How Moon River became Chattanooga’s most popular boutique festival

Photo by John Davisson / Invision / AP / Drew Holcomb and The Neighbors perform in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, in 2013.
Photo by John Davisson / Invision / AP / Drew Holcomb and The Neighbors perform in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, in 2013.

Drew Holcomb is candid about why he thought he could create a new music festival in his hometown of Memphis a decade ago.

"I was young and ignorant and didn't know I couldn't. People like Grace Potter were doing it, and Mumford & Sons were hosting festivals, and quite honestly, I wasn't being asked to play many festivals at the time, so I just thought, 'I'll put on my own,'" says Holcomb, co-founder of Moon River Festival and frontman of Drew Holcomb and The Neighbors.

The first Moon River Festival was held in 2014 at the Levitt Shell in Memphis and was successful enough that a second followed — then a third and a fourth. But while fans loved it, Holcomb and his team, which included his manager and event co-founder, Paul Steele, were realizing that putting on a festival is about more than just inviting friends to play.

"There is security and parking and VIP transportation and bathrooms and having EMTs on-site because people get overheated, and there are the noise ordinances and things like that. It's a lot," he says.

That first year, for example, Holcomb says they'd bought enough water for each of the 3,000 ticket buyers to have one bottle. Seemed like a lot at the time, he says — though it turned out that they needed more. Then they ran out of $1 bills for making change during the event. Banks were closed for the weekend, so Holcomb's wife, Ellie Holcomb, also a recording artist, ended up getting the bills from a dog track that was located across the river.

Holcomb and Steele realized pretty quickly that organizing a festival was beyond their skill sets, so they reached out to AC Entertainment in Knoxville. Holcomb had previously worked with AC, the entertainment company responsible for Bonnaroo and other events.

After four years in Memphis, Holcomb and the folks at AC began to scout the state for new locations, feeling as though the festival had outgrown its original Levitt Shell venue. They looked at several places in Chattanooga, including Sculpture Fields at Montague Park, before choosing Coolidge Park in 2018.

They determined that the new venue fit the "boutique festival ethos" that they wanted. There had never been a gated event at Coolidge Park before, but it didn't take long for AC and partners C3 Presents to convince city personnel that the festival would bring something truly special to the North Shore.

This September, Moon River Festival returns to Coolidge Park for its fifth year (the festival was canceled in 2020 due to the pandemic). And each year, it has sold out within days — something truly special indeed.

  photo  Staff photo by Matt Hamilton / Fans gather around the stage at the 2022 Moon River Festival at Coolidge Park.

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