Snow day in Eastern Tennessee! In my previous lives (D.C.’s incompetence notwithstanding), these 7 inches of snow would have been cleaned and preened by the time any of us woke up this morning. But today, mother nature has treated us to some much-needed kick-back time, as she treated the UT undergrads to the best night out they’ve had in ages. Glad to see they found an adequate alternative to their bummer of a Strip.
I’m also grateful that this snow day has given me an opportunity to publish an interview I did recently with my new friend Shane Rhyne. I’ve met a lot of interesting people since making the move to Knoxville, but few with such an inextricable link to the city’s media and civic culture over the past few decades. Shane has appeared regularly on WBIR to discuss social media, and has spent longer than he can recall in the limelight as an Eastern Tennessee cultural impresario of sorts.
Rhyne’s most visible contribution to Knoxville has been the “Cradle of Country Music Tour,” a series of historical markers capable of turning any walk (or stumble, depending on where you’re leaving) through Gay St. and Market Square into an educational tornado of music, place, and memory.
One of the things I like the most about Rhyne is his genuine and refreshing honesty. Despite the footing that the City provided for the markers and the narrative many locals perpetuate about Country music’s genesis in this region, he is not afraid be honest about his highly-educated interpretation of the story (which you’ll get plenty of below). Shane was very gracious to sit down and answer some questions about how the Walking Tour came about.
We’ve known each other for a little while now, and I just found out that you of all people were the creative force behind the Cradle of Country Music tour in Knoxville. Such a pleasant surprise. How integral was classical country music to your childhood and early life? Or did you start elsewhere and get into country as you came of age?
Country music was not my first musical love, although it’s influence was strong in the music I was listening to. As kids, my brother, sister and I had free rein to explore our parents’ LP collection. For me, this meant an immediate love of big band swing and, most importantly, Elvis Presley. Rockabilly was a major musical influence on me from my toddler to teen years. At the same time, so was swing and jazz. It was why I decided to learn to play saxophone in elementary school band (and would continue through high school) as I figured it would be great to learn how to play a great rockabilly solo or Glenn Miller tune. (I never did, alas.) It wouldn’t take long for me to find the areas where these styles intersected with country music, particularly in the works of artists like Ray Charles, but it would be in my late teens and early 20s before I really started to pay deep attention to country music.
My father was the heavier influence on me for country music in the 1970s. His tastes ran more toward the sounds of artists like the Statler Brothers, the Oak Ridge Boys and pop-crossover Kenny Rogers. These weren’t necessarily the sounds that appealed to me, so the radio of my youth tended to stay tuned to pop music of the era. It took me moving away from East Tennessee to go to college to begin to gain an appreciation for country music. At that time, the “new traditionalists” like Dwight Yoakum, Lyle Lovett, Randy Travis, etc. were just emerging and I began to find that the wordplay and lyrics of country music meant more to me than the high school angst of 80’s hair bands of the same era. As a new wave kid, I had also been exploring the new sounds from Athens, Georgia (R.E.M., B-52s), and had also just been introduced to Los Angeles cowpunk (Lone Justice). I didn’t know it at the time, but I was on a path to begin exploring what we would now call “Americana” music.
By the time I returned to East Tennessee in 1990 I was deeply interested not just in the sounds of country music, but also the history of the music itself and how it came to be that I grew up in the very epicenter of it all and knew so little about it.
Tell me about how the “Cradle” tour idea came about. Everything I hear about Knoxville’s downtown was that there wasn’t exactly a whole lot going around there when you say you were devising and putting it all together.
By 1996, I was working as public relations director of East Tennessee Historical Society, headquartered in downtown Knoxville. For the six years before that I had worked with Alex Haley on some business projects of his before his death and had also worked in radio as a news director/anchor, station manager and disc jockey.
The former Knoxville Convention and Visitors Bureau approached ETHS with a request in 1996. They wanted the organization’s help in developing a walking tour of downtown Knoxville for out-of-town guests. As I sat in on the meeting, the KCVB leadership produced an early document of a walking tour that detailed the history of seemingly every building downtown and a few vacant lots, too.
I remarked that even I as a hardcore history nerd would find it unlikely I’d take part in such an encyclopedic forced-march style of walking tour. I suggested instead that we be allowed to explore developing multiple walking tours, each with a different theme to appeal to various personal historic and cultural interests. I was given the go ahead to pursue the idea and immediately chose downtown’s country music history as a likely ideal candidate for a first tour.
I thought this was justified for two reasons. First, most of the tourist traffic on the interstate in Knoxville was made up of tourists either going east to Dollywood or west to Nashville. In the event someone did want to come to what was then a relatively empty downtown, I thought the country music connection seemed a likely bait for luring the random tourist. Additionally, I wanted to build a sense of pride in our region’s history, particularly its musical history. I built an outline for potential additional walking tours of the downtown’s Civil War history and literary history at this time, but decided to focus the efforts on the country music tour.
What constituted your main source on a lot of the sites and stories? Were you gathering this data on your own or did you have collaborators in gathering the archival information?
I originally reached out to Jack Neely, a local author and historical writer for Metro Pulse to see if he would be interested in helping me research the project. He declined because he did not have time at the time, but gave me permission to use some of his earlier research for past Secret History columns. Most importantly, he also gave me permission to borrow a phrase from one of those columns as the working title of the walking tour. In a column about Bristol, Tennessee’s designation as the “Birthplace of Country Music,” Jack had remarked that Knoxville was at least deserving for recognition as “the cradle of country music and the playpen of rock’n’roll.”
The first task for me required a narrowing down of the time frame. Since downtown Knoxville’s direct role in the influence of the country music industry began to wane with the advent of television and rock’n’roll it made sense to focus my efforts primarily on the pre-war years, but I did include a few markers to document the 1950s and the changing landscape (Elvis, Dolly Parton and the Everly Brothers).
My research involved primary and secondary sources found in the McClung Historical Collection at the East Tennessee History Center. I also read as many biographies and autobiographies of important players in the scene as I could get my hands on. These sources would inevitably lead me to additional primary sources. I had the good fortune to also conduct some oral interviews with a few survivors of radio’s early days in Knoxville. The staff at the Folklife Department for the Tennessee Arts Commission were also quite helpful. ETHS, through me, provided the research and concept work on the tour. While the KCVB agreed to donate the cost of the original brochures/guide maps, the Central Business Improvement District (CBID) donated the cost of having the markers made and the City of Knoxville donated the cost of installing the markers (and even cleaned up the Treble Clef park that had become overgrown at that time).
I can’t imagine what might have happened if I had access to the Internet then like today.
Do you give and narrate walking tours of the sites at all anymore? Have you ever gotten “interesting” (read: dumb) questions from tourists or even locals about the city’s musical and related spatial legacy?
I don’t get asked as frequently these days to give guided tours as I used to in the early days. The tour debuted officially in 1998 with Chet Atkins coming to town to unveil his marker and perform in concert at the Tennessee Theater. In the early days I was often giving walking tours to various tour groups, local organizations and media. I used to have a notebook listing all the media tours, but remember that I had been interviewed about the tour by representatives of the BBC, German print media, Canadian media, and various music fan clubs (e.g., Hank Williams).
I’m always happy to do the tour as it allows me to expand the story beyond what the markers talk about and try to better provide a context for the main question, “Why, Knoxville?”
The comment from tour participants (particularly locals) that I have to manage the most often is the myth that Nashville somehow stole Knoxville’s rightful legacy as the proper home of the country music industry. Actually, this is another key reason I had for developing the story. Knoxvillians love to cling to that story that the city fathers somehow gave away the lucrative business of country music to a less deserving Nashville and that, “if we’d only stopped it from happening, we’d have Nashville’s music economy today instead of them.” It isn’t true, but Knoxvillians will never let go of the story.
The truth, as I try to explain in the guided tours, is that Knoxville’s geography was important in the development of our regional country music scene, but it was also an obstacle for Knoxville to ever take a national lead. Knoxville is ideally situated to serve as a gathering place for rural residents across the region, particularly at the old Farmers’ Market. It would be in the city’s center that rural musical influences would be mixed and swapped between classes, races and regions.
At the same time, the mountain terrain meant that Knoxville would not be home to a clear channel radio station. That honor would belong to Nashville and WSM-AM. It would take a clear channel station to transmit the sounds of rural Tennessee across the south and even up to the steel mills of Pennsylvania, auto plants of Detroit and factories of Chicago where WSM could reach and begin to influence the nation.
Knoxville residents correctly remember that Knoxville had the first radio station in Tennessee. They forget however, that WSM’s Grand Ole Opry debuted on the national airwaves several years before Knoxville own legendary radio program “The Midday Merry-Go-Round.” Knoxville’s very important role in country music in the 1930s-50s was a AAA city of sorts in the country music industry, feeding talent to the major league home club in Nashville. Nashville producers of the day would often send young talent to Knoxville to audition for our radio programs knowing that “if the Knoxville audience didn’t like you, we couldn’t sell you anywhere in the country.” Knoxville audiences proved to be very good at identifying talent ready for the majors and that’s how acts like the Louvin Brothers, Don Gibson, the Carter Sisters, Pee Wee King, Kitty Wells, the Everly Brothers and countless others ended up here during our music heyday.
It’s just not as romantic a notion as believing that Nashville stole our rightful fortune from us.
Actually, you’ve mentioned to me before that you made an appearance on some public television program in Japan about American Country Music? Do tell.
That was a fun and bizarre experience. In 2001, a Japanese television producer asked if I would agree to be a part of a documentary being filmed about the history of rock’n’roll. The documentary would be hosted by a Japanese rock star who was traveling across the world to explore the various influences. He was coming to Knoxville to look at the Appalachian influence and they had heard/read another interview with me talking about Knoxville’s melting pot influence downtown of Irish music, Jewish culture, African-American music and rural music traditions.
I agreed to do the interview but had little idea what to expect. I arrived at the Airport Hilton on the afternoon of the interview to learn that that rock star was named Daemon Kogure, who performed in a Kabuki-style makeup. He would be interviewing me while in his makeup and we would be driving around downtown Knoxville in a rented RV talking about country music. It was the one of the more surreal experiences in my life as we walked around the Old City and discussed Irish music on camera.
You’ve told me that you are a lifelong Knoxville resident? Do you feel like the city’s grown to righteously embrace its Country music heritage more so in recent years than in your youth, or has it been the other way around?
The city has a love-hate relationship with it. It seems to go in cycles. When I came on the scene with the Cradle tour in the late 90’s, we were certainly in a downward trajectory. Our country music heritage was easy to overlook. Everyone wants to be seen as more cosmopolitan, so we were more likely to celebrate our connections to non-native art forms. People would be more willing in those days to support a project commemorating Knoxville’s role as the home of operatic singers Grace Moore and Mary Costa than one commemorating our country music legacy. It was not necessarily an easy and obvious sell back then. I had to lobby hard for it.
Part of that is because of the way we’ve allowed others to define our culture and legacy. We’ve been led to believe that we can’t monetize that legacy in any other way than by belittling it in a Pigeon Forge production. Or, at best, our musical legacy would only be remembered in the form of the popular fight song for the local football team.
After the walking tour debuted, several murals was produced by other organizations to also commemorate the history. There was brief talk of a festival. A couple of concerts were produced — Chet Atkins with Charlie Louvin in 1998, followed later that year by a show by The Everly Brothers, but that was about it. I believe this renewed interest in the musical legacy of downtown and was an important factor in relocating WDVX studios to where it is today [at the corner of Gay and Summit Hill]. That has been a long-term blessing for music and downtown.
I honestly don’t know what the general feeling about it all is these days. I don’t get asked about it, so I take that as a sign of sorts that the interest is waning again. Interestingly, if perhaps ironically, one of the factors these days is that the music is readily available at downtown venues, on the air and elsewhere. In 1998, live performance was hard to find (Jubilee Community Arts on Fort Sanders was the most frequent venue for the music then) and on-air was rare beyond weekend specialty shows (WDVX was just getting started at the time). In 1998, interest was low because you never had a chance to interact with the music. In 2014, I wonder if the music’s constant presence has given us a false sense that “it will always be here” and that someone will always be available to champion the cause. It’s a different side of the same coin, perhaps. But, I am always thrilled when I see new efforts come along. The Rhythm and Blooms Festival does a great job of exploring the emerging new sounds of Americana, providing a contextual link to our legacy’s future. I’d love to see more projects like that spring up over time. At some point, someone like me will probably come along and “discover” it all over again and we’ll see a renewed enthusiasm.
This is off topic, I know, but you were a contestant on the first Quiz Bowl on the local PBS affiliate? That’s insane. Will you be making any “reunion” type appearances per what you mentioned to me last week?
None that I know of. We discussed it, but the records from the early days of the Scholars’ Bowl (1984) are incomplete and tracking down the original participants was just going to be too involved for a small staff with little or no budget.
Anyway, other than simply taking a stroll to the WDVK studios and walking around downtown, where can people look if they’re interested in more information about this Cradle of Country music that we live in?
My first recommendation is to go see the music performed. Music is a living art and not meant to be preserved in walking tour markers and brochures. Those are a good thing to have, but I think it’s worth finding where the music is being played today. There are all sorts of bluegrass jams taking place (WDVX usually has a good current listing of jam sessions), plus you’ll find great performances by traditionalists at Jubilee Community Arts. You can catch modern sounds these days on the air on WDVX and on WUTK (particularly, their Thursday program ‘The Y’allternative’) and at many venues in town. I recommend the Rhythm and Blooms Festival in early April as a great way to hear the new sounds that have descended from the Cradle.
The annual Appalachian Homecoming (October) at the Museum of Appalachia is a great way to hear some of the original sounds by the original performers in many cases (although time is claiming more of these people each year). The museum at the East Tennessee History Center includes a good historical overview of the musical history of the region and can help you better see it in context with everything else that was going on around here during the same time.
Last but (of course) not least: throw five (or six, if you can’t settle on five) old school Country albums or singles collections that you believe no music fan should go without hearing. Who are your favorites to this day?
Tragic Songs of Life by the Louvin Brothers (1956). No one did harmonies like the Louvin Brothers. Their sound would influence another Knoxville-based act a few years later, the Everly Brothers. I believe this was their first album on Capitol and it would set an impressive bar for anything came after. The album contains classic tunes from A.P. Carter, traditional centuries-old folk tunes, and new compositions. If nothing else, the album is remarkable for what I consider the definitive version of “The Knoxville Girl,” a modern updating of the Elizabethan ballad “The Cruel Miller.”
The Essential Roy Acuff: 1936-1949 by Roy Acuff. This 2-cd set contains all the signature songs of the Maynardville boy would become the King of Country Music. In Acuff’s early work, you can hear the influence of traditional country, but also the techniques he picked up from singing on the traveling medicine show circuit and from vaudeville radio. You’ll also hear his influence on the musical stylings of Hank Williams who declared Roy Acuff as his favorite singer. Acuff is sadly overlooked these days, but in in his lifetime he was once the most well-known radio personality in the world.
Louie Bluie Soundtrack — Howard Armstrong. Not to be confused with the album Louie Bluie by Howard Armstrong, although either album provides an excellent overview of Howard and his music. Howard was an African-American string-band musician from Campbell County who absorbed every musical influence he could find, including the German and Welsh folk songs of the miners in his home county, the jazz and swing found in cotton clubs across the south and the country music he heard and performed on Knoxville’s Market Square. I include the soundtrack (although Howard did not care for the recording) because it includes his version of “Vine Street Drag,” a song about the street in downtown Knoxville that was home to Knoxville’s African-American music scene and clubs.
Keep on the Sunny Side: June Carter Cash – Her Life in Music (2005) — This compilation includes a great mixture of early recordings of the Carter Sisters with their band’s guitarist Chet Atkins. Many of these songs would have been regularly performed by June and her sisters each week on Knoxville radio. This is the voice that entranced and inspired Johnny Cash.
The Bristol Sessions: Historic Recordings from Bristol, Tennessee. This multi-cd set includes the first recordings ever made of the Carter Family and of Jimmie Rodgers. These sessions were what is known as “The Big Bang of Country Music” and mark Bristol’s designation as the Birthplace of Country Music. Several of the artists included here ventured up from Knoxville and nearby locales to be a part of the revolutionary recording session. I hope one day someone will release a good compilation of the sessions recorded on Wall Street in Knoxville a few years later. In the meantime, this collection gives a good idea of why country music is always hard to define even to this day as the musicians brought with them a mixture of gospel tunes, Tin Pan Alley tunes, cowboy songs, railroad songs, and old-time fiddle and string music. All of these, and more, would combine their DNA to eventually lead us to today’s country music.
Hope this has been fun and educational for you all, or at least provided a good distraction for your ‘Trailer Park Boys’ or Olympics-replay marathon. The Bobsled events really need to get started already. Anyway, those who are looking for more info about Shane can check out his website or follow him on twitter @ShaneRhyne. He and I are currently looking to get his aforementioned Japanese interview digitized and onto the web sometime soon, and you know I’ll be posting that here whenever that happens. For now, I’ve got a snowman to finish.