This year — in fact, this week — marks the 95th anniversary of the famed Bristol Sessions, when record producer Ralph Peer spent 12 days on the third floor of the Taylor-Christian Hat and Glove Co. on State Street, recording 76 songs by 19 different performers.
These sessions later came to be considered “the Big Bang” of country music, because they introduced performers such as Jimmie Rodgers and the Carter Family to a wider audience.
Fate – in the form of a radio station with a powerful 50,0000-watt signal that reached much of the South and Midwest with a program called the Grand Ole Opry – made Nashville the nation’s country music capital. But Bristol claims credit as the Birthplace of Country Music and is doing everything in its power to put itself on the nation’s music map: There’s the Birthplace of Country Music Museum, there’s the annual Bristol Rhythm and Roots festival, there’s the Crooked Road music heritage trail. And now there’s the Bristol Casino.
Lots of attention has been paid to the economic development aspects of a casino, but not enough, I believe, to the entertainment aspects. Across the country, casinos aren’t simply gambling facilities (the industry prefers the term “gaming”), but entertainment venues. Once the casino in Bristol is fully built out – what’s there now is a temporary facility, the more formal Hard Rock Casino will come in 2024 – we are likely to see Bristol’s profile on the concert circuit rise much higher. The same for Danville once its Caesars casino opens in 2024, as well.
Don’t take my word on this. Instead, let’s look at the bills at other casinos. To simplify things, let’s just look at other Hard Rock and Caesars casinos. Further, let’s just look at the Hard Rock and Caesars locations that aren’t in exotic locales such as Las Vegas and Atlantic City but are in more “normal” kinds of places.
At Hard Rock Biloxi, the heavy metal band Quiet Riot rocks out on Aug. 4. Cheap Trick takes the stage Sept. 16. The country singer Tracy Lawrence will be there Oct. 14; classic rockers Grand Funk Railroad on Dec. 16.
You’ll notice something right away: This lineup is heavy with – how can we say this gently – rockers who were more famous in the ’70s and ’80s than they are now. Keep in mind the target audience here. There probably aren’t too many indie rock hipsters patronizing casinos. (Maybe someday, instead of blackjack, dealers will be shuffling MAGIC: The Gathering cards.) On the other hand, the country singers playing the casino circuit are generally a lot more current, and some are more rising stars than fading stars.
At Hard Rock Cincinnati, the band Kansas plays July 30, Boyz II Men on Aug. 20, Clint Black on Sept. 17 and Dwight Yoakam on Sept. 23. Now those last two are some genuine hats. (Translation for those not up on the lingo: A “hat” is a male country singer, because tradition apparently dictates they all wear cowboy hats. That’s how you know they’re a country singer.)
Hard Rock Sioux City has a more country-flavored lineup. Little Big Town played there last week, with Jo Dee Messina coming up July 29. For you rockers out there, former Runaway Lita Ford is on stage Aug. 6.
The newly opened Hard Rock Northern Indiana in Gary, Indiana, has a less famous lineup that leans heavier on regional acts, such as Chicago bluesman Smiley Tillmon and the Detroit-based Laura Rain & the Caesars. Nothing wrong with regional acts. If the casino circuit introduces these acts to a wider audience, that’s a boost to locally based acts.
Now let’s move on to Caesars. Its nearest property is the Harrah’s Cherokee Casino Resort in North Carolina. Once again, we see a similar type of lineup of older rockers: Sevendust on Sept. 10, Three Doors Down on Sept. 24 and Earth, Wind & Fire on Sept. 30. (The website says previous acts have included Dolly Parton and Alicia Keys.)
At the Caesars Southern Indiana, across the Ohio River from Louisville, the lineup includes pop rockers Hanson on Aug. 5, classic rockers Three Dog Night on Aug. 12 and Engelbert Humperdinck – yes, the actual Engelbert Humperdinck – on Sept. 16.
Now you need not like any of the acts. I’m not even sure how many of these classic acts field the original lineups or something close to it. Of the three original vocalists in Three Dog Night, only one is still in the band. But that’s not really the point. The point is that Bristol and Danville are likely to wind up on the concert circuit in a way they aren’t now. After all, a place whose corporate logo is a giant guitar better have some music.
It does seem to me that Bristol, in particular, has an opportunity to capitalize on its country music heritage – and its proximity to Nashville. It doesn’t take much imagination to imagine the Birthplace of Country Music becoming an even more important gestation point in the early career of a rising country music singer than it is now. Here’s my evidence: It’s about four and a half hours from Nashville and we already know that a city about seven hours from Nashville has become a regular stop for rising country stars – and Bristol is about to have a more regular venue of fans. In music promotion lingo, that’s easy money – plus a short bus ride.
That latter city I alluded to is, of course, Roanoke. Sidewinders, a country music nightspot in downtown, often gets a lot of up-and-coming acts out of Nashville. Years ago, I walked down Campbell Avenue one afternoon and heard that night’s act running through her bluesey sound check. I had no idea who Lindsay Ell was then; I sure do now. She’s won or been nominated for a bunch of awards – from the CMT Music Awards, the Country Music Association, plus a Juno last year (the Canadian version of the Grammys) in her native Canada. I could have seen her back then for a cheap cover charge at Sidewinders; now I have to pay $45 to $125 to see her – at the Hard Rock Sioux City.