For three decades now, Riverbend has been the major event on Chattanooga's extensive summer calendar of activities. Started by farsighted organizers in 1982 to celebrate and unite the community through the shared media of music, entertainment and food, the festival has achieved that worthy goal and much, much more over the years.
The festival's opening this evening starts a nine-day run that should extend Riverbend's enviable reputation for distinctive ambiance and programming. There's proof that the festival does things right. The throngs of attendees - a cumulative total in the hundreds of thousands each year, organizers report - who flock to the southern bank of the Tennessee River to hear music, to eat and to drink, and to socialize in a unique setting substantiate it.
There is, as the old saying goes, something for just about everyone at Riverbend. Huey Lewis and The News is the headliner tonight. They will be followed on the main stage on succeeding nights by The Beach Boys, The Machine with the Chattanooga Symphony & Opera, Casting Crowns, Miranda Lambert, Brian McKnight, Alan Jackson and Kellie Pickler. Those headliners, though, are only part of the entertainment package assembled by Riverbend staff and festival volunteers.
In total, more than 100 bands playing in a wide variety of styles will perform on Riverbend's five stages. There are other attractions as well. On Monday, the festival shifts from the riverfront to M.L. King Boulevard for the Bessie Smith Strut. Named for the Chattanoogan who won global acclaim as Empress of the Blues, the event features barbecue and blues. This year's strut headliner is John Lee Hooker Jr.
There's more to Riverbend than stage performances. Faith and Family Night has become a tradition on Tuesday nights. Other events and sites - as varied as a talent show featuring youngsters, the BlueCross Riverbend Run and Walk, engaging exhibits and a chance to become a contestant on "Wheel of Fortune," the TV game show - attract crowds as well. And, as always, Riverbend is a place to meet friends and to watch the ebb and flow of the endlessly fascinating people who attend the event.
Riverbend remains a bargain. Early admission sales have concluded, but pins are still available for purchase at the gate. There is no charge to attend the strut. Shuttle transportation from various parking sites around downtown is available for a modest charge.
From this evening's opening to the fireworks extravaganza that will conclude the 2011 festival on June 18, Riverbend holds the promise of continued fulfillment of its founders' vision, and of extending the community's reputation for hospitality and entertainment. It's once again time to head for the river and to enjoy all that Riverbend and the Chattanooga waterfront it calls home have to offer.