Gone Country – Why Rock The Water Tower lost out

This week, summer as we know it grinds to a humidity-induced halt. The kids go to back to school, most everyone’s blown their life savings on that vacation (or the gas it took to make it to that vacation) and we’re all running at half speed. This Labor Day Weekend, Bisig Impact Centre sticks a fork in Rock The Water Tower and debuts the Kentucky Country Jamboree.

Bisig recast Rock The Water Tower in 2005 as a contemporary showcase for Louisville music, trading in tired performances by the likes of Nervous Melvin & the Mistakes with fresh takes from The Photographic, Brigid Kaelin, Wax Fang, Code Red and The Villebillies, as well as a BMX rider and a fire-breathing demonstration (Disclosure: I was one of two stage managers at Rock ’05).

In 2006-2007, the festival suffered because of low turnout. Bisig spokeswoman Helene Kramer said that a groundswell of support for a country festival led to the decision to can Rock.

“Bisig Impact Group had a great run with Rock the Water Tower for 23 years. Twenty of those years featured an oldies format. The last two years Rock The Water Tower focused on a more contemporary sound, offering young musicians with Louisville roots the opportunity to showcase their music,” Kramer said.

“But the bottom line is that country music remains the number one radio format in the Louisville market. And over the past few years, we were getting more and more requests for a country music event and decided it is time to give it a shot.”

Event organizer Jennifer Washle has put together a bill that touts the familiar and, yes, local: Johnny Berry & The Outliers, a honky tonk outfit, headline Sunday night with a mix of originals and covers Berry knows like the back of his cowboy hat.

“Some songs are just good songs,” he said. “I never get tired of singing Merle Haggard tunes. They were big for a reason. Music was more of a meritocracy back then.” 

While Berry, a staple in the city’s club circuit for years, and his connections work the singer’s material in Nashville, he’ll spend the fall recording his next album live at undisclosed pubs and clubs.

Berry said he won’t hide his love of funk on the release — one option is to title it “Funky Tonk ’74,” an homage to one of funk’s glory years — nor will he deny the role the killer Jerry Lee Lewis has played in his musical education. “You get any of his songs,” Berry said. “Sad, bitter, angry, beautiful — it all comes out.”

Saturday night’s headliner is Artie Dean Harris, a country star who’s toured Japan, Mexico and Canada, and past performer in the Broadway production of “Footloose” and the 1994 hoops feature “Blue Chips.”