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Pandemic postpones Red Barn's decades-long live music tradition

Brandon Paykamian • May 2, 2020 at 8:00 AM

UNICOI — For about four decades, Unicoi County’s Red Barn has opened its doors for family-friendly live music events every Thursday night from May through November.

Owner Burl Mast said it’s always served as a venue open to all ages, with “no drinking, no drugs, and no profanity.” It’s a space where bluegrass, country and gospel musicians donate their time on Thursday nights to perform in a fun, casual environment.

“That’s just the type of place it is,” he said, adding that his venue has been featured previously in the New York Times for its unique atmosphere.

Mast said his venue started small when he first started hosting weekly jam sessions there in 1980. At the time, it was just a shop where friends and neighbors joined Mast to play bluegrass. 

In the years since, the Red Barn has attracted dozens of attendees from throughout the region every Thursday, sometimes drawing 80 to 100.

“Most of them are senior citizens. It’s a place for them to go once a week where if they want to dance, they can dance,” he said.

Last week, Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee left restrictions in place for live music venues and large gatherings when he announced plans to reopen restaurants and retail businesses at half capacity amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

The Red Barn was originally scheduled to reopen for music on May 7, but will now remain closed due to the governor’s restrictions.

It’s the first time in years Mast hasn’t been able to open his venue on the first Thursday of May, providing a music venue in a rural area with little live entertainment.

“The only thing that would cause that would be real bad weather,” he said. “We have not really had any cases of that in the last 40 years.”

Mast said he plans to reopen the Red Barn on June 4 if restrictions are lifted. For now, the Red Barn has to wait and see when it can continue its decades-long tradition.

Mast said he hopes to be able to provide that live music space the Red Barn has become so well known for. He said it isn’t about the money.

“It’s not a money-making thing. It has no financial impact on me at all,” he said. “The impact is (experienced by) the folks that love to come out and enjoy the music.”

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