It’s That Time Again . . . Nashville’s Great Summer Traditions

If last weekend found you laying down some bucks to see some broncs bucking at the Franklin Rodeo—or perhaps you got your horseplay in at the Steeplechase earlier in the month—you need no reminding that our great spring and summer traditions are upon us once again. The long-running Tennessee Renaissance Festival is back—through Memorial Day—to revisit the days of knights out in scenic, rural Triune, where local knaves and their damsels can de-stress. (See our Entertainment blog this week and next for more on this annual area favorite!)

And that’s only the beginning.

One of Nashville’s more recent traditions, Centennial Park’s annual Memorial Day blues festival, is in its ninth year—and right around the corner, folks. Metro Parks music teacher and local bluesman Shannon Williford helped get the party started in 2002, when he and fellow Baton Rouge transplant “Junkyard” Joe Hunter initiated a show that became the first of the Legends of the Blues Festivals, sponsored by the Music City Blues Society. They continued for several years under the “Legends” banner with blues notables topping the bill. The last five years of the festival, which is now called the Music City Blues Spring Festival, have been sponsored by the New Hope Foundation, which provides humane and supportive services to terminally ill persons of Nashville and its surrounding counties. But whether or not they actually call it a “Legends” show these days is irrelevant, as this year’s largely local bill will also feature headliner Taj Mahal, whose nearly 50-year career includes work with Eric Clapton and The Rolling Stones. (It was a Taj Mahal record, incidentally, that inspired former Nashvillian Duane Allman to pick up the slide guitar.)

Metro Parks deserves a big hand—indeed, it has a big hand in a number of the free summer events that epitomize the genial community vibe so commonplace in Nashville. They link arms with the Nashville Scene for Movies in the Park, which this year—number 19—runs every Thursday in June. Elmington Park is providing the scenery for the several-hour hang, which begins at 4 p.m. with vendors onsite plus games and giveaways before the flick starts, around the time the stars start to flicker.

Metro is tops when it comes to providing family-friendly entertainment, and Bellevue’s Red Caboose Park is one of the better places to find it. Built in 1996 by local volunteers in honor of Bellevue’s bicentennial, the park boasts absolutely killer kids’ playground gear. In June, the Red Caboose will have you doing the locomotion at its Friday night concert series, while Friday evenings in July will offer the youth-focused Tales at Twilight.

Metro’s biggest success is also its oldest: the ever-popular Big Band Dance series is celebrating its 30th year of providing swing music just right for jitterbugging. (Rumor has it that even Centennial Park’s bugs jitter in anticipation.) The Saturday-night series started in 1983, when WAMB radio founder Bill Barry was looking for community outreach opportunities for listeners of the Great American Songbook format he pioneered in Music City in 1968. This event is a classic example of the community joining hands, as Metro Parks Music and Theater Program Coordinator Mike Teaney points out. “There are a lot of pieces to the puzzle,” he says, noting that the series has been supported by annual Tennessee Arts Commission grants and also benefits from the generosity of the folks at Dance World, who provide two free dance lessons at each Big Band Dance installment. Of course, Nashville’s finest jazz musicians are on hand to put you in the mood. The series kicks off on June 1.

So, you’re south of the city and you want some free outdoor festivities for the family too? The Sunday evening concert series at Crockett Park, an annual Brentwood favorite since 1994, is still going strong at the Eddy Arnold Amphitheater. This year, the series (which starts on June 2, with a July 4th concert and fireworks presentation preempting its regular Sunday rotation) is focusing strictly on local talent as “a new twist,” says spokesperson and talent booker Linda Lynch. With the exception of the Nashville Symphony, all the scheduled bands specialize in classic, 1960s/’70s sounds, from Beatles to Motown. Free outdoor movies are also offered at Franklin’s Pinkerton Park on select Fridays (June 14, July 12, Aug. 2) and on Friday evenings throughout the summer at the rustic Lawnchair Theatre in Leiper’s Fork. Not free, but easily worth the ticket price for the scenery, beautifully manicured grounds and historical appeal alone, are Carnton Plantation’s monthly “sunset” lawn concerts, held the last Sunday of the month from June through August at the history-preserving Franklin site.

Meanwhile, back in Davidson County, who could forget country music’s biggest week? Certainly not the tens of thousands who stream into Nashville from all over the globe for the four-day CMA Music Festival, forever known to longtime attendees as Fan Fair. This year, that vintage handle finds a brand-spankin’ new home at the Music City Center, where the Fan Fair X exhibition hall will host many festival activities. In neighborly Nashville fashion, we scoot over a bit and make room every June for the scores of folks who willingly reserve rooms at premium rates and patronize all of downtown and beyond. Last year, reports the CMA, attendance was at 71,000 per day, with an estimated local economic impact in the $30 million range. All acts donate their performances, and the CMA, in turn, makes significant donations to the music programs in our schools, so everybody wins—a good thing to remember when you’re having a harder-than-usual time finding a parking place.

If it’s a unique, intimate listening experience you’re after, you need look no further than Bluebird on the Mountain. Held on the grounds of the Dyer Observatory, the in-the-round singer/songwriter series, now in its 10th year, boasts the same world-class talent you’d see at the event’s namesake Green Hills listening room (so, shhhh!), but in a gorgeous outdoor setting with a view of the sunset that’ll likely leave you hushed anyhow. Season passes are sold out, so train your telescopes on Ticketmaster for select individual show tickets, available several weeks ahead of the show dates (held monthly from May through October—Google the Dyer Observatory’s website for dates and details).

It shouldn’t surprise anyone that this summer’s slate of events tends toward the music-centric—after all, this is Nashville—but alternatives can be found. While the First Saturday Art Crawl runs year-round, the warmer months offer an especially inviting atmosphere for perusing downtown art galleries and sipping complimentary wine (usually on hand at participating galleries). Franklin hosts a similar event on the first Friday of the month. While we’re on the subject, note that this year’s American Artisan Festival, typically held every June at Centennial Park, has been cancelled for 2013, with plans to return next year.

Coming up on June 22 is the 11th annual Taste of Music City, sponsored by Nissan and featuring dozens of participating area eateries, breweries and wineries. Candace Price, special events director with Clear Channel Media & Entertainment, notes that the event has had a history of changing locations, and that this one is no exception. “This year, we are at Riverfront Park for the first time and our change in venue is even giving a ‘taste’ of some of the most beautiful areas that Nashville has to offer,” she says. The event, which partners with local charities, is benefiting the DISTRICT this year, a non-profit which works to promote growth, civic pride and unity in the historic Broadway, 2nd Avenue and Printer’s Alley areas.

For many, summer’s peak is the Fourth of July, and you know what that means . . . the rockets’ red glare, everywhere. Fireworks shows take place in multiple locations around the area, but none rivaling the annual Riverfront Park July 4th celebration. This year, musical guests include The Band Perry, Keb’ Mo’ and the Nashville Symphony. Those who’d like a view of the fireworks in less crowded quarters can watch the sky from the Adventure Science Center. Hey, it’s America—you’re free to choose. And in Nashville, there are loads of great choices for you, all summer long. If you haven’t already done so, start a tradition.

Photo 1: Period costumes are worn by actors at the Renaissance Festival/Kelda Sturgis

Photo 2: Taj Mahal, the famed blues musician, will be at Nashville’s Memorial Day Blues Festival/Public Domain Image

Photo 3: LP Field during the CMA Music Fest/Courtesy of CMA/Bennett Farkas

Photo 4: Bluebird on the Mountain/Courtesy of Dyer Observatory/Vanderbilt University

Photo 5: Taste of Music City on Deaderick Street/Courtesy of Taste of Music City

Photo 6: Nashville’s Fourth of July Celebration/Courtesy of the Nashville Convention & Visitors Corporation (NCVC)