“Like so many he knew, Fletcher had a big impact on me as a young man, and throughout life.”
Fletcher Bright, a musician, real estate tycoon and Renaissance man, died Christmas morning. He was 86.
"He was one of those people you thought – and hoped – would live forever," said Dan Bowers, president of ArtsBuild, a booster organization of the Chattanooga area's arts community.
Bright was a successful businessman in Chattanooga and was well known for his music. He was one of the founding members of the Dismembered Tennesseans, a bluegrass band that has continued to play together for 72 years.
U.S. Senator Bob Corker, R-Tenn., released a statement Sunday, describing Bright as "a gentleman, a pilot, a musician, and a businessman."
"Like so many he knew, Fletcher had a big impact on me as a young man, and throughout life," Corker said. " ... he kept a balance and a steadiness that made you feel calm in times of stress. We will all miss him and hope to carry some of him with us to share with others."
The Dismembered Tennesseans was formed when Bright and three of his friends — Frank McDonald, Sammy Joyce and Ansley Moses — were in high school at McCallie School in 1945. The boys had heard of the Knoxville group Lost John and His Allied Kentuckians, so they decided to call themselves Found Sam and the Dismembered Tennesseans.
College and the military separated the group for a few years, but they soon found themselves back together in Chattanooga, starting professional careers and families, Bill Evans, a musical associate and a longtime friend of Bright's, said during an award presentation earlier this year.
Bright started working with his father, Gardner Bright, in his real estate business in 1953. He took over when his father died in 1960, and one of his sons, George Bright, joined the company in 1979.
George Bright said his father was an open book when it came to the tricks of the trade.
"He was willing to talk and teach me about the business," he told the Times Free Press earlier this month. "His attitude was, 'Anything you want to know, let's talk about it.'"
Bright's eagerness to share his knowledge with others is something that was a common theme throughout his life.
"I've never encountered a person in my lifetime who had achieved success in so many different areas who is also so generous in every way," Evans said. "With his time, with his money, with his knowledge. [He] created a space where everyone felt like they belonged. ... That was who he was."
Evans met Bright about 20 years ago at a bluegrass music camp in West Virginia, where the two were teaching campgoers how to play music. Evans said they continued to teach at music camps over the years, from Nashville to California, and even in England.
Their friendship grew over the years, and just last year, the two released their second recording together, titled "Songs That Are Mostly Older Than Us," featuring Norman and Nancy Blake, well-known bluegrass artists. Bright and Evans' first recording was released in 2013, and that one was titled "Fine Times At Fletcher's House."
But that wasn't the the most recent time Bright picked up a fiddle. Ed Cullis, longtime friend and fellow band member, said he and Bright last performed some time over the summer. And even after that, Cullis and other friends would visit Bright at his Lookout Mountain home on Saturday mornings and play some fiddle tunes.
Cullis had known Bright for just shy of 70 years. He has so many good memories with Bright, but one thing he said everyone missed in the band was the humor.
"It went on, fulltime, 24/7, between Frank McDonald [another band member], who was a Jay Leno-type person; he was a great emcee and very funny," Cullis said. "He and Fletcher would just go back and forth at each other all the time, all the way on the ride out to the gig and all the way back. It was just fun to be around."
McDonald died in 2000.
Bright went on to be awarded the 2017 Distinguished Achievement Award by the International Bluegrass Music Association in September. Evans presented him with the award.
"I was honored and priviledged to deliver his induction speech," Evans said. "If I would describe the perfect person that I would want to model my life after, it would be Fletcher. I think that anyone who encountered him would feel this way."
Bright was also known for his philanthropic efforts in the community, supporting many local music institutions. He and his family also founded the 3 Sisters Bluegrass Music Festival, a free outdoor bluegrass event.
"He has blended the music and business and philanthropy," Evans said.
Carla Pritchard, owner of event production company Chattanooga Presents!, said Bright was her go-to guy when famed bluegrass and country artist Alison Krauss headlined a show but had "ironically forgotten to bring her fiddle."
"As a longtime supporter of the Nightfall Concert Series, [Bright] was a logical first call for me to make," Pritchard said. "Of course, Fletcher just happened to have one of his wonderful fiddles available in his downtown office and was promptly on site with it. [Allison] was so grateful for it and went on to play it in one of our most memorable shows on record."
"I developed a huge respect for Fletcher and his family working with on the 3 Sisters Festival over the past 11 years. Those who knew him knew that he had such a big heart that it was hard for him to say no to anyone who asked a favor or had a need. I'm grateful that he was well appreciated by so many for his musical and philanthropic contributions, as was indicated by the multiple awards and tributes that he received over the years. He was deserving of each one, although he never sought them."
In 2016, Bright was also awarded the Ruth Holmberg Arts Leadership Award from ArtsBuild for his support of arts and culture in Chattanooga.
Laura Walker, fellow band member, nominated him.
"Fletcher Bright is a Renaissance man — a successful real estate builder, developer and manager, a real tycoon," Walker said when the award was presented.
On Monday, Walker said Bright never ceased to surprise and amaze her.
"[He] was the most talented, truly humble, steadfast, loyal and most gracious man I have ever had the blessing to know," she said. "After 25 years of working by his side in music ... he was still teaching me and still showing new sides of his personality and abilities."
"He was truly one of the good ones," ArtBuild's Bowers said. "You never heard anyone say a bad word about Fletcher Bright. He was as kind and generous as he was talented. His death leaves a huge hole in the heart of Chattanooga."
Bright and his wife, Marshall, had five children: George, Lizzer, Anne, Frank and Lucy, and seven grandchildren.
Staff writer Barry Courter contributed to this story.
This story was updated Dec. 25, 2017, at 9:15 p.m. with more information.