Abraham Mahshie – Contributing Writer
JimBo’s got a big idea. Longtime Franklin plumber JimBo Ledford, 42, who ran for Town Council in 2017 with the slogan “Why not?” is not backing down from his goal to shake up Franklin with the vibrations of music it might not be used to.
“I have a plumbing business and I’m not a dummy,” he said when justifying his ability to launch a music festival in Franklin. “I can manage anything, it’s just people management.”
JimBo started last year with Springtopia, an April 20 concert for his girlfriend Melissa Spencer’s 26th birthday that featured headliner The Orange Constant.
In July, he held the Summer Lovin’ Jamboree with Machine Kid and Otis, and in November, Fallapalooza with the White Oak Splits.
“We’re trying to bring everything except what we already have,” by which he means music genres like rap, jam, rock, rockabilly and holler boogie, which is the term the Splits use to describe their guitar driven, yelling-into-the-microphone sound. JimBo does not seek to replicate the bluegrass and gospel of the Smoky Mountain Center for the Performing Arts and Pickin’ on the Square. “We’ve got a lot of stuff for people who don’t want to drink.”
Despite constructing an outdoor bar for his venue on Carolina Mountain Drive, “Altered Frequencies,” and preparing the launch of his bar/nightclub “Da’ Club at AF,” JimBo hasn’t touched a drop of alcohol in two years and Spencer hasn’t had a drink in a year-and-a-half, they said. JimBo also said he only uses drugs that are “legal in some states,” and he does not take prescription medication.
“It’s just not what we’re here to do, man,” he said. “I’m here to run a business – a successful business.
“I’m not afraid to run a stranger out of here because I think he’s going to ruin my reputation,” he added.
JimBo attributes his education and business success to the Plumbers Local Union #719 in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., where he got his training in his mid-20s.
“I don’t think there’s anybody out here who can plumb like I can,” he said.
Fighting a “Bible Belt mentality”
The Prineville, Ore., native has deep roots in Franklin. His grandfather grew up here before following the logging industry out west. Despite his Franklin connection, JimBo has felt out-of-towner discrimination.
“I feel like they base so much stuff on that,” he said of the community. JimBo has also clashed with the Town Council in the past, beginning three years ago when he tried to encourage the town to use the dormant $1.57 million Whitmire property for an outdoor concert. Of the town, he said: “They’re afraid to make any kind of decision.”
JimBo then tried to put on a concert in the Rathskeller parking lot. That, too, was turned down. “This has been an uphill battle the whole time,” he added.
In general, JimBo also said opposition comes from a “Bible Belt mentality” that makes any kind of change hard. Recalling his first visit to Town Council to propose a music festival, he said council members mentioned Woodstock and the mess that was left behind.
“They have this mentality about festivals and music and people that go to music festivals,” he said. “They think we’re a bunch of hippies who just want to trash the place.”
Asked if he was, in fact, a hippie, he said, “We are a bunch of hippies, but by our definition, not by their definition.”
The plumber turned festival promoter believes there is an unfair application of town ordinances by the Council, but he praises other officials like Franklin Police Chief David Adams, who has approved sound ordinance extensions on his concert nights.
“In this town you have to prove yourself first before they’ll get on board, and to prove yourself, you need help,” he said.
Mayor Bob Scott was careful not to take sides on the issue but offered an, “I’ll wait and see.”
Scott acknowledged how JimBo could see the town ordinances as “runaround,” but nonetheless said, “We have not tried to stop him.”
Town Councilman and Rathskeller co-owner Adam Kimsey doesn’t think there has been unfair treatment either, just the town requiring that he do his due diligence.
“He really hasn’t had so much trouble with the Town Council,” said Kimsey, noting that JimBo has plenty of supporters, with a sprinkling of detractors who don’t like his style of business. “I think it’s his own version of a free market enterprise. He set up a legitimate venue and he’s trying to grow it.”
Kimsey supported JimBo’s impetus to create more events for tourists.
“He’s done a good job attracting acts that would not typically come to Franklin,” he said. “I just don’t think he found the welcome out of the gate that he wanted.”
Still, JimBo said he almost gave up many times. “All the fears that they’ve had – none of those have been substantiated,” he said.
JimBo said he and his partner, Bill Krapek, received overwhelming support when they asked their neighbors if they could put on a concert. The closest neighbors can only be seen vaguely through the trees on the mountain ridge opposite a Drake property under construction. JimBo assures the speakers face away from downtown, anyway.
It’s obvious JimBo has done his research, rattling off figures like the music industry’s $20 billion growth last year and the $75,000 average annual salary of festivalgoers. As a sign of what he thinks are things to come, one associate is planning to open Track Room Entertainment, reforming a billiard hall on Georgia Road to open a recording studio that will also serve as a secondary music venue in the area.
The proprietor of JimBo’s Plumbing said he has had to learn the music industry through trial and error, taking losses on each of his first three concerts. He is also preparing to move out of his home, co-located on the business and concert venue, in preparation for the granting of a liquor license.
The “They’s” and the “Us’s”
JimBo believes the community members who sponsor him represent the future of Franklin.
“I believe that Franklin is about ready to change in big ways in part because what we’re doing here,” he said.
Local business leaders Jacob Reiche of Smart Pharmacy and the Franklin Disc Golf Club, Nick Morgan from Morgan Custom Cabinets, F.P. Bodenheimer of the Nantahala Flooring Outlet and Kyle Ledford of KL Metals, have all stepped up to help sponsor his concerts.
“These are other people that believe that Franklin has potential and is going to become something,” he said. “Springtopia is going to be our first profitable event,” he added with confidence.
Springtopia II (insert peace sign in place of “II”) promises a mix of jam and Indy Americana April 19-21, with headliner Perpetual Groove, and bands CBDB and Wildeyes, out of Nashville. Easter Sunday will feature “quiet down” time with song writers, a blessing and performance by the Discover Church band. “They’ve got one of the best bands in town,” JimBo said.
JimBo throws around the word “we” quite a lot when speaking about his project, but when asked, he explains that his “investors,” are more like “lenders,” and friends who offer him encouragement.
“I might be the idea, but they tell me I’m just the wallet,” he said. Leaning against a doorway listening Spencer immediately responds, “No, we don’t.”
In all, JimBo believes he’s invested more than $100,000 in his project so far, including debts incurred.
He says his venue has a 1,500-person capacity, but if he negotiates to rent land from adjoining neighbors, he can reach 10,000 to 20,000.
Asked about coexistence with community members who disapprove of his type of entrepreneurship, JimBo said, “I think that the ‘Theys’ are getting a lot smaller, and the ‘Us’s’ are getting a lot bigger, it’s just that the ‘Theys’ are still in the powerful positions.”
He added, “I don’t really think that the profile of the town is what they’re telling us on the board. I think that the profile of the town and wants of the town are more in line with what we want.”
As he excitedly walks around the wooden stage in a baggy red sweater and jeans, with his characteristic thin goatee, he points out the different levels of VIP seating built into the hillside, where the outdoor bar will go, the green room, the backstage where VIPs and sponsors will mingle and what he hopes will be his seven-day-a-week bar/private club. He hopes the music club can be like Asheville’s Savage Station and Orange Peel.
Reflecting on how the town makeup is evolving, Jimbo added, “I know a lot more people that like music and going out and having fun than people who want to go to church and then go home and do their chores.”