Having been immersed in the music business for 25 years, Jill Wheeler has a feisty exuberance and an unapologetic passion for Birmingham and music. She and her team at Red Mountain Entertainment are bringing cutting-edge music to the Magic City with the inaugural Sloss Music & Arts Festival, taking place this coming weekend. We are delighted to get a glimpse into the brains behind this exciting festival and Birmingham’s growing music scene.
Where did you grow up and what brought you to Birmingham?
I was born in Cincinnati, OH, but we moved to Nashville when I was 13. So I call Nashville my home, although I’ve lived in Birmingham for 22 years.
How did you get into booking and promoting concerts?
My father worked for RCA Records for 33 years. This is my mom and dad with Elvis Presley. (She points to a picture on the wall.) So I was raised in the music business. He would bring Billboard magazines home, and I would read them. I loved music. I listened to my little transistor radio at night. So when I got out of college, I applied for a job at the William Morris Agency, a big-time agency that’s been around since the late 1800s. Their presence in Nashville didn’t really start until the mid-’80s, and they hired me to their very small office of eight people as the receptionist. Then I got promoted to agent’s assistant and then I was eventually made agent.
The thing was, I liked country music, but it was not my passion. I was a rock ‘n’ roll fan, and I would book country bands listening to the Psychedelic Furs. So when I was working at William Morris and I started to understand the mechanics of booking and promoting concerts, I said, “Oh, this is different!” And so when this job opened up, I came down here in 1993.
Tell us about the Sloss Music & Arts Festival.
We’ve been talking about building our own event for the last few years, and when we did the Alabama Shakes at Sloss Furnaces two years ago, we realized that this town is ready for an alternative rock festival in the same vein as Bonnaroo, Shaky Knees and Forecastle Festival in Louisville. And so we said, “Let’s do this. We’re ready.” So we decided to take elements of those festivals and apply them here. We realized it’s a new day in Birmingham; that we’ve really come along in the music scene.
What can one expect at the festival?
We’re going to have local art vendors—jewelry makers, glass artisans, henna tattoo artists—and all kinds of different food and beverage options. There will be three stages: two big stages in the field, which will alternate with the shed stage. And there will be VIP-level tickets for festival goers who want to enjoy air-conditioned amenities and other perks. People can expect to see some of the most fantastic music of our time, from The Avett Brothers and Modest Mouse to Band of Horses and Purity Ring. We have some of the greatest bands that are happening and hot right now. It should be very exciting.
How did that choice of venue come about?
It really came from all of the great feedback that we get from bands. They love the historical and industrial vibe of Sloss Furnaces. Plus, with Woodlawn, Avondale, Lakeview and all these neighborhoods really coming along and Sloss being so close, we thought it was a natural fit.
Describe your best memory of a live show or festival.
I have been a Neil Young fan since high school, since the ’70s, and we were able to bring him to the Tuscaloosa Amphitheater a few years ago. On a personal level, that was a huge triumph, because it was Neil Young and Crazy Horse playing Neil Young and Crazy Horse music, which was my signature soundtrack of my youth. I mean, I lived on that music, “Rust Never Sleeps“ and all of his music. But there was a lot of backlash against his song, “Southern Man,” and then Lynrd Skynrd’s response, you know. And he hadn’t played in Tuscaloosa since the ’70s, maybe never. I can’t remember. And to be there, to have him walk onstage with those musicians, and knowing that I was an integral part of making that happen—it was a moment. It was Neil Young coming to Tuscaloosa in a completely different time where our society is really much more cohesive and we’re not so hate-filled. And here’s a man who was speaking his mind, and his fans showed up and he rocked the house—with the same original members, mind you, the same drummer, the same bass player, the same guitar player from the ’70s! Let me tell you something, that was a major deal. And for me, personally, that stands out for me as my high watermark moment. Although I was working, I had to go out and watch. It was just a moment. He is a living legend, in my mind, for all the songs he’s written; his music speaks to me.
What do you love most about your job?
That I get to be immersed in music all day. What I love the most is booking a show, putting it on sale, it sells well, it does well and then being there when the band goes onstage. I’m doing what I think I was meant to do. It is a great feeling. I’m very, very lucky.
What does the future hold for Red Mountain Entertainment?
Our future is to grow the company and bring more shows to the area, whether we book at the Tuscaloosa Amphitheater, The Amphitheater at The Wharf at Orange Beach, Iron City, the Soul Kitchen in Mobile or Minglewood Hall in Memphis. We intend to be around forever.
What’s the best piece of advice you’ve ever been given?
Tony Ruffino, who started this company in the ’70s and is no longer with us, told me, “the smallest potato is the hardest to peel,” which is true in this business. It means, a lot of times, the smallest projects take the most time, gain the fewest rewards and are usually the hardest. His point was to take on something bigger, because it is usually a little easier and much more rewarding.
What’s your favorite thing about Birmingham?
Birmingham has a fantastic culinary scene. And I live in Crestwood, so I love that the downtown area and Crestwood, Avondale, Lakeview and Woodlawn are starting to come back, to be real neighborhoods, to come out of being run down and abandoned, that people are renovating the homes and living over there. And they are very diverse neighborhoods, which I like. I love the history of Birmingham. And I think that Birmingham has always had an excellent music scene.
Favorite thing to do on a Saturday night?
I like to grill with my neighbors. I listen to two stations based out of the West Coast—one is KEXP out of Seattle, and the other is KCRW out of Santa Monica—so I listen to one of those stations, grill and sit on my screened-in porch. That’s really my favorite thing to do.
Do you have any personality quirks or irrational fears?
Quirks? I don’t know. I like to cuss. It makes me feel better (She laughs).
Aside from family, friends and faith, name three things you can’t live without.
Coffee, music and my animals—my dogs, Taz and Hazel; and my cats, Peanut and Memphis
Check out the incredible musical talent at the Sloss Music & Arts Festival, at Sloss Furnaces July 18-19.
Thank you to Meg McKinney Photos for the terrific images of Jill at Sloss Furnaces.