Last night my wife and I were recalling the great rock-and-roll concerts at Freedom Hall Civic Center in Johnson City back in the seventies and eighties. What gives? It seems they gave up. Music feeds the soul of the masses and drives young and old alike. The Tri-Cities are missing great music that once drove the generations.
(Photo by John Dabbs | Freedom Hall Civic Center-Johnson City, TN)
In our day
Time passed differently then. It seemed as if every weekend we could join our friends in Johnson City and see a performance from one of the nation’s greatest rock bands. There are very few and they are in short supply. Most of the events now appear to be less popular bands, conventions, and religious bands or gatherings.
Elton John and ZZ Top where some of the last big acts we remember seeing at the center. Times have changed. Freedom Hall is no longer a contender and able to draw big names. Promoters and bands go for bigger bang on the buck. It was quite impressive that the last event I recall was standing room only and had lines out the door and around the complex. But it isn't every day a sitting U.S. President comes to town.
This facility is a civic center. We wonder why this cultural icon with so much to offer is seeing less than ideal massive crowds as in the 1970s and early 1980s. The city has put a lot of money into improving the roof and air system. It may even sell beer on site after the new Liberty Bell complex is built, and Freedom Hall is no longer considered part of the school's campus.
Crowds at one time ran over 9,000 for the bigger concerts. I even read that Bob Hope did the first show here - that makes it an ancient facility! Acts like KISS, AC/DC, Alice Cooper, Lynyrd Skynyrd and Elvis put this place on the map.
Money makers changed the business - and progress. Big acts now travel to large venues instead of mid-size venues like Freedom Hall. Travel and overhead eat up expenses for promoters, bands, and major talent. They get much more bang for their buck when they can perform at higher capacity venues with more butts in the seat.
Interstate 81 opened about the same time Freedom Hall was opening. Those two-lane drives to Knoxville or Asheville were no longer the hinderance they once were. When I-26 opened across Sam's Gap into North Carolina, Asheville, Charlotte, and other venues were more accessible than ever. It's within driving distance.
Freedom Hall just doesn't have the capacity to lure big acts the way it once did. There are very few up-and-comers looking for mid-size venues to get their name out there as they once did. The auditorium has changed with the times and began booking alternatives to help pay the bills. Having ETSU basketball at the Hall helped, and other shows and performers wanting a more intimate venue find Johnson City suitable. The big acts of the past have moved on -- it seems that way at least.
BMS-Thunder Valley Ampitheater
The Tri-Cities entertainment path is not dead. The Bristol Motor Speedway recently announced a new venue with a seating capacity of 30,000. Thunder Valley Ampitheater presented by Ballad Health System will be an added venue at the Bristol Dragway, using stadium seating and boxes at Thunder Valley. A stage and floor seating can be erected as needed. (Knoxville's Thompson Boling Arena holds 22,000 and Charlotte's Bojangles Coliseum holds 9,000)
The annaugural event has Grammy Award winning ALABAMA scheduled for the first event. Their 50th Anniversary tour was to be on the Bristol Circuit during 2019 but was cancelled due to health issues with one of the group's members, and then COVID-19 last year. The iconic group with their trademark sound will be a welcome addition to the hills of Northeast Tennessee.
Hard-Rock Hotel & Casino
Just up the road in Bristol, Virginia the former Bristol Mall property will be transformed over the next couple of years into a destination. The Hard Rock Hotel & Casino will operate a hotel, restaurants, casino, and live entertainment. The venue is envisioned to have multiple stages with indoor and outdoor concert facilities. Only a couple of years away - we can only imagine the rock that come to town.
Re-Centering the Music
With the Hard-Rock and Thunder Valley Ampitheater in Bristol, what will the concert fate fall to in Johnson City? The largest of the Tri-Cities, Johnson City has more business, a large university, factories and no shortage of restaurants. There are also more hotels in Johnson City. What will become of entertainment vacuum in town.
Small clubs and festivals are great for building a crowd downtown in or a bar on a weekend. We need to find a draw to pull people here and keep them in town for a couple of days to spend their cash. We lost our Appalachian League teams supported by Major League Baseball. We have many empty businesses and lots of housing and medical facilities.
We hope city leaders will continue to build upon the tradition and work to bring more entertainment to the city that will draw crowds from beyond our borders.