Oh Dolly where art thou?

Did anyone else notice that Dollywood - Disney for country folks and home to the Southern Gospel Music Association - has replaced its Southern Gospel Jubilee (aka Harvest Fest) with a big-tent event called the Harvest and Music Fest: “The Smoky Mountain’s Largest Fall Celebration”? Yup (hat tip, LS). Instead of several sg groups singing in the park every day of the month-long Jubilee, there will now be one sg group (in addition, I assume, to the Kingdom Heirs, the park’s in-house sg quartet), one bluegrass group, and one “Americana” group (no indication I can find as to whether these latter two will be explicitly gospel acts or not, but I assume not). Last year three sg groups sang in addition to Kingdom Heirs, as I understand it. In years prior, many of the Dollywood theaters were filled with sg acts (wasn’t there one year when several country Opry stars sang gospel songs during the month as well?). No longer. (For a list of the non-gospel acts on the roster, go to pollstar.com and search for Dollywood.)It’s not clear to me what brought about the change, but a good first place to look would be at attendance, or lack of it (attendance, in turn, could have been related to the underwhelming artists on the lineup in years past … i.e. the Galloways and Safe Harbor, groups that simply don’t have enough drawing power to hold down an event at a place like Dollywood). Certainly one could pretty easily surmise the rechristening of the festival is part of a larger effort to attract more mainstream visitors and staunch any flagging ticket sales in recent years. If that’s the case, it’s hard not to appreciate the financial logic there, though it will be interesting to see if the makeover attracts enough non-sg fans to make up for the inevitable loss of core sg devotees who won’t attend the festival now that it’s widened its scope. No matter, from a strictly sg point of view, this isn’t exactly good news, since there weren’t that many month-long festivals devoted primarily to sg to begin with (are/were there any others at all?). As one reader pointed out to me, the clout that came from Dolly Parton’s investment in a month’s worth of sg-themed programming was incalculable both within and beyond the industry. In addition to the positive press that Dollywood’s festival generated for sg, Parton herself, by all accounts, has a genuine affection for the music (and reportedly, so do the Herschends, co-owners of DW). To lose an exclusive event like this hurts for sure.

On top of all this there are the changes at SGMA. Nevermind the SGMA gift shop, which - as I understand it - relied heavily on the Jubilee to boost its sales. The real question mark is Charlie Waller’s recent arrival as SGMA executive director. In general, it’s hard to hear a bad word spoken about the guy, who is among the more prominent promoters in sg today. But underneath all the happy-facing I have picked up some concern here and there that his tenure at SGMA will inaugurate a traditionalist slant in the museum exhibits and curatorial vision of the association, meaning a primary focus on male quartets at the expense of trios, mixed groups, soloists, etc. Obviously, I hope this turns out to be untrue, since such an officially myopic view of sg as an industry and an artistic tradition would not only further narrow the reach of the music in the present and distort its legacy in the future, but would also reinforce the impression of sg as a withering clique of wagon circlers. If there were any actually reporters at the two major sg “news” outlets, they’d be all over this, as this is the kind of development that opens on to several related issues that are central to the state of the industry and the long-term viability of the music. But of course it’s probably too much to ask the SN or sogospelnews to … ya know … cover this issue properly … ask some tough questions, heck ask any questions at all, maybe call up some of the Dollywood principles involved in the programming changes and see what their take is on it. Or call up Waller ask him what he thinks about the impact of losing the Jubilee. Did DW consult SGMA about the changes? Did SGMA fight the changes or support them? But none of that’s not likely to happen, alas … After all, we wouldn’t want to get in the way of bidness, now would we?

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