If one were to divide the 175-year history of Sherman, Texas into epochs, one could reasonably identify three.
During the first, Sherman was known throughout the South as “The Athens of Texas,” a regional hub for education and culture with a half-dozen colleges, a music conservatory, an opera house and a regular stop on the Chitlin’ Circuit.
The second era saw that reputation swept away in an F5 tornado, then burned away in an ugly race riot, then wasted away through decades of stagnation. Double-digit population growth slowed to nearly nothing.
Precisely when the third era began is up for debate, though 2007 seems as good a date as any. That year saw the opening of Sherman Town Center — an open-air mall that remade the city’s economy and ushered in a period of growth and rejuvenation. Sherman slashed property taxes, and the city emerged in the new millennium as a chic bedroom community infused with Southern charm.
Sherman’s once-deserted downtown slowly came back to life with locally owned restaurants and boutique shopping. And with those changes, the city’s politics emerged from hibernation, as well. The old-money generation was supplanted with younger, hungrier leadership. And with those new minds came new perspectives on an old claim to fame.
“Music has played such an important role in our city’s history, I guess it’s only appropriate that it’s once again one of our main focuses,” said Sarah McRae, the town’s 30-something tourism manager. “We may only have 45,000 people who live here, but on a Thursday night in June or July, it sure feels like a lot more.”
Those Thursday nights, of course, are the sole property of “Hot Summer Nights,” the city’s ballyhooed concert series that draws oversized names to town for free, outdoor concerts every week during the hot Texas summer. A typical Thursday sees upwards of 4,000 sweaty souls take up lawn chairs at Kidd-Key Park to see some of the biggest names in music play from the postage-stamp-sized stage in the shadow of a massive auditorium — the only remnants of a 19th century music conservatory that once occupied two city blocks.
“It’s pretty remarkable, some of the names we’ve had come through town the last few years,” said Sherman Mayor David Plyler, a third-generation construction scion whose 2017 election to the city’s highest office coincided with the weekly concerts elevating from piddly cover bands to A-list entertainment.
“When we asked ourselves how we could differentiate Sherman from the Metroplex’s other satellite cities, we decided to play to our city’s strength. And Sherman has always been known for music,” added Plyler.
The lineup typically pays respect to the area’s Red-Dirt roots with stars such as Koe Wetzel, Wade Bowen, and on June 3, Cody Canada and the Departed. But while seeing Texas country’s biggest names for free is neat, rock-and-roll is where Hot Summer Nights chooses to stand out.
“To see some of these big-name rock acts – that’s just not something that anyone else is offering. And we do it for free.”
— Sherman Mayor David Plyler
“I mean, Elvis has played Sherman, for goodness’ sake; we have a tradition to uphold,” said Plyler with a laugh, referencing a possibly-apocryphal ‘60s visit by The King. “People can pay their fifty bucks and see a lot of these country acts in Dallas whenever they want, but to see some of these big-name rock acts — that’s just not something that anyone else is offering. And we do it for free.”
In recent years, Sherman has hosted the likes of ‘70s disco king KC and the Sunshine Band, ‘80s powerhouse .38 Special, and ‘90s post-grunge chart-toppers Fuel, just to name a few. This summer will see Red Octopus rockers Jefferson Starship (July 15) as well as the multi-platinum alt group Hoobastank (June 17) added to the list.
“We don’t call him ‘The Rockin Mayor’ for nothing,” laughed McRae. “He wants Hot Summer Nights to be known as much for the diversity of its genres as it is for the level of talent.”
And so, it has come to pass. Concerts that would be lucky to draw 200 people a decade ago now routinely bring in twenty times that number, many of whom make the 45-minute drive from the Dallas suburbs to take in the shows.
“It’s nearly become self-sustaining,” said Sherman Communications Manager Nate Strauch. “The shows are paid for through hotel taxes, and each show generates a considerable number of overnight stays. So up we go, riding the spiral to ever-bigger revenues and ever-bigger acts.”
And an ever-bigger city, too. While macro trends are undoubtedly driving the bulk of Sherman’s recent population boom, the cachet of a peerless summer concert lineup certainly hasn’t hurt.
After all these years, Sherman has once again staked its reputation on the arts. And while a nickname like “The Athens of Texas” might have gone the way of the Roman Empire, city leaders seem content with a more recently earned moniker:
“Sherman: The rockin’est little city in the Lone Star State.”