Mike Dougher of Rhythm & BrewsMike Dougher of Rhythm & Brews
We’re not sure what the exact formula is, but we figure it goes something like this: For every dozen or so tribute bands and party acts he books at Rhythm & Brews, Mike Dougher, the impresario behind the curtain at the popular downtown club, can afford to book a group or performer of musical significance that may not exactly net the club a full till. Most recently, Dougher has brought such bands as Trigger Hippy, featuring Joan Osborne as well as other well-regarded musicians who complete the “super group,” to town. And while Osborne had to bow out at the last minute to perform at the funeral services of the late Levon Helm (a circumstance that was highly excusable, even while we were very much looking forward to seeing her), the band played on and is an example of Dougher’s booking philosophy. The man who brought some significant acts to Chattanooga at the late Sand Bar prior to the development of the downtown music scene continues to bring a selection of excellent bands and performers to Rhythm & Brews in between large blocks of high-quality cover bands which, it must be said, offer a really great time for those simply out to dance and party. Dougher is unapologetic, and rightly so. He might rather be booking the type of bands that routinely play JJ’s Bohemia, but then again, he understands his demographic. With this profile, Pulse music columnist Richard Winham embarks on a series of interviews with Chattanooga’s “Club Captains,” the owners and managers who book the bands that fuel the city’s club music scene. That scene can be basically defined by four downtown nightclubs—Rhythm & Brews, the live-music instigator of a revived downtown; JJ’s Bohemia, the CBGB of Chattanooga where one can often see up-and-coming bands before they break; Track 29, the new powerhouse venue bringing an eclectic slate of emerging acts and hot new bands to town; and The Honest Pint, the Irish pub that routinely brings intriguing and uncommon acts to these parts. Beginning this week with Dougher, these profiles are intended as a behind-the-scenes look at the venues and how and why the owners and managers select the acts they choose to rock the Scenic City.
The Dave Matthews Band was the most popular touring act in the first 10 years of this century, grossing well over $500 million. But earlier in their career when they came to play in Chattanooga for the first time, they made $500. On April Fools Day in 1994, the band played for fewer than 100 people in the basement of The Sand Bar. It was six months before the release of their first album for RCA, Remember Two Things, an album they had released on their own Bama Rags label that had been getting heavy airplay on college radio stations. Getting DMB at that point was a major coup for Mike Dougher, who had been booking bands into the tiny riverside restaurant for a couple of years at that point, and it was the first of many musical victories he has scored in Chattanooga.
But it might never have happened had Dougher’s friends not finally talked him into joining them in running the restaurant. Born in New York, Dougher moved to Chattanooga in the late 1960s to attend UTC. After graduation he went to work for a prep school in Nashville as a social worker, where he loved his job.
“It was wonderful,” he recalled. “I learned a lot about what life is like out there for kids.”
But while he may have been hired as a social worker, Dougher spent much of his time acting as the school’s social director.
“I was always the guy who wanted to set up the music for the party,” he said.
Dougher moved back to Chattanooga in 1988, but he’d just gotten married and had no interest in working in a restaurant. Friends kept asking, and eventually he relented. But it wasn’t long before his first love and talent for booking entertainment resurfaced, and he began pressing the owners of The Sand Bar to add music to the menu.
“I said, ‘If you’ll let me play a little bit, I might could expand what we do.’ I didn’t really know what I was doing, but I listened to everybody that came in, what kind of music they liked. Eventually, I sorta figured it out.”
Dougher found his dream job at just the right time. He remembers it as a “great time for music … the early ’90s in the South.” He approached the job from the perspective of a fan and for a long time he had the freedom to remain one without worrying about the bottom line. Operating a tiny budget, he booked many young bands just before they broke. He wasn’t making a lot of money, but he and other music fans frequenting the place were having a great time.
“The first show we did with Hootie and the Blowfish, there were maybe 30 people there,” he recalled. “It was the only show I ever did for free.”
True, but several successive shows sold out as word spread. Dougher went on to introduce local audiences to dozens of great bands, including Medeski, Martin and Wood, Gov’t Mule, The North Mississippi Allstars, Leftover Salmon and a very young Derek Trucks.
“He was 14, and his parents would come up with him,” Dougher said. Between sets, Trucks and Dougher traded baseball cards.
For Dougher, the ’90s were a dream decade. “I used to say at The Sand Bar that I was there to introduce people to new genres of music, new bands—saying, ‘Just trust me, this’ll be cool!’— and for the most part it worked out pretty well.”
When The Sand Bar closed, Dougher moved downtown and tried to do the same thing at a new club called Rhythm & Brews.
“But it just wouldn’t work,” he said. “I mean, I tried, but it’s just different. The building is different. Big River owns us, prices are a little higher, parking—everything about it was different.”
Being a fan is fun, but Dougher found being a businessman more challenging. While The Sand Bar acted as a small-scale champion of up-and-coming bands, the diversity of the audience downtown demanded a more democratic approach that includes an emphasis on the familiar. Enter cover bands and tribute acts.
“A lot of people don’t understand why we book what we book, whether it’s an ’80s cover band or … you know, I’ve heard all those songs enough, but it’s fun. We’re not selling anything but fun. We’re not pretending to be anything other than a place that you can come and have a great time—and they have a great time.”
Dougher may bow to the bottom line more often these days, but he’s still very much a fan. And if the club is better known as a haven for tribute and party bands, the success of these acts allows Dougher to take chances with others he finds artistically important.
“If we sell out with a particular act (a cover band), it affords me the opportunity to bring in Ritchie Havens or California Guitar Trio, or something like that where the odds of doing well are probably slim, but it’s important to do. It’s important to bring to the city.”
The California Guitar Trio drew 50 or 60 people to the club for a return appearance a few weeks ago. But for Dougher, it was “probably the best night of the year. It was amazing.”