“You all should get the ‘Wet-Don’t-Matter’ award for sticking with us in this weather. You all are juicy and loving it—marinated in east Tennessee goodness,” said smoky-blues/Americana singer and songwriter Shannon Whitworth to the rain and the cheering audience under sagging water-logged tents.
While most festivals in the Knoxville area take place in the heart of downtown, like Gay Street and the Old City, Townsend’s Sweethearts of the Smokies brings community back to nature in more ways than one—whether it’s the black bears, the roots music, or the mud between your toes.
The first ever “Sweethearts of the Smokies Music Festival” hosted by WDVX took place at the Dancing Bear Lodge Outdoor Pavilion Stage, with a portion of the proceeds benefiting the Appalachian Bear Rescue.
Although one could look at the weather of the festival day as inclement, the softly cascading summer rain artfully aided in creating an intimate soundscape and a calming physical frame to the music. It couldn’t have been more perfect.
Nashville entrepreneurs and Dancing Bear Lodge owners Mark and Sharon Oldham had plans for the area since 2014 after the main lodge and restaurant were destroyed in a fire. In the lodge’s place now stands the amphitheater—a structure with a large wooden peak adorned with flowers and lights for the night’s festivities.
“We had always wanted to do concerts here,” said Mark Oldham. “WDVX’s Roger Harb came out in December of 2015 and we got together to collaborate.”
“It’s all connected in terms of sweethearts. Everyone loves bears. They’re kind of the sweethearts of this area,” Odlham said.
“There are not enough festivals that feature female artists or women-lead bands and that’s something that we’re loaded with in this part of the world, this region; so why not showcase these ‘sweethearts’ at a beautiful place like this.”
Whitworth sang some songs, one inspired by her leave from Biscuit Burners as well as several from her newest album, “High Tide”.
Just as her music stems from Appalachian roots she easily took listeners on a voyage at sea that takes rest stops in reverb-drenched jazz and indie rock along the way setting the mood. Whitworth and Barrett Smith played some from another album, “Bring it Home”.
Next in a long line of strong-voiced darlings was the female-lead Georgia group, Whiskey Gentry. They are country that rocks hard. Imagine in an alternate universe Dolly Parton joins X in 1979 and punk-spiked country sweeps the nation.
They sang originals that twanged and rocked like ‘I Aint’ Nothin’ as well as some covers like Darrell Scott’s mellowed and sobering ‘You’ll Never Leave Harlan Alive’.
Maryville’s own, Robinella—who emceed the whole night—made her way to the stage to sing with her band. She glided into every tune marrying the styles of Bluegrass, country, and jazz. She put on a stunning show and as did the audience. Robinella ended the festival night just as the rain stopped, giving festival goers the perfect opportunity to dance.
Sweethearts of the Smokies won’t be the only event hosted by the elusive location. July 30th headliner Darrell Scott, along with The Tennessee Tree Beavers, and The Lonesome Coyotes will be at the Dancing Bear Lodge.
Oldham is looking to create another music festival similar to Sweethearts.
“We’re looking to call it the Dancing Bear Music and Food Festival. We’re still working out the details,” Oldham said.
The festival was followed by a pickin’ party at Whiskey Gentry’s personal cabin. Sweethearts festival ended the way it started—with a musically intimate experience that remains unmatched by any other festival in the area.