After 10 No. 1 country hits and multiple No. 1 albums on the Billboard 200 chart, it’s no surprise that Luke Bryan will spend most of his summer entertaining the masses in stadiums, arenas and amphitheatres. But as thrilling as these concerts may be, there’s a special show on the horizon that Bryan’s looking forward to more than just about anything.
The place: Blackberry Farm, a stunningly beautiful 4200-acre hotel situated 25 minutes outside of Knoxville, Tenn., in the foothills of the Smoky Mountains. Long known as a must-visit destination for food and wine aficionados, the Farm is quickly becoming an in-demand place for a wide range of musicians to play – from Bryan to Sheryl Crow, Kacey Musgraves, Emmylou Harris and red-hot soul newcomer Leon Bridges.
“Performing at Blackberry Farm is one of the highlights of my year,” says Bryan, who will return to perform exclusively for hotel guests on a date still being finalized. “It’s a time when I can pull out a guitar and do songs I may not always get to do on tour.”
“Blackberry Farm was a memorable experience, as it was my first show as a Columbia Records recording artist,” Bridges tells Billboard. “As far as touring venues, they set the bar pretty high and I’m already realizing the uniqueness of the play.”
The property has been informally hosting music for its guests since the mid-2000s, including frequent performances by local bluegrass band Misty River. The first national act to perform there was the Punch Brothers in 2007, after which, “We wanted to step up our game,” says the Farm’s director of marketing Sarah Elder Chabot, who handles the lion’s share of the booking.
For the next several years, a Nashville-centric show would be hosted every four-to-six months in the Farm’s historic Barn restaurant, with singer-songwriters performing in the round while 30-50 people ate dinner. Harris, who visits the weekend of Aug. 21, became a mainstay. She’s now performed at the Farm for six straight years, including in 2012 when a sudden thunderstorm forced guests into the tiny Hickory Room for an impromptu acoustic show.
By 2012, the word was out, and major artists like Sugarland‘s Jennifer Nettles were squeezing into the Barn for intimate, stripped-down concerts. A big show was usually held outdoors around Labor Day, with a Christmas-themed show taking place in December. Starting with Nettles, the Farm established a foundation to give back some of the proceeds to local charities, raising more than $130,000 last year alone.
On tap for the rest of the year are an Americana Music Association event the weekend of April 23 with Crow, Holly Williams and Keb Mo, and Little Big Town‘s annual holiday show on Dec. 13. And now, two new initiatives are raising the profile of music at the Farm even higher. First and foremost is the May groundbreaking on a new Events Center, which will include a natural stone amphitheatre with capacity for 200-250 concertgoers. Expected to be completed by May 2016, the Events Center will be “a pretty magical spot to play a show, and to witness one,” says Elder Chabot.
Second is a burgeoning partnership with Nashville’s revered singer/songwriter venue the Bluebird Cafe, which will bring Bluebird-style multi-artist shows to the Farm several times per year. The series kicked off on Jan. 30 with performances from Matraca Berg, the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band’s Jeff Hannah and Kim Carnes.
“It was very well-received,” says the Bluebird’s COO/GM Erika Wollam Nichols. “Most people remained at their dinner seating. We do Bluebird shows that way — we have a shush policy. It’s not to make people repressed, but to remind that we are a listening room and we are about songs and songwriters. It captivated everybody. People get activated when they hear their favorite songs being performed by the people who are at the very root of them.”
The Farm got an added boost in visibility in January when Sports Illustrated shot the cover of its annual swimsuit issue on the property, and Elder Chabot acknowledges that the addition of the Events Center may afford the opportunity to sell more concert tickets to the general public. “We are first and foremost a Farm and a hotel,” she says. “Whatever moves we make will have the guest experience in mind. We don’t want to be just another venue.”
Adds Farm proprietor Sam Beall, whose family purchased the property in 1976, “We’re not in the music business. We’re in the hospitality business. We’re honored and humbled we’ve been able to welcome and share this property. The artists who’ve played here have been willing to give back to our guests a very intimate and unique experience.”