Wide range of national, local acts on tap for 2018
Head west out of Maryville proper with the windows rolled down on a summer Saturday night, and the guitars are the first to reach your ears.
Whether it’s some driving freight-train blues or a swampy, country-rock shuffle, there’s no mistaking the sound: Roots music is in the wind, drifting from a covered pavilion beside a Harley-Davidson dealership along a rural stretch of Blount County highway.
The Shed Smokehouse and Juke Joint recently opened the gates to its 14th outdoor concert season, which continues every Saturday – and occasionally on other nights of the week, as well – through the end of September. A glance at the schedule reveals a who’s who of rock and Americana acts familiar to any fan of the genre, and a follow-through to those artists’ tour schedules shows that, for many of them, the Maryville stop will be their only performances in the East Tennessee market.
“For me, I consider that our Knoxville market, as well; it’s close to Knoxville, and it’s so much more fun than playing the city,” says Richard Young, guitarist and vocalist for the Kentucky Headhunters, who have a regular Labor Day weekend residency at The Shed. “Over the years, what’s happened with us is that everyone has caught on that we’re going to be there that weekend. Every first Saturday in September is Labor Day, and people just plan around it – ‘Oh, I can’t do this that weekend because the Headhunters are going to be at The Shed.’
“Consistency breeds success, and people plan that as far as their Labor Day activities go. I would say 60 percent of the crowd, we know their faces, so it’s like a family picnic for us.”
For those with only a cursory knowledge of The Shed, a show by the Headhunters might not sound appealing; the band was last on the Billboard Hot Country singles chart in 2000 with a song that peaked at No. 66, but like a number of roots and Americana artists who grace The Shed’s stage, that only means that the band’s sound doesn’t fit the prepackaged Nashville mold of mainstream country. In 2015, the guys released a collaborative record, “Meet Me in Bluesland,” drawn from sessions they did with now-deceased rock and blues piano man Johnnie Johnston, and a year later, the group’s “On Safari” revealed a sound that’s as raw and powerful as that of bands half their age.
“I’m guilty; when I got here and started booking shows, I was told that the Headhunters play every Labor Day,” says Shed Entertainment Director Josh Formont. “I thought, ‘OK, what’s the deal here?’ Then I saw the show, and it all made sense. The Headhunters are so much more than ‘Dumas Walker’ or ‘Walk Softly on This Heart of Mine.’ This show is incredible every year.”
If anything, The Shed – which sits adjacent to Smoky Mountain Harley-Davidson and is part of the original concept by owners Scott and Monet Maddux – has a reputation for landing acts before they hit the big time. Chris Stapleton? He lit up the venue with his old Southern-rock outfit, The Jompson Brothers, in 2012 and 2013. Sturgill Simpson? He was the opening act at a 2013 show that drew less than 100 people. Jason Isbell? After playing there a handful of times over the years, his last stop was after the release of the critically acclaimed and commercially successful “Something More Than Free,” back in 2015. Today, those artists are headlining bigger theaters in Knoxville, and while organizers at The Shed hate to lose them, the loss is affirmation that they know what they’re doing.
“There’s always this air of chance – ‘I don’t know if tickets are going to sell, I don’t know if people are going to show up,’” Formont says. “But when other promoters jump on the bandwagon, it lets you know to keep pushing and keep digging. Here, it’s literally just me working with boogie agencies, where with other venues our size, it’s multiple people booking multiple venues in multiple cities, and a lot of times, those guys have a heck of a lot more to offer than one venue outside the main metro area of Knoxville.
“I think it speaks volumes about the bands who keep wanting to come back here. Jamey Johnson has had opportunities to play other places, but he’s sticking with us this year. The Cadillac Three could play Cotton Eyed Joe every year, but they want to play here. It’s something about the venue that draws them in; it’s that intangible feeling when you step out on The Shed stage that you really can’t put into words. The last time Sturgill was here, he said there’s never been a fanbase that sang his songs as loud as they did here.
“I think we’ve built a trust with a lot of the fans, that if they look at the schedule and there’s someone they’re not super familiar with, they trust us when we say, ‘You’re not going to want to miss the next big thing,’” Formont adds.
The venue sits on the site of an old Lowe’s store, and in 2004, the Madduxes took over ownership and began a $3 million renovation to the retail building, turning it into a 19,000 square-foot showroom; a music lover since childhood, Maddux aimed to turn the adjacent lumber shed into an amphitheater, and the next summer, the inaugural Shed concert season kicked off. Using wood reclaimed from his grandfather’s property in Buffalo Valley and antiques salvaged at estate sales from around Tennessee, he and his team gave The Shed a scruffy sense of charm that’s reflected in the iron-and-wood details of the main pavilion and an interior bar/restaurant/green room, which offers amenities to performers that are unlike any other place, Young points out.
“The first time we pulled up, we got off the bus and looked around, and there was an actual shed; then we went in this back room, and it was set up almost like a listening lounge and bar – the kind that reminded me of places we hung out at in the ‘70s and ‘80s in Atlanta,” he said. “They didn’t have tables and barstools; they had these real plush couches, and it was like how people used to sit around listening to music. It was geared for that, and we immediately became attached to that room.
“It’s got every convenience and every luxury that the Headhunters love, which is good music, good people and a great place to play. Scott is very astute and understands and loves music, so they all strive to make the place aesthetically great for everyone who loves music. You can’t play there if Scott Maddux doesn’t like it. You have to be a roots act, and whoever plays there has to have a little something organic to their sound.”
Ray Wylie Hubbard is one of those artists. The Texas troubadour has tromped all over the country in his more than 40 years in the business, but The Shed has become something of a home away from home, he says.
“Besides having a stellar sound system and a great crew, the audience there is very knowledgeable; they’re all about the whole Southern-rock, Americana, blues and folk scenes, and they’re not into homogenized, mainstream music,” Hubbard says. “They put forth the time and effort to search out music with depth and weight, and in that respect, the audience is almost like another member of the band. We’re all working toward the same thing: to have this joy. It’s a joyful experience, man – it really is.”
Like a lot of folks who visit The Shed for the first time – both audience members and performers – the reality of the place often stands in stark contrast to the initial perception. Yes, the motorcycles are loud, but this isn’t a reenactment of a “Sons of Anarchy” episode, despite the leathers and the tattoos.
“A lot of people that don’t know any better, they associate bikers with criminals and being in a gang and all that, but in reality, most of them are regular people,” says singer-songwriter Paul Thorn, whose most-recent performance in Knoxville was at Rhythm N’ Blooms this month “I enjoy talking to them and seeing them, and I would encourage everybody to check it out.”
A perusal of this year’s schedule gives Knoxville music lovers even more of a reason to make the drive down Alcoa Highway.
“I live in Knoxville, so I get that the drive is not fun, and Alcoa Highway has a certain reputation,” Formont says. “A lot of Knoxville people think, ‘Downtown is right here; why should I drive?’ Because the experience is absolutely worth it. And if you’re wanting to hit downtown or West Knoxville, we’re not the last stop; we’re the first stop, because all of our shows are done by 10 or 11 [p.m.] at the latest.
“A lot of venues, they tend to start looking the same. They put a stage in, and they rely on the artists to bring the soul. With The Shed, the soul is here. There’s an aura about this place that can’t be described unless you experience it, and that’s why all of these great artists keep coming back, even after they’ve outgrown us.”