After more than two decades Park Rhythms stays true to its simple roots
There are moments on the lawn, when the summer breeze carries music through the air as families dance in front of a picturesque mountain backdrop, when Park Rhythms feels perfect.
The Thursday night concert series at Lake Tomahawk, which returns for its 23rd year June 21, inspires feelings of nostalgia. Smiling friends and neighbors get together and unwind; it feels like simpler times.
That environment is exactly what Lee Ann Bannerman envisioned when she was head of special events with the Black Mountain Recreation and Parks Department in the mid-1990s.
"Before I moved to Black Mountain I worked for the parks and recreation department in Burlington," said Bannerman, who just moved back to the area after spending time overseas. "We had a similar series there, it was the same name and everything, and I was involved in starting that one as well."
Bannerman, who was also the director of the senior center for the recreation department, knew just the spot to hold the event in Black Mountain. Her vision was a summer concert series that was "as simple as possible," she said. She wanted the concerts to complement the setting.
"I didn't want it to be like a carnival-type atmosphere," she said. "My vision was really just people setting up picnics on the lawn and enjoying some music."
She took her idea to the head of the department at the time.
"My boss was Randy Wilson, and he was great about staff coming to him with ideas," she said. "I went to him and said 'I'd like to do this series, will you give me some money?'"
The budget for the yet-to-named event in 1995 was $350.
"I had to go out and beat the bushes around town and whatever I raised I could spend," she said. "I raised a little bit of money and then I had to contact friends of mine who were musicians to see if they would be willing to play for free."
Bannerman recalls names like David LaMotte and Laura Boosinger playing that year and finding willing sponsors throughout the community.
"We had great success raising money that year," she said. "A lot of the sponsors today were the sponsors that first year."
A temporary stage was constructed that year, and Bannerman was anxious to see how the first Park Rhythms would be received.
"I had butterflies in my stomach, but sure enough cars started rolling in," she said. "That first year we were probably bringing in 300-400 each week. By the time I left the town, in the early 2000s, we were getting 1,200."
The concert series continues to draw at least that many each week, according to Elaina Hensley, the special event and community outreach coordinator for the recreation and parks department.
She, along with recreation program supervisor Brittany Williams, organized this year's series, which has grown over time to include a rotating cast of food vendors.
"We try to find a mix of local bands and other bands we think will be a good fit," she said.
One of the bands playing this year is the Crooked Pine Band, which includes Bannerman's brother Craig Bannerman, the longtime deputy chief of the Black Mountain Fire Department.
Craig, or "Chief T" as he's frequently introduced by his band mates, plays the upright bass. Park Rhythms feels like a homecoming of sorts for Craig, who can hear the music every Thursday from his yard.
"It's great seeing all the familiar faces when we play," he said. "This will be our third year in a row and it's always a lot of fun for us and the audience."
The Crooked Pine Band will play July 5, which Craig thinks could be the most well-attended concert of the season, due to it being the day after the holiday.
"We play a variety of styles of music, but primarily high-energy mountain music," he said. "We don't limit ourselves to traditional music, we mix it up to try to get everyone up and dancing."
One person who will definitely be there when the Crooked Pine Band takes the stage is Craig's sister, who could practically see how Park Rhythms would look 23 years in the future when she started it.
"It makes me happy to know that vision has held up," she said. "It's a testament to simplicity."