If you aren’t going out to see live music in Knoxville, you actively must be avoiding it.
Those of us who’ve grown up in Knoxville can attest that there’s never before been more music in the city at any one time. Not everyone may agree that the music scene is experiencing a golden age, but it’s undeniable that there are more opportunities to hear live music and there are more active musicians now than there has ever been.
Knoxville actually has experienced a few golden ages for music. The first began when Knoxville was home to radio stations WNOX and WROL. Those stations, with their programs “The Mid-Day Merry-Go-Round” and Cas Walker’s “Farm and Home,” respectively, provided training grounds for future “Grand Ole Opry” stars, from Roy Acuff in the 1930s to Dolly Parton in the ‘60s. There was another glimmer of hope when country great Con Hunley went from being king of the Corner Lounge on Central Street and the Village Barn on Asheville Highway to a Nashville star. Kenny Chesney became one of the biggest stars in the country, but he barely performed in Knoxville before moving on.
While the city had produced some rock favorites, including The Loved Ones in the ‘60s and Grammy-winning Amazing Rhythm Aces (who had the hit “Third Rate Romance”) in the ‘70s, the genre experienced a swell in the early ‘80s when groups like Balboa, the Lonesome Coyotes, Smokin’ Dave and the Premo Dopes, Shakey Little Finger, The Clintons and others were regularly blasting music out of Cumberland Avenue night spots. Many of the artists who played in those bands still play in town and remain teachers and mentors for younger generations.
In the ‘90s, The JudyBats and, later, The V-Roys and Superdrag, found their ways onto major record labels after winning audiences on Market Square, Cumberland Avenue and in the Old City.
With no small debt to the University of Tennessee music department’s teachers and students, jazz flourished in the Old City in the ‘80s and early ‘90s when Annie’s (later Lucille’s) presented the cream of local jazz and Ashley Capps’ short-lived – but legendary – club Ella Guru’s (which now houses The Melting Pot) brought jazz greats to its basement stage. Jazz great Donald Brown moving to town helped spark veteran greats to new heights, and the health of the scene sparked Vance Thompson to form the Knoxville Jazz Orchestra.
At the turn of the millennium, metal bands flourished (albeit with few places to perform), and Knoxville groups – most notably 10 Years and Whitechapel – found international fame. And current young rock acts, such as The Pinklets, Sweet Years and The Holifields, are gaining strong local followings and have the potential to spill out nationally.
And, of course, certain promoters have made their own marks. Capps, who began by renting the Laurel Theater to present his favorite acts in the early ‘80s, later founded AC Entertainment, now one of the most respected concert promotion companies in the world. He then co-founded Bonnaroo and founded Knoxville’s internationally renowned Big Ears Festival. Chyna Brackeen, a former AC Entertainment employee, is rising up as well, managing the Black Lillies and booking regional festivals, including Knoxville’s Rhythm N’ Blooms, with her company Attack Monkey.
What’s going on now seems almost like an explosion, and it’s spread across genres. If you can think of a style of music, there’s a venue that books it. In addition, there’s any number of house concerts happening. There’s good music to be had every night of the week, and, on many nights, music fans have a mind-boggling number of choices. And from February to September, there seems to be a festival that features music almost every weekend. In addition, artists like the Black Lillies, William Wild and Emi Sunshine are getting national exposure.
There’s a wide variety of expectations, appreciations and opinions on what the scene needs, what it needs to avoid and what makes it special.
Full disclosure: Writing about music for more than 30 years and my participation in radio shows on WDVX and the annual Waynestock festival has made me part of the scene and has meant that I have become friends with most of the people interviewed here. Some of them have written or write for BLANK.
Don’t define it
“I would say the state of the scene is strange right now,” says Wil Wright. “It’s hard to get the pulse of it. … It’s shapeshifting and mysterious these days.”
Wright says he has been “emotionally and financially” invested in the music scene since moving to town from Harriman nearly 20 years ago to attend UT. In that time, he has headed up the rock band Senryu, been the wizard-rap persona LiL iFFy and currently performs with the electronic-pop duo Peak Physique with fellow Knoxville music veteran Matt Honkonen. Each of these acts has fallen into a different genre.
“I’ve been in a bunch of projects, and I felt like nothing got lost in the shuffle,” he says. “It doesn’t follow the ebb and flow of the music industry. You don’t fall off the map. … You can be the best version of whatever you want to be because of the size of the scene. It’s big enough, but it’s also small enough to get substantial attention for your idea. You can make a significant impact on the landscape. That’s one of the things that really solidified my commitment to Knoxville. … There’s an enthusiastic audience, and there’s a sense of ownership. People take pride when something good happens here. The size of the audience is really to the performer’s advantage.
“And by not having an identity pinned on it, we’re not boxed in. For me, there’s a purity. There’s no pressure. The fact that Knoxville is not on the map for one thing means we can do what we want. Actually putting it on the map just gives you something to lose,” Wright continues.
“One of the things that’s great about Knoxville is it’s untainted by the music business,” says Tim Lee, who has been a particular mover and shaker on the scene since arriving just after 2000. Since that time, he’s fronted the Tim Lee Band, the Tim Lee 3, Bark, been a player in several bands and helped start a number of music events and festivals.
Lee began playing music professionally in the late ‘70s and was part of the Mississippi-based band The Windbreakers. He’s seen the music business from being in a Rolling Stone-anointed next-break-out band, as a hired sideman and as a complete outsider. He doesn’t hide his disdain for the crowd that searches for the traditional model of success: signing with major record labels and following the ascribed models for success.
“I believe in this stuff. I’m dumb enough to believe it’s important,” says Lee. “You can’t quantify music monetarily. You’ll always have people making music in garages, basements, living rooms and bathrooms. … Music does not have to be commerce. We sell records and T-shirts and whatever, but the point of any art is doing it. Everything else is another concern. … It’s weird how music is more and more about the business. That’s not the point of music. There’s a time and place for making a buck, but there’s a time and place for JUST music. The notion that if it doesn’t generate X-amount of money that it’s worthless is nonsense.
“There was a period of time here where people were involved in that, and that mentality has hung around. I like that people can just do what they want and not worry about it. There are no rules. The best stuff is made outside of the rules. We know them, but you gotta know how to break them. If you want rules, join the Army!”
Finding a niche
These are established artists, though. A younger generation of artists still is finding its place.
“The state of the music scene is in a really good place now,” says Jarius Bush, co-founder of band The Theorizt and multi-faceted promotion/performance group The Good Guy Collective.
Hip-hop definitely has spent years underground in Knoxville, but Bush and his fellow Good Guys have been working hard to bring it to the surface. The Good Guy Collective presents regular events at The Birdhouse, a community center in the Fourth and Gill neighborhood. Bush’s latest project is creating the score for “What the Water Tells Us,” a hip-hop puppet opera in collaboration with the Cattywampus Puppet Council.
“We have a good, friendly aura about town, and it shows in our collaborations,” says Bush. “From a hip-hop perspective, I see a bleed-over from hip-hop into other genres. I’m seeing a lot more community, different genres coming together. I’m seeing more people taking on other roles. Rather than just being performers, they’re facilitating more shows.
“I used to hear the gripe on the Knoxville music scene: ‘Man, there’s nothing happening here.’ Now we’re actually finding ourselves in this scene. And there’s the whole Tennessee Volunteer aspect of it. People are just working to help. We’re slowly building a community of artists who are helping each other and showing up for each other’s shows. It’s how we operate.”
Singer-songwriter Adeem the Artist, whose legal name is Kyle Bingham, says he’s still finding where he and his generation fit.
“There are more musicians and visual artists here than anywhere I’ve ever lived. … Greg Horne, Tim Lee and Christina Horn [of Hudson K] very much have a pocket of the scene, and I exist in a budding pocket,” says Adeem, who came to town from Syracuse, New York, in 2010. “Knoxville feels very much like home, but I’m not sure if Knoxville considers me a local yet.”
Adeem found his niche more in the group of musicians including Daje Morris and Shayla McDaniel who played their first featured shows at Central Collective in Happy Holler. Adeem and his wife, Hannah, presented the artists as part of the “Sound & Silence” songwriter series. Garrett Thomson and Kent Oglesby also presented shows at the venue as well as at Pretentious Beer Co.
“Chyna, Garrett Thomson and Kent Oglesby represent a new wave of things happening,” says Adeem. “They do cool stuff. Garrett said the onus is on the artists in the scene to build the fabric. With the Knoxville Music Coalition, they push Knoxville to do the things that Austin didn’t do.”
The business of music
Singer-songwriter Jonathan Sexton, who co-founded artist software Artist Growth and who has performed with The Whiskey Scars, Big Love Choir and, currently, ‘90s cover band Teen Spirit, also points to Thomson as one of the bright lights on the scene.
“He’s gotten me re-excited about how to help Knoxville musicians find careers in music and help themselves,” says Sexton. “He’s having workshops to help musicians think about their bios and marketing. That’s stuff I had to go to Nashville to learn, and it’s something that’s really been missing here. We’ve always had the talent. If you want to have a career in music and do it for a living, it’s different than just playing at Pres Pub once a month. There’s nothing wrong with that. It’s what I’m mostly doing, but it’s not the same. You gotta decide if it’s going to be your hobby or your business. This had been, by and large, a hobby town, but with some of the best writers and musicians anywhere.”
Thomson grew up in Knoxville and returned to town after attending Middle Tennessee State University in Murfreesboro and working for independent record label RPM Entertainment in Nashville.
“When the record label folded, I reached out to Chyna Brackeen,” he says. “I’d managed artists who’d played at Rhythm N’ Blooms.”
Thomson ended up working for the Dogwood Arts Festival, which sponsors Rhythm N’ Blooms.
“It was a mental shock to see how much Knoxville had grown, particularly the music scene,” he says.
Thomson believes Rhythm N’ Blooms helps inspire local artists who sometimes get their first taste of playing on a large stage to a large crowd.
“My take on Knoxville is that it has a lot of great fans and talent but not a lot of great rooms, at least not rooms that are music-first venues,” he says. “It’s hard to be taken seriously if you’re not playing ticketed events.”
With Oglesby, Thomson also created unique, small experiences for listeners. One was a series of “secret shows,” in which audiences bought tickets without knowing who the performers were going to be or where they were going to be held. The fact these shows attracted sizable crowds is an indication of how much Knoxville has come to trust that the quality of music presented in town is going to be good. And the local appetite for music is growing.
Thomson notes that when Capps opened the Mill & Mine, he didn’t decrease booking at the Bijou Theatre and the Tennessee Theatre, both of which are managed by AC Entertainment.
“They sold out Portugal, the Man [at the Mill & Mine], and there was a show by the Foo Fighters and Lecrae all on that same Wednesday night.”
How Big are your Ears?
While some, including Lee, believe that the larger shows take away audience numbers from smaller-scale performances, these larger presentations may have helped build a culture where audiences have become used to going out to see live music. Audiences regularly buy tickets to the Big Ears Festival having never heard of many of the artists. In covering Big Ears for the Knoxville News Sentinel for years, patrons regularly told me they came out because they simply knew that it would be good – or at least interesting.
“I like to think that Big Ears not only gives people in the community an opportunity to experience and discover things they might not have otherwise, but I also hope it encourages artists and musicians to explore other possibilities in their own work,” says Capps. “They see something and go, ‘Wow! Why don’t I try this?’ … It transcends music. It’s an important part of living life. … It helps develop music in different ways, but it also helps the community become open and receptive to new ideas.
“It’s really about nurturing the culture in general. When people get turned on to a variety of performance possibilities, it helps the art, dance and theater scene, not just music. There are subtle connections that lead people through different steps to appreciate all forms of culture and activity.”
That, says Capps, helps the local economy and spurs ideas for new businesses.
Capps knows he has taken criticism for not being a more active supporter of local musicians.
“Often, I don’t have the opportunity to,” he says. “These days, I’m not able to put a local act in front of a touring act as much as I’d like to.”
Unlike many shows in the past, touring artists usually come with an opening act in tow. It’s the same at Bonnaroo, which used to book Knoxville artists regularly. Now the big acts come with caveats that a management company’s smaller acts are part of the deal. However, Capps was so impressed by The Pinklets’ performance at the 2016 edition of Waynestock that he did book them for a Bonnaroo stage.
Capps says part of what he does is let young artists see examples of more successful artists who share their sensibilities and enthusiasm.
“Conformity is what’s rewarded and valued. When you realize that there are other people out there … it’s affirming. We’re all human beings. We need that kind of support.”
Many of the artists who now headline the Big Ears Festival first played in Knoxville at the Pilot Light. Founded in 2000, the club still nurtures fledgling rock and experimental groups, as well as internationally appreciated underground legends. It’s a venue with its own scene and sensibility, and it has been a lynchpin in the Old City.
“This is a place where small things can happen with very little compromise,” says Pilot Light co-founder and director Jason Boardman. “It’s not like a restaurant or bar that has music in the back. Those places are fine, but here bands are able to get more creative and get better at what they do on stage without curtailing someone’s dinner business. Part of our mission statement is to be supportive of music that doesn’t get a lot of representation. We’ll do stuff that doesn’t have a home elsewhere. Some of it is music that’s usually relegated to house shows. … A lot of people rely on it, and they’ve had a chance to musically grow up there – myself included.”
Boardman believes it’s important to give young artists a place to play in front of audiences when they’re still figuring out who they are.
“At a place like the Pilot Light, bands can get a show before they’re fully formed, and I think that’s one of the times they’re at their most interesting. People practicing in their garage say, ‘We’re not ready.’ But they can play here on a weeknight. If they have a creative idea about the lighting or something, we’re open to that. They can’t go many places and say that, especially along with, ‘And, oh, by the way, we’ll only gonna bring 20 people out.’ Here, if 11 people show up, or if only seven people show up, that’s OK. Certain types of music are never going to bring a crowd.”
It’s also important, he says, for Knoxville artists to see bands from out of town and let them “cross pollinate,” and he consciously creates certain bills for that reason.
Boardman says the consistency of Pilot Light and The Birdhouse has helped keep the momentum of music that might have fallen through the cracks. In 2016, Pilot Light became a nonprofit organization.
“I like to say, ‘We’ve always been NO-profit, but it took a lot of time to get that extra ‘N,’” says Boardman. “If the Pilot Light had to survive under normal circumstances, it couldn’t.”
Keeping the clubs alive
Surviving, and hopefully thriving, though, is the situation that most venues that present local music are in.
Kyle Przybyszewski, who has been booking at Barley’s in the Old City for more than five years, says he was given full reign on booking acts.
“I got handed the email password and [was] told, ‘Don’t screw it up!’” he says.
Generally, says Przybyszewski, he could look at a list of bands and know the venue where each one played.
“Different venues and clubs focus on different things. I see certain places focusing on certain things, but not one overlapping any other that much. … We do focus on rock and Americana, but if I find something captivating if I’m listening to a band, if I’m still listening to them two hours later, I’m going to book them because I can’t get enough of them.”
Przybyszewski says some local artists, including Guy Marshall and Smooth Sailor, are guaranteed to draw a good crowd at Barley’s.
“I have to be aware of what brings people in as opposed to what makes them leave. Some places are set up to be more adventurous than we are. There has to be a balance between what I like and what makes us money. I do get some feedback from people every time they walk in the door. They know the band is going to be good even though they don’t know the band. You couldn’t have better praise than that.
“I think the state of the Knoxville scene is good and bad. I think it’s stagnant-to-getting-better. There could be more people at the shows. I always want more people at shows. I’m never pleased. But there is a scene, and there IS a moment going on.”
Market Square’s Preservation Pub had, arguably, the most impact on getting that movement going. When Scott and Bernadette West opened the club in 2002, Market Square was almost empty after dark. After the ‘90s music club Mercury Theater closed its doors, restaurant Tomato Head was the square’s only thriving business after work hours.
“Market Square rolled up and turned to tumbleweeds after 5 p.m.,” says Scott West, who owns Preservation Pub, Scruffy City Hall and several other businesses on the square with wife Bernadette.
West says that, when he and Bernadette were working on the club at night, there were only homeless people outside on the square and that it was so deserted he could park on the square in front of the building and sleep until he had the energy to return to work. Pres Pub, as most patrons refer to it, opened up the city to a wide variety of beer selections and, by booking live music every night, a wide variety of bands.
Pres Pub, says West, can be thanked for helping the quality of local music improve at an accelerated rate.
“We were a local band incubator,” he says. “I was in a band, and I know that most bands don’t practice unless they have a gig. At Pres Pub, we had 90 bands a month. We gave them gigs.”
It certainly helped make Market Square a destination at a time when few people had any thought of spending an evening downtown. Now, nearly every door on the square has a bustling business behind it, and Pres Pub is generally packed.
“’Keep Knoxville Scruffy’ means you support local things, local bands, local beer. That’s what made Pres Pub important,” he says.
Attracting a crowd is even more of a challenge for venues that are not located downtown or in the Old City.
Alec Cunningham books shows at the Open Chord, maybe the only West Knoxville venue that focuses on original music instead of cover bands.
“It’s difficult,” she says. “Everybody wants to flock downtown. The West [Knoxville] crowd likes tribute shows. It’s harder to get people to come out and hear original, local music. We do a lot of open mic nights, which is how we find young local bands. … So many kids are just killing it. We’ll find one at an open mic and say, ‘Do you want to open for a bigger act?’”
One of the things that sets the Open Chord apart is that it is an all-ages venue that still is adult-friendly. There are few places for high-school (and even younger) artists to perform. The club is helping foster a new generation of players and audiences. The Open Chord is promoted as “All Things Music.”
“‘All things music,’ isn’t just a slogan,” Cunningham says. “They come for music lessons; they buy instruments; they play here. It’s huge to get to watch kids grow up and turn into real musicians.”
She knows that the Open Chord is a destination; it isn’t a place where people are just walking by and decide to go in.
“I think the scene is strong, especially with all these young kids showing so much talent. We’re finding talent that has potential and giving them the opportunity to play with larger acts coming through town. That’s huge.”
Cunningham was a fan long before she began promoting shows. She began writing about music for BLANK in high school and studied journalism at UT. She says her goal is to make hearing live music an immediate option in the minds of Knoxvillians.
“I’d like them to automatically think, ‘Let’s go check out whatever venue is close to us.’”
While the Open Chord faces the challenge of being in West Knox, the International and the Concourse have been almost hidden to those unaware of their existence. Until recently, the clubs shared an address on Western Avenue when in actuality it was underneath the viaduct and couldn’t be accessed from that street. The address now is listed as 940 Blackstock Ave., which eliminates a lot of confusion. Also, the once-forbidding location – it used to be surrounded by empty industrial lots and sometimes by transient campsites – now features close-by soccer fields where families congregate on weekends.
“You’re convincing people to go out of their way,” says International/Concourse owner Brian Coakley. “It’s not like the Old City where you go to dinner and then go barhopping. It’s a destination, for sure.”
Coakley says the venue still is settling into its niche.
“We gravitate to certain things: heavier, but not extreme,” says Coakley. “Generally, it’s a higher-energy type of sound.”
The International originally opened in the early ‘90s as a music venue named the Orpheus before becoming the Electric Ballroom and then the Valarium. Metal and electronic music have been staples since the early days. Now it’s one of the only local venues for touring DJs and bigger metal and hip-hop shows.
“That’s been the bread and butter down here since the Valarium days,” says Coakley. “The Midnight Voyage [regular electronic shows that sprouted from a radio show on WUTK] came out of that, and we’re keeping the torch burning. That’s a very enthusiastic culture, and it’s been incredible to watch that scene evolve.”
Coakley regularly books local acts to open for big touring artists, which helps the local acts gain their own new fans.
Located a mile from the UT campus, the International and Concourse seemed like natural places for students to frequent, but the walk used to be daunting. Streetlights were added, which increased visibility around the area, making it not so scary.
“That’s been a huge asset,” says Coakley. “It seems like a much safer walk, and the lighting is so much better. I feel like at every show we see new people showing up. We definitely have a lot of regulars, especially in specific types of music, but we always have students coming to town and people discovering us.”
Coakley has lived in Knoxville for the past 11 years after growing up in Chattanooga and then living in Orlando, Florida.
“The culture keeps me here,” he says. “Most people I meet are into music. It’s a very exciting community to be a part of. There’s a unique energy.”
In addition, he feels that his fellow promoters and club owners have a camaraderie. It’s an attitude reflected by all of the club operators interviewed for this story.
“I don’t view anything as competition,” says Coakley. “Everybody in this market, we do what we do and help each other out when we can. It’s not sports.”
The effect of radio waves
While many cities have no radio stations that play local musicians, Knoxville has three that play such artists regularly: WDVX, WUTK and WNFZ. In addition, Todd Steed’s WUOT shows “Improvisations” and “Studio 865” also highlight local artists. In today’s radio market, it’s almost unprecedented for local musicians to have such dedicated radio support.
Now celebrating its 20th year, WDVX probably has done more to bring attention to local artists than any station since the golden days of WNOX, and, arguably, even more. WDVX’s daily show at noon, “Blue Plate Special,” brings in audiences every day to see live local or touring musicians, and it puts local artists in the regular playlists, in addition to a raft of weekly shows with live – regularly local – music presented and broadcast from downtown. Through its internet stream, WDVX presents Knoxville artists to a dedicated and enthusiastic international audience.
The UT station WUTK and WNFZ, based in Oak Ridge, have artists perform in the studio. WUTK in particular has been a champion of local acts, playing a wide variety of artists for years.
“Radio-wise, we got it covered,” says WUTK General Manager Benny Smith. “I don’t know of a scene in the country that supports the left side the dial like Knoxville does.”
In WUTK’s case, the station plays a wealth of local artists, from the aforementioned Peak Physique and The Theorizt to country/Americana singer-songwriter Brandon Fulson.
“When it comes to local, we’re going to fly that flag as high and proud as we can,” says Smith.
He first started working as a DJ and promoting shows in the mid-‘80s when was attending UT and volunteering at WUTK. Now he’s the station’s manager, cultivating student DJs to be music enthusiasts. He’s watched the scene as it’s developed over the past 30 years.
What is perplexing, Smith says, is the lack of bands formed by UT students nowadays and the fact that the once-thriving Cumberland Avenue is devoid of a live-music venue.
“One thing we scratch our heads over is, “Why are there so few bands on campus?’ The Strip used to be an incubating place, but it’s not been there in years,” he says. “If we got at least one club on the Strip where people could come out and support their fellow students, it would help.”
Still, Smith pushes the station’s student staff to go out and see local shows and then play the artists’ music on the air.
“One of our favorite things is turning kids who come from outside of Knoxville on to this scene. I tell them, ‘If you don’t go out and see a local band playing at a local venue, you shouldn’t get a diploma. Don’t just sit here. Go out and do it.’”
Some local artists have become staples on the live shows on WDVX. Red Shoes and Rosin (Jessica Watson, Shawna Cyphers and Meade Armstrong) have performed on “Blue Plate Special,” “Tennessee Shines,” “6 O’Clock Swerve,” “All Over the Road” and other shows. In addition, they’ve performed collectively and individually with an almost countless array of fellow locals both on-air and off.
“I’ve always loved the Knoxville music scene because it feels like a community,” says Watson. “A lot of people have sat in with us. They come to play music and they’re versatile. They can play jazz or old-time … ”
“And everybody’s really supportive of each other,” says Armstrong.
“Sometimes at the end of the day, I’ll wonder if I really like that person’s music or [if] I just really like that person. And if you’re the least bit bashful, someone out there will make you feel OK. There’s a strong sense of community,” Watson adds.
Cyphers isn’t a fan of most of the bigger touring shows at larger venues, but she appreciates that they’re there. “I think it just enriches it,” she says. “I love that we have those venues and [that] there’s always something going on.”
“There’s two mindsets,” says Cyphers. “One is that everything is limited and you have to grab what you can, and the other is that there’s enough to go around.”
“And it’s not everyone’s goal to be famous,” says Watson. “This is the type of environment where you can just play!”
Agreeing are Chris Bratta and Stirling Walsh, who perform together in the Colonel Williams House Band, the Knox County Jug Stompers and, individually, in many other groups.
“The musicians here are the nicest and most accepting people I’ve ever encountered,” says Bratta. “They’re willing to open up and take your opinion and accept you. … If you have an idea, you can get it done. I don’t know if that’s the case everywhere else. If you want to get in a group and play a certain type of music, you can do it.”
Walsh, who moved from Nashville many years ago, also plays in a mind-boggling number of groups. He says Knoxville has a much different attitude than Nashville.
“Musicians here go out to support other musicians,” he says. “It doesn’t feel like people go out to feed their own ego, to a certain extent. It’s a genuine love of playing music and listening to music.”
This ain’t Nashville
A few years ago, John Paul Keith, a native Knoxvillian who co-founded the Viceroys (which later became the V-Roys), has lived in Nashville and who now lives in Memphis, summed things up saying, “People in Knoxville and Memphis come out to hear music. People in Nashville only come out because they’re afraid they’re going to miss something.”
RB Morris, longtime singer-songwriter and current Knoxville poet laureate, says that statement is true to some extent.
“It’s a big business there,” he says. “In Nashville, it took me a while to find a band that I liked because they were posturing a little more. They wanted to make it in the business, and it wasn’t very soulful. I finally found the band I wanted, but it took longer.”
Of course, Knoxville has a long tradition of producing artists who later earn fame and/or success. Morris says the music culture of the city always has been nurturing; musicians and other types of artists are encouraging and are open to educating each other. When Morris began writing songs, he’d show them to older artists. They would give him advice – not just about songwriting, but about the music business, art and literature, too.
Morris says there’s a different type of competition in Knoxville that creates a different type of artist.
He points to the Amazing Rhythm Aces, who had formed in Knoxville, moved to Memphis and shortly thereafter won a Grammy. It was, he believes, an artistically competitive scene in Knoxville that already had the band on a high level before the group left town. Morris himself had a similar experience when he first went to Nashville and was quickly embraced by other writers, including John Prine, Lucinda Williams, Steve Earle, Tom T. Hall, Mark Germino and Billy Joe Shaver. And, he says, he sees the Black Lillies experiencing something similar today.
Morris says he played with the Liberty Circus show in August at Nashville’s Douglas Corner, and he was struck by the artists who were playing at the club before the Circus performed.
“The audience wouldn’t pay any attention to them. The people in the audience were talking with each other. They would applaud when the song was over, but it was obvious the people in the audience were just there for each other. But the performers were sucking up to them constantly. It was like they were trying desperately to be liked by somebody.”
There’s a sort of feeling in Knoxville, though, that artists wait for the audience to come to them.
Part of what has made Knoxville different is that the city never has been known for a specific type of music. Compare the music recorded in Bristol and Johnson City in the late ‘20s and ‘30s to music recorded in Knoxville during the same period, and you’ll find that Knoxville had jazz, blues and other styles in addition to the country that was found in the Tri-Cities. The country stars who started in Knoxville, including Chet Atkins, Homer & Jethro and Don Gibson, all were listening to and were influenced by jazz, especially the music from the Hot Club of France.
“Memphis has the blues. Nashville has country. What does Knoxville have?” says Morris. “It’s hard to define. In some ways, that’s good, but it’s not good for an empire. I think it was Eric Sublet who once said, ‘Once you give it a name, that’s the beginning of the end.’”
Steed, who first found local fame as the singer/guitarist of Smokin’ Dave and the Premo Dopes, has been on the scene almost as long as Morris. He agrees that Knoxville is different.
“I noticed a long time ago when Smokin’ Dave first went on the road and we’d visit other scenes and see what they’re about: In Nashville and Atlanta, everybody was trying to get a record deal, and the goal was to be rich and successful. In Knoxville, whether it was stated or not, the goal was to be authentic and entertaining – and original if that was possible. You go to Morgantown, West Virginia, and that would be there, too. But Knoxville had this lack of commercial plan that led to some real creativity. If you go out and see someone doing exactly what they want to do, that makes you want to do that, too.”
Is Knoxville the next Austin?
The comparison between Knoxville and Austin, Texas, comes up regularly. John Harvey and Mary Podio, who moved their Top Hat Recording Studio from Austin to Knoxville a few years ago, say there are similarities.
“It reminds me of Austin in the ‘70s, when I was a kid,” says Podio. “There’s a relaxed and friendly attitude. Everybody is friendly and helpful. Now, in Austin, so many people are trying to scrap out their little corners that they have a little less time to be helpful.”
The two say Austin and Knoxville are similar in that there are no major labels feeding the town’s music business. In Austin, most of the couple’s clients were local people. Some of them had been on major labels and gotten burned or just wanted out of it. Both say they much prefer working for individuals with whom a handshake is good enough to make a deal.
The two looked at a lot of towns before settling on Knoxville, where friends Tim and Susan Lee and fellow studio owner/producer John T. Baker lived.
“We took a trip here, and Tim and Susan introduced us to the cool musical people,” says Podio. “We felt we could be at home. It’s really friendly and super creative. Austin had become more homogenized. People are more afraid to step off musically. Here, people are more interested in following their creative impulses.”
“And the cost of living is way cheaper than in Austin,” adds Harvey. “It’s really refreshing and different. There’s a lot of interest and nice venues to play, and audiences come out. And it’s amazing to have so much radio support. But it’s more than just music; the creative vibe feeds itself.”
“And there’s a jazz scene here because of the university, which is a pleasant surprise,” says Podio. “That was kind of cool to find out about.”
The two say all of their out-of-town clients fall in love with Knoxville, especially with how convenient and welcoming it is. Some say they’ll eventually move to Knoxville.
Knoxville, says Harvey and Podio, could learn from Austin by considering having artist residencies at clubs, earlier shows and more music in public and unusual spaces. With Austin designating itself the live music capital of the world, it has bands playing at the airport for people arriving in town.
However, they say, Austin has been hurting its own scene by not offering free parking and instituting noise ordinances. As it’s grown, Austin had made things more difficult and expensive for musicians and music fans.
“I have a feeling that Knoxville is going to grow in a similar way to how Austin did,” says Harvey. “Just looking at the way the downtown is growing and the restaurant scene. But musicians in Austin are having to move farther and farther out because they can’t afford to live there. I hope, as it develops here, the cost of living – especially housing – doesn’t get higher than musicians can afford.”
The state of the scene
Knoxville’s music community has some ideas on what could help Knoxville’s music scene become even better.
Daniel Kimbro, a longtime ace bass player who is now part of Jerry Douglas’ band, sees a real need for audiences to step up and support live music.
“Folks don’t like paying cover charges in Knoxville,” says Kimbro. “That’s tough on a venue. There’s an idea that, ‘Artistic folks do it for their own benefit, and I don’t have to subsidize it.’ … What musicians do is stitch the fabric of the community together. The value of it and the value we put on it is not equal. … I have gone out to shows and had my life changed. I felt full body chills. It changes you. It’s not just a question of economics.”
Adeem, meanwhile, sees a need for his generation to dig in and find its audience: “Tim, Greg and Christina have that community. Our generation needs to find a way to make that happen, too.”
Bush sees the future in more collaborative terms: “We need more relationships between the artists and the venues and more figuring out how to help artists develop the community. Venues so often just care about the bottom line. There are a lot of artists that could bring people out if they were just exposed.”
Wright believes a more positive attitude is key: “You’ll always have some sour apples who feel like the only reason someone is succeeding is because of their friends, but most people have the sense to know that if one person does well it’s good for all of us. … With digital sharing and downloads, cooperation becomes even more important. You don’t get anywhere by isolating yourself. It’s the same with the local scene. … You’re not going to make friends stepping on each other.”
Lee believes Knoxville music fans are a little spoiled by so many choices, but that hasn’t affected the art: “From the point of view of people making music and creating art, it’s VERY healthy. There’s not a ‘Knoxville sound’ or some nonsense like that. It’s just cool people doing cool stuff. Creatively, it’s very healthy. I would just like more music clubs – and not just bars that have music.”
“There’s clearly something happening in this city,” says Capps. “There’s a high level of musical activity. People are pushing the envelope in new ways, and there’s an environment where cultural activity is supported and allowed to grow. … It’s kind of like a rising tide raises all boats. The more that’s going on, the more you tend to gravitate toward that as an option. The more people go to shows, the more shows come to them. If nobody comes to shows, that gets out. If someone has a show in Knoxville and it’s sold out or it does well, that gets out, too. That’s changed dramatically over the years. The range of options has expanded.”
“I think the music scene is very strong, very healthy,” says Boardman. “I’ve been able to watch a lot of ebbs and flows, but it blows my mind how consistent the creativity is. There are lots of bands doing things I didn’t think I’d see locally. Knoxville has just always had something in the water. I NEVER get tired of the music scene here.”
“The amazing variety this town has keeps it vital and strong,” says Smith. “The local scene in the past had a lot of soap operas. Now there’s a lot more love on the local scene, and that creates better results.”
As a fan and promoter of jazz in addition to being a regionally acclaimed rock performer, Steed says the city’s jazz scene is like “Candy Mountain” for fans of jazz and experimental music.
“From a jazz perspective, it’s really great for jazz musicians because they can actually put out records without going broke. Commercially, jazz has always been a tough genre. Now the jazz department will send me 10 jazz records made from people there, and the quality is just outstanding. And I can’t say enough about Vance Thompson creating the Knoxville Jazz Orchestra. Now they’re bringing in people like Bill Frisell to play with them.”
The atmosphere, he says, is ripe for live music. “Everybody wants to connect. We all had the chance to be addicted to our cell phones, waiting for that little ding to get a message from somebody. That’s one of the reasons I like to go to baseball games instead of watching them on TV. You need that human experience.”
“There’s always been something breaking out about the scene when it needed it,” says Morris. “Ella Guru’s, the Mercury Theater, the club scene getting better. … I was overjoyed when music returned to downtown with WDVX. … I’m always pulling for Knoxville. I’ll probably die pulling for Knoxville. … If we all pitch in, it moves. It took everybody to keep moving it, and now it’s in a better place.”