Moon River aims to be more than just a music event

How did this happen?

How will it happen?

Where can I get tickets?

Those seem to be the main topics of discussion surrounding the Moon River Festival scheduled for Saturday and Sunday on the city's North Shore.

The two-day festival features The Avett Brothers, The Head and The Heart, Drew Holcomb and The Neighbors, Judah & the Lion, Trampled By Turtles, Mavis Staples and others.

Many Chattanoogans seemed surprised that such a festival, with a $99-and-up price tag, would be staged here at all, much less in a location not known for gated events, and in a town infamous for its late, walk-up ticket buyers. More seemed surprised it sold out in just eight hours.

Which might explain why 61 percent of the 10,000 tickets sold went to out-of-towners.

"I think a lot of Chattanoogans were surprised it sold out so quickly," said Jeff Cuellar, vice president of strategic partnerships with AC Entertainment, the Knoxville-based music marketing and promotion company that books acts at the Tivoli Theatre as well as Forecastle in Louisville, Kentucky, and the Bonnaroo Music & Arts Festival in Manchester, Tennessee.

"I think they sort of sat back thinking they would see what happened and get their tickets later," he added.

The Moon River Festival is not a new event. It was created by Drew Holcomb and Paul Steele in 2014 as a way to highlight Memphis, where they live. It was held in the Levitt Shell there and grew in attendance to the point that a second day was added in 2016, which caused the men to realize running such a big event was beyond their scopes of expertise.

"We wanted it to grow and Levitt wasn't big enough, and there are a lot of decisions to make. When we started, it was just me and Paul, my manager," Holcomb said in March when it was announced the festival was moving to Chattanooga.

The two partnered with AC Entertainment and talks immediately turned to the idea of looking for a new place.

"We looked at sites not just in Chattanooga, but even in Chattanooga we looked at several sites," Cuellar said.

They were looking for a place with a cool downtown city feel, with shops and merchants that would help create a vibe that fit the festival. Coolidge Park fit that bill. And the fact it's located on the Tennessee River pretty much sealed the deal, he said.

"Once we took a tour of Coolidge Park, we felt smitten with it. It has that vibe. The site alone has some unique attributes being on the North Shore," he said. "It's a different culture. Just the walking bridge [Walnut Street Bridge] alone is amazing." He added that organizers suggest attendees park downtown and walk across the bridge because of limited parking near Coolidge.

Moon River is actually part of a trend among multiday music and arts events. Where Bonnaroo has a capacity of 80,000 people and Forecastle is about half that, there is a trend toward smaller festivals that are curated, with everything from the acts to the food and the vendors being hand-picked, to appeal to fans looking for a total experience as much as they are looking to see a favorite act.

Coolidge Park and Moon River, with its 10,000-ticket capacity, offer that opportunity. In addition to Bonnaroo and Forecastle, AC produces the High Water Festival on the Cooper River in Charleston, South Carolina. Cuellar said Moon River is similar in size and scope, and they've taken what they've learned to prepare for the event here.

"The foundation, the bones are there and we have been able to learn what works and what doesn't. We've tried several concepts, and we are always tinkering," he said.

"There is still an appetite for bigger, and we have nothing against bigger festivals - heck, we produce some of the biggest - but at AC, we are also finding the cities and venues that are off the beaten path," Cuellar said.

"The character comes from its relationship with the artists and the curatorial part of it."

Holcomb, who said he's visited Chattanooga many times, said the goal of the festival is show off the people, city, music, food, arts and character of the community.

"Coolidge Park has more green space and we can do multiple stages, but it's not just about the music," he said. "It's about the community aspect of it. Also, I love the idea of it being in a town sort of setting.

"It gives people the essence of the city. It's not just come to this place and let us feed you, and let us entertain you. It's under that walking bridge and in the two green spaces. It's just a really cool space."

But the city-owned park, which plays host to the free and open-to-the-public Pops on the River featuring the Chattanooga Symphony & Opera each July Fourth and a few other open festivals each year, has never hosted a ticketed event, much less one for 10,000 people.

"Of course there is reason to be concerned over a festival like this that has never happened before," said Jonathan Susman, the city's public space coordinator. "But we have worked with AC on this for more than a year and they have done their due diligence, and we have met with the merchants in the area and explained what the impact will be and how it will work.

"People will see that there is some disruption, but not as much as some other events that we have in town. This is an experiment for the city, but the impact will be big."

Cuellar said 39 percent of the 10,000 tickets were sold to Chattanoogans, with 43 percent of the $374 VIP tickets sold to locals.

"People are going to see the transformation that Chattanooga has been undergoing," he said.

"Just the opportunity to see the mountains, the nature, the river. Someone from Chicago or Los Angeles or New York is going to come and have an experience from the moment you leave to their arrival at the airport to getting to the hotel,"he added. "It's about much more than putting amazing talent on display."

Contact staff writer Barry Courter at or 423-757-6354.

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