Growing up, Carla Pritchard liked to find new music to introduce to her friends. It is appropriate, then, that for the last 20 years she has been introducing Chattanoogans to musicians who are often new to them.
"Music has always been a part of my life," she said.
Since 1991, Pritchard has organized the Nightfall Concert Series, a free schedule of shows featuring local and touring acts at Miller Plaza.
For the first 18 years, the series was programmed by the Chattanooga Downtown Partnership, which was part of the RiverCity Co. When RiverCity dissolved the CDP and stopped promoting events more than a year ago, Pritchard started her own company, Chattanooga Presents, and RiverCity contracted her to program Nightfall.
This year, Chattanooga Presents is solely responsible for the series, and her company will also be involved in planning and presenting other events such as RiverRocks and the 3 Sisters Bluegrass Festival.
Over the last two decades, Nightfall has arguably been one of the city's best success stories, drawing large crowds to the downtown area on Friday nights from late May through early September.
Other cities have tried similar series and most of those have gone away for a variety of reason.
Q: How long have you been doing Nightfall?
A: There is some debate when it started, but I have been doing it since '91. I like to say it had it's earliest beginnings in 1988 when the [Miller] plaza was built.
Q: Did you get into it to book a concert series or was the concert series part of a role that you took on as part of your job?
A: The Downtown Partnership was started in 1991 by the RiverCity Company, which was solely focused on economic development downtown. They realized that downtown needs went far beyond economics and the bricks and mortar. It was gonna take a lot of animation and programming and PR work. It meant all kinds of things. It was a blank slate at that point. There was so much work that needed to be done to make downtown an appealing place to come and spend time.
It meant everything from banners on street poles to flowers in flower pots; programs to keep the streets clean and working with merchants. It meant also programming what was going on at Miller Plaza. It meant also street performances, but the big program was at Miller Plaza. That is when we decided to make it on consecutive Friday nights. It needed to be consistent and free.
Q: It may be hard for people to realize, but it was started to bring people downtown, see the show and hopefully stay and eat. At that time, there was not much going on, right?
A: Nothing. Nightfall was a little pioneer out there. Riverbend preceded it in terms of bringing people downtown that one time of year, but in terms of getting people to come down on a consistent basis and make it a habit as a place to go for entertainment and to socialize, Nightfall did that.
Q: It was not an instant hit, right?
A: Yeah. I remember going - before I was working with Nightfall - to a show where there was maybe 25 or 30 people. I remember in our second year probably of producing, I was really getting this idea or starting to get this feeling of this energy that was building. People were starting to respond in a new way. At that time, we were thrilled when just the plaza was full. I felt like I knew everybody that would come. It became part of a consistent crowd. They would come one week and bring their friends the next. Then we had to get permission from the city to close roads because it was getting so crowded. That was a good problem to have.
Q: What are you most proud of about Nightfall?
A: I can't claim any responsibility for it at all, but the spirit, the sense of community that is there. It has become this iconic program for Chattanooga where people will come to get their summertime entertainment. I hear all the time people say, 'I'm from so and so, and we had something like this but it went away.'
Q: Why do you think it has not worked in other communities?
A: It comes from the community. It is not something we manufacture out of our office. People either adopted it or not and Chattanooga certainly has.
Name: Carla Pritchard.
Education: Red Bank High School, UTC.
Family: Husband Ken, son Cameron, daughter Adelle.
Vocation: Owner Chattanooga Presents.
Movie: "Rebecca" (Alfred Hitchcock).
Books: "Whatever I am reading which currently is 'Great Tales from
English History' by Robert Lacey.
Song: "More Than This" (Roxy Music).
Q: You are in year two of Chattanooga Presents. How is that working?
A: I feel it is the best decision I've ever made to take that leap professionally. It was scary, like for anyone who runs a business. There was some trepidation, but more excitement to try it. We do all kinds of things and we are not just limited to downtown events now.
Q: Is there a formula or system for programing a Nightfall series?
A: There are a few philosophies I like to keep in mind, but there is no formula. We like to focus on artists who have not had the opportunity to play live in this market. We feel like being free, we are able to take a few more risks than someone who is charging at the door.
We like to feature a variety in our selections. We are not looking for show bands or cover bands and typically we steer away from classical. We don't do a lot of country because we feel like there are already a lot of opportunities to hear that here.
Also, we keep in mind what works on a large stage, so we stay away from solo artists, but there are exceptions.
Q: You don't have to book an artist that has a radio hit or even one that gets any radio play at all do you?
A: That is a wonderful position to be in, don't you think? It gives us a lot of freedom.
Nightfall: The Nightfall Concert Series gets underway May 20 with Dawes headlining and local act Dave Dykes & The Grateful Hearts opening. The series will run each Friday through Sept. 9 except during Riverbend, which is June 10-18. For a full list of acts see www.nightfallchattanooga.com/schedule.