Michael Gray’s love for the arts and what has now become the River City Sessions began with a passion for writing which he fostered in high school and continued to devote time to as he built a career in banking and consulting. In 2012 he had a serious car accident that put him in the hospital, where he decided to return to write and tell stories for a living. While his passion fueled him, he had difficulty finding places to perform. He rallied a few storyteller and musician friends together and approached the Camp House about partnering to provide a performance space for their work. Since then, the project has turned into the River City Sessions, an art event and radio show homegrown in Chattanooga.
What is River City Sessions’ mission statement? How have you seen it develop over the past five years?
Michael: Our mission statement has stayed consistent over the past five years: to provide a place for the beginning artist, storyteller, poet, and musician to perform and practice their art. We look for people who are taking it seriously but are close enough to the beginning of their career that they might not have an outlet. We focus on local talent, but sometimes we reach out artists in Nashville, Huntsville, and Atlanta for variety. We try to mix those beginning artists with people who are more seasoned. That’s still our major focus.
Why did you see a need for this in Chattanooga?
Michael: I couldn't find a place to perform my stuff, and I wanted to provide that for like–minded storytellers who were experiencing the same difficulties. I added music because I couldn’t do two straight hours of storytelling, and neither could the other storytellers I collaborated with.
Does River City Sessions do more than offer a performance platform?
Michael: We are a helpmate to artists via a radio platform, which gives them an outlet to hopefully be discovered and move up. There have been a few people who have performed with us that have eventually made their way to SXSW, Bonnaroo, Riverbend, and Nightfall. That helps them progress, especially when they can say that they’ve been on an NPR station – River City Sessions is broadcast by NPR affiliate 88.1FM WUTC.
We’re partnering to provide entertainment on June 9th for a fundraiser for Lula Lake, at which Caney Creek Company is performing. We have occasionally booked talent for other festivals. I met Caney Creek Company at Ketner’s Mill through a woman who has taught them in the past and whom I’m also good friends with and asked me to have them. We brought them to Chattanooga to play together from Chattanooga, Cookeville, and Knoxville. They ended up playing Riverbend and a few out of town festivals. David Anderson plays for Atlanta Rhythm Section. Phil Weaver is a classical guitarist who has played with us and is now in the Alabama Hall of Fame. I’m not saying that we’re the reason for their success, but we were a stepping stone.
How have you seen Chattanooga’s music scene develop over the years as you’ve worked with River City Sessions?
Michael: There’s some interesting developments that have happened since I started River City Sessions. The creation of SoundCorps has been one of them. People would not have been interested enough to support the arts ten years ago and yet in the past couple of years the interested has grown enough to support an organization like SoundCorps.
I’m really excited about some recent talks I had with a few prominent figures in the bluegrass scene in Nashville, and both of them in that conversation mentioned how they never thought of Chattanooga as a place to go to until the last year or two. I think Chattanooga has always just been an afterthought, but we’re slowly becoming a destination location. I think the Visitor’s Bureau and their effort with Mary Howard Ade has helped. I like to see the effort that’s being put in by other people to support the music industry.
What advice would you give someone who wants to be featured on River City Sessions?
Michael: Get a recording and a music video to send to us. If I don’t respond within a month, send it to me again. But give me a bio and lay out a vision for your career future to help me understand how we can help. Network with other musicians. Go to open mic and the events SoundCorps has to offer.