On A High Note

Dancin' in Circles: The Return of an Old Nashville Favorite

Back to the riverfront: Dancin' in the District in its glory days. / Photo courtesy of Tom Morales

Editor’s Note: Steve Morley is filling in for Jessi Maness this week. Keep reading for fabulous information on the return of a Nashville classic!

Back to the riverfront: Dancin' in the District in its glory days. / Photo courtesy of Tom Morales

Back to the riverfront: Dancin’ in the District in its glory days. / Photo courtesy of Tom Morales

If you’ve been living in or near Music City since the mid-1990s, or even the early 2000s, then you need no reminding what Dancin’ in the District is. The beloved summer concert series, initially a free downtown event held on Thursday nights, brought thousands of Nashvillians downtown to catch a kaleidoscopic array of musical acts, both local and national (around here, of course, the distinction can get blurry). And, if you’re like a lot of Music City citizens, the event left not only the series’ nifty brand name emblazoned upon your grey matter; it did the same for TomKats, the catering firm that was responsible for creating the well-remembered weekly event.

Tom Morales

Tom Morales

TomKats, Inc.’s Tom Morales, who has since gone on to preserve an even older Nashville institution, the Loveless Cafe, has teamed with the mayor’s office, Dollar General and a host of additional sponsors to bring the event back again. That news has been floating around since back in the spring, but news isn’t music . . . and starting this Thursday, June 13, the music will again ring out across Riverfront Park as the newly branded Nashville Dancin’—slated to run weekly through August 1—offers Nashville a smorgasbord of song, absolutely free.

The schedule for the eight-week series, available online at nashvilledancin.com, is dotted with local heroes including Pat McLaughlin, Mike Farris & the Roseland Rhythm Revue and the celebrated McCrary Sisters, whose father, Sam, was the memorable tenor singer in venerable gospel mainstay The Fairfield Four. In what is an especially inspired lineup, July 20’s installment—which Morales refers to as “our ‘bloodlines’ show”—features acts who, like the McCrarys, are direct descendants of musical royalty. You can sort it out for yourselves, but to get you started, the surnames include Allman, Jennings, Nelson, Neville and Ronstadt. (Not to be mistaken for a legal firm . . . not by a long shot.)

McCrary Sisters

McCrary Sisters / Jeff Fasano Photography

The musically astute will be quick to note that lineups like the above are derived from the same wide-ranging approach used to book acts for the locally produced show Music City Roots. Hardly happenstance, that: Tom Morales, whose Loveless Barn hosts the program, has long shared musical sensibilities with Roots co-producers Todd Mayo and John Walker. “Most nights, you’ll get a little bit of everything,” says Morales of the musical mixture on tap for this summer’s series, confirming that it’s “the same formula that Music City Roots does. When we were originally doing Dancin’ in the District, Todd Mayo wanted to get involved in that. So we’ve had a long association.” MCR co-producer John Walker calls Morales “a visionary and a great friend to Music City Roots . . . and music in general. He truly understands branding, and the importance of music and art in the grand scheme of things.”

What Morales, a lifelong Nashvillian, has done with music is indeed laudable, especially for a guy who makes his living in the food business. Of course, assembling a great musical menu isn’t unlike preparing a great meal, and his initial vision for Dancin’ in the District was to serve a platter from which folks with varying tastes could find something appealing. “We built our music lineup around the community,” Morales says. “We explored the different genres [and] what we tried to do, really, was mix the genres so that there’s something there for everybody.”

Royal Southern Brotherhood

Royal Southern Brotherhood

If you’ve ever been to a Dancin’ show, you were probably too busy having a blast to stop and think about the complexity behind making such an event happen. As Morales tells the story, Dancin’ in the District began after a colleague told him about a free downtown concert series in Houston. He flew down to check it out, and found it to be “a happy hour with music” that could be done successfully in Music City. Morales approached then-Mayor Bill Boner about such a project, but found that “his vision wasn’t the same as ours, so we passed.”

All that changed when Phil Bredesen came on board as mayor, according to Morales. Bredesen’s only caveat was that the series initially be staged somewhere other than Riverfront Park, due in part to park restrictions, but also to other, perhaps larger factors. “I think Phil knew in his heart that downtown Nashville had become nothing but, basically, run-down honky-tonks, pawn shops and porn shops,” he says. “The one way to revitalize it, which was part of our pitch, was to bring the people who lived out and about back downtown. This was a perfect vehicle to do it.”

The series, which started in 1994 on Capitol Boulevard, proved successful and was moved to Riverfront Park, as Morales had originally pictured it. Refreshingly, he doesn’t try to mask his own interests in the venture, though as the old proverb says, a rising tide raises all boats. “TomKats’ purpose for doing Dancin’ in the District was as a guerilla marketing technique. We had invested in property on Lower Broad and we wanted to see the revitalization of it, too,” he explains. “It was [done] to profile our business as well. But we never looked at it as a money-making proposition, we looked at it as a marketing proposition.”

Shooter Jennings

Shooter Jennings / Photo by James Minchin III

Morales’ marketing maneuver turned out to be a major magnet for outside entities, creating significant benefits for Nashville, including successfully wooing the Titans and the Preds. “[The city and the Nashville Convention and Visitors Bureau] recruited these nationally known businesses. . . . they wanted a Hard Rock in Nashville, so we did a special edition of Dancin’ in the District for the Hard Rock Cafe people when they came to town,” recalls Morales. “With 10,000 local people showing up downtown, it demonstrated the vibrancy of [the city]. Planet Hollywood came in, several businesses were being recruited to put their headquarters here. . . . we treated them like VIPs at Dancin’ in the District.”

“That’s what Phil Bredesen recognized in letting us do that,” continues Morales. “It was real important [to us] for the mayor’s office to be recognized as a sponsor—if you look back at the old advertising, the parks and the city of Nashville, their crests were on our media advertising—because they took it seriously, and they made sure that, from the top down, everybody else took it seriously, so it was such an easy effort working with the city,” says Morales. “Bredesen was a real partner—Karl Dean is a real partner, too.”

Clearly, politics have played a role in both incarnations of Dancin’. Changes in the city’s priorities after Bill Purcell became mayor in September of 1999 contributed to Morales’ exit from the project, which would (under different ownership) later relocate, seek out larger, more expensive acts, and begin charging admission up through 2005, its final year. It was still a good time, but, says Morales, “It broke the formula.”

Thursday’s long-awaited launch of Nashville Dancin’, like its predecessor, is made possible by a lot of folks working together to give the city something to enjoy and be proud of. In addition to the anchoring sponsor, Dollar General, sponsors who have stepped up include State Water Heaters, BudLight, twicedaily, Ole Smoky Tennessee Moonshine and more—the whole list, including many media partners, is on the home page at nashvilledancin.com. Kindly make it a point to take note of, and patronize, the good people paying for the free concerts coming your way.

Raelyn Nelson

Raelyn Nelson / Photo by Brittany Cadwallader

Noteworthy this year is the introduction of free parking at LP Field for the Dancin’ series (and free shuttle service from 5 p.m. until 11:00, though it’s a perfectly pleasant walk)—an issue that Morales found to be a sticking point in the past, when pricey commercial parking lots would diminish the value of the free shows downtown. Now, there’s an alternative. “Grand Avenue gave us free shuttles, the Titans gave us the parking lot,” says Morales. “I think that’s a major deal, with the Sports Authority and the Titans working together to get us the parking for free. That’s a gift to the community.”

For many locals, just having Dancin’ back is enough of a gift: as Morales notes, there are a lot of fond memories among the people of the greater Nashville area. “I mean, there’s really about one and a half generations of people who either worked it, or participated in it in some way, or met their wives there … so there’s this big brand awareness in the community still. It never went away.”