THE BARGE BY THE NUMBERS
* Length: 200 feet.
* Width: 58 feet.
* Stage dimensions: 48 feet by 45 feet.
* Distance from lower deck to stage: 22 feet.
* Distance from stage to rigging: 28 feet.
* Crew: 12 full-time employees, plus four additional for larger load-ins.
* Support staff: three lighting techs, four audio techs and seven-man video production crew.
* Average work day for the stagehands: 16-18 hours.
* First used: 1986 from Serodino Inc
In its nearly 30-year stint as arguably the most recognizable performance space at Riverbend, the Coca-Cola Stage has weathered more than a few storms, courtesy of both Mother Nature and the tempestuous talents who have performed there.
Before taking over as festival talent and production coordinator in 2000, Joe "Dixie" Fuller spent 15 years as the floating stage's manager. During that time, he served as one of the festival's primary points of contact for artists ranging from Emmylou Harris (1986) to Al Green (1994).
On occasion, Fuller said, the inner diva of the Coke Stage artists can come raging to the fore. For instance, he said, disco queen Donna Summer's behavior was more in line with Marie Antoinette than Snow White when she held court at Riverbend in 1999.
"God rest her soul. She was very, very weird about odors," Fuller said. So weird, in fact, that she even complained about the smell of the carpets in the then-new houseboat she stayed in. She also was more than particular about what she walked on.
"We had to put down brown paper, rolled paper, and we had to put paper over the windows because she didn't want anybody looking in on her," he added. "She was very, very Diana Ross-ish."
On the whole, Fuller said, the hard-to-please artists are the exception to the Coke Stage rule. Most headliners behave more like funk legends Earth, Wind & Fire, who were much more lower maintenance when they took the stage in 2007.
Leading up to the start of the festivalt Friday night, Fuller had heard no complaints from opening night headliner Jake Owen, the 2012 breakthrough artist of the year at the American Country Awards. Owen took the stage last night to close out an opening day that began under dreary, overcast skies that pelted the festival grounds with light rain and kept temperatures in the low- to mid-70s. The drizzle abated at roughly the same time that country crossover giants Florida Georgia Line took the Bud Light Stage to what Friends of the Festival said was the largest crowd ever at that venue.
Artists' occasional nitpicking notwithstanding, Fuller said most bands' reaction to playing the Coke Stage is a mixture of awe at the unusual setting and nervousness about their equipment being conveyed by crane to the stage, which stands 20 feet off the barge's main deck. Load-in every day begins between 8 and 10 a.m., but Fuller said he often has to intercede with an artist's road or production manager to get bands used to the idea of their gear dangling in a bucket a few stories off the ground. To date, Fuller said, his crews haven't had any gear-related mishaps during the procedure.
A far more unpredictable -- and common -- obstacle Fuller and his crew must overcome is the region's unpredictable weather, which sends thunderstorms sweeping through the festival grounds almost every year.
The high winds in these storms can strip aluminum panels off the roof. The damage can even occur while the barge is anchored at its winter holding in Haletown, Tenn., alongside the fleet of Chattanooga barge company Serodino Inc., which sold the vessel to Friends of the Festival in 1984. In January 2010, half the roof was ripped off by gusts, causing $60,000-$80,000 in damage, according to Times Free Press news reports.
Gusting winds that reached 60 miles per hour on Wednesday night managed to move the stage about two feet, an impressive feat since the barge is firmly anchored every year by a pair of steel studs driven deep into the muddy riverbed.
"Mother Nature can make my life a living hell. She really can," Fuller said. "There's always something that happens to that roof."
The roof isn't the only victim of Mother Nature's fury. In 1988, a wind shear developed on the river's northern bank, plowing into the Coke Stage and the evening's headliner, Gloria Estefan, at about 70 miles per hour. Despite rain flying nearly horizontally onto the stage, the Cuban-born songstress refused to stop playing and had to be removed bodily, Fuller said.
"We couldn't get her to stop the show," he recalled. "Her road manager literally had to go out there and grab her and drag her off the stage."
Freak electrical storms cause almost as many problems as wind gusts. Although he now recalls it with more levity, Fuller said one of the most frightening moments of his career was in 1997, when a midafternoon lightning strike set off part of the festival's annual fireworks display and sent him running for cover.
"You can see fireworks in broad daylight. It was pretty cool," he said, laughing. "That crap was going everywhere."
For all the headaches it can cause, the Coke Stage is undeniably a Riverbend icon and has become one of its most-defining features, said Executive Director Chip Baker.
"It's the symbol -- the icon -- of Riverbend," Baker said. "Every festival around the world has something that sets it apart, and that would be the Coke Stage for us."
Every night, the headliners attract thousands, many of whom arrive hours ahead of time to claim their spots in a stampede that looks something like the Sooner rush to divvy up the frontier.
In keeping with that tradition, friends Carla McCoy and Shirley Brown were weathering the early afternoon showers on a blanketed plot to the right of the barge. Both have been attending the festival for three decades, and although McCoy was wearing a VIP lanyard that gave her access to the coveted star seating below the stage, she said she prefers the camaraderie of the Coke Lawn.
There, she says, the Coke Stage shows its best face.
"Being together with all your friends here -- that makes it for us," she said. "We like to be down here. Without the Coke Stage, the festival just wouldn't be the same."
Contact staff writer Casey Phillips at firstname.lastname@example.org or 423-757-6205. Follow him on Twitter at @PhillipsCTFP.