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Smithgall garden draws big musical acts to Gainesville
New venue replaces former Georgia Mountains Center for monumental concerts
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Elizabeth Harwood and Rachel Gaston lay a blanket down on the grass Friday at the Atlanta Botanical Garden Gainesville, A Smithgall Woodland Legacy to see Scotty McCreery perform at the venue’s amphitheater. The Smithgall garden has lawn seating that can handle more than 2,000 people. - photo by Erin O. Smith

Interview with Will Schofield

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At the end of his show on Nov. 4, 1994, inside a packed house at the Georgia Mountains Center, Bob Dylan sat on a stool playing three guitar chords — an elemental progression of G, E minor and C recognizable to anybody who knows anything about music.

Mickey Secrist was there. The Gainesville resident swilled Budweiser from a can, taking in his surroundings. It was Secrist’s first Dylan show, and it was hard to believe the legendary singer-songwriter was playing a concert right in his backyard.

“It was monumental,” Secrist recalls. “When I found out he was going to be here, I was like, ‘man, he’s never going to play here again. We probably need to see this show, because he’ll never come back to Gainesville.’”

To this day, Dylan hasn’t come back. What was true then is true now.

“Gainesville has always been a little too far off the beaten path for some,” said Bruce Burch, a Gainesville native and songwriter. “We’re just far enough from Atlanta that some of these songwriters and bands won’t make the trip.”

There’s still 50 interstate miles stretching between Gainesville and Atlanta, that much remains. But the times have changed.

Brenau University now runs what used to be called the Georgia Mountains Center, having signed a lease agreement in 2012 with Gainesville. These days, if you want to see a big name musical act you’ll likely find them at the amphitheater inside the newly opened Atlanta Botanical Garden Gainesville, A Smithgall Woodland Legacy.

With lawn seating that can handle more than 2,000 people, concertgoers have packed the outdoor space on recent evenings to see artists like Emmylou Harris and The Temptations. Last night, hundreds showed up for the Scotty McCreery show.

So the question is this: if Gainesville is so far off the beaten path, how are we getting such big names of late?

“The good thing about Smithgall Garden is that it’s tied in with Atlanta Botanical Garden, and they’ve got a reputation for being a legitimate and respected organization,” Burch said. “Artists looking for a place to play, first of all they want to make sure they’re going to get paid, and they want to know that it’s a legitimate venue, and so obviously Smithgall has got a great reputation. People are saying great things about the sound quality, the space there. It’s a first-class operation.”

Danny Flanders, marketing and public relations manager with Atlanta Botanical Garden, said the organization is “constantly trying to find who our audience is to determine what kind of performers to have at our shows, and that includes everything from baby boomers to millennials. We try to offer a diverse lineup.”

Mayor Danny Dunagan was there July 11 to see The Temptations.

“It was packed out,” Dunagan said, adding that a venue like the amphitheater at Smithgall garden “puts us on the map. It’s also got a positive economic impact. Some people come out to the show and they spend the night at a hotel. They eat at a restaurant. They buy gas. It’s good for the economy all the way around.”

In the way of local venues, there’s also two auditoriums at Brenau where concerts are performed regularly as well as the theater inside the former Mountains Center, now called the Brenau Downtown Center.

“We’ve been doing some great shows over at the Brenau Downtown Center,” said Burch, who is also an executive in residence at Brenau University. “The John Jarrard Foundation Summer Songwriters Series just kicked off again, and we have some award-winning talent that comes to that.”

Added Burch: “There’s always been some great clubs around here, too, like Henry O’s. The Monkey Barrel has had some good music.”

If one digs deep enough, downtown Gainesville has a whole wealth of musical history. The Gym of ‘36, now the headquarters for Homestar Financial, was a major concert venue in the late 1970s. Musicians like Jerry Lee Lewis, Barbara Mandrell, Kenny Rogers and Larry Gatlin all played there between 1977-1979.

And, there’s the venue formerly known as the Georgia Mountains Center. In a Sept. 1, 2013, story in The Times, Gainesville City Council members at the time said that the venue was too small to attract big-name talent and was losing $300,000 to $400,000 a year.

“The challenge of the Georgia Mountains Center was that it was just too small to get any of the big attractions in to Gainesville,” Dunagan said.

There for a while in the ’90s though, the venue had a pretty good run. Among the musicians who made the trek to play there were Widespread Panic, Def Leppard and, yes, Dylan.

Oakwood resident Mandy Gill recalls the show.

“He sat there on a stool. He had sunglasses on,” Gill said. “I thought it was very cool of him to come to Gainesville.”

Secrist agreed.

“The setup was pretty cool, I remember,” Secrist said, reminiscing. He’s now seen Dylan six times since the Gainesville concert.

Among the 14 songs Dylan performed on that memorable November evening in 1994: “Just Like a Woman,” “Tangled Up in Blue,” “All Along the Watchtower” and “I Shall Be Released.”

For the final number, Dylan peered into the crowd, strummed his guitar and sang about how “The Times They are A-Changin.”

He couldn’t have said it better.

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