The Best Bands of Knoxville

The 10 Best Bands (Rest of the Best | Posters | Voters)

Back at the end of 2008, we asked a bunch of local musicians, club owners, promoters, ex-band members, writers, and various other regulars in the Knoxville music scene from the last 20 years or so to name their 10 favorite local bands ever. The combined results are, of course, totally unscientific—the small pool of respondents makes it pretty useless, from a statistical point of view, and the rankings skew heavily toward the 1990s and 2000s. Like in NASCAR, the point system we applied (10 points for first place, nine points for second, all the way down to one point for 10th place) rewards consistency more than placing high on a ballot. (The band with the most number-one votes finished third.) And besides, it’s an awfully silly question—or at least an ultimately, definitively unanswerable one; there’s no measurable, across-the-board standard that can be applied. What does “best” or “favorite” really mean? Depends on who you ask, and even then it depends on when you ask. Several voters indicated that the order of their lists might be entirely different on a different day.

That said, however, it still seems like a worthwhile enterprise. Few people who follow local music will be surprised by the top 10. Some great bands got overlooked, but that’s just the nature of consensus, and it’s hard to argue with the groups and solo artists who did top the list. It’s not science, maybe, but then neither is that feeling you get near the end of a great set by your favorite band.

* According to our panel of local music experts. Or at least the ones who filled out the survey.

No. 1: The V-Roys (152 points, five first-place votes)

They swung from honky-tonk pathos to punk-ish ferocity, and by the end of a show it was sometimes hard to tell one from the other. At their tightest, The V-Roys were an intuitive combo with what seemed like a telepathic connection; at their sloppiest and drunkest, they may have been even better. (It probably depends on how drunk you were, too.) Read the story.

Best rockers to ever come out of K-town, and then they’ve got a sensitive side, too. —Kevin Crothers

Was it country? Was it rock? It was everything rolled into some legendary drunken shows. Hell, my mom even loved these guys. —Rob Levering

The first time I saw these guys, they were just f--king cool—black suits, shades, and playing on an outdoor stage that had to be sweltering. They had a swagger and a bravado that matched the look and music that was both melodic and entertaining. —Steve Wildsmith

Maybe I’m a softie, going for what is probably the crowd favorite, but I can’t help it. Or maybe I’m an alcoholic and like how they sang so many songs about drinking, which makes me feel enabled to drink more. Maybe I’m a sucker for a mopey ballad like “Goodnight, You Loser.” Maybe the songs—both Scott Miller’s and Mic Harrison’s, which play off each other so damn well—are some of the best I’ve ever heard. Or maybe all of the V-Roys—Miller and Harrison, with Jeff Bills and Paxton Sellers—simply exuded cool (and still do). Or maybe I just got here too late to appreciate the likes of Superdrag. I could think of a lot of reasons to call this band Knoxville’s best ever. It wasn’t an easy choice, in fact—any one of my top five choices on some other day would be my top pick. But when I thought about who I would most like to see play tonight or which band I would play for someone who has never been to Knoxville or which band seems to offer the best soundtrack for my time here, The V-Roys float to the top, without a shadow of a doubt. Cold beer, hello. —Joe Tarr

If their audiences had given them money equal to how much they loved them, they’d all be rich. I wish they were. —Wayne Bledsoe

No. 2: Superdrag (135 points, five first-place votes)

No other band in Knoxville’s storied rock history has come closer to achieving true rock ’n’ roll star power than Superdrag. The group never really had to pay their proverbial dues—they were stars from their first show. Superdrag leapt out of the garage and became, with the exception of drummer Don Coffey Jr., sunglasses-at-night kinda guys. The thing is, these boys weren’t playing. They knew they were going to be big, so why act any differently? Everybody else knew, too. And they looked really good. Read the story. See a poster.

One of my all-time favorites. Period. One of K-town’s biggest-ever buzz bands. The fact that they can regroup, record a new killer album, and still pack shows in Knoxville, New York, Boston, and Chicago trumps anything anyone can say about them losing their cred back when they signed to a major. They still rock, they’re still loved, and they’re still relevant 15 years after they started. —Rob Levering

I have to confess, I was gone from Knoxville during this band’s heyday. The only thing I have to base my opinion on was the Barley’s reunion show over a year ago, but if they were anywhere near that good when they were at the height of their fame, then I’m the poorer for not seeing them back then. —Steve Wildsmith

Another band I consider myself lucky to have witnessed live. I remember going to Lost and Found records one day and as I was checking out, this young-looking kid who was working the register started enthusiastically talking to me about the album I was buying. Sometime later, a few months maybe, my friend Bob McCluskey talked me into going to Zarbo’s (now Sassy Ann’s) to see this new band, Superdrag, who he thought was pretty good. When the band started playing I was shocked to see the kid from Lost and Found up there singing these great songs and fronting a band that was absolutely on fire. I was a fan from that point on. —Jeff Bills

No. 3: Smokin' Dave and the Premo Dopes (112 points, six first-place votes)

Knoxville has had more famous bands, more popular bands, more successful bands. But Smokin’ Dave and the Premo Dopes was our most influential band, daring to embrace its Knoxvilleness at a time when the number-one goal of most musicians here was to get out of town as fast as possible. Read the story. See their posters.

I would go see them if they were playing the phone book. In fact, I’m pretty sure that I saw them do that on New Year’s Eve back in ’89 or so. —Kevin Crothers

Is there any band more “Knoxville”? Nope. Fortunately we still get the random reunion gig. —Rob Levering

My late wife blamed a loud Smokin’ Dave show for making our eldest child arrive prematurely. He survived and now he makes music, too, so it worked out all right. —Wayne Bledsoe

They were phenomenal musicians, had a tremendous sense of humor, wrote great songs, and were smartass in just the right dosage. What’s not to love? One time, this band I was in back then, the Taoist Cowboys, got to open for them in Memphis at a club called the Pyramid, which was a big deal for us, getting to play with Smokin’ Dave and making a road trip. In the bathroom of the club there was some graffiti on the wall that said something about burning with the blood of Keith Richards and it feeling good. That night, “Gimme Keith Richards’ Blood,” a Smokin’ Dave classic, was born. —Jeff Bills

No. 4: Balboa (81 points, four first-place votes)

Balboa sometimes utilized the ramalama riffs and surly mien of the punks. But with musical chops to burn, the band also appropriated the cerebral proto-prog-rock of Robert Fripp and Brian Eno, and delivered the entire concoction with just a hint of country twang. Read the story.

No. 5: Scott Miller (78 points)

Scott Miller is not a simple study. Raised on a cattle farm in the Shenandoah Valley, he expects to return there someday, maybe before long. His songs are full of rural imagery; his trademark is the mule. And he has a degree in Russian lit from William & Mary. He is not much like anybody else we know of. Read the story.

Post V-Roys, Scott’s come into his own as a songwriter—he’s found a little satisfaction in what he does and how he does it, and that makes his natural affability on stage even more charming. Whether he’s doing a righteous cover of a Springsteen song (“Janie Don’t You Lose Heart,” which, I must point out, a previous MP arts and entertainment editor misidentified as an unrecorded, new Scott Miller original) or pulling from his great catalog, he makes everyone want to share a beer with him. Pretty sly the way he mixes in a history lesson or two about the Civil War with beer-drinking anthems, too. —Steve Wildsmith

No. 6: R.B. Morris (68 points, one first-place vote)

One night I got drunk with him and recorded every word he said for a piece I wanted to write for a now-defunct webzine. Slowly he became not just one of my favorite musicians, but also one of my idols—someone who has managed to do some amazing things with very little compensation, sacrificing comfort for art and belief, eagerly biting the hand that fed him the scraps he somehow subsisted on. Read the story. See the posters.

Whether he’s performing a sedate acoustic number in someone’s parlor or ranting at injustice and stupidity from Pilot Light with Hector Qirko by his side, R.B. always has something to say. What always intrigues me is that he never seems to be satisfied with his words. Even though everyone else recognizes their brilliance, R.B. is his own harshest critic, and I think that keeps him reaching for greater heights. —Steve Wildsmith

Amazingly, R.B. just keeps getting better. —Wayne Bledsoe

No. 7: Todd Steed (58 points)

It would be easy to call Todd Steed the class clown of Knoxville’s music scene. But it would be cheap, and a disservice, too. Read the story. See a poster.

I’ve yet to see any performer so quick on his feet, so witty, so clever. It takes a quirky mind that never stops churning to make up songs on the spot and to make them entertaining, and Todd has an uncanny knack for both commentary and color. —Steve Wildsmith

At various times, I’ve had to defend all of my favorite picks here to friends—being popular or good opens you up to attack, invites it in fact. And I could find justifiable reasons to criticize everybody on this list. But it seems that more people don’t get Todd Steed than anyone else in Knoxville I can think of. For someone so beloved in this town, he sure has a lot of people who talk shit about him. Truth is, the guy can’t sing particularly well. And he’s as much an entertainer as he is a musician. His mastery of stage banter is the best I’ve ever seen. When I hear him improvise lyrics, my jaw always drops—does he really make this shit up on the fly? Jesus. He’s an incredible performer, no doubt, but I declare him fit for this list because I happen to think he’s one hell of a songwriter. (And you know what? I like his singing too!) He fires off lines that to me are pure poetry. Perhaps a poetry only heard in bars like the Longbranch, but if comic books can be art and literature, then Todd Steed can be a damn fine poet and a great guitar player, which he is. I first realized this about a year after I’d moved to town, listening to him at Manhattans, playing “Hurry Up Five O’Clock.” It was a Friday evening, I’d gotten off of work not long ago, and I sat there enjoying a beer. Todd perfectly nailed the mood I’d been in a few hours before during that slow grind toward punching out. Todd is smarty-pants world traveler, but as a musician he’s a working-class hero and that spirit bleeds through all his songs. He’ll never get rich on his music. He’s just the guy who gets up and sings at the neighborhood bars after his day job, but that perspective is one that I need in my life. Some of his songs are dumb jokes that were never all that funny. (I hope to never hear “Tenncare Buzz” again.) But songs like “Five O’Clock,” “I’m Going Out,” “New Knoxville Girl,” “You Must Be From Nashville,” and “North Knoxville” are just perfect expressions of both the melancholy and joy of being alive. —Joe Tarr

No. 8: Dixie Dirt (54 points, two first-place votes)

When I heard them play live, I often marveled at how I felt like I became part of the music, the moment, my heart rising and falling with each crescendo, feeling each song was the best thing I’d ever heard. It wasn’t, but it was as close as you could ever hope to get on any random night. Read the story.

The first time I heard this band, during sessions for Pieces of the World, I was at the White House over in the Fort. Brad, Pete, Angela, and Kat were all crowded into a little room off from the kitchen, door shut, and when they launched into “Sleep,” it was like someone walked up and threw a cup of ice water in my face, grabbed me by the hair and screamed, “This is why you do what you do, bitch!” Jut the intensity, the passion—the room turned into this seething cauldron of rage and angst and emotion. I never missed a Dixie Dirt show after that, and no matter what sort of personal drama went on behind the scenes, when the four of them (and, later, Chris Rusk) got on stage, everything went into the music. It’s just hands-down some of the best rock I’ve ever seen. —Steve Wildsmith

No. 9: Tenderhooks (41 points, two first-place votes)

Formed by childhood friends Jake Winstrom and Ben Oyler (and featuring the crack rhythm tag team of Emily Robinson and Matt Honkonen), the ’hooks’ music is highlighted by the sugary vocal harmonies of Winstrom and Robinson, which soar atop a bed of folky rock ’n’ roll, accented by Oyler’s Terry Hill-schooled fretwork and Honkonen’s muscular-yet-musical skin-pounding. Read the story.

No. 10: Teenage Love (35 points)

It’s impossible to tell from the voting whether respondents are most fond of Teenage Love’s first incarnation—which enjoyed a clamorous seven-year run beginning in 1984—or its revival, which came together in 2004 at Metro Fest and resulted in Rus Harper’s bare ass which resulted in charges of indecent exposure. But it doesn’t matter. Punk rock is now. Read the story. See their posters.

They literally scared me the first time I saw them live. I’m pretty sure that was the intention and it ended up being a good thing since I went back for more. Rus Harper=K-town’s answer to Iggy Pop. Play “Corndog” again, dammit! —Rob Levering

Every show is still one small irrational decision away from a new arrest. —Wayne Bledsoe