I’ve written pretty extensively about the East Tennessee Community Design Center in previous articles. Their work helps Knoxville be a better city. Their projects to assist organizations have helped over 100,000 children. They estimate $18 Million in economic impact from their projects in the last decade. They’ve designed 200 community parks, seen 92 of their facade designs completed and have participated in 1000 projects in our area since 1970. Operating with a small staff and an army of architectural volunteers, they designed the Central Collective about which I recently wrote.
Each year the center hosts an awards event at the Knoxville Museum of Art to honor a community member. Named in honor of the late Bruce McCarty, the award recognizes, “individuals who have demonstrated a commitment to building a better future for this region . . . with the goal of perpetuating both the quality of life in East Tennessee and the qualities of leadership of Bruce McCarty. Previous winners have included Randy and Jenny Boyd, Carol Evans, Paul James and David Dewhirst.
Lots of fun happened before the award, however, starting with Halloween costumes worn by many of the guests – architects getting crazy! A pretty powerful “vampire kiss,” was offered to everyone just inside the door and an open bar kept everyone happy. After being seated, Michael Jackson and a troupe of zombies performed Thriller and made things just a little crazier.
Former UT president Joe Johnson served as emcee and Mayor Rogero addressed the crowd, recalling how she first met Ashley in the 1980s at Ella Guru’s. She recalled dancing to Marcia Ball, the Neville Brothers and Dr. John. Of Ashley, she said, “One thing that has remained constant is his passion and enthusiasm.” She also reminisced about performing his wedding at Ijams in 1997.
David Dewhirst, noting of Ashley that, “We are here to celebrate, the impact he has had and the world-class company he has built,” pointed out that it is Ashley’s management style that intrigued David. Saying he had observed him closely through many Bonnaroo Festivals, he had distilled Ashley’s leadership style down to three things: Hold a beer in one hand, bob your head and keep a “huge ass smile” on your face. He also mentioned a recent business deal the two have looked at together and awaited an email that he assumed would give great detail about how Ashley wanted to approach the project. When the email arrived, it simply said, “Hey David, Let’s Rock!”
RB Morris was introduced as a surprise guest and spoke of his and Ashley’s long relationship and the fact that through Ashley RB has been able to play with Willie Nelson, Emmylou Harris, Bob Dylan and many others. He recited a beautiful poem and followed it with his song, “City.” It was as touching a tribute as anyone could hope to have.
Ashley was called to the stage to receive his award and deliver remarks. For those of you who don’t know Ashley, he’s a Knoxville native who hosted various programs, particularly a jazz program on WUTK for 31 years. This experience and his passion for music led him into promoting concerts including his first at the Laurel Theater in 1979, for which he recalled paying $10 to rent the venue. He thought the price was high. In the early 1980s he began producing shows at the Bijou and the Tennessee Theatres, including many I enjoyed, such as Bobby Blue Bland, KoKo Taylor, Clarence Gatemouth Brown and others.
By the late 1980s he opened Ella Guru’s and hosted an amazing array of artists. Those of us who remember the venue can rattle off a list of our favorite shows. I saw Clarence Gatemouth Brown, Anson Funderburgh, John Lee Hooker, Roger McGuinn and Odetta there. And met each of them, which tells you the kind of place it was. The only time I ever saw Alex Haley was at the Odetta show sitting at a corner table.
In 1991 Ashley formed AC Entertainment and began producing larger shows including the fabulous “Hot Summer Nights” series on the World’s Fair Park where for a cheap ticket I saw BB King, the Neville Brothers, John Fogerty, Al Green, Sheryl Crow, Wilco, Old Crow Medicine Show and many others. He mentioned that series in his remarks and said it could be a precursor to a later project for which he is best known: Bonnaroo. He promoted and booked the Sundown in the City series, he books artists for the Tennessee and Bijou Theatres currently, operates festivals all over North America, presents over 1000 concerts annually and is behind Knoxville’s Big Ears Festival.
Ashley acknowledged his mother and brother who were present and said, “This community has given so much to me and I feel very lucky.” He said the opportunity to bring great music to Knoxville’s great theatres was too much to resist. As an interesting aside, he pointed out that even into the mid 1990s he fielded angry calls from people complaining that the shows were booked downtown. Calling it all a, “happy accident,” he realized that increasing numbers of people enjoyed coming downtown and he realized it was helping business. “I still love the music, bringing an artist an an audience together, but the ripple effect of building community in recent years has been what turns me on.
He discussed the role of arts and the creative class in revitalizing a city and lamented the gutting of arts education in public schools, saying, “Arts aren’t very easily measured. It’s an ongoing experience. Quality of life is not an efficiency thing, it isn’t about the bottom line. Relationships and community are not efficiency-based.” He said he is very proud of Big Ears which he said is, “about exploration and community.”
Wayne Blasius, Executive Director the East Tennessee Design Center ended the night with a few words and acknowledgements. So, a fun time was had by all and a man whose life-work has enriched so many of us was honored. We are blessed to have so many people working so hard to make the city a better place.