Tyler’s Favorite Albums (1983): Violent Femmes

I could dedicate this essay to just praising the originality and uncompromising dark humor of the Violent Femmes’ definitive first album. I could tell you how Brian Ritchie’s bass solo in “Please Don’t Go” may be my favorite one ever recorded. I could also recount how “Kiss Off” is a sleeper for one of my favorite karaoke songs. I could also get into a one-sided argument about how, in a hardcore landscape facing the disintegration of Minor Threat and a takeover by meatheads, there was nothing more punk rock than scrapping anything electric or distorted and essentially busking for ten tracks. Instead, I’ll share a couple disparate memories related to the Violent Femmes which illustrate just how pervasive and timeless this record is, in spite of itself.

Flashpoint: 2003.
I went to the WBCN River Rave with my college girlfriend and some of her friends from the Boston area. I was already pissed because Blur cancelled, and in order to keep some seats we snagged near the pavilion, we had to sit though Saliva for 30 minutes. Now, my audience is so niche that I’m probably not off-base to write that anyone reading this already thinks that Saliva are one of the shittiest hard rock bands to ever (1) emerge from Memphis or (2) have a cross-over hit single. Because it was a radio station-sponsored music festival, a lot of the people there bopped up and down to “Click Click Boom” and cheered as Josey Scott ranted that the Dixie Chicks should have been kicked out of “our” country. After Saliva finally finished their set and got the hell offstage, we were more than ready for – “hey, who’s on next, anyway? …. JACK JOHNSON?”

Yes, the genius programmers at WBCN decided to follow a right-wing cheez-metal band with the most obnoxiously chill singer-songwriter to emerge in the twin frat-bro shadows of Dave Matthews and Brad Nowell. I didn’t know much of Johnson’s music at the time, and none of us had any beef with him, but like Matthews and Nowell, his fans hadn’t done his reputation any favors. Johnson himself was probably flabbergasted to have to follow Josey Scott’s talentless “Love It Or Leave It” boom-boom show, but the guy deserves a LOT of credit for resetting the temperature that day. As utterly inoffensive as Johnson’s music is, he helped dial things back a bit and put us all in a better frame of mind. Maybe that programmer DID think it through, in retrospect.

Anyway, the moment when my opinion of Jack Johnson shifted, permanently, came at the beginning of his third or fourth song, when he strummed the instantly-recognizable opening chords of “Please Don’t Go,” the third track on Violent Femmes. I perked up, probably vocalizing, “Is this dude really playing a Violent Femmes song? And a deep cut??” Turned out, that dude really was playing a Violent Femmes deep cut. He sang the first verse of “Please Don’t Go,” instantly making casual fans of every beleaguered music nerd in the amphitheater. It was still early enough so that the drunks were only tipsy, too, so I had yet to make a voyage to the bathrooms in a scene not unlike when Simon Pegg darts through a crowd of zombies in Shaun of the Dead.

Fast Forward 10 Years: 2013. The California Low Desert. Coachella Festival.
My friend Laura and I met up to car-camp with a couple friends of friends. Our site was surrounded by, on one side, a group of nice folks who drove out from New Mexico, and on the other sides, about 15,000 of the worst people on the planet. However, Blur were playing, and although I finally got to see them play in Hyde Park in 2009, I wasn’t going to pass up the chance to see them on US soil for the first time*.

As the first night finally arrived, we watched the Stone Roses sleepwalk through their set before she split to go watch How to Destroy Angels, whose set conflicted with Blur’s. For those who don’t remember, How to Destroy Angels was a Nine Inch Nails side project with a relatively brief shelf life. From what she told me at our campsite later, she managed to get pretty close to the stage, where she befriended a short middle-aged man who mentioned his son was over seeing the Wu-Tang Clan. She could not get over how a person in their 50s would be that amped to see a Trent Reznor.

Gordon Gano (Violent Femmes) playing at the Coachella Festival, April 2013. (Photo by Tyler S. for Sonic Geography).

The following afternoon, our group migrated over to one of the main stages to see the Violent Femmes. As they took the stage, Laura lit up, turned to me, and said “Oh my god – that nice old guy I talked to before How to Destroy Angels?? That was the singer from this band!”

My response was hardly understated: “You hung out with Gordon Gano and didn’t tell me!?”

Laura defended herself, reminding me that she didn’t know who he was – Gano didn’t even mention being there to play at the festival! What a humble guy, considering how he wrote some of the most timeless and quintessential camp songs of the 20th century. So humble for a guy who created the best record of 1983, mostly when he was still a disgruntled teenager, forced to ride buses around Milwaukee and occasionally getting locked inside his house by his own parents.

Femmes drummer Victor DeLorenzo (who I’ve seen play with the band twice in between his stint being kicked out) opened their set on that blazing sunny afternoon announcing, “We’re going to play our first record for you, from top to bottom!” That’s the Violent Femmes for you – giving the people what they want! If only more foundational underground bands could be so thoughtful. 

Victor DeLorenzo (Violent Femmes) playing at the Coachella Festival, April 2013. (Photo by Tyler S. for Sonic Geography).
Brian Ritchie^ (Violent Femmes) playing at the Coachella Festival, April 2013. (Photo by Tyler S. for Sonic Geography).

Liner Notes

*I found out, years later, that the 2003 run supporting Think Tank was a nightmare for them, since Graham Coxon was no longer with the band, Simon Tong wasn’t a suitable replacement, and Dave Rowntree was going through coke-rage to the point where he was a tyrannical asshole to Nardwuar during their Vancouver stop. Rowntree did apologize and Nardwuar accepted, but goodness what an uncomfortable video if you find it.

^Am I the only one who can’t help but think about this when they look at this picture?

The Caretaker

I was going through an old notebook where I kept tabs on talks I saw at the 2015 Harvard Hearing Landscape Critically Conference, and I landed on a page where I didn’t leave myself much context. All it had was the name Jason McCool and “The Caretaker (Bandcamp)” written down. So, I checked it out, and I’m grateful I did.


I think “haunting” and “beautiful,” in that order, are two pretty accurate ways to characterize this. If that’s your thing, then check it out. Something about the music makes me surprised there’s a bit of reference for those interested here, on The Caretaker’s website. Manchester: So Much to Answer For!

I also found this great quote by Susan Youens from the same notebook: “Rememberance is more shaped by the moment than the moment by remembrance.” That’s some deep stuff, there.


The Case for “Les Chaises Musicales”


One beautiful day this July in Montreuil, France, I woke up (a bit later than I’d care to admit; I’m a night owl and I’d had a lot of interview notes to write up) and wandered down toward the Metro station. I bought a sandwich from the pastisserie and wandered over to the park next to the Public Library by the mairie (town hall). The park, always abuzz with activity, afforded few benches which I could sit upon without the mid-day sun blinding me. (Fair notice: if you invite me for lunch and insist that we eat outside, I’ll do it because I’m a grateful person, but I won’t exactly love it; the sun scorches, bugs bite, and the wind blows). I wandered past the library’s entrance looking for a good spot to sit and eat when I heard Johnny Cash’s voice emanating from a nearby grotto. It wasn’t Sun-era Johnny Cash, either; this was dying, recording-in-an-armchair, Rick-Rubin-calling-the-shots, Johnny Cash. The song was “First Time I Ever Saw Your Face” from American IV: The Man Comes Around (2002). Anyone familiar with Johnny Cash’s baritone, especially at this point in his life, could imagine how much hearing it changed my sunny disposition (however slightly; I was so excited for what I was about to discover).


The library management had placed some lawn chairs out in the grotto and set up a pair of high-definition speaker monitors, blasting an eclectic playlist of 19 songs. An equally eclectic crowd sat and listened to the music. It was amazing. They weren’t talking or treating it as background noise. While some read and others napped, they were all just sitting casually and listening. Some of the selections were mainstream (The Beach Boys’ “God Only Knows”, others weren’t (Calexico’s “Woven Birds”). Some tracks were instrumental (Morton Feldman’s “Variations”), others were vocal (Billie Holiday’s “Summertime”), some hip-hop (RZA’s “My Lovin’ is Digi”), some rock n’ roll (Elvis Presley’s “Blue Moon”), some folk (Woody Guthrie’s “You Souls of Boston”), all strangely transcendent to hear flowing out of a public library’s outdoor PA system.


The moment I sat down, Nirvana’s unplugged rendition of the Meat Puppets’ “Plateau” started playing, as if they sensed an aging guy in an 80’s hardcore t-shirt had wandered over.

I don’t know how often they do this, but I can’t think of a nicer way to spend a lunch break. If I find the time anytime soon, I would like to bring this to the Knoxville Library and see if they’d like to give it a shot on Market Square or somewhere else central. It’s a great way to both present popular music in a sophisticated way and provide an ostensibly free public service for people who want to engage in public life. As much as I imagine Parisians to be more prone to this, that’s all the more reason to give it a test-run on this side of the pond.

Shane Rhyne stops by GEO 101 to talk Mountain Music

Special thanks to Shane Rhyne, a good friend of Sonic Geography, for stopping by my World Regional Geography class today to talk about the geography of Tennessee music. It covered the early germination of “mountain music” with African, English, and Scots/Irish traditions and their legendary mingling in Knoxville’s Market Square. A lot of people had no idea Knoxville once even had a “Little Ireland” or a “Little Harlem.”

Shane Rhyne doing a guest lecture in my GEO 101 class, October 23, 2014.

Shane Rhyne doing a guest lecture in my GEO 101 class, October 23, 2014.

Anybody interested in learning more about Shane’s background in as a local music and culture historian for Eastern Tennessee can feel free to contact him at shanerhyne[at]gmail[dot]com. You can also read about the 2002 Japanese documentary he appeared in here on this site, and you can also take a look at an interview I did with him way back… last year. Those of you who are local instructors in any geography course that has any material connected to Appalachia, don’t hesitate to invite him to come by and talk to your class; you won’t regret it.

Knoxville in a Japanese Documentary, 2002 (Videos)

I don’t even know.

A few months ago, I published an interview with my friend Shane Rhyne about his myriad experiences with Knoxville music. One of the sticking points was his appearance on a Japanese documentary on the diffusion of Irish music in 2002. The full interview is available here, but here is that excerpt:

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.

Well, far be it from Shane to disappoint, he rummaged for his old VHS, which I’ve converted for your viewing pleasure. Here, on my brand new Vimeo site, is that long-awaited clip of Shane meeting and speaking with Daemon Kogure.

One of the purest forms of discourse analysis is to consider that quintessential “outsider perspective” on a place. There could be fewer better case studies in that perspective than Japanese rock star turned media personality Kogure. Eastern Tennessee’s longtime residents have a wide variety of opinions on their local/regional cultural heritage, but seeing this is a loud wake-up call in understanding how Southern Appalachia is perceived by international music fans, especially non-Western ones. I really wish I spoke Japanese, but I’ve had some assistance thus far, and I can post more details on what Kogure is saying sometime soon hopefully.

It’s a lot of fun seeing what the Old City looked like in 2002, which is surprisingly not a whole lot different than it does today. According to Rhyne, Market Square (the current lynchpin of downtown Knox) was near-silent at the time, so Old City carried a much heavier load of the city’s nightlife. I feel like people in the Old City would react similarly to seeing somebody dressed like Daemon today, though. I imagine these interactions were staged, but still an interesting slice of local culture through foreign eyes.

This documentary’s treatment of race within the context of American history is also fascinating. The Japanese are one of the most homogenous nationalities on Earth, and the Americans are possibly the least, so that dichotomy right there explains why such a pragmatic, less-nuanced view on race relations is not as much of a surprise here. Where the “blues” as a concept has come to be almost completely co-opted by old white men (see King 2006 for further reading on this), here Daemon presents it as a mere curiosity for an audience with few African-origin members, widely disconnected from the ideas of modern slavery. That being said, 我が心のアイルランド [Ireland, deep in my heart] does present a fair share of blackface footage from the pre-War era, most of which has been scrubbed clean from mainstream American media. When certain subjects become taboo in one culture, sometimes that culture must rely on another for any type of understanding.


King, S. A. (2006). Memory, mythmaking, and museums: Constructive authenticity and the primitive blues subject. Southern Communication Journal,71(3), 235-250.

Bow Down to Gainesville (Part 2)

Another weekend, another conference. It is almost springtime, after all.

I’ll be making my first of at least two trips to Florida this semester to present at my first Ethnomusicology conference, the annual meeting of the Southeastern and Caribbean Chapter of the Society of Ethnomusicology happening this weekend in Gainesville, Florida! Hopefully things have cooled off since the Associated Press threw the #1 ranking at their Basketball team yesterday.

More information about the conference is at the official website here. I’ll post the draft schedule here, with me and some of my Tennessee colleagues highlighted. I have to admit: “flutelore” sounds pretty badass.

Here’s lookin’ at you, Gainesville. See you all soon.

Friday, February 28

Session 1 (8:30 am  – 10:00 am)
Historical Perspectives on Women and Music
Kathryn Etheridge (Florida State University), “The Modern Girl Composes Herself: Japanese Modernist Yoshida Takako”
Sarah Kahre (Florida State University), “The Gravest of Female Voices: Women and the Alto in Sacred Harp”
Megan MacDonald (Florida State University), “‘Heaven is Nearer Since Mother is There’: Gendered Spaces in Southern Gospel Songbooks of the Great Depression”

Session 2 (10:30 am – 12:30 pm)
Drop on Down in Florida: Musical Models For a New Generation
Peggy Bulger (American Folklife Center, Ret.), “Dropping Back Down: From the Field to the Archive to the iPod”
Dwight DeVane, (Florida Folklife Program, Ret.), “The Drop on Down in Florida Reissue: Opportunity, Conceptual Framework and Digital Access”
James Cunningham (Florida Atlantic University), “A Grass-Roots Applied Ethnomusicology of in the Glades”
Gregory Hansen (Arkansas State University), “Fiddlelore and Vernacular Theory within Presentations of Public Folklore”

Session 3 (2:00 – 3:30 pm) 
Multicultural Musical Mediations in the United States
Sarah Renata Strothers (Florida State University), “Looking Like the Enemy: Negotiating Risk in Japanese-American Musical Performance”
Elizabeth Clendinning (Emory University), “Symbiotic Sounds: University-Community Interdependence in World Music Ensemble Instruction”
Matt DelCiampo (Florida State University), “‘Real Beauty Turns’: Beauty and Gender Perceptions in Mixed Media”

Session 4 (2:00 pm – 3:30 pm) CONCURRENT SESSIONS (continued)
Identities and Spiritualities In South and Southeast Asia


Tyler Sonnichsen (University of Tennessee), “Can’t Breakaway: Indonesian Punk and Xenocentrism”
Nina Menezes (University of Florida), “Voices of Sheila: Re-signification in Bollywood Filmic and Non-filmic Contexts”
Gavin Douglas (University of North Carolina, Greensboro), “The Sounds of Buddhism in Myanmar: Dhamma Instruments and the Cultivation of Divine States of Consciousness”

Book signing (3:30 – 4:15 pm)
World Flutelore: Folktales, Myths, and Other Stories of Magical Flute Power
Dale A. Olsen (Professor Emeritus, Florida State University)

Keynote Address (4:30 – 5:15 pm)
Robert Stone (Independent Folklorist)

See the website for the Saturday schedule.

“The Cradle of Country Music and the Playpen of Rock n’ roll” (Interview with Shane Rhyne)

(metro pulse)

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.

(via facebook)

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.

Somewhere, the Bay City Rollers were smiling. (oaksdiscography.com)

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.

(ultimate twang)

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 St. James Hotel, site of the famous “St. James Sessions.” RIP. (knoxville lost and found)

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.

Daemon Kogure, upon discovering he was going to meet Shane Rhyne. (ansaikuropedia)

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.

R.I.P. Pete Seeger

(humble archives)


While his death has not received much traction in social media, the world has no idea how much it owes this guy. I cannot think of a single folk singer (or any singer, for that matter) who has been through as much, seen as much, and accomplished as much in their lifetime. What amazed me the most was how he until just recently, was still performing. In his nineties. If that’s not remarkable in itself, I don’t know what is. His brain was also a veritable encyclopedia of folk and protest music traditions, so with Seeger, entire disciplines studying American music have lost a lifeline to more than you can imagine.


Alan Lomax on Music and Transformation


An art so deeply rooted in the security patterns of the community should not, in theory, be subject to rapid change, and in fact this seems to be the case. Musical style appears to be one of the most conservative of culture traits. Religion, language, even many aspects of social structure may change; an entirely new set of tunes or rhythms or harmonic patterns may be introduced; but, in its overall character, a musical style will remain intact. Only the most profound social upheavals – the coming of a new population, the acceptance of a new set of mores – or migration to a new territory, involving complete acculturation, will profoundly transform a musical style, and even then the process takes place very slowly.

– Alan Lomax (1959), in American Anthropologist, explaining why music may be the great barometer of culture. For the uninitiated, Lomax may be one of the major reasons that this site exists, and there will be more on him soon, especially as I try to sort through my own feelings on his system of cantometrics. All I know is, his 50s recordings from the American South are eternal.

Let’s Give Ol’ Tennessee Credit for Music… [Part One]

via cityofknoxville.orgSo, I’m in Tennessee. The Eastern portion, perhaps best known by Geographers as the land of Oak Ridge Laboratories and the Great Smoky Mountains, equal parts remote sensing supercomputers and surreal Appalachian beauty. Of course, the process of moving has made it all but impossible for me to really experience either of those things in any measure, and the massive, predominantly wifi-less train journey I took (I do apologize for the lack of updates since I was in the Pacific Northwest) prevented me from preparing my brain for the onslaught of musical geography that this state contains.

In related news, not that I’ve formally mentioned this on the blog yet, I will be working toward my PhD in Geography here, at the University of Tennessee. I could not be more excited about it. The department is a great group of people, and Knoxville is a great (and growing ridiculously fast) medium-sized city. I will keep this updated with any news on my research here. I should probably finish registering with the department first…

Anyway, I was driving through Knoxville earlier today and a beautiful sentimental song about Tennessee came on the radio which my general desire to not crash my car into the Fourth & Gill underpass murals prevented me from grabbing a pen and writing down. In my online search for the song, I came across a pair of videos that will undoubtedly lead me down an infinite rabbit hole of Eastern Tennessee music. Considering how (relatively) little in-depth research I did on Knoxville prior to moving here (rewatching the classic Simpsons episode notwithstanding), I am still amazed how easy it is to forget that Tennessee may just possibly be the single most influential state in the development of modern popular music. NO BIG DEAL.

via alaskacoinexchange.com.

I don’t even have to begin explaining why I’ve come to the right place. Even without Memphis’ monolithic impact on RnB and Rock n’ Roll over the past eight-plus decades (which is easy to discount around these parts, since that city is about eight hours’ drive away), Tennessee remains the bellwether of both Country Music (Nashville) and Bluegrass Music (Knoxville). Hillbilly music in general owes as much to Tennessee as it does any state; the hills of Eastern Tennessee were where those auld [sic] English ballads wove their way through the nineteenth century and into the strings of countless fiddles and banjos. I’m going to spend the next few years of my life digging through all of it and attempting to provide insight, but for now, here’s (who else?) the inimitable Dolly Parton singing about it. Enjoy the rest of your week, everyone.