If Billy Joel is known as one of America’s greatest storytellers, then Dixie Fuller would be Chattanooga’s equivalent. His love for music and people is evident in his interactions with Riverbend staff members, whom he calls family, and even with strangers like me. Dixie is known throughout the country for his work as tour manager, guitar tech., and drummer for country band Alabama as well as talent buyer for Riverbend Music Festival, where he’s worked for 19 years. I jumped at the chance to take a peek of the behind–the–scenes work of organizing Riverbend, a nine–day music festival along Chattanooga’s downtown waterfront.
So Dixie, tell me about you; who are you?
Dixie: I’m a Chattanooga boy, born and raised. My mom is Lebanese and my dad is Scottish American and that combination brought on quite a love for music. My father always had music playing – I’m talking about old R&B, Sam Cooke, Temptations, and then instrumental stuff like the Venturers and you throw in the occasional Mary Poppins Soundtrack in there and there was always something going on.
So I’ve always had a real love for music. I learned how to play the guitar when I was in the third grade at St. Jude’s and later took lessons from Norman Blake, who is a very good folk player. At the time he was playing with Johnny Cash, who was a member of the Tennessee Three. I did two years of lessons with him and then I took a break for the summer and showed back up in the fall with an electric guitar and he said, “I think I’ve taken you as far as I can.” I kept playing electric. Then I started taking drum lessons. I learned how to play drums and percussions and went on and actually played percussions with the group Alabama onstage and played on a couple of studio albums that I was really proud of. I stayed busy on the road with Clint Black, Fleetwood Mac, and Alabama but I’m actually in town now. These days, I’m not as adventurous as I used to be. My mom just passed but we (my wife and I) came home 15 years ago and she’s been running the family restaurant ever since and I’ve been blessed with the opportunity to book the entertainment for the Riverbend Festival.
How did Riverbend start? What made you want to do Riverbend?
Dixie: Well, I was actually on the road with Alabama at the time but luckily for me the sound company that we had out doing our tour was also the company that provided the sound for Riverbend. I didn’t know much about Richard Brewer or Bruce Storey at that time; the festival was their brainchild. While in college together, they came up with this idea of having a festival with a stage out on the water. They scouted out Chattanooga, walked along the riverfront and decided that this was the perfect setting. They bought a barge and began building this dream. Meanwhile, I was on the road and the Alabama sound guy said, “Hey, there’s this thing in Chattanooga, do you know anything about it? It’s called Riverbend. A couple of guys started it and I thought you might know something.” And I said, “No.”
You know, Chattanooga was a financially depressed town in the late 70’s and early 80’s. The air was thick with smoke, the aquarium wasn’t built yet, and I thought, “Dang, Chattanooga’s shot down, everybody’s going to the malls in the suburbs and downtown is just a bunch of seedy bars. Nobody’s going to go down there.” Boy was I wrong. I mean, the town got behind cleaning the air because we already had some pretty cool tourist attractions like the Incline and Rocky City and both were staples of this town, and have been here forever. The aquarium pops up and people start coming up out of nowhere. The next thing you know, you start seeing hotels downtown. All of a sudden, Riverbend announced that they’d booked the Pointer Sisters. By year three, they realized they had a festival on their hands. The gates were packed.
In the meantime, I was still touring with Alabama, having fun and living the dream but I think I had gone as far as I could go and I wanted to do something else. I started carving out the first two weeks of June for Riverbend because I said, “This is something I need to go home to and investigate long term. Maybe down the road I can get involved with this.” I attended the festival for the next two years. I had taken my little hiatus from Clint Black to work and stay in town, and Richard Brewer said, “I need a representative from each Riverbend service provider to come in for a meeting every morning at Kirkman,” which was an old high school right on the festival grounds. We had our restaurant’s catering there so I started showing up to one of these meetings and all of a sudden one afternoon he comes up to me and asks, “Do you want to come back and manage the Coke Stage?” I said, “I don’t know, let me see if I can get some time off.” And so I’ve been here ever since. I came back and managed the Coke Stage for nineteen years and I’ve been full time since 2008.
What do you see are some challenges in booking for the festival?
Dixie: Over the last recent years, artists are pricing themselves out of this business. Well, their managers and agents are pricing them out of business.
In an effort to make money?
Dixie: Well, I think they want to make money all at once. I don’t think they’re looking at the long term. When I was on Alabama, we thought it would never end. So we kinda just plugged along. We didn’t beat anybody up all at once, we tried to keep our ticket price fairly reasonable so everybody could afford to come. I think that’s a challenge. I hate to pick out a genre in particular, is that it’s very true with R&B artists. It’s a common thread that R&B and progressive rap artists are pricing themselves out of the business because of their rapidly changing market. You could demand a very, very high price today and in three weeks be all the way down at the lowest price point. There’s only one or two P Diddy’s so you have to be really careful. I’m finding it very hard to book that genre of music for the festival because I need to stay within a budget while at the same time investing in quality artists and trying to make it work. That’s what’s important to me is what is good for the festival.
The challenges are taking in and stretching money to make it last to bring entertainment in that’s fresh and bigger than last year. We put a lot of time and thought into choosing the bands and the stage they will perform on. Interesting that you asked that though, because I was reading this article on how country music festivals are dying out because artists are charging a million dollars, like Luke Bryan, Florida Georgia Line, Jason Aldean are charging too much money. People are pricing themselves out of this business. And they can’t pass any savings to the festival goer because the ticket price is $250 for a three day event and you’ve got a mom with kids who ain’t got that kind of money. They had one down there called Shaky Boots in Atlanta, a week after Shaky Knees, and they couldn’t afford to keep it going. Same with Dega Jam in Talladega, FL.
What’s been your favorite act in the Riverbend line up since you started working here?
Dixie: You know, golly that’s so difficult! You have to understand that I’m hopelessly stuck in the 70’s. I’m an old classic rocker and I think my two favorite acts were Peter Frampton and Earth, Wind, and Fire. Peter was one of my favorite shows ever just because I love him, and I had him on my stage in front of our crowd. Earth, Wind, and Fire we’ve had twice. We actually had them four or five years ago. Earth, Wind, and Fire was absolutely the most incredible show. I could name a whole ton of other acts, but those two are my favorites.
Photo Contributed by Source.