NASHVILLE, Indiana—For a concert venue working to build its name, Brown County Music Center received a helpful endorsement from Jason Isbell when the four-time Grammy Award winner wrapped up a sold-out show on Jan. 31.
“What a great place to play,” Isbell said from the stage. “We’ll be back again.”
It’s not the first time an off-the-beaten-path venue in Brown County has become a favorite of headlining acts and concertgoers.
The Little Nashville Opry hosted performances by country stars such as Loretta Lynn, Dolly Parton, Kenny Rogers, Waylon Jennings, Billy Ray Cyrus and Blake Shelton from 1975 until the building burned down in 2009.
Concert attendance habits were established in Brown County, but the area long known as an art colony endured a decade without a 2,000-capacity indoor venue.
That drought ended when the $12.5 million Brown County Music Center opened in August 2019. The facility’s short history includes remaining in business through the pandemic and success at hosting acts outside the country genre.
The venue’s 2022 schedule included late guitarist Jeff Beck, classic rock band Yes and R&B icon Gladys Knight.
Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit, Rick Springfield, “Weird Al” Yankovic, Josh Turner, and Big Head Todd and the Monsters headlined the first five events of 2023. Turner is the lone country singer on the list, and Big Head Todd and the Monsters is the only act to fall short of a sold-out event.
Christian Webb, Brown County Music Center’s executive director, said residents of Indianapolis and its suburbs make up about 65% of the audiences at the venue.
The entire population of Nashville, the community of 1,200 where the venue was built, could sit in the auditorium with room to spare.
It’s good for business, Webb said, when people spread the word about the performance hall tucked on the edge of 15,000-acre Brown County State Park.
“It starts with the results of the show and a band and tour manager leaving happy,” Webb said. “And for the fans to leave happy. From there, you want the buzz to grow.”
Brown County Music Center operates as a 501(c)(4) not-for-profit. Revenue from the county innkeeper’s tax—5% on the rental of rooms and accommodations for fewer than 30 days—financed the venue’s construction.
Webb, who succeeded the BCMC’s first executive director, Dana Beth Evans, after her resignation in December 2019, said any year-end operating profit at the venue is donated to the Brown County Community Foundation.
In 2022, the community foundation partnered with the venue to provide $38,826 to purchase new emergency radios for volunteer firefighters.
While Brown County Music Center is a not-for-profit, the venue competes with similar-size concert halls in Indiana when scheduling shows. Webb, one of four full-time employees at the venue, seeks events that will attract paying customers and boost Brown County tourism.
“I see things that Clowes Hall gets, and I think, ‘Argh,’” said Webb, who previously worked as general manager of Old National Centre in Indianapolis. “I see things that 8 Seconds Saloon gets, and I think, ‘That would kill here.’ I look at what Victory Theatre in Evansville does, the Clyde Theatre in Fort Wayne.”
Artist lineups at other venues might spark occasional envy, but Brown County Music Center doesn’t lack credentials when making its case to touring acts.
For starters, the venue’s performers are hired by Live Nation, the world’s leading concert company and owner of Ruoff Music Center in Noblesville. Webb said BCMC pays Los Angeles-based Live Nation a monthly fee for its talent-buying services.
Known for pristine sound during concerts, Brown County Music Center enlisted Steven Durr Designs for assistance when planning the audio experience. Durr, based in Nashville, Tennessee, has a client list that includes the Austin City Limits Performance Theater in Texas and Indianapolis Motor Speedway for its PA system.
For lighting, the venue hired Knoxville, Tennessee-based Bandit Lites, a company that works with the Bonnaroo music festival, Farm Aid concerts and Wrestlemania events.
And hometown architect Doug Harden, a retired musician who played mandolin in touring bluegrass bands, designed the auditorium where audience sight lines are difficult to beat. At Brown County Music Center, the distance from the top row of balcony seating to the front of the stage is 106 feet.
Harden, who remembers Little Nashville Opry as a former horse barn with an “odd low ceiling,” didn’t squander his chance to place performers and audience members in close proximity.
“I wanted the building to be known as a place to come to actually hear and see music,” Harden said.
Bill Monroe, recognized as the father of the bluegrass genre, embraced Brown County as a musical destination. In the early 1950s, Monroe purchased a 55-acre country music park five miles north of Nashville. The 2023 festival season at the Bill Monroe Memorial Music Park launches June 1-3 with the Americana Bean Jamboree.
In 1978, Muncie native Jack Hoppes recorded a song titled “Theme from Little Nashville Opry” to celebrate the venue and its pastoral surroundings.
“If you’re looking for brighter sunshine, where the sky is a little bit deeper blue,” sang Hoppes, who had an ownership stake in the Opry. “Trees, they stand a little taller and sway in a breeze as sweet as morning dew.”
Brown County Music Center, 200 Maple Leaf Blvd., was built within two miles northeast of where the Opry presented country artists 40 weekends each year.
The venue’s rear parking lot, occupied by tour trucks and buses on event days, overlooks farmland. Webb, BCMC’s executive director, said Melissa Etheridge and her entourage participated in an outdoor yoga session before the “Bring Me Some Water” singer performed in October 2021.
“On the other side of that farm is the state park,” Webb said. “It’s never going to be developed.”
Chris Shaffer, vocalist for Indiana rock band the Why Store, made his Brown County Music Center debut in November 2019. He said the venue is one more reason to visit Nashville, which is home to dozens of craft, specialty and antique shops.
“It’s such a beautiful area,” Shaffer said. “Any time of the year, I love Brown County. You can make a whole day of it.”
Webb said the venue exists to support tourism in the area.
“The tail wags the dog,” he said. “We bring more people into the community. They stay the night. They spend money in shops. And the innkeeper’s tax continues to grow.”
Country shows continue to be a draw at Brown County Music Center, where Vince Gill played on opening night in 2019 and Scotty McCreery will appear next month.
“We know country is our bread and butter a lot of times,” Webb said.
To expand what’s presented at the venue, one example of success can lead to future opportunities, Webb said. A 2021 show headlined by comedian Carrot Top, for instance, helped to land upcoming dates with Lewis Black and Brian Regan.
After hosting a “Peppa Pig Live!” show in 2019, Brown County Music Center will revisit children’s entertainment with “Dino Ranch Live” on June 4.
For Fishers resident Sarah Christena, the Isbell show served as her first visit to the venue.
Giving high marks for “fantastic sound” inside the auditorium, Christena said it’s impressive that BCMC will host Rock and Roll Hall of Fame band Chicago—an artist she’s seen at Ruoff Music Center—on May 17.
“I would not hesitate to go back,” she said.
Southern rock specialist Isbell headlined the 6,000-capacity TCU Amphitheater in White River State Park in 2021, and he was announced this week as part of June’s WonderRoad festival in Garfield Park.
In addition to playing Brown County Music Center, his January itinerary included shows in Saginaw, Michigan, and Shipshewana.
“Playing these small towns this week has been very good for my soul,” Isbell tweeted. “Incredible crowd tonight@BCMusicCenter in Nashville, Indiana.”
When Grateful Dead founding member Bob Weir brought a side project, Bobby Weir & Wolf Bros, to the venue last March, fans flew from both coasts to attend the show, Webb said.
With luck, he said, artists speak highly of Brown County Music Center when discussing tour plans with talent agencies and personal managers.
Mutual interest is required to make a deal.
“I would take a Bobby Weir date every month, but if he doesn’t want to come here, it’s difficult to have that,” Webb said.
At the show
Isbell fan Christena said the acoustics and customer amenities were highlights of her first Brown County Music Center visit.
“It was probably one of the cleanest restrooms,” said Christena, an avid concertgoer who traveled to New York in January for a Joey McIntyre show.
Christena mentioned a bottleneck between the lobby and auditorium as one possible area for improvement at Brown County Music Center. Attendees gathered near the venue’s concession stands and restrooms, which are by the doorway separating the lobby and auditorium.
“It was difficult to get from one place to another, but I think it was just people standing around and not necessarily the venue’s fault,” she said.
Shaffer, who’s working on a Why Store studio recording with bandmates Charlie Bushor, Troy Seele and Dan Hunt, described the design of BCMC as “inviting and homey for everyone involved.”
“I’ve heard venues say, ‘There’s not a bad seat,’ but it rang true with the Brown County Music Center,” Shaffer said.
Harden, who’s worked for Miller Architects since the early 1980s, said worship settings influenced the venue’s arrangement of pit, main floor and balcony seating in a fan shape rather than a rectangle.
“We designed a lot of rural churches,” Harden said. “Auditoriums and sound and sight lines were important there.”
Although no sermons are included on the BCMC schedule, the venue’s lobby became a site for COVID-19 testing and vaccinations during the pandemic. Webb said renting out the venue’s stage for criminal court proceedings helped to pay bills when concerts weren’t an option.
The venue presented no shows for nearly 600 days from March 2020 to September 2021.
“2022 was our first continuous calendar year of doing what we were supposed to do,” Webb said. “We are still an infant in this game.”•