After several aborted attempts, i finally caught up with Jeff Styles to talk about the Riverbend Festival, Chattanooga’s annual nine-day music street party, and we agreed to meet at WUTC-FM at 11 a.m. But 30 minutes before our interview, the phone rang.
“Can we meet at the station?” Styles asked, referring to WGOW-FM, the radio station where he’s worked for 20 years as the host and producer of the morning show. “I forgot I’d arranged for an on-air interview with Commander Cody at 11. And after that I have a meet-and-greet with Cody at the Market Street Tavern. And then at 2 ...”
For Styles it was just another hectic day in his role as assistant production and talent coordinator for Riverbend. It’s a job many music fans might envy—until they get it. And although Styles—who rises before dawn for his radio gig and then works for the festival all afternoon—complains about his unrelenting schedule, he thrives on it. For him, it’s Riverbend all day, every day, all year long. Like most visionaries, he’s obsessive.
Styles, 52, had been a fan of Riverbend from the beginning. But by the late 1990s, after feeling increasingly frustrated with the festival’s talent line-up, he confronted Richard Brewer, the event’s original director. “I told him he was doing a terrible job,” Styles said. The executive brushed him off, but Styles persisted. Finally, one evening the exasperated Brewer—bristling after yet another assault—shouted at Styles, “If you think you can do better, come on and try!”
That was 12 years ago. After working as a volunteer for the first year, Styles was put on the payroll. Without Styles’ knowledge of and passion for music—which is reflected not only in the breadth and quality of the acts, but in the arrangement of the nightly schedule—Riverbend would be forever destined to play staid, county-fair cousin to Bonnaroo’s urbane hipster.
For Styles, the design of Riverbend’s schedule is a particular point of pride. “For me, a perfect night is to have four different acts that someone can see (and enjoy) as they go from stage to stage,” he said.
After the festival closes in mid-June, Styles has about a month off before the next year’s planning for Riverbend begins. He meets regularly with the 11 other festival committee members to begin the often maddening process of mapping out a schedule, beginning with the big acts that play the Coke Stage.
Each committee member—Styles, Joe “Dixie” Fuller (the festival’s main talent coordinator), and representatives of the most popular Chattanooga radio stations—submit an individual wish list. And although Styles insists that the 100 or so acts that play each year are the product of a democratic selection process, he admits that, except for the groups that play the Coke Stage, he and Fuller choose most of the artists.
Most people, of course, judge the festival on the basis of the Coke Stage acts, which reflect popular, local-radio programming. The hardest performers to book, according to Styles, are the “young acts” with one or two hits. Take Bruno Mars, for example. “We started by offering him $8,000 to play on the Bud Light Stage, and it looked like it was going to happen,” Styles said with a sigh. “And then, all of a sudden, bam, bam, two hits in a row and … he’s on the Coke Stage. We were looking at $80,000. Finally we got up to $170,000, more than we’ve ever paid anybody, and he was gone.” The amount of money festival promoters are willing to offer these young musicians is staggering—especially for a nonprofit festival like Riverbend, which has to at least break even to continue.
When he took the job, Styles thought he’d finally be in a position to bring the artists to town that everyone would want to see. He had no idea who he’d be dealing with in trying to make that happen. Agents representing artists in New York and Los Angeles “are just Wall Street traders—they want to buy low, and sell high. They need us more than we need them, but they’ll never admit it,” he said.
Adding to the difficulty is Riverbend’s location in Chattanooga. And then there’s Style’s accent. “Oh, you can hear the change in their voice the minute I open my mouth,” he said. “‘Bug Tussle,’ that’s what they’re thinking.” But he soon sets them straight. “‘Hey, it’s not Gomer Pyle here.’” But the bigger hurdle is getting agents to take Chattanooga seriously. “We don’t have the music reputation,” Styles said. “We’re getting there. But for a lot of folks it’s drive-through, pass-over country.”
Styles had a similar credibility problem with his bosses at Riverbend. It’s been tough, he said, “getting folks to understand bands they’ve never heard of or their friends and peers have never heard of and that don’t get any radio play. And I say, ‘I promise you. I swear. Trust me. They will draw 10,000 or 60,000 people. That’s a lot of trust. But slowly over time, they’ve giving it up.”
And now Styles is getting some help from Track 29. For the first time the city has a hall big enough to attract the kind of acts who will soon have the reputation it takes to play the Coke Stage. But from now on they’ll be coming back to a city that gave them an enthusiastic welcome when they were on their way up.
Every year Riverbend competes with Bonnaroo for acts—and loses. “It’s the cool factor,” Styles said. “I mean, really, which one would you want on your resume?” But when Bonnaroo ends, music fans still have several days of music by the river, some of it as good as anything in Manchester because of Styles’ dedication and hard work.
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.