published Sunday, June 5th, 2011

Riverbend festival survives 30 years, while other music festivals have wilted

For many, Riverbend is as much about seeing old friends and people-watching as it is about the music. The festival's 30-year anniversary is this year and events take place from June 10-18.
For many, Riverbend is as much about seeing old friends and people-watching as it is about the music. The festival's 30-year anniversary is this year and events take place from June 10-18.

To illustrate just how important the Riverbend Festival has been to Chattanooga over the last 30 years, Ken Hays, a partner with developers Kinsey Probasco Hays, points to the year that it almost fizzled.

In 2004, the city was in the middle of a three-year project to completely redo the riverfront area that serves as home to the festival. Rather than cancel or temporarily relocate the event, work on the $120 million 21st Century Waterfront Plan was stopped for four weeks.

“It was an unbelievable case of people working together,” said Hays, who served as chief of staff for former Mayor Jon Kinsey in 1997-2001 and president of the RiverCity Company from 2000-2004. “To stop construction for a four-week time to allow Riverbend to go on was not easy.”

This year’s festival starts Friday, with headliners including Miranda Lambert, Alan Jackson and Huey Lewis and the News.

The festival was created in 1981 at a time when civic leaders were looking to draw people back to a dormant downtown.

“There was nothing downtown and no reason to come to downtown [after business hours],” said local attorney Hugh Moore, who joined the Friends of the Festival board in 1982. He has been a board member 22 times over the years and is serving his second nonconsecutive stint as president of the board.

“Chattanooga is revitalized,” Moore said. “I always think Riverbend gets too little credit for that. I’m biased, but I do believe Riverbend played a role. Downtown has clearly changed, so I guess the first goal has been met.”

That doesn’t mean the festival is no longer used as a draw, however. Bob Doak, president of the Chattanooga Convention & Visitors Bureau, said the festival is part of the fabric that makes Chattanooga appealing to visitors and transplants.

“It’s a world-class event that is well organized and well managed,” he said. “Clearly, it has an impact on tourism. I think it’s on the front page of our website right now.

“We also feature Riverbend as one of our key points in our visitor guide. One of the things we hear from tourists and others we are trying to attract is that there is a vitality of the downtown area.”

The second original goal of the festival, according to Moore, was to provide a place where people from every neighborhood and surrounding community could comfortably gather and find something in common.


  • What: Riverbend Festival.
  • When: Friday-June 18.
  • Where: Ross’s Landing.
  • Admission: $30 pins available until midnight Thursday at area Kangaroo Express convenience stores; $40 at the gate. One-night wristbands $24 ($12 for seniors and military personnel); $5 on Faith and Family Night (June 14).
  • Phone: 756-2211.
  • Website:

“It does bring people together,” Moore said. “There are lots of different people there every night. We make every effort in the talent to try and have something for everybody.”

The third goal was to promote local musicians. Moore said that is still important and points out that nearly a third of the 120 artists on this year’s schedule are local.

For fans like Rusty Park-

hill, 36, Riverbend has become a rite of passage.

“The earliest good memory I have is from when I was in the eighth grade,” he said. “My best friend and I went and saw The Georgia Satellites. It was a great show.

“I love Riverbend. It’s a lot of fun. I think it changes as you grow older. I think I liked it more when I was younger because I went to pick up girls.

“I still like it though.”

Notable Past Performers

  • Willie Nelson
  • Train
  • Little Richard
  • ZZ Top
  • The Black Crowes
  • Josh Turner
  • Ricky Skaggs
  • The Allman Brothers Band
  • Hank Williams Jr.
  • Boyz II Men
  • Michael McDonald
  • Big and Rich
  • LL Cool J
  • Keith Urban
  • Joe Cocker
  • Martina McBride
  • The Temptations
  • Lynyrd Skynyrd
  • Nickel Creek
  • Art Garfunkel
  • The Pointer Sisters
  • Bill Cosby
  • Ray Charles
  • Gloria Estefan & Miami Sound Machine
about Barry Courter...

Barry Courter is staff reporter and columnist for the Times Free Press. He started his journalism career at the Chattanooga News-Free Press in 1987. He covers primarily entertainment and events for ChattanoogaNow, as well as feature stories for the Life section. Born in Lafayette, Ind., Barry has lived in Chattanooga since 1968. He graduated from Notre Dame High School and the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga with a degree in broadcast journalism. He previously was ...

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NorthChatter said...

Impossible to name them all, but some others...

Lyle Lovett, Shawn Colvin, Natalie Cole, Glenn Fry and Joe Walsh...each one of those artists has won multiple Grammy Awards.

Plus, two more of my favorite's...Don Mclean and the B52's (neither won a Grammy, but both have been nominated multiple times)

It is easy to down talk Riverbend, especially in the light of Bonnaroo...but for $30, it is nearly impossible not to find at least a few things to like each year.

And the best fireworks show in the region.

June 5, 2011 at 1:05 a.m.
sage1 said...

I think Riverbend is a great use of the riverfront of Chattanooga. Many great performers have entertained here at that format. I have friends that absolutely will spend the entire week there. Personally, I've only been 2 times since it began and one of those times was the last night to see the fireworks. I simply don't like and have never been able to take the heat.

Now, if it was in the fall, say middle to late October? I'd be there every single night just like my friends.

June 6, 2011 at 9:43 a.m.
eastridge8 said...

Hey! You forgot Chuck Berry....but I understand...he was SO drunk he played "Johnny Be Good" but sang the words of another song...that's when we went home.

June 7, 2011 at 3:04 p.m.
Willmcdonald said...

My favorites were not mentioned either... Chicago and Frankie Valli. Both those artists caused me to find their vinyl and play the tunes for a hour after I arrived home after midnight.

June 10, 2011 at 8:45 a.m.
sidhetzler said...

Nice story, Barry. And thanks to the determined and visionary Hugh Moore for a more accurate history that has been told for a long time. I expect, Hugh, that it is you who finally decided to get the 1982 starting date right. Lots of us thank you; the fictional history had become a painful joke. As you know from my records we once reviewed, we started working on the idea in May 1980 stemming from my visit to Charleston's Spoleto Festival, proposed the idea to the Lyndhurst May 5, 1981; used the immediate $23,000 grant that summer (5 Nights was completely isolated from our work and not Riverbend's precursor) for seminars and studies (these will be available in part in my forthcoming 1990 book on all this) and Mayor Rose's visit to Charleston; then used the approx. $70,000 Lyndhurst grant to generate sponsor confidence and a working board that Walker Breland took over in early 1982 and amazingly these dreamers put on a town festival, after a huge multi-concert loss, in August 1982 at Ross' Landing. The first several years saw festival's cultural and economic effects throughout the downtown. What's next? I continue to believe a more visionary Riverbend board will once again open up the festival to the entire downtown now that there are so many new venues, especially restaurants that now lose money from food sales during the festival, unlike virtually every other town festival in the world. I still believe the two Charleston Spoleto festivals model is a far more powerful civic energizer than the Chattanooga Riverbend model. I also believe the Lyndhurst's and other sponsors support of this kind of comprehensive town festival model was the initial energy that first moved Chattanooga ahead to the lively, animated downtown we have today. Yet the arts scene needs revitalization, and using the Symphony as a rock backup band is not the best example of orchestral music's power. To me, the Riverbend's evolution, and future, is a fascinating story and one that has many mothers and fathers who are proud of what their baby was, is, and still can become with more inclusion of all arts and venues...which the New York Times might even list in its summer festivals section. Many stages are now ready for the players and an artistic director to blend all these complex elements into the festival art form that better reflects the special qualities of Chattanooga and its natural wonders.

June 10, 2011 at 11:38 a.m.
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