Well, I missed Sonic Sunday this weekend, but I’ll make up for it with some quaran-tunes for your enjoyment. This week, I’m taking a voyage across the mercilessly wide state (almost as if it was added to the Union in some type of land-grab) of Tennessee. When I moved there in 2013, I made the argument that the Volunteer State has contributed more to popular music history than any other, and I still tend to agree with that idea.
This DJ mix, though, gave me the opportunity to share some wax tracks released by various friends I made in my six years of living in Knoxville as well as a few stone-cold classics.
Dead Man’s Lifestyle (Morristown) – “Common Lush” (split lathe 7″ with Cop Funeral)
Spring Break! 2019! PARTY! By “party,” I mean… take a day in Nashville to buy some records, see some friends, and investigate a couple of sites from the Ben Irving Postcard collection. I mean, it’s a party to me…
Before I go any further, I’ll provide a helpful link for any new readers who Ben Irving was, and why I have so many postcards he mailed to Brooklyn in the 1930’s.
Now that you’re caught up, I will say that it appears that Irving only visited Nashville two or three times during his Southern journeys in the depression era. In mid-February 1934 and again in November 1935, he was in bad way financially. In retrospect, it seemed fairly obvious that the South wasn’t going to deliver the goods to a travelling sales representative as the region limped out of the Depression’s (subjective) height in 1933. One could understand how life in Brooklyn might have distorted the economic landscape a bit for Irving. It may be worth looking into whether his shock at the South’s slowness tempered over the decade. Early on, though, this part of his journeys were always a slog.
For his first (documented) visit to Nashville in February 1934, he mailed home a postcard that advertised the city’s flagship station WLAC. The station’s history often gets overshadowed by WSM, considering the role the latter station played in growing the country music industry, but it has a fascinating story nonetheless. Though it’s the home of iHeartMedia-financed reactionary hate speech today, WLAC is perhaps best remembered as the station that went against the segregationist grain and played black music in the late 1940’s. It originated as the station of the Life and Casuality Insurance Company of Tennessee, with studios on the 5th floor of their building downtown. Considering how both the studios and said building no longer exist (to my knowledge), I took the postcard to the (possible; I’ll explain these parentheticals, don’t worry) broadcast site depicted.
2421 West End Avenue, Nashville TN. March 20, 2019.
So, this postcard is somewhat unique, in that it prominently features an inset image. I suppose there was a massive abyss in the sky between the two broadcast towers, so may as well show off the sleek 5th-floor studios. It’s an exciting new medium, after all.
The only address I could find for the towers’ location was 2421 West End Avenue, which doesn’t line up with a specific business address today because, well… you see the scaffolding. I have no concrete evidence that the towers depicted in the postcard were located here, but there’s definitely a possibility considering how the landscape does elevate a bit (when not full of new construction). The image on Google Streetview (as of this writing) shows a parking lot behind a row of trees, which was surprisingly demure for being right down the street from Vanderbilt’s campus. This was less than two years ago:
So, in conclusion, this was the best I could do, given how I didn’t have time to dig up the original insurance maps, official WLAC archives (if they even exist anymore), or talk to a nonagenarian who happened to live around there in the 30’s. If you have better insights, or my site was way off, please get in touch.
In late 1935, Irving came back for his second visit, this time down from Harlan, KY, at the end of 1,518 miles of driving since leaving Brooklyn the previous month. I know I beat this point into the ground when writing these entries, but the Interstate Highway System was still almost two decades off. Even the Federal-Aid Highway Act, which many believe sets those dominoes in motion, was more than two years away. That driving experience was pure PAIN.
What was almost as painful was finding a place to park, during rush hour, at an incredibly busy intersection with no street parking and only hyper-privatized lots nearby. Again, as far as I could tell, this was where the Hotel Tulane once stood. It’s now a giant pit.
Church St. and Rosa Parks Boulevard, Nashville TN. March 20, 2019.
Most obviously, 8th Avenue was re-named Rosa Parks Boulevard several decades later. When Irving stayed at the Tulane in 1935, Rosa was an unknown 21-year-old domestic worker in the Montgomery area.
Again, I didn’t have time to look at any aerial images or flood maps that may have existed of downtown Nashville, so the SE corner of the intersection (which has been transformed by viaducts) was my best guess. This page, which details how the hotel was actually razed in 1956, was helpful.
Based on what I know from the postcards, Irving’s final visit to Nashville saw him spending November 1st-2nd in the city, staying at the Hermitage Hotel for a night before heading to Knoxville. I never found any postcards he mailed from there, but on November 2 (very close to Election Day), he mailed a postcard home that was just a photo of FDR, writing Every state in the South is for Roosevelt If only all the others were it would be fine. Will write from Knoxville.
Every attempt I’ve made to find Irving Postcard sites has been somewhat rewarding, but I have to say Nashville was the most frustrating yet. The basic act of driving around the city makes one clearly aware of how rampantly it’s growing. I didn’t particularly enjoy either of my re-photography attempts above; in both situations, I had to snap the photos quickly and hurry back to my car out of the fear it would be impounded and crushed into a small cube. As the photos I did get show, entire tracts of land have been razed with cranes looming overhead; to me, it almost recalls the uncontrollable growth of DC over a decade ago. The large artists’ renderings of yuppie markets not unlike the ones that have come to dominate Atlanta (speaking of uncontrollable growth) don’t make me feel good about the sustainability of this gargantuan landscape modification, but what do I know? I’m not a Nashvillian; I’m just a fan of its record shops, vegan options, and (unless they’re playing the Caps) hockey team.
COMING SOON TO SONIC GEOGRAPHY
It’s conference season! I’ll be presenting at the Balancing the Mix Conference in Memphis on March 30th as well as the AAG Meeting in DC (along with some other surprises there). Check back in soon.
A quick break from our “regularly” “scheduled” programming to appeal to those of you who live in Tennessee and/or support Geography in K-12 education (which ideally, in the latter case, is all of you).
Following is an update that Kurt Butefish of the Tennessee Geographic Alliance received from the National Geographic Society. Please read the update and then contact Senator Alexander with the information contained at the end of the message.
Congratulations! It seems that the hard work of Alliances and the persistence of GENIP members (especially AAG) has led to the inclusion of geography in the core areas found in the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA). Geography can also be found in the funding portion of the Senate bill, but is only eligible for competitive grants – along with history and civics – for 5% of the total funds allocated.
As a recap, if you look at the current bill starting on page 313 you will see four distinct sections that will take you through page 320. Here is a synopsis:
Section 2302 refers to the teaching of traditional American History
Section 2303 refers to American History and Civics Academies
Section 2304 refers to National Activities (this includes geography)
Section 2301(b) refers to funding
Here is the interesting part…
Section 2303: 85% of funding (2301b) will be allocated to traditional American History (these look like the old Teaching America History grants did)
Section 2303: 10% of the funding will be allocated to presidential academies (teacher-focused) and congressional academies (student-focused) – very small impact numbers
Section 2304: 5% of the funds will be allocated to competitive grants in History, Civics and Geography, with a focus on high-poverty students/schools
Part of GENIP’s (Geography Education National Implementation Project) recent meeting in Washington centered on ESEA. The participating organizations have agreed to share in a common voice to request that legislators make 15% (rather than 5%) of funding in section 2304 eligible for competitive grants. Talks are underway on how to maximize the opportunities for geographic education through collaborative efforts of the GENIP organizations.
His fax number is (202) 228-3398 and his mailing address is 455 Dirksen Senate Office Building, Washington, DC 20510.
Following is some sample text for you to include in your message:
Thank you for positively responding to my previous request to include Geography as a core discipline in the ESEA reauthorization bill.
Geography and the geospatial technologies sectors of the economy are growing rapidly and demand more geography education in K-12 schools so that U.S. location-based technologies industries and the geospatial intelligence segments of the economy can grow.
For more than a decade, geography has been the only federally-recognized core academic subject not to have received any authorized federal-funded program for improvement. This oversight is having real economic costs that, unless addressed, will continue to compound and have a direct impact on the geospatial services industry.
Because of this, I respectfully request that a much larger portion than 5% of funding in Section 2304 of Senate Bill 1177 be made eligible for completive grants to geography.
If you haven’t stumbled upon this yet, please do stumble. It serves as a cogent, architecturally-minded reminder of the crippling effect that Redevelopment had on this American city. Sites like this and Ghosts of DC are helping civilians dig into their collective past to learn from their forefathers’ triumphs and mistakes. Hopefully we can figure out the best ways to capitalize off of both.
I was originally planning to include these all as part of one giant post from my travels, but then I got carried away writing about the experience of getting that picture from the balcony at Royal and St. Ann in New Orleans. These three cases did not incorporate nearly as intriguing processes of inquiry. They mostly involved luck and convenience. The only danger I encountered came from traffic turning onto MLK Boulevard in Chattanooga while I was taking this:
July 22, 2014
Not bad! I knew I would eventually scan the original so you could all have a better look at the original postcard (folded into a souvenir packet from 1938; below). If you’re seeking a good example of a southern city that’s done almost everything within their power correctly over the past three decades, look no farther than Chattanooga. All it took was a New York Times article in 1980 about what a hellhole the place was at the time, and the city’s elites set the wheels in motion. Today, it’s a somewhat-undiscovered gem. A big part of the city’s renovation was (like even the less-progressive southern cities have realized for themselves) major investment in their downtown. This brought about a nicely-maintained park across the street from the old U.S. Post Office and Courthouse Building. That park made it pretty hard to get a full photo of the front of this quintessentially Depression-era architecture that’s stood since the height of that period (1933); trees blocked any view I had of the full building unless I crossed MLK Boulevard and disrupted traffic for a second. Anyway, here is the original 1930’s postcard print.
As Jakle and Sculle wrote in Picturing Illinois:
Postcard buyers embraced images that positively reinforced what most Americans believe the United States to be. Indeed, the nation’s postcard craze was largely a matter of self-congratulation. (p.5)
Self-congratulatory or not, the early twentieth century also continued a highly American tradition of, for lack of a better term, idol worship. Few things better signified the impact of an individual or a group on a place than a statue. In Birmingham, I was wandering through Five Points and I landed on the statue of Brother James Alexander Bryan, one of the most notable (if overlooked, outside of Alabama) white proponents of the civil rights movement.
The Brother Bryan statue at Five Points, Birmingham. July 12, 2014.
From what I’ve gathered from some light research, the city has moved the statue a few times, which explains why the placement seemed off compared to the original 1930s postcard from the Birmingham souvenir packet.
You can just make out the statue on the pavement island across the street. Birmingham, AL. July 12, 2014.
It seemed that the statue’s original placement sat on a (mostly) treeless island in the middle of the Five Points South intersection. Today, the statue’s location may be similar, though the city has either rebuilt the street behind it (it’s more of a walkway today, which you can see in the close-up photo of the statue), or placed the statue much closer to that gray building. I’m sure I could dig up articles from the Birmingham News about the statue’s moves, but I’ve only got so much time in the day. Also noteworthy, this postcard was mailed in the late 1930’s, and Brother Bryan didn’t die until 1941. Is it as rare as I think for somebody to be immortalized in that style while they are still alive to see it?
Speaking of the intense relationship between Christ, spirituality, and the South, here’s my second-favorite recreation I accomplished on the trip: Bienville Square in Mobile, AL.
Postcard from late 1930’s Mobile souvenir packet.
Bienville Square, July 14, 2014.
How cool is that? The big cross and that gorgeous fountain in the background have largely been untouched. The grounds immediately around the cross are not as grassy, and there appear to be more trees immediately surrounding the cross than there were 75-80 years ago, but the character of the park seems strikingly similar. I stood in several different spots trying to cancel out the trees right next to me while still framing the cross and fountain closely to how the postcard did. I took one picture with the postcard in the foreground that actually worked, surprisingly.
Anyway, I’m here in Knoxville for August, preparing to begin teaching GEO 101 and continuing with my research. I’m so tempted to turn these photographs into something else if I had anything resembling the spare time. I’ve actually had a few people suggest I keep compiling these antique postcard re-productions and turn them into a book. We’ll see.
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.
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.
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.
So, 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.
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.