Knoxville promotional firm thrives despite stiff competition
Knoxville has no shortage of powerhouse promoters.
For years now, AC Entertainment has infused Knoxville’s music and arts scene with a glossy sheen by bringing in an eclectic array of exotic and iconic artists imported from the world over and booking them at stately venues like the Tennessee and Bijou theaters. Add the wonderfully niche Big Ears Festival to the mix and the company’s track record of having been able to strengthen its roots through regional venues and festivals, and that’s one powerful resume.
Attack Monkey Productions has solidly booked and produced nearly a decade of Rhythm ‘N’ Blooms lineups in conjunction with the Dogwood Arts Festival, projected local favorites The Black Lillies onto the national stage and produced handfuls of other successful local festivals.
Underneath these significant and substantial shadows, however, a contingent of local bands, venues and promoters have continued to maintain and foster a scruffy independent scene, keeping that spirit running strong across a smattering of small rooms and local fests around town and engaging in various forms of loose collaboration. But a new movement has been afoot, as well.
More observant scenesters may have noticed a certain booking continuity following from some of the smaller, regional stage offerings at Rhythm ‘N’ Blooms and Dogwood Arts moving to Sunset on Central, the latter of which is a newish festival that’s been taking place at the Central Filling Station food truck park for the last two years. Some discerning fans may have taken note, too, that a few of the same area indie acts – Caleb Hawley, Joey English, Carolina Story etc. – populating those bills also have been frequenting a series of secret shows presented by the Knoxville Music Warehouse blog since the very first of its kind in 2014. Similar artists, crowds and vibes seem to be gravitating towards Pretentious Beer Co. and Elkmont Exchange, too.
At this point, it’s not just a lone basement-dwelling conspiracy theorist turning to his cat and sputtering, “Hey … I think it’s all the same guys, man!” The secret has been out for a while now – and the buzz is only growing louder. Born & Raised Productions is making a name for itself in and around Knoxville as the premier boutique booking and production shop for unique, local music experiences.
A decade ago, though, Garrett Thompson and Kent Oglesby, the joint brainchild behind the operation, were just two smart-aleck music geeks who laughed their way through a music theory class together at Farragut High School. Thompson says that Oglesby for his final project used mixing software to put rapper Lil Jon’s infamous “yeah!” catchphrase into different modulated keys that could harmonize with each other.
“I was playing with that in FruityLoops …” Oglesby admits, but he asserts that he actually did something a little more musically serious involving rearranging parts of a Yonder Mountain String Band song. “He likes to embellish details sometimes,” he says playfully about Thompson’s recollection, prompting this BLANK representative to read aloud the transcript of Thompson’s earlier quotes acquired before Oglesby’s late arrival to our interview at Dogwood Arts’ headquarters in the Old City, where Thompson had just finished hosting a festival-sponsored First Friday open mic night. Thompson sat back on a couch enjoying a beer and laughing each time a quote was read back to Oglesby and the latter responded with a tacit, “OK, that is accurate.”
The pair’s playful rapport denotes a fast and easy friendship from which the Born and Raised brand seems to have organically blossomed.
“There’s definitely no shortage of ideas. Our favorite thing is just to have dreaming-ideas where we talk about the crazy s*** we want to do and then think, ‘How are we going to pay for it?’” Oglesby says.
Backing up in their combined chronology, Thompson and Oglesby hadn’t always planned on creating this particular project together; it just so happened that both were spinning manic musical eddies but from different directions, and eventually they collided to form one big whirlwind.
Chyna Brackeen’s Attack Monkey Productions had been the talent buyer for and producer of the Rhythm N’ Blooms portion of Dogwood Arts, and Thompson, a graduate of Middle Tennessee State University, was working for RPM Entertainment in Nashville with acts like Yarn, Carolina Story and Hawley – artists that she brought in to play early iterations of the festival.
“I kinda got to know her through that,” Thompson says of Brackeen, who contacted him when Dogwood Arts needed a project manager to help expand the overall festival experience in terms of logistics – the “nitty-gritty nuts and bolts” of the operation, as he puts it. He says he officially joined the team in 2015 when the festival first shifted completely to the Old City and The Decemberists headlined.
“That festival is so unique,” he says of Rhythm N’ Blooms. “It couldn’t happen anywhere but Knoxville. It’s part of the Knoxville identity now.”
Attack Monkey continues to book the festival but as Born & Raised took off, former Rhythm ‘N’ Blooms, former RPM artists and artists that Thompson and Oglesby became newly enamored with all became part of the Born & Raised talent pool.
Meanwhile, Oglesby, an avid music fan, had grown bored of managing an actual warehouse and started a blog named Knoxville Music Warehouse (KMW). It quickly became the trusted source for local music coverage, as well as a depended-upon voice for new music as the Knoxville Mercury shuttered, Wayne Bledsoe left the Knoxville News Sentinel and Steve Wildsmith left the (Maryville) Daily Times.
His depth and breadth of coverage of previously underserved local scenes won him a devoted following; Oglesby has championed the underground hip-hop community and helped raise the profiles of emerging indie and folk artists. His engaging and user-friendly online experiences such as the March Radness bracket tournament, designed to make voting for the best local song of the year fun, further increased both his popularity and the site’s visibility. This year, KMW debuted the inaugural Knoxville Music Awards, handing out superlatives in multiple categories.
“When I started that, it was my focus … it was just me and a bunch of boxes and pallets … it was terrifying,” Oglesby says, attempting to explain the site’s humble origins. “It may come as a shock to you, but there is not a lot of money in blogging.”
Thompson says that the offbeat sense of creative collaboration that he and Oglesby had cultivated years earlier in that music theory class was rekindled as he returned to town more and more often. As a result, they began dreaming up something weird they could do together.
Through KMW, they booked English and Hawley to perform a secret show at a package store in October 2014. The idea was to set up a show in a non-traditional space. Audience members, knowing neither the artist(s) nor the location until the day of, would have to trust Oglesby’s taste-making abilities and buy their tickets in advance. In spite of the odds against the quirky concept, it turned out to be a great success.
The next time Thompson returned to Knoxville, he contacted Oglesby. “Hey man,” he recalls saying. “Remember that show?” The two then turned the one-off concert into a popular ongoing series at locations as varied as Ijams Nature Center and Marc Nelson Denim. “We had such a blast, we should start a company,” Thompson remembers saying to his future business partner.
The new possibilities first revealed themselves when they took on their wildest secret show yet: a traveling version done in conjunction with Knox Brew Tours, which took participants to three different locations, ending at the then-recently opened Pretentious Beer Co.
“It was a s***show,” Thompson says. “But it was awesome.” Despite the chaotic nature of the event, he says that Pretentious owner Matthew Cummings wanted to do more shows with them. With the glassblowing proprietor being an artist himself, he was down with being intentional about ticketed shows, good sound and dynamic lighting – elements designed to give performers and fans alike great, immersive listening experiences rather than simply typical bar sets.
At the same time, Oglesby and Thompson were launching Sunset on Central. Premiering in 2016, this year’s event on August 25 will be the third installment of the free one-day festival at Central Filling Station, a former gas station and warehouse area on Central Avenue. The first two events featured a mix of touring and local indie and folk acts like Future Thieves, Firekid and Three Star Revival on the main stage, as well as a small side stage offering acoustic fare that ran while the main stage was in between acts.
This time around, the festival has expanded to feature three stages, including a second rock stage at Schulz Bräu Brewing Co. and a singer-songwriter stage inside Elkmont Exchange. Not so coincidentally, the latter brewery is co-owned by Joe Fox, an early supporter of all things Born & Raised. Thompson says that Fox’s namesake downtown real estate company, Fox & Fogarty, has been a sponsor of Rhythm N’ Blooms and when Born & Raised got started, he was integral to launching Sunset on Central and that he “comes to all the shows we do.”
Oglesby cites multiple stages, aesthetic improvements to the Central Filling Station main-stage area made by owners Alden and Scott Larrick and an exciting lineup from top to bottom of the card as being new developments in 2018 about which he is excited.
“Is it a lame thing to say, ‘The headliner?’” he responds when asked about which performer he’s most eager to see. “When we had [The Lonely Biscuits] play Pretentious last, it was the wildest [show] I think I’ve ever seen … I thought a riot was gonna ensue. If you want an under-the-radar pick, Sad Baxter.”
Oglesby says that, after the festival, Born and Raised will be shifting focus back to Pretentious and beefing up the music offerings at Elkmont, and Thompson hinted at the group having its collective eye on opening its own venue at some point in the near future.
Earlier this month, Born & Raised produced Splash Town, a pop-up waterpark show at Hexagon Brewing Co. featuring Rock Europa, Blond Bones, Appalachian Surf Team and Oglesby himself doing a DJ set as Bojangles Unchained
All this begs the question: With all these ambitious forays into every aspect of music in Knoxville, have the Born & Raised boys ever envisioned expanding outside of the city?
“I’ve never really considered that a real possibility,” Oglesby said, explaining that his thought process continues to lead him in the direction of keeping their focus on Knoxville because he believes that its local-minded community always will be self-sustaining. “This is a unique place in that, pound-for-pound, the music scene relative to the population is crazy.”
Sunset on Central takes place from 4-9 p.m. on Saturday, August 25 at Central Filling Station, Schulz Bräu and Elkmont Exchange, and it is free to the public.