KINGSPORT — “It was very dry in the ball field... almost lonely and sad-looking. There was nothing to look forward to, no excitement, no nothing.”
Brenda Watterson of Kingsport was describing the two years since the last Rhythm in Riverview event during Fun Fest. COVID-19 canceled the annual concert last year.
“The pandemic separated us from our family and friends,” she remembered. “Everybody was just shut in.”
Not this year.
Excitement is building as the food, the togetherness and the fun of Rhythm in Riverview will be back in business on Monday at the V.O. Dobbins Community Center ball field, located at MLK Drive and Louis Street.
The free event is Fun Fest’s largest concert at the beginning of the eight-day festival.
“It’s just a great atmosphere and a huge, wonderful crowd,” Fun Fest Director Emily Thompson said, remembering years ago when the event started. “Rhythm in Riverview adds one more level of diversity in the music mix that makes up Fun Fest. In this particular event, you start off with gospel and you end with the party. It’s great to see how that has evolved over the years, and we know that people have been hoping to come out there and get together again after two years of COVID.”
On Monday, in the Dobbins ball field, the popular Kids Central, sponsored by Ballad Health, Niswonger Children’s Hospital, Indian Path Community Hospital and the city of Kingsport kicks things off with children’s activities involving health and wellness from 2 to 6 p.m. Overlapping from 5 to 7 will be the annual Gospel Fest, featuring Christian singer Tobias and the Full Gospel Mission Youth Community Choir.
Kingsport native and aspiring actor-singer Rashad Hunter, aka Bomani Shad, will also entertain the crowd with his positive rap music about making the right life choices and getting a good education.
Eleven vendors, a record number for Rhythm in Riverview, will be on hand with arts and crafts, clothing, information areas and food booths.
“Everything from chicken and fish to snow cones, to funnel cakes to Philly steak, even cheese egg rolls,” said organizer Johnnie Mae Swagerty.
Speaking of food, a “newbie” debuts in the food line this year. The Weatherby will serve up familiar foods, but with a different experience that will probably stand out among the fish sandwiches, funnel cakes and hot dogs.
Professional chefs Mark Spencer and Curtis McGhaugy’s specialities feature Southern cuisine with a gourmet twist.
“The signature sandwich that Mark created,” said co-owner Jason Robertson, “is coincidentally called the Weatherby.”
What is the Weatherby? “It’s a baked spaghetti and meatball sandwich,” Robertson explained.
“That’s exactly what you’re gonna say when you taste it,” says Robertson. “It’s a totally different experience to what you’re used to.”
Other featured entrees include fried bologna between two maple donuts with a fried egg, a chicken tortilla nacho, a vegan nacho and a pork belly taco.
Robertson recalled an event where the organizer asked if they could do turkey legs.
“After gourmet sandwiches, designer tacos and nachos that look like they belong on the cover of a magazine, we’re like, ‘What’s a turkey leg?’ “ he laughed. “We can do it for the customer, though.”
At 7 p.m., it will be time to put on your dancing shoes. Headlining the night will be the Extraordinaires from Hickory, North Carolina, a band that founder Rusty Bunton says, will not let you stop dancing.
“If you’ve been up dancing and you’re tired and you go to sit down, here we come with another good song to dance to. We play everything for everybody: Earth, Wind and Fire, Stevie Wonder, Tower Power, Kool & and the Gang, Beyonce, Blackeyed Peas, Bruno Mars, the Commodores, Lakeside, Bobby Brown,” he said. “But then we sneak in Def Leppard, AC-DC and Journey. We even step back into the 1940s and ‘50s with the Clovers, Nat King Cole and others.”
“Uh oh,” said Watterson. “The Clovers? Oh my goodness, that’s some mainline stuff right there. I danced to their music many a year ago. Now you’re talking my language. ... That’s back from when old school was new school,” she laughed.
The Extraordinaires has nine players, seven of them vocalists. Bunton’s son is one of them. He said the band is always changing up the routine so that the lead singer is not always the same person.
“If you’re not lead singing, then you’re singing backup vocals,” he noted. “In addition to guitars, drums and percussion, there’s also a four-piece horn section, and within that horn section is a guest trombonist with a familiar background. Varney Green led the late blues icon B.B. King’s band in Nashville. He’s gonna help make it an unbelievable show.”
“We want people to enjoy what we do,” he said. “It’s gonna be one massive party. We flat throw it down.”
All that is music to Watterson’s ears.
After two years of no activity, very little contact with family, friends and fellow Fun Fest lovers, she’s bringing her lawn chair and staking out a familiar spot right in front of the Rhythm in Riverview stage.
She says she’ll have enough food, energy, friends, family and excitement to keep her company.
“Rhythm in Riverview is like a big family cookout that you don’t have to plan,” she said, laughing. “Everybody can’t come to your little family cookout, but everybody can come to this one.”
Rhythm in Riverview is sponsored by Eastman, South Central Kingsport Community Development, Inc., Kingsport Parks and Recreation, KHRA and the New Vision Youth.