By Steve Darden
Editor’s Note: Attorney Steve Darden, managing partner of Hunter, Smith & Davis LLP and former mayor of Johnson City, recently appeared in Liberty! The Saga of Sycamore Shoals and was kind enough to share his experience with our readers.
During the last three weeks of July, it was my great privilege — and a lot of fun — to have a speaking role in Liberty! The Saga of Sycamore Shoals. This was Liberty’s 41st annual run, and it has the distinction of being Tennessee’s official outdoor drama. Liberty! includes nine performances during the final three weeks of July each year at Sycamore Shoals State Park in Elizabethton at the iconic fort behind the visitor’s center.
I was drawn to auditioning and participating in this year’s performance by our region’s fascinating — yet, in my opinion, under-appreciated — history. It is quite a distinction to be the place where the first free and independent government on the North American continent was formed, given that the Watauga Association was created prior to the Declaration of Independence. Sycamore Shoals is also the place from whence the Overmountain Men – who came from Virginia, North Carolina, Sullivan County and the Washington District (present-day Carter, Washington and Greene Counties) – mustered and then marched to King’s Mountain, South Carolina, where they fatally shot British General Patrick Ferguson, who had threatened them, and defeated the Tories under his command. In The Winning of the West, Teddy Roosevelt wrote that it was the turning point of the Revolutionary War. Yes, all of that significant history and more happened right here.
I consider myself fairly knowledgeable about local history, and serve as a Trustee of the Rocky Mount Historical Society. And while my ancestors have been in the area since the Revolutionary period and were involved in the events depicted in Liberty!, I still learned things from the production that I didn’t know. For example, Isaac Shelby, who led the frontiersmen from Sullivan County, later became the first Governor of Kentucky. “Bonny Kate” Sevier, familiar to many because of businesses in downtown Elizabethton that bear her name, was known as the “shining star” among frontier women. Also, a female — Nancy Ward — was a respected member of the Cherokee Nation’s Council of Chiefs.
But Liberty! does not just convey facts, it is drenched with the human drama of freedom and courage and faith and honor, among the settlers and the native Americans alike who were here first. A friend who relocated to the area a few years ago from the Northeast admitted that she came to see Liberty! with a healthy dose of skepticism. She left, as the email she later sent me said, having witnessed “the Tennessee character . . . one scene at a time” and continued reflecting on the Saga for several days. Cast members often heard similar accounts from those in attendance, including a person who recently lost a loved one and found encouragement from the portrayal of faith among the frontier women.
Liberty! is presented annually by the Friends of Sycamore Shoals; along with the all-volunteer cast and Directors Tony DeVault and Dr. Keith Young, they are a dedicated group. As Colonel John Sevier, who was the only Governor of Franklin and served six terms as Tennessee’s first Governor, as well as four terms in Congress, says during one lively scene, “I’ll tip my hat” to them! But, there were still a few empty seats in the grandstands, so, if you didn’t make it to Liberty! this year, perhaps you can make a mental note to attend a performance next year.
I consider my character, Charles Robertson, to have some very meaningful lines, proclaiming that “power and authority come from the will of the people!” and then asking “what if we lived in a nation with those same principles?” I had a great experience portraying Robertson, whose cousin James is considered the founder of Nashville, and think you will enjoy seeing Liberty! The Saga of Sycamore Shoals if you have the opportunity.