You’ve seen the Appalachian Hippie Poet.
Onstage at Boyd’s Jig & Reel, where he clasps his wrinkled hands and squints his eyes shut, calling up from the recesses of his long memory a few poignant lines of poetry … skipping up the aisle of the Tennessee Theatre hand-in-hand with a young lady, both of them caught up in the palpable joy of impending dance … on the front row of a Rhythm N’ Blooms Festival concert, white ponytail flipping and flying from beneath a colorful bandana … at Preservation Pub, where that radiant grin summons even the down-and-out from behind their bottles, cans and pint glasses.
He’s an unmistakable figure in the East Tennessee arts and culture scene, a vibrant spirit whose very presence lifts up everyone around him. He is, without a doubt, one of the most colorful and iconic characters to call Knoxville home, and he’s one of the city’s most ardent champions – and for good reason.
Knoxville saved his life. Or more to the point, Knoxville gave life to the Appalachian Hippie Poet, who was once a country boy named Bill Alexander, struck low by grief after his lifelong love succumbed to leukemia in 2006.
“At the time, I felt very disconnected; I would go out during the day and go the WDVX ‘Blue Place Special,’ but at night, I would stay home and drink Early Times by myself,” Alexander tells BLANK over a recent interview at Midland Restaurant in Alcoa. “Basket work might have been the only thing that kept my sanity. It gave me something to focus on until the lights came back on.”
It’s hard to imagine a time when Alexander – also known as “Berry Basket Bill” for his work in making and teaching about the type of bark baskets historically used by the residents of Southern Appalachia to collect wild berries – was a bystander. He is, after all, a focal point of many local musical gatherings, from house concerts to wild nights that spill over onto Market Square long after last call at Preservation Pub, the watering hole of which he’s most fond. To outsiders, the presence of a white-haired septuagenarian might raise eyebrows, especially when the company he keeps is made up of young women less than half his age. To those who suggest something prurient is afoot, however, he just chuckles.
“I get along with all these girls because I’m a gentleman,” he says, his face suddenly serious. “I remember I was in a car full of them, all of us just hanging out and talking, and they were discussing their relationships and what have you. I just flipped my hair around and said, ‘Just call me Billy Jean!’ It was a joke, but I’ve always let them know that with me, they can communicate openly and honestly about things.
“That’s a huge piece of the puzzle, being able to love and laugh with young folk. I like to say that the optimism of youth often trumps the wisdom of age, and they’ve taught me some things as well: If you start something, you do have the opportunity to finish it, but if you never start, you’ll never finish.”
In a way, he’s living the reverse of many of his peers, he adds with a chuckle: He’s gotten more liberal as he’s grown older.
Born in 1946, Bill was raised in Bethesda, Tennessee, south of Franklin. His was a blue-collar upbringing, and a rural way of life suited him well, he says.
“We were doing farm-to-table as a matter of everyday course; we didn’t have a lot of money, but we never went hungry,” he says.
In the summer of 1964, he left for Tennessee Technological University in Cookeville, where he got his undergraduate degree. In 1968, at the height of the Vietnam War, he volunteered for the draft, but he was rejected for “flat feet, high blood pressure and being colorblind,” he says.
“I was shocked at being pushed off that path,” he adds.
In 1969, he moved to Knoxville to pursue a master’s degree in plant and soil science, and it was a professor’s daughter who set him up on a blind date. He met Mary for lunch at the now-closed Sophie’s Place in the old Strong Hall, and it was, as cheesy as it sounds, love at first sight. They agreed on a date the following Saturday to a University of Tennessee football game; she gave him directions to her house in South Knoxville where she lived with her parents. The state claimed the house for a new road several years back, much to his consternation.
“When they put in the new road, I couldn’t find the driveway we made out in, and it pisses me off to this day!” he says.
The two married in 1971; Bill received his master’s on June 10, and they tied the knot on June 12. For the next 29 years, they lived the American dream, and while he’s always had a fond spot in his heart for music, he spent the ’70s and ’80s pining for the ’50s and ’60s, reminiscing over the sounds of WLS out of Chicago and the Grand Ole Opry on WSM that he listened to as a boy.
It was in the 1990s that the Appalachian Hippie Poet’s origin story begins. In the latter part of that decade, his mother died, and his wife lost two brothers. Starting in 1999, inspired by the travel writer Horal Kephart, he began to hike the Smokies.
“The mountains pulled me so I could heal from those losses,” he says.
During his sojourns, the rhythm of his steps began to feel like a metronome, and he found himself composing snippets of poetry, each line metered to his footfalls along the path. It was all “brain to mouth,” as he describes it, and combined with a razor-sharp memory, he was able to compose entire pieces along the trail, and he’d often stop complete strangers when he returned to the parking lot to try out his latest rhymes on them. That method of composition, he adds, influences his recitation of poetry today. He seldom reads his verses, because he knows them by heart, and every time he stands before a microphone, his works become performance pieces, every intonation delivered with the anticipation of a man who wants to share the wonders of this region as seen through his eyes.
In the beginning, he kept his poems to himself – at least until his fashioning of berry baskets began to take on a life of its own. His involvement in the Appalachian craft began, he says, as a happy accident: Before he and Mary retired from Oak Ridge National Laboratory in 2000, he began to dabble in a number of old-time crafts, including restoring chair bottoms. He knew that craftsmen often used poplar to construct the bottoms, and he signed up for a class in Coker Creek, down in Monroe County. However, it turned out to be a workshop on how to construct berry baskets from poplar bark.
He began making and researching mountain berry baskets, eventually joining the Foothills and Southern Highland craft guilds. He quickly developed a reputation as an expert on this particular niche craft. (Today, he has anywhere from 300 to 400 baskets in his collection, as well as roughly 300 field recordings of interviews about the craft.) During his presentations, he began mixing in his original works of poetry. It was an outlet that anchored him to the world, he says, after Mary died in 2006. The year before, they went on a cruise; four days after their return, she got the diagnosis. Six months later, she was dead.
He doesn’t spend a lot of time talking about the dark nights of the soul in which he dwelled, but those close to him remember well the sad-eyed man who would sit in on “Blue Plate Special” performances and occasionally talk about the woman he’d lost. He had his baskets, but when night fell, he ached for a connection to other people. It was in 2007, after the 10-year anniversary celebration for WDVX-FM, that he made a decision to do something different.
“I went by myself, and I saw a lot of people I knew, but after the show, I realized I didn’t know where they were going,” he says. “They were all headed off somewhere, and I was there alone. I tell you, that was the lonesomest I felt in my life. That’s when I realized I not only had to reboot, I had to reformat my life.”
He started to venture out after dark, upending his schedule to see music and drink socially. He began to show up regularly at Preservation Pub and the now-closed Morelock Music, and the effervescence of live performance became fuel for a starving spirit. He became the guy who would tote in an Igloo cooler full of ice-cold Miller High Life beer for fellow patrons at the Morelock Music live shows; he was the pied piper at the Bijou Theatre who was first to leap up and dance during particularly celebratory concerts. If there was something to be celebrated, Bill Alexander did so, and his effusive spirit became a thing that moved through the hearts of all who surrounded him.
He wasn’t content just to dance and smile, however; he wanted to contribute. And so he began to share his poems with a select group of friends, people like Morelock, Van Eaton, Jay Clark, Tony Lawson, Karen E. Reynolds and Cruz Contreras. He started reciting some poems around town, eventually releasing a book and earning respect as a fellow artist. He was “knighted,” so to speak, in September 2012 during the annual Bristol Rhythm and Roots Reunion.
“I performed for WDVX at the Paramount Theatre with my overalls, my fedora and my peace signs, and when it was over, I got out on State Street,” he says. “I was standing with one foot in Virginia and one in Tennessee, and a guy walked by and pointed and said, ‘Hey! You’re that Appalachian hippie poet!’ And that’s who I’ve been ever since.
And Knoxville is all the richer for it. “Peace and Love and Healing Hippie Hugs” is his online salutation, and in person, his is a presence of grace and generosity of spirit. The gratitude he feels – for Knoxville, for friendship, for the light and life that rescued him when he was lost and heartbroken – is evident in everything from that whiskered grin to that flat-footed shuffle during a particularly feverish fiddle tune.
“It’s all about community and music – with a little alcohol thrown in!” he says. “There are just so many opportunities to make things better. They’re out there for all of us. If you find the ones that speak to you, then, man, a lot of things are possible. I set out to save myself, but I had a lot of help.”
Everybody loves Bill: Some thoughts on the Appalachian Hippie Poet, from his friends and supporters in the scene
Trisha Gene Brady, singer-songwriter: Bill Alexander, Berry Basket Bill, Appalachian Hippie Poet, Sir William the Great, or just Billy Jean … he goes by many names but I’ll luckily know him forever as friend! Bill is not only a pillar of our community but a savior to so many others through his travels and his good deeds. He leaves a lovely and peaceful mark on every soul that crosses his path and works daily to help bring more love, more music, and more art into the world. The world needs an army of his kind but should also stop and appreciate when there is just one!
Tony Lawson, co-founder, WDVX-FM: Bill Alexander is a “godsend” to the East Tennessee music community, including WDVX and beyond. Personally, he is an inspiration. I love his quote … “Light the damn torch and follow it!” He is all in on matters he strongly believes in and supports. There is only one Appalachian Hippie Poet! We need more like him.
Matt Morelock, Knoxville expatriate and former proprietor of Morelock Music: I first met Bill at the WDVX studios shortly after his wife’s untimely and tragic passing. He’ll be the first to tell you that music and fellowship saved him during that dark time. I have watched with joy and admiration as he finds his voice as a poet, pursues his passion as a bark basket historian and creator, and generously fulfils his calling as the most genuine and soulful patron of the arts I’ve ever met. He is the big brother I never had.
Mike McGill, co-founder, the Barstool Romeos: “Amber Light”: “A lonely soul with a lonely heart/ is only lonely until the dark / and in the dark like a shining light / the glass is calling fill me up tonight. When night turns to dawn / the day is dark and the day is long / but from that glass that amber light / she kills the lonely and lights the night.” When I first met Bill, he had lost his wife of many years and was deeply saddened by it. Loss, loneliness, whiskey and tears seemed to always be present, along with a poem or two when we would speak. A poem named “Amber Light” was not only a reflection of what he was going through but also a stunning mirror image of what was going on in my life as well. It moved me deeply and I decided to include it as the first track of the Barstool Romeos’ debut album, “Twisted Steel and Sex Appeal.” It’s refreshing and inspiring to see someone as genuine and deserving to evolve and somewhat reinvent themselves and live life to the fullest. I thank you, Bill, for your friendship along with the support of my music and the evening at Barleys when you recited “Amber Light” to me. So I raise my glass and say unto you dear friend: “To a new start and a wonderful life. One that kills the lonely and now lights the night.”
Karen E. Reynolds, singer-songwriter: Bill fits right in as a Knoxville artist. His poetry has a “song-like” quality and strikes an emotional chord. It’s real, relative, sometimes dark, but always enlightening. When I approached him about reciting his poetry as a lead in to one of my songs, he said he was deeply flattered… and that no one had ever asked him to be on a record before. Bill has appeared on every recording of mine, since. I’m the one who is flattered … that he shares his words, along with his heart and friendship. I love Bill … he emits peace and love wherever he goes and he has enriched our “creative scene” in more ways than I could ever describe.
Clara Tomson, owner, Even Cut Salon: I started cutting Bill’s hair in the late 70’s, back when it was not too gray and a businessman’s style. He worked in Oak Ridge and I guess had to look a little dapper. I reconnected with him 10 years ago and boy was that a turn around. I travel the U.S. vicariously through his adventures. Wild Bill will always have a story and never know a stranger. I’m glad I have known him.
Cruz Contreras, founder, The Black Lillies: Bill Alexander very well may be a time traveler! He is a wealth of information and inspiration that seems to defy space and time. He has a relentless sense of humor and a big big heart. He is one of the greatest advocates of the East Tennessee music scene, and I’d be up shit creek if he weren’t an integral part of my life!