Talking Live with Sherry May

By Sandi Butler Hughes

Live At The Garden concerts have become one of the most anticipated summer events in Memphis and the Mid-South, and in large part, we have one person and the first employee of the series to thank for all the good times. Sherry May has been a part of the concert series and Co-Director since the beginning, and she is stepping down at the end of this 24th season. “Live At The Garden is in a great spot. I wouldn’t be leaving if I didn’t know it’s in a really great spot. This is like one of my children,” she said. Sherry was instrumental in creating the series and growing it to what it is today, so it’s no wonder she feels like she gave birth to it!

Sherry started her career with Live At The Garden (LATG) in 1999, and for many of us, we can’t imagine summers back in the 1990s before there was LATG to look forward to. In that year, she was tapped to be a part of a focus group to explore creating an outdoor concert venue at the Memphis Botanic Garden (MBG), and the rest, as they say, is Memphis entertainment history. The Board of Directors with MBG was searching for a way to increase revenues and boost attendance at the Garden, and the idea of outdoor concerts and amphitheaters was being considered. “At that time, Chastain Park in Atlanta was the most known and one of the few outdoor concert spaces at that point. We did surveys, talked to leaders in the community and everybody thought it would be a great idea,” Sherry remembered.

On June 15, 2001, the first LATG concert was launched with none other than Isaac Hayes. It could not be more fitting than to have a Memphis music legend perform the first concert at what has become a summer institution. The second season featured none other than Ray Charles among other legendary performers. By the third year, LATG was breaking even, and by year four it started making money. “All the money from Live At The Garden goes into the operating budget of the Botanic Garden. Live was critical for the first 10-15 years to the overall financial well-being of the Garden,” Sherry said. “The Botanic Garden is a beautiful area that you can’t find anywhere else in Memphis. We couldn’t do it without them, and I think the Garden feels the same way, they couldn’t do it without Live At The Garden.”

Over the course of 24 seasons, Sherry has her favorite shows, but more importantly she has favorite people she’s worked with. “Seal is a beautiful soul. I’ve seen him meet backstage with St. Jude families, and he gives them all of his time. He’s so gracious,” she said. “Boy George is another I didn’t expect to be so outgoing and lovely backstage. He’s just a great person. Darius Rucker is one of my all-time favorites. We love him; we love his crew, and we’ve had so much fun when they’re onsite. Wynonna is awesome; she’s so genuine, and had us on the bus - she’s so down-to-earth. Little Big Town - I can’t not mention them - they are as genuinely nice people as you would think they are.”

There are also the legends who have performed at LATG that have since passed away. “Joe Cocker played at Woodstock, and it just blows my mind that he played Live At The Garden in 2009! Donna Summer, we had her play before she passed away. Gregg Allman - we got to work with him, and we were one of his last shows. All were just great people. It’s so fun to look back on, getting to work with all those people.”

As Sherry reflects on her career at LATG, one of the accomplishments she’s most proud of is selling the naming rights to the amphitheater to Radians, Inc. “It was time. We are now a world-class venue, and we are respected in the industry. It was time for us to have a naming rights partner, and Radians has been awesome to work with. They are so good to us and the Garden. It was a big deal to get that done, and I’m really proud of that.”

Seal and Sherry May in 2017

Like so many during the pandemic, Sherry discovered new ways to fill time at home, and she began creating fluid art pieces. She has been making gorgeous handbags that are miniature works of wearable art. She has expanded to painting guitars, and it seems to be a perfect extension of her work combined with her artistic talents. Once she retires, she will again have more time to devote to her beautiful art while continuing to work as a consultant in the entertainment and event business.

Not only is LATG a business success, it has become a summer tradition and means so much to many people who attend the concerts. “I’m just really proud of what Live At The Garden means to Memphis. Everywhere I go, whether I’m at the grocery store or wherever, people will say ‘I love Live At The Garden!’ It has been really rewarding and humbling to be a part of that for so many years. We’ve had engagements out there, lots of birthday parties. There are several people who have had their season tickets or tables since the kickoff season, since 2001.”

Live At The Garden is a special venue, and not only for the people who attend the shows. The entertainers, who have performed all over the world, note what an incredible venue LATG is. “We close the Garden at 3:00 on show days, and they can get out and walk the Garden. Many of them bring their kids with them, so they can get out and enjoy it. Little Big Town brought their kids; Jennifer Nettles brought her child; Chris Isaak was riding his bike around the Garden. They all love the venue - it’s so different and unique,” Sherry said. “And they love our food. We have the best food in the business! Fuel Food Truck is onsite, and they cater all day and all night for the crews. It’s great food, and they do an incredible job. We are known for how well we feed our entertainers.”

Original art bass guitar

by Sherry May

Sherry recalls many wonderful experiences and special relationships she’s made from her time leading LATG. “In 1995, Hootie and the Blowfish were so hot, and I missed their show at the Mud Island Amphitheater because I didn’t have a ticket. Fast forward 25 years or so, and there I am backstage with Darius Rucker (of Hootie and the Blowfish) and his band taking a shot of whiskey before they play their show at Live At The Garden,” she laughed. “I’ve been very fortunate, and I don’t take it for granted for one minute. I’ve gotten to live my dream.”

Share From the Publisher of 4Memphis: The Gift of Brokenness