Music thrives in region's downtowns
Music on the Square is the place to be in Jonesborough
By Leslie Grace | A! Magazine for the Arts | July 31, 2013When Steve Cook began Music on the Square in downtown Jonesborough, Tenn., in 1999, to generate after-hours traffic in what he calls, "a sleepy little town," it was not a town-approved event.
"At first the town fathers would not let us block the street, so we had performers on one side, listeners on the other side, and traffic in between," Cook says. "After a couple of weeks, we removed saw horses from another work site in town and blocked the traffic ourselves. When the town realized what we did, they said not to block the street and got so many calls that night, that they changed their minds and let us close it off. Crowds grew steadily, and bands played for nothing to help get it started."
That slightly rocky start has transformed into an event that has grown more than one might expect. In a town that has slightly more than 5,000 people, more than 1,000 of them may show up on a given Friday night, from May through September, beginning at 7 p.m.
"The series has grown wonderfully throughout the years, from a few dozen, to a couple hundred, to a thousand people or more on a pretty Friday night," Cook says. "It really has become the Friday night place to be, as you have such a beautiful setting, wonderful music, good food and shopping in some of our stores, all in one nice little two or three block area. One performer described her night here as "simply magical,' and one of the favorite venues anywhere she has ever played."
Cook has been around music since childhood; some of his brothers and his father were musical, and his dad listened to swing while Cook did his homework. He plays banjo, bass and harmonica with a group called The Ozone Rangers. In addition to music, Cook also liked finding out what made things work and dismantled old radios and TVs and explored the nuts and bolts of household items.
He used his musical background to help find acts for MOTS. "Since I was a musician and knew many performers, I compiled a list of folks around the region who might be interested in playing," Cook says. "Once they were told what was happening, they were glad to come and play. Nowadays hardly a day goes by, that I don't get press kits or e-mails from folks who have heard about the event and want to come and play. Many times they tell me "so and so' told them about us, and how wonderful the location and audience are.
"I enjoy many styles of music; and when we go to hear someone play, often I will give them a card or note, and ask them about coming to play. I have no rules for who plays or what kinds of music. I just want it to be good entertainment, family-friendly and something you just may never hear if it weren't for bringing them to MOTS. This region is so rich with musical heritage; and bands are traveling through this area headed to another gig or tour, and they try to route their journey so they can catch as many gigs to play as possible. Being an early evening performance also appeals to many of them, as they are often finished performing before many other gigs even start."
MOTS has a variety of musical genres on stage, but they don't stop at just music for their offerings. Each performance features at least two acts.
"We have even had poets, performance artists and Native American Hoop Dancers at the series, just really good entertainment for our great audiences," Cook says. "But jazz, swing, Americana, singer/songwriters, bluegrass, and of course, old time have all graced the stage at our wonderful downtown living room venue.
"The bands we book are as varied as the people who play in them. I try to book bands that you may not hear anywhere else ... unique, talented and great musicianship. There are literally thousands of bands touring around the country, looking for a place to share their songs, stories and wit. They all have something that makes them unique, and we book them to help share their love of performing. Most all have spent years honing their skills, writing their songs and hoping for a place like Music on the Square to pour out their souls to anyone who will listen.
"Hardly a night goes by that someone doesn't come to me and say "that was the best band ever.' Musical tastes vary tremendously, and every night may not be their cup of tea; but even if it's not a favorite, there is no denying the fact the performer is talented and was the very thing for someone else."
Cook has performed a couple of times at MOTS, but says he has a hard time enjoying it, as he feels the need to be in the audience in case anything goes haywire. "It seldom does, but there's always that possibility," he says. "The event belongs to the audience who come to enjoy a relaxed evening of entertainment for free or a very low cost."
At first, they "passed the hat" to help cover the cost of performers, equipment and to pay the people who handle the sound. Now they have evening sponsors who support MOTS through contributions and, in return, get exposure for their businesses.
Exposure for businesses extends to downtown businesses when hundreds of, if not a thousand, people walk by their downtown establishments.
"The businesses that stay open late can't help but gain from being there for the evening," Cook says. "Sales may not spike, but someone new saw their store and possibly will come back and shop there on another day. Having 1,000 people sitting in your front door has to have a positive impact on their economy; and we wish more of our shops would stay open, at least for some of the Friday night performances. Many already do, and they enjoy the music as well."
From those first days of not allowing the street to be closed, the town of Jonesborough has come to support MOTS in many ways. They provide partial funding and close the street every Friday night. They also provide security, trash pickup, volunteers and are a part of what makes this wonderful event happen.
"Music on the Square has been around for 15 years, and many events like this run their course in a few years," Cook says. "But the location, the people and the fine performers have made this one of the premier events in the entire region, and I am proud of what it has become. People have said they were considering a couple of places to relocate — and when they discovered what we do on the square every Friday, May through September, as well as the many other events that happen locally — that was the deciding factor in coming to live here in Tennessee's oldest town, historic, beautiful Jonesborough."
The scene at Music on the Square in downtown Jonesborough (Photo by Peter Montanti, Mountain Photographics Inc.)