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Hit the road, jack 

Free concerts abound in Tennessee

Do Atlanta's two competing downtown concert events make you want to throw bricks and rocks? Chances are, if you're over 25, most of the acts don't spark your interest, and you find navigating the crowds to be a royal pain. But if you're willing to make the drive up I-75 to the free summer concerts in Chattanooga on Fridays, and in Nashville on Fridays and Saturdays (and select Thursdays), chances are good you'll find something a bit more your speed.

For a city Chattanooga's size, its Nightfall Concert Series in downtown's Miller Plaza shows it to be a town ahead of its time. The lineup is sophisticated and varied -- blues, folk, Celtic, jazz, zydeco, funk and world beat -- giving folks a chance to see lesser-known, critically acclaimed acts. The series began, like Atlanta's concerts, as a way to attract more people to an otherwise deserted downtown at night. Over a decade later, the series' continued existence attests to its success.

A recent performance in the brick-lined square by Nashville's alt-country darlings Buddy and Julie Miller entertained a packed and attentive crowd. Miller Plaza is an intimate venue by Atlanta standards, seating 2,000. Bring your own chairs and coolers are welcome but unnecessary, with food and drink readily available. The Nightfall Concert Series runs 7-10 p.m. each Friday through September. Call 423-265-3700 or visit www.downtownchattanooga.org/nightfall.html for more information.

One-hundred miles west on I-24, Nashville has a couple of freebies of its own. Sponsored by The Grand Ole Opry, the Opry Plaza Parties return for their third year, on Fridays and Saturdays through Aug. 10. The lineup is packed with great Americana and classic country acts, from veterans like Billy Joe Shaver and Wayne Hancock to relative newcomers Mandy Barnett and Trent Summar & the New Row Mob.

Opry Plaza is a spacious, comfortable outdoor area in front of the Opry House, located in the Opry Mills complex in suburban northeast Nashville. Formerly the Opryland amusement park, the entire area has been converted into a massive retail center, dubbed "Shopryland" by the locals.

A number of the scheduled acts also appear the same night at ticketed shows inside the Opry. Friday night's free outdoor concerts begin at 6:30 p.m., and Saturday night shows begin at 5:30 p.m. The Plaza Parties are free and open to the public. For updates and confirmation of the lineup, visit www.opry.com.

On most Thursday nights (and Wed., July 3), downtown Nashville also gets cranked up with a series of free shows called Dancing In the District. Because it is produced by the same company that books Atlanta's On The Bricks, some of the acts are the same ones you can see in Centennial Park Fridays. And like On The Bricks, these shows can get very crowded, and just as crazy. Headliners include Sister Hazel, Blues Traveler and the Neville Brothers, with two to four smaller acts opening.

There's enough variety to make at least one road trip worthwhile -- as if we need a good excuse to get out of Atlanta for the weekend.

Chattanooga Nightfall Concert: The Brothers Johnson -- July 5; The Flatlanders -- July 12; Indigenous -- July 19; Solas -- July 26; Zydeco Boneshakers -- Aug. 2; Anthony Gomes -- Aug. 9; Charlie Hunter -- Aug. 16; Pinmonkey -- Aug. 23; Seven Nations -- Aug. 30; Jesse Winchester -- Sept. 6; Nashville Bluegrass Band -- Sept. 13; Leon Redbone -- Sept. 20; Tama -- Sept. 27.

Nashville's Opry Plaza Party 2002: The Weary Boys, Mandy Barnett -- June 28; The Weary Boys, Mike Ireland -- June 29; Jason Ringenberg, Old Crow Medicine Show -- July 5; Karen Poston & the Crystal Pistols, Hal Ketchum -- July 6; New Ground, Darrell Scott -- July 12; the Domino Kings, Wayne "The Train" Hancock -- July 13; Hot Club of Cowtown, BR549 -- July 19; Robinella & the CC String Band, Rodney Hayden -- July 20; Jesse Dayton, Jim Lauderdale -- July 26; Jesse Dayton, Bruce Robison -- July 27; Star Room Boys, Dale Watson -- Aug. 2; Lonesome Bob, Trent Summar & the New Row Mob -- Aug. 3; Eleven Hundred Springs, Billy Joe Shaver -- Aug. 9; the Biscuit Boys, Bering Strait -- Aug. 10.

Nashville's Dancing In The District: White Animals, Stroke 9, Drive-By Truckers, the Features, Venus Envy -- July 3; Keb' Mo', the Flatlanders, Jupiter Coyote, Pheromone -- July 11; Robert Earl Keen's Texas Uprising featuring Charlie Robison, Rodney Hayden, Indigenous -- July 18; Sister Hazel, Caitlin Cary, Graham Colton, Jetpack, Lume -- July 25; Better Than Ezra, Cracker, RANA, Homunculus, Will Seabrook -- Aug. 1; the Neville Brothers, Chubby Carrier & The Bayou Swamp Band, the Coal Men, Ryan Reardon & the Levee Breakers -- Aug. 8; Blues Traveler, Pat McGee Band, De Novo Dahl, Girlfriend Voice, Mile 8 -- Aug. 15.

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