About a year ago, Paul Hadfield and The McCoys was basically unknown on the Chattanooga club scene. Friday night, they helped kick off the opening night of the city's biggest music festival.
The significance of that twist of fate wasn't lost on them. Even 20 minutes before his 6 p.m. downbeat on the Volkswagen Stage, the Southern-fried roots rock quartet's front man was still mulling over the possibilities inherent to playing Riverbend.
"Just the opportunity to be in front of a crowd potentially that big is a big thing," Hadfield said. "To go from no one knowing who we were to having this opportunity is a big leap. More than anything, it's a great, great chance."
Since April, Hadfield and his bandmates -- Keith Chastain (guitar), Stephen Hare (bass) and Daniel Hooker (drums) -- have been applying a mirror polish to a 60-minute set of roots-rock songs. Despite the potential to reach hundreds, perhaps thousands of potential new fans, however, their main concern was the overcast skies that had loomed over the city all day.
"I don't feel any apprehension. The only thing I worry about is whether it will rain and scare people off," Hadfield said, laughing. Behind him, a few dozen people milled about at the foot of the stage, including his parents, Donna and Randy Hadfield, who drove down to see him from his former hometown of Paducah, Ky.
After a brief prayer and with a high-five to his son, Logan, 4, and his daughter, Sophie, 8, Hadfield took the stage. Once he'd affixed a coyote tail to his guitar and tied his red bandana around the mic stand, they kicked things off.
According to Friends of the Festival talent assistant Bob Payne, about 40 percent of the 82 acts scheduled to play Riverbend this year come from within 50 miles of Chattanooga.
Payne is in charge of booking acts for the Volkswagen Stage, the stage featuring mostly local talent situated on the lawn between the gates at Power Alley and Chestnut Street. Every year, he receives about 300 demo tapes from local artists clamoring for a chance to play the festival, but he said he almost always takes the time to see them at a live show before pulling the trigger on a booking.
Some of Payne's selections are no-brainer decisions made after seeing a band win over the public through competitions such as the Road to Nightfall battle of the bands or another popular-vote event.
In the case of Hadfield and The McCoys, Payne said they caught his attention last summer through a show during the final round of the Texaco Country Showdown at Rhythm & Brews on Market Street. Although they didn't win the event, Payne immediately offered Hadfield the opening time slot. The second and final VW Stage booking Friday went to Project Illumination, another Texaco Country Showdown finalist.
On average Payne says Riverbend pays local bands about $100 per musician, about equivalent to what they would earn by playing a local club, but the potential rewards of playing for an hour on the riverfront can't be measured with a dollar sign alone.
"When they come here, we give them the very best equipment and sound guys and techs," he said. "That's the time that they probably sound the best. We try to make them feel important."
On Wednesday, Travis Kilgore will perform on the VW Stage as the bassist with local pop band Amber Fults and The Ambivalent Lovers. The show marks Kilgore's third Riverbend appearance, and he said the experience of playing the festival is rewarding on many levels.
"I always look forward to it," Kilgore said. "I think it's a boon to local musicians. The crew is about [your show], the back line is nice, the equipment is nice and the stage doesn't feel like it's going to collapse under me."
And this year, he said, he and his bandmates are determined to make the most of the opportunity.
"This year, we get to open before Boston and give them a really high bar to meet," he added, laughing. "We want people to leave going, 'Boston, who?'"
By the time Hadfield and his compatriots wrapped up their set, the crowd fronting the VW Stage had swollen to several hundred onlookers, including early Coke Stage arrivals who turned their chairs around to listen.
With the last notes of "So Long, So Wrong" still ringing in the air and the sheen of sweat still glistening on his face, Hadfield said the months of prep were worth the hassle.
And the legions of fans they expected to reach?
"Realistically, I think it worked out pretty well," Hadfield said, laughing. "You always dream kind of crazy, but it's about what I expected to see.
"We definitely put some sweat equity into it. I'd do it again tonight."
Casey Phillips at firstname.lastname@example.org or 423-757-6205. Follow him on Twitter at @PhillipsCTFP.