Monday, March 24, 2014

Knoxville (1 of 2): Scruffy little musical city

KNOXVILLE, Tenn. – Visiting Knoxville over the weekend for the first time in several years, I was happy to learn it’s still a scruffy little river city. Visibly gentrifying, yes, but recognizably the same town I left 30 years ago.

I was in town for a Sunday afternoon meeting of the Knoxville Area Dulcimer Club, where I presented a program on antique mountain dulcimers, and I came a day early to visit old friends and take in a live broadcast at alternative public radio station WDVX.

Sunday's presentation was more of a two-way conversation than other talks I've given -- as one KADC member said, the audience was made up of people who are a little bit fanatical about playing the dulcimer -- and I learned some interesting things about craftsmen in East Tennessee, including my early mentors, as well as dulcimer history in general. Click here for more about KADC, dulcimers and other things that matter.

Knoxville has always been a flourishing venue for live music – where performers like Roy Acuff and Dolly Parton got their start – and Saturday’s noontime radio show featured two up-and-coming roots bands from North Carolina. I felt like that tradition was in good hands.

But what blew me away was the change in downtown Knoxville.

On Market Square where I remembered a jumble of cut-rate clothing stores, record shops and Blue Circle diners when I was growing up in the nearby town of Norris during the 50s, that later morphed into a struggling inner-city pedestrian mall during my grad school days at the University of Tennessee, the square was alive with sidewalk cafes, street musicians and kids lined up to visit face painters and balloon twisters. Just walking to and from the WDVX studio in the nearby Knoxville Visitors Center, I noticed a jazz saxophonist, a violinist and a euphonium or tuba player busking. And there wasn’t a festival or anything else in particular going on -- it was just a sunny Saturday morning on one of the first warm days in spring.

Downtown Knoxville, my friends told me, has reinvented itself in recent years as upscale younger couples move into condos in its former banks and office buildings. So it has developed the street life I noticed, and, I think, perhaps a firmer sense of the town’s history – scruffy or otherwise – than I remember from the 1960s and 70s when I was studying history and English at UT.

We ate in a sidewalk café in the Woodruff’s building, which I remember from my childhood as a hardware and furniture store. It now boasts a microbrewery, historical photos and worn hardwood floors that appear to be original. Across the street, the old Miller’s Building, erected in 1905, has been renovated down (or up) to the Beaux Arts-style statues on the cornice. I remember it as an old-fashioned department store with a mezzanine and a tearoom where my mother liked to spend time, to my intense annoyance, when I was a kid. (Seems like it also carried official Boy Scout uniforms, but I'm not sure about that anymore.) It now houses the Knoxville Utility Board. Overall the vibes reminded me of the gentrification in places like Brooklyn and Asheville, N.C.

That night, we looked in on a benefit concert for the Joy of Music School, which offers free music lessons through the city’s Boys and Girls Clubs. The cause was worthy. A couple of what I would characterize as garage bands were playing. And I was reminded – perhaps a little too much – of bluegrass nights at Buddy’s Barbecue back in the 70s and some of the live music venues I frequented on Cumberland Avenue as a UT student. But it was awfully noisy, and we headed on to a more sedate venue where us old-timers could talk.

'Scruffy Little City'

When Knoxville hosted the 1982 World's Fair, a writer for The Wall Street Journal described it as "a scruffy little city on the Tennessee River" and wondered how it could ever host an international exhibition. That angered the good and the great of the city, but a lot of us enjoyed the remark -- more, perhaps, than we should have.

And the name stuck.

When I visited over the weekend, I was delighted to see a Market Square bar called Scruffy City Hall, and ads around town for T-shirts that say "Keep Knoxville Scruffy." After all, the town's been called worse, according to a survey of traveler's descriptions from 1797 to 2012 by local historian Jack Neely, who is also an associate editor of Knoxville's alternative weekly Metro Pulse. And the accolade still fits.

"Knoxville's a whole lot more obviously impressive today than it was in 1980, but I think it still has some scruff to it, and always will," Neely told the UT Daily Beacon last year. "And I think that's what some people like about it."

Blue Plate Special at WDVX

WDVX is new since my day -- I left in 1982, when a newspapering career took me from East Tennessee to Pennsylvania, the Upper Midwest and now central Illinois -- but its noon-hour live music broadcasts revive a local tradition going back to the Midday Merry-Go-Round, a live broadcast that featured then up-and-coming artists like Roy Acuff, Chet Atkins and Homer and Jethro from 1936 to 1961.

WDVX's show is called the "Blue Plate Special," and Saturday it aired two acts from North Carolina, a bluesy roots band from Winston-Salem called the Deluge and a progressive bluegrass -- or new grass -- trio from Chapel Hill called Mipso. They're recent graduates of the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill, and they write their own material -- guitar player Joseph Terrill's "Red Eye to Raleigh" is one of the most remarkable songs about a broken heart I've ever heard, with passages like:

My broken heart, every injured
ventricle. My broken heart
Leaves me pitiful …

And this:

.. They say to trust in
science for what the body needs.
So sign me up for experimental
laparoscopic cardiology.

I thought I heard echoes of Simon and Garfunkel, the Grateful Dead and a whole host of folk, jazz and newgrass artists in what freelance reviewer Sarah Hall called Mipso's "tight and exciting three-part vocal harmonies" in a perceptive review in the Salisbury (N.C.) Post. They were recorded a couple of years ago in the lobby of Our State magazine, in Greensboro, N.C., playing "Red Eye to Raleigh," cardiological references and all:

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