Convention shows lucrative in Nashville
Posted: Monday, June 30, 2008 12:02 pm
By: The Associated Press
The Messenger 06.30.08
By JOE EDWARDS
Associated Press Writer
NASHVILLE (AP) — They don’t have recording contracts and don’t make concert tours. You’ve probably never heard of them.
But a dedicated core of Nashville performers earn a comfortable living entertaining for corporate groups who meet regularly in Music City USA.
They sing and play for groups as diverse as funeral directors, grocers and bull semen salesmen (more about that later).
Nashville is a major convention draw, with most meetings at the sprawling Gaylord Opryland Resort & Convention Center or at the city-owned convention center. According to the Nashville Convention and Visitors Bureau, the city has 11 million visitors and over 500 conventions a year. Convention delegates spent more than $422 million last year.
So tourists in the city offer an attractive venue for Nashville’s plentiful singers and musicians.
For sure, convention shows don’t get rowdy like some rock concerts. But they can be lively.
“I get Mike from sales up on stage to sing ‘Mony Mony.’ That’s a home run,” says Gary Jenkins, 42, who with his band has been performing for conventions for 20 years and does a minimum of one corporate show a week.
He once entertained for a convention of bull semen salesmen.
“They had a real sense of humor about what they did, and they were ready to have a good time,” Jenkins recalled. “It was like a rowdy frat party.”
A few years ago, fiddler Tim Watson worked out a special song while performing with Tammy Wynette for GMC truck dealers.
“Instead of her ‘Stand by Your Man,’ we did ‘Stand by Your Van,’ “ Watson recalled of the late singer’s classic hit. On cue, corporate officials rolled out a van on the stage at Nashville’s Grand Ole Opry House.
He performs before a few hundred to several thousand spectators, doing blazing versions of “Rocky Top,” “The Devil Went Down to Georgia” and “The Orange Blossom Special.”
“We give them a little bluegrass, a little country and maybe a little Southern gospel and a medley of patriotic songs,” said Watson, who has done hundreds of conventions in Nashville and elsewhere for some 20 years.
He and his band Black Creek have performed for Coca-Cola, Toyota, General Motors, Anheuser-Busch, Alcoa and others. He’s made as much as $20,000 per show, but most times it’s much, much less.
Sometimes the corporate audiences flow neatly from one show to the next.
“We did the Batesville Casket Co. one night and funeral directors the next,” he said.
Watson performed in Nashville for a Kimberly-Clark convention and later the company hired him for a show in Orlando, Fla.
“I had a late show here the night before, and they sent a corporate jet for us. So a bunch of ragtag musicians piled out of a van in Nashville and got into a multimillion dollar jet for a show the next morning,” he recalled.
Bigger artists with record deals — Alan Jackson, Carrie Underwood, Kenny Chesney — do concert tours before larger crowds offering more money.
Natalie Stovall, 26, a fiddler and singer with a degree in vocal performance from the Berklee College of Music in Boston, does a few dozen corporate shows a year hoping they will be a springboard to a recording contract. She performs “a good range of the spectrum,” covering songs by Marvin Gaye, Stevie Wonder, Shania Twain, Reba McEntire and Lynyrd Skynyrd.
“Someone asks for ‘Free Bird’ every night,” she said.
Along those lines, Jenkins chooses his music carefully.
“I’ve had shows with a lot of Amish there. I try to ask questions beforehand and be sensitive,” he said.
“Tomorrow night we play for 2,100 high school principals. If we do a Dave Matthews song, it would clear the dance floor.”
On the Net:
Tim Watson: www.TheFiddleMan.com
Natalie Stovall: www.nataliestovall.com