Dale & Chuck Morris
Team At Fontanel

Nashville has been without a major outdoor venue since Starwood Amphitheatre closed its gates in 2006, but that’s about to change in a big way with development of The Woods at Fontanel and the help of AEG Live Rocky Mountains.

Dale Morris, the longtime manager of superstars Kenny Chesney, Alabama and other top country artists, along with Morris Artist Management s Marc Oswald, brought AEG’s Chuck Morris out to see the sprawling, 135-acre property, of which the 4,500-seat amphitheatre is but a part, about four months ago. Chuck was sold, and AEG Live will exclusively book and manage the shed going forward.

Fontanel is expected to be Music City USA’s first destination resort with a major outdoor venue, with plans as expansive as the property.

The former Barbara Mandrell estate was purchased by Dale Morris about 10 years ago, and includes the singer’s log cabin-styled mansion, hiking and biking trails, ample parking, forest and canyon scenery, disc golf course, and more amenities either in the planning stages or already under construction.

The amphitheatre itself sports the sort of production capabilities one might expect to find at a much larger facility.
“The stage, the roof, the load capacities, the permanent power, all the things amphitheatre and arena acts look for, are built into a relatively smaller venue,” Oswald told Pollstar. “It’s really got high production capabilities. We have on-property parking for the entire audience and an insanely pretty setting.”

The Mandrell mansion adds another dimension to the experience for fans and artists alike, as it’s often put into service for VIP and other events. Located just up a canyon from the venue itself, the 27,000-square-foot home is open for tours daily and is adaptable for a variety of uses before, during and after concerts.

“We use the mansion for pre- and post-concert parties at the amphitheatre, which is awesome,” Oswald said. “When Steve Winwood played last year, we did a charity event in the mansion. So besides 4,500 people in the amphnitheatre, he had some 250 people up in the mansion, raising money. So you can imagine, it’s the ultimate green room.”

Dale Morris hasn’t just let the property idle for the last 10 years. The Mandrell mansion was opened up for tours, and the location has been the site of TV and video shoots, rehearsal space and some pretty epic parties. But Morris and Oswald knew the property could be put to better use.

“We couldn’t really figure out what the big plan was until 2008,” Oswald explained. “Dale and I got together and talked about what the highest use could be for that beautiful property. We wanted to protect the land; we didn’t want to build a subdivision.

“So we decided we wanted to open it up to the public and the initial thing was to just open the mansion up for tours every day. ‘Music City USA’ didn’t have one country music star’s home that you could walk through, which was pretty amazing.

“Dale and I looked at the canyon and started talking about the fact that Nashville didn’t have an amphitheatre. Starwood shut down years ago. We had a natural canyon setting, we have parking, we have enough acreage to park 2,300 or 2,400 cars on the property,” Oswald explained. “We decided we needed to fill that niche, too. Music City USA and no amphitheatre. It’s just ridiculous. So we got into the design phase in 2008-09, and decided a 5,000-seater was the sweet spot. Big enough to do most of the big shows and small enough to be intimate.”

Dale Morris and Oswald initially brought in their old friends at Red Mountain Entertainment to help book and manage the facility, but with expansion of the property including hotels, recreation facilities and restaurants, they felt it was time to take a new approach at Fontanel.

Red Mountain “deserves a special thanks. They helped us open the venue and did a lot of heavy lifting to make this place what it is today,” Oswald said. In fact, Red Mountain is working with AEG Live Rocky Mountains on two Widespread Panic shows already booked this year.

Oswald called Chuck Morris in Denver and invited him to Nashville to look over the property, much to Dale’s approval.

“Marc told me Chuck was coming out, and I remembered our history,” Dale told Pollstar. “I was pretty excited about it. As far as I was concerned, we just had an amphitheatre. But with Chuck aboard, and as excited as he’s gotten, I’ve begun to think that we have the amphitheatre. It’s going to be a destination.”

Chuck, who’s spent the better part of his long career booking shows at another spectacular locale, Red Rocks Amphitheatre near Denver, didn’t hesitate when the call came from Dale, with whom he’d worked since Alabama first began headlining shows.

“In my late career, as I call it now, I’m very picky about who I work with any more,” Chuck told Pollstar. “And when these guys called me,  I was so thrilled. And especially when I went down and looked at this place.

“I have the same vision for this place that I saw at Red Rocks, to make it an unbelievably successful amphitheatre in America, building one step at a time, one year at a time. I’m so flattered to be involved with these guys.”

Dale saw the opportunity that had developed from a series of improvements.

“We’ve been cobbling all these things together and I guess the good Lord was looking out for us because we’d build one thing out of desperation, and then another one, and then another, and the next thing we know it’s all coming together. And I’m glad it did, because I’m about to run out of money,” Dale said, with a laugh.

Turning serious, he added, “I tell everybody in our business that you can have the greatest product in the world but if it’s in the back room and no one knows about it, it doesn’t mean anything.”

They intend for the world to know about Fontanel. Under construction is the Southern Living Design House, a “micro” hotel designed by influential Southern Living magazine, which will showcase the property with an August cover and 22-page spread.

Following the hotel’s opening, Fontanel will host the Southern Living Food, Wine and Spirits festival, expected to become an annual event.

There is also another lodge, employing the log cabin design, planned in addition to the Southern Living House.  Café Fontanella, an upscale Italian restuaruant, and the Studio Gallery are also onsite and equipped for live music, and Prichard’s Distillery – Tennessee’s oldest – will dispense whiskey, rum and other adult beverages.

Add the hiking and bike trails, and the disc golf course, and Fontanel will be capable of turning concerts into all-day affairs. An advantage, Dale points out, is that people can come and go all day and not be jamming ingress and egress at the same time before and after concerts.

Fontanel is expected to host some 14-18 concerts during an April through October season, including shows with the Nashville Symphony. It will be a year-round music destination, however, with several indoor venues between the hotels, restaurants and Mandrell mansion. And with all that hiking, biking and outdoor expanse, that’s a lot of ground to cover.

But Oswald and Morris have thought that out, too.

Fontanel will also sport zip lines thoughout, including from the amphitheatre to the restaurant and bar venues, and back.

“It’s going to be insane for the amphitheatre,” Oswald said. “It’s going to be a big one. It’s going to have seven zips, and one of them goes from the amphitheatre to Café Fontanella. It’s 1,000 feet, so you can actually zip in and back. It goes in both directions. You can take a zip line from dinner to your show. And after the show you can zip line back to an outdoor bar we’re building called the Zip Bar. It’s all about the fan experience.”