For more than a century, Brushy Mountain kept the state of Tennessee's most dangerous criminals behind bars. The likes of Martin Luther King Jr.'s convicted assassin, James Earl Ray, were sent to the fortress in the forest.
Now that Chattanoogans Brian May and Pete Waddington have converted the former maximum security prison into a distillery, Brushy Mountain's End of the Line Moonshine and Frozen Head Vodka are going behind bars of a different sort.
In 2012 the duo began the process of acquiring the shuttered prison from the state, and Brushy Mountain Distillery opened for a half season in July 2018. At that point the distillery offered only moonshine. It currently produces nine flavors, available in mainly East Tennessee.
Last year Brushy Mountain expanded into vodka, which is made at the distillery with organic corn from Nebraska and spring water from the prison property. The company also recently launched its own bloody mary mix, Struggle Bus.
Brushy Mountain Concert Series 2020
May 23: Nitty Gritty Dirt Band
June 27: Aaron Lewis
July 18: Sawyer Brown
Aug. 22: Bluegrass at Brushy — Del McCoury Band, Yonder Mountain String Band, Sam Bush
Sept. 5: Whiskey Myers
Closed to tours November through March, Brushy Mountain Distillery is reopening for the 2020 season this month.
"Some people know us as only a distillery, some people know us as only a prison. But really it's an entire complex," May says of Brushy Mountain, which comprises the 90,000-square-foot prison, a 4,000-plus-square-foot gift shop and a 4,000-square-foot restaurant, The Warden's Table, offering traditional Southern fare. Visitors who take the audio tour of the former prison can choose to take it from the perspective of a former guard or a former prisoner, hearing tales of racial tension, riots and a daring escape.
The prison's 10-acre former exercise yard is now a concert venue where you can listen to music next to the same wall over which Ray escaped before being recaptured in the surrounding mountains just a few miles away. "The sound is incredible," says May. "We're surrounded on all three sides by these mountains that kind of come to a point right behind this prison, which is where the exercise yard is." And the farther you go from the stage, the better the sound is, he says, because of the way the mountains and the huge block walls that surround the exercise yard funnel the music.
Last year Brushy Mountain hosted a handful of primarily country music acts, including Dwight Yoakam and Jamey Johnson. The venue is kicking off its first full concert season this spring with country rockers the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band. Others on the lineup include former Staind frontman turned country artist Aaron Lewis, country band Sawyer Brown and country-rock-blues group Whiskey Myers. Plus there's Bluegrass at Brushy, a one-day mini-fest with the Del McCoury Band, Yonder Mountain String Band and Sam Bush.
May says the space is capable of holding 10,000-20,000 people — and that's the plan, eventually. "We're trying to ease into the idea of doing a festival, probably a year or two from now, where we do a three-day-weekend kind of thing where there's music all day every day," he says.
For now, Brushy Mountain offers free parking and camping for concert-goers and there are major fireworks after every show.
Find out more at tourbrushy.com.