Sugarlands Distilling Co. books an ambitious schedule of touring Americana acts

Back porch music
Aug. 01, 2014 @ 07:52 PM

In Sevier County’s robust entertainment scene, there is no shortage of live revues featuring singing and dancing, comedy, even animal acts.

Fans of touring club musicians, though, haven’t had many options.

Their choices improved this past March, when Sugarlands Distilling Co. opened at 805 Parkway. The moonshine distillery’s outdoor Back Porch Stage features live music Wednesday through Saturday nights, and some daytime shows on Fridays and Saturdays.

“It’s mostly Americana, bluegrass and old time,” said Jess Hale, the distillery’s booking coordinator and special events manager. “It’s all-original, for the most part. The only thing we don’t book is super hard rock and cover bands.”

The distillery also hosts the “Stories in Every Jar” afternoon events, with storytellers working their craft three Sundays per month.

Although some local and regional music artists are in the mix, “Mostly what I work with is touring bands,” Hale said.

Upcoming acts include Brooklyn, N.Y., country chanteuse Michaela Anne Neller (Aug. 7); Nashville folk duo the Rough and Tumble (Aug. 9); North Carolina acoustic combo Mipso (Aug. 21); Athens, Ga., pop-folkies Ruby the RabbitFoot (Sept. 10); and folk-rock Boston trio the Ballroom Thieves (Sept. 24).

Shows at the distillery are free and all-ages. Most start at 7 p.m. and usually conclude by about 10 p.m.

“It’s a little bit different than venues I worked in, in the past,” Hale said. “It’s not a bar, and it’s not ticketed. We typically have (audience) turnover, so I encourage bands to do three medium-length sets.”

The shows have gotten good turnouts. “People like to dance at them,” Hale said. “It’s great to have a venue that’s accessible, and the shows don’t run super late.”

So far, audience members are predominantly tourists, Hale said. “But we’re definitely gaining locals who are finding out about us and hearing about shows,” she added. “I definitely have some regulars I see a couple times a week.”

To promote its music events, Sugarlands has partnered with WDVX-89.9 FM, the rootsy Knoxville radio station. The distillery sponsors the station’s live “Blue Plate Special” broadcast, which features musical performances.

“We try to get bands that play here to do the ‘Blue Plate’ as well,” Hale said.

A Johnson City native and UT graduate, Hale was hired by Sugarlands in November. She has been a booking agent for about seven years. An internship at WDVX helped her make connections with bands.

“I love music,” said Hale, who likes introducing distillery customers to sounds they may not have heard before. “That’s the joy for me.”

Distillery employees are working on plans to enclose the Back Porch Stage for all-weather entertainment, and to expand the music schedule to seven nights per week.

In the meantime, Hale noted, musicians like having a place to play in Gatlinburg. “We’re right in the middle of a lot of cities touring bands will hit, so it’s an easy stop for them,” she said.

“Who doesn’t want to play an outdoor, free show for people drinking moonshine?”