiences, regardless of their feelings about the plays being performed, missed seeing live music in the intimate setting of the Bijou. Capps responded then, as he does now, that as much as he loves the Bijou, booking concerts there was made difficult by play rehearsals and productions.

"It was hard to get the right night of the week," he says. "A lot of performers are on tour. If they're going to play Knoxville, you may have three dates to choose from. There's not a lot of flexibility."

AC managed to sneak in a handful of concerts in 2003 and 2004, including Taj Mahal, Joan Baez, Randy Newman and Gillian Welch. But now that the producing theater no longer crowds the Bijou stage and most every date is an open date, AC isn't jumping in. 

"It's a relationship issue," he says, in addition to other issues that "are a little more complicated." Booking the Tennessee Theatre is his priority, he says, and although he says he's flattered that some people look to him as the Bijou's potential savior, he states that the Bijou's fate is still being decided.  There has been discussion of AC assuming management of the theater like it did the Tennessee Theatre in 1996, but Capps says he's encouraged by the efforts of "some really smart people," with city and county government officials to study the theater's short-term and long-term needs.

"It's been painful for some people involved, especially for [Bijou board president] Chuck Morris who's been out there fighting a really difficult fight, and I've felt for him. And I've wanted to help at various points more than I could for a variety of reasons. At the same time, I think it's better this way because you're going to get a more cohesive and workable plan. I think if somebody had just raced in there and started doing stuff, there would've been the tendency to feel like, 'Oh, everything's OK now,' but it wouldn't have been all OK. It would've just delayed the inevitable for a year or two." Morris declined to comment for this story.

At times, Capps' reputation has been as a difficult boss to work for. Mary Pom Claiborne worked for AC Entertainment for about a year; she was laid off when the Tennessee Theatre closed for renovation. She has a positive impression of Capps as a boss and of AC as a good place to work, but she got the idea he was different after the sell-out success of the first Bonnaroo.

"I think there's a pre-Bonnaroo Ashley and a post-Bonnaroo Ashley," says Claiborne, who is currently Communications Administrator for the Knox County Public Library. "My sense was that the success of Bonnaroo gave him a lot of breathing room. He didn't have the stress to make payroll. There's a lot of pressure when you own your own business and are responsible for payroll."

Troy Sellers worked with Capps as a partner, but he spent many years watching how employees in different capacities related to Capps and how some working relationships, and even friendships that became business relationships, turned sour. Sellers describes Capps as a laid-back and result-oriented manager who didn't always communicate his specific expectations to his employees. "Some of the discontent that people may have had for Ashley was possibly derived from the fact that I don't know if he was always as clear about his expectations as he was about his assessment of results."

Sellers agrees with the suggestion that Capps, like many creative people, know within their minds what they want to happen but aren't skillful in expressing those expectations.

Many former AC Entertainment employees, whom Sellers counts among those who have been part of the business' success, have gone on to continue successful careers. Tom Bugg, who worked for AC for about 10 years and managed the Tennessee Theatre, now works at the Peace Center in Greenville, S.C. Benny Smith returned to radio for 100.3, 105.3 and, after a stint at Metro Pulse , returned to his college stomping grounds of WUTK as station manager. Aaron Snukals also went back to his job in radio before coming to Metro Pulse . And Ian Blackburn jumped MP ship—or returned to the AC mother ship—earlier this year.

"Maybe I'm the eternal optimist," says Sellers in prologue to his theory. "Just like anybody would have with somebody on a business like that, it's inevitable that there's going to be some conflicts along the way—miscommunications and disappointments and so on. But I don't know of any of those people who wouldn't look back with some perspective and say that things didn't work out like they should have."

The reactions Capps' name evokes among players in the local music scene can range from gratitude to frustration. Many Knoxville bands were frustrated when the opportunities to warm up the crowd for headliners dwindled as the Sundown format switched from three bands to two, and the starting time changed from 6 p.m. to 7.

"We got a lot of flak that there weren't more opening or at least more local acts on Sundown in the City last year," Capps says. "There was never a conscious decision like, 'Hey, we're not going to do local acts for Sundown in the City.' In all fairness, we look at the various situations and think: How can we make this the best possible night it can be? And sometimes that might involve a local act and sometimes it might not. And people may disagree with our decision there, but I feel like we almost have an obligation to Sundown in the City for it to be the best night that it can possibly be. And that is my guiding principle, not [the idea] that we need to be a forum for local bands."

Many bands also project an obligation on the company or personally on Capps to help them out. An opening slot in front of 5,000 people in Market Square just aching to see Sam Bush or Los Lonely Boys can give a band a boost in local awareness and a great blurb in its resume, but Capps deflects claims that he makes or breaks local acts.

"I think there's a tendency that artists think we can make something happen for them that we really can't," he says. He mentions a recent seminar at UT where he and other local music industry types held a panel discussion and took questions from the audience. Several people wanted to know how they can "make it" or "break into the business." His answer: "You have to somehow make people care about what you do. And I can't make people care about what you do. I can put you on Sundown in the City if you're not really ready to do it, and if you don't have a following, you're not going to have a good experience because nobody's going to be paying any attention to you—unless you're just stunning. I've seen artists who are stunning who still couldn't get people's attention because of the setting and they're just not prepared for it."

Two of Todd Steed's bands—Smokin' Dave & the Premo Dopes and the Suns of Phere—played opening sets in Market Square, but Steed says they earned the slot fair and square.

"We wouldn't have gotten those gigs if we hadn't built up our own following," says Steed. "And when Ella's opened, we had a following, so it worked for us. He'd book us, and we'd bring people in."

He points to bands like Superdrag who created their own buzz and drew crowds on a local level and developed from there into one of the most successful Knoxville-based bands in history. If local bands want opening gigs, he says, they should follow the example.

"You create your own following and say to a promoter, 'Hey, look at what we're doing. Let's work something out.' But if they can't come up with their own following, [Ashley] can't do it for them either."

Lenore Kinder was a marketing major at UT when she interned with AC Entertainment and formed a relationship with Blue Cats and Gary Mitchell. She relates to what Capps experienced booking Ella Guru's and how he and his staff continue to build and maintain ties with agents. She says "maintaining healthy relationships with booking agents" is one of her biggest challenges.

"Every show and every booking agent has to be priority No. 1 even though you are juggling 10 of them at once," she says. That can mean negotiating to get a bigger band (more of a sure thing, money-wise) by agreeing to bring a smaller band (less of a sure thing, money-wise). It's a game that all booking agents, even ones on Capps' level play in the market.

Kinder admires Capps for what he's achieved—not in New York or Los Angeles, but here in Knoxville.

"He went from Ella's to coming up with his brainchild of Bonnaroo," she says. "I think that's quite inspiring. And it should inspire everyone in Knoxville to look outside the scope of Knoxville. Just because you're here doesn't mean you can't be successful. You don't have to move to New York to make a name for yourself. He made a name for our town whether people realize that or not."

Without Ashley Capps, Knoxville "would be a town that knew a lot less about what's out there in music," says Steed, who still calls his friend on the phone from the Disc Exchange to get suggestions on what new CD to buy.

"We're very fortunate to have someone with that interest around," adds Parris, whom Capps called in 2001 when he was preparing to board a helicopter to fly over the potential Bonnaroo fair site. "I joke about him being the next Bill Graham," the legendary music promoter who boosted the '60s psychedelic scene in San Francisco and booked the Grateful Dead. "He downplays it when we joke around about that. He's not really an egotistical kind of person. He enjoys his work, but I don't think he's much on the 'I'm the celebrity promoter' type of person.

"He's done a tremendous amount to expose people to stuff," Parris continues. "That's noteworthy. He's expanded the horizons of people around here. I think it trails right back to those radio experiences in the '70s and '80s when we were on this mission to push this stuff out at people."

As the several sold-out shows in the mere two months since the Tennessee Theatre reopened have proven, plenty of Knoxvillians will come out to sit in velvety theater seats, quietly (or not-so-quietly) observing the ingenious stylings of the musical masters of an array of genres—even when ticket prices frequently exceed $25 and sometimes $50. The scene is vastly different from a 250-seat club or a 700-acre festival site, but it all comes together in Capps' continuous pursuit of creating and participating in a multitude of experiences. He counts Patti Smith's appearance at the Bijou among the greatest events in rock 'n' roll history, right alongside seeing Neil Young and Crazy Horse perform under a full moon with 80,000 other people at Bonnaroo, and even Prince at Thompson Boling Arena.

"I'm interested in the total experience of a show, really," he says. He learned to appreciate the holistic atmosphere of a variety of scenes, including the Grateful Dead.

"It's a warts-and-all kind of experience," he says. "You can't just give into it for a song or two and appreciate what they're doing because it's about the whole three hours and riding the whole thing." And while he says he likes such situations that "require a commitment from the audience," other live-music events involve more that just what's happening on the stage. Like Sundown in the City, which can pack thousands of people into Market Square, creating a din of conversation that can drown out the music.

"[Sundown] is about a gathering and a social celebration, which to me is a large part of the function of music," he says. "It's sometimes not all about the music; the music's just a component of the overall experience."

Although Capps has considered moving before, to Asheville or New York, visiting those places seems to suit him well enough. His hometown, especially now, and as much because of his influence as other factors, is a boomtown of cultural opportunities and shows potential for even more depth. 

"I think we're living in a growing part of the world," he says. "There are new people moving to Knoxville all the time—from New York and from Los Angeles and other places— because of the quality of life here. I'm very optimistic that you're going to see, not only Knoxville, but the entire part of this country, growing a lot in the coming years. That's at least my dream. I look around me and I'm pretty convinced it's a reality."

© 2005 MetroPulse. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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