It began as a relatively modest celebration of locally brewed beer on the parking lot adjacent to the Big River Grille on Broad Street. A few local bands provided the music and Big River’s Rob Gentry provided the beer for the first Southern Brewers Festival. That was in 1994. Big River was Chattanooga’s first brewpub in almost a century, and brewer and co-owner Rob Gentry wanted to introduce everyone to the beers he’d been brewing.
When they moved it from that Broad Street parking lot to the riverfront eight years ago, the festival began growing into a full-fledged event. This year the organizers expect as many as 15,000 people sampling the beer and listening to the music on Saturday (Aug. 25, from 2 p.m. to midnight). What began as a showcase for the products of Chattanooga’s first local brewery will this year feature more than 70 different ales and lagers from 40 different micro-breweries. Some 400 kegs of locally brewed beers will be shipped in from as far away as Eureka, Calif., Middlebury, Vt., and St. Augustine, Fla. Beer connoisseurs may also sample the wares of five different microbreweries here in Chattanooga.
While many people from all over the country are drawn to the festival for the beer, many more come for the music. Since its inception in 1994, George Parker has coordinated the music portion of the festival—he hires the people who build the stage, run the sound and the lights, and he hires the bands. As the festival has grown, the budget has been increased and Parker’s options have expanded. Last year he brought Los Lobos and Railroad Earth to town for the festival. This year he’s booked Drive-By Truckers and Perpetual Groove as the headliners on Saturday, but anybody who likes music will want to be there earlier.
The festival begins at 2 p.m.; the music begins a half-hour later. The opening act is The Black Lillies. Led by guitarist Cruz Contreras, the Knoxville-based band grew out of the ashes of Robinella and the C.C. String Band. It’s still a string band, but it kicks like a country mule. Cruz leads the band singing and playing guitar and mandolin on songs that feel familiar from the first hearing. He has a gift for melody and he’s a natural storyteller. In fact, one of the songs on their current album, 100 Miles Of Wreckage, recently won the Independent Music Award for Best Story Song. The panel judging the songs included Keith Richard, Tom Waits and Kathleen Brennan—no small feat for a writer everyone (including Cruz) thought was finished when the C.C. String Band crashed in 2005.
Following them at 4:30 p.m. is Toubab Krewe, a funky little band from Asheville, N.C., who mix musical ideas they picked up in West Africa with rock ‘n’ roll, surf music, jazz and hip hop. Along with two drummers, a guitarist and a bass player, they have a kora player. A 21-stringed instrument from Mali, the kora looks like a huge gourd with a broom handle. With all those strings ringing it sounds like a high-pitched harp played like a twelve-string guitar. Their songs often begin in the ambling repetitive modes of traditional Malian music before shifting into double-time high gear like Elmore James on a dusty Delta afternoon.
And it gets better. One of the best piano players of the past 50 years is playing at the festival this year. Starting at 6:30 p.m., the legendary Chuck Leavell, the Rolling Stones‘ piano player for 25 years, takes the stage with the Randall Bramblett Band. His first band, Sea Level, was largely unsung, but their records are treasured by those who heard them. Since then, along with The Stones, he’s been the featured piano player with The Allman Brothers Band, Eric Clapton, George Harrison and dozens of others.
The evening closes with Perpetual Groove at 8:30 p.m. and The Drive-By Truckers at 10:30 p.m.
As Kelly Wilson, director of marketing for Craftworks, the company that organizes the festival put it, “it’s not a beer festival now, it’s a beer and music festival.” The combination of the two has made it one of the most successful festivals of its kind in the country—and one of the most lucrative. All of the proceeds from the festival for the past eight years have been donated to Chattanooga Kids On the Block. In the past two years alone, the organizers have given the local charity $300,000. They’ve been able to do that because all of the food and drink is donated, and the majority of the 400 people who work on the festival from early Friday until well into Sunday are volunteers.
While you are drinking and dancing the night away, remember it’s all for a very good cause.
Richard Winham is the host and producer of WUTC-FM’s afternoon music program and has observed the Chattanooga music scene for more than 25 years.