Catching Up With 'Life,' Happy Holler, and the Humes House

A lot of folks are reading, or listening to, Keith Richards' autobiography, Life, both for its glimpse into the long-fabled excesses of the Rolling Stones guitarist and because—the big surprise to everybody—it's a well-written and sharply observed book that implies a better memory than you'd expect of anybody who has consumed as much tonnage of controlled substances as Mr. Richards has.

The other surprise, as several local folks have been startled to discover, is that the book includes the word "Knoxville." A neophyte might never guess the Stones ever played here, and they haven't since the University of Tennessee turned down their application to play at Neyland Stadium in the mid-1970s. But the lads performed at our Civic Coliseum twice, in 1965 and 1972. The seven-week summer 1972 North American tour, just after the release of Exile on Main Street, featured as opening act a 22-year-old Stevie Wonder. The Knoxville show drew fans from as far away as Atlanta, which didn't make the cut in their 30-city private-jet trip. The tour was infamous for spawning minor insurrections in New York and Toronto, and the KPD was on full alert the evening of July 7, 1972. The visit incited no riots. But in his book Richards mentions the Knoxville show—along with Charlotte and Norfolk—as "magic," among the best shows in one of their most famous tours. "The set seems to fly from beginning to end, the musicians completely locked into each other and on time, like a championship team in its finest and most fluid moments…"

Hardly cause to brag, maybe, but just a reminder to pay attention, even though you're in Knoxville.

Maybe more surprising to me is the degree to which Richards refers to a couple of former Knoxvillians, the West High alumni known as the Everly Brothers. Phil and Don, who first played as a duo when they lived in Knoxville, and broadcast on WROL until Cas Walker fired them, were famously influential on the Beatles, who were compared to the Everlys so often they sometimes jokingly referred to themselves as the Foureverly Brothers. But the Stones? I'd long heard that Richards idolized another former Knoxvillian, Chet Atkins, but he refers to the Everlys repeatedly, not just for their famous harmonies, but for their guitar playing, which he says he still admires. He says he and less-durable songwriter Gram Parsons whiled away hours enjoying pharmaceuticals to the accompaniment of old Everlys tunes.


We've had some issues here at the office about Geographical Creep, and how liberal to be, concerning the use of the term "Happy Holler." To me, Happy Holler is a very specific holler, a three-block stretch of Central between Baxter and Scott, where the Time Warp Tea Room and Relix and Veg-O-Rama reside. It's literally a hollow, between the two hills. When I first became acquainted with it, maybe 30 years ago, Happy Holler was a sparkling cluster of lively beer joints. The concept of Happy Holler does not, in my mind, extend as far south as MagPies and the old Corner Lounge, now Central Street Books—or as far north as Rankin Restaurant or Star Sales.

But more and more, just in the last year or two, I've heard people who are well acquainted with the neighborhood as it has evolved refer to the whole of Central north of Broadway as Happy Holler, more or less as if it's the hipster synonym for what the city has designated as Downtown North. I prefer to stick to the specific meaning of Holler—in naming our neighborhoods, references to actual topography are rare—but eventually we all have to be populists on matters of evolving nomenclature. If the whole of North Central becomes known as Happy Holler, I guess we'll have to get used to it.

It reminds me of the fact that Beardenites of a certain age are rankled to think of anything east of Homberg Place being included in Bearden. Bearden's epicenter was once near what's now Kingston Pike and Northshore. It was markedly different from Knoxville, with its own school and post office and even, for a while, train station. It was the first stop west of Knoxville. To those aging purists, any suggestion that Western Plaza or Kroger or Long's is in Bearden is sacrilege.

But then again, that stretch wasn't called anything else, either, so to me, the anschluss seems natural. Over the years as commercial development filled in all the empty spaces, the end of this development or that disappeared. Boundaries, such as they were, survive only in our memories. Today, from Western Plaza to some point on Bearden Hill, there's a whole lot of suburban commercial development, with sidewalks on both sides and a high percentage—at least by Kingston Pike standards—of unusual and locally owned businesses. And there's a certain continuity of personality there, and we call it Bearden.


There's been an unexpected wrinkle in the story of the nomadic Humes House. Much of the woodwork of the antebellum Episcopal rectory, which stood for at least 130 years beside St. John's on Cumberland Avenue downtown before it was dismantled in 1983, was recently discovered in a trailer on Rutledge Pike. It was assumed that the windows and doors constituted the bulk of what remains of the house, minus what was incorporated into the John Williams house on Dandridge. That much has been put into storage at Knox Heritage's modest warehouse on Broadway. But last week the folks at Schaad Lumber on Western Avenue disclosed that they have a large load of Humes House woodwork, too, and need to find a home for it soon. It turned out to be a load of corbels, shutters, windows, mantels, interior doors, and other wooden parts.

I don't know when or why these house parts got separated, but 1840s-50s Knoxville houses, or even their parts, are pretty rare to begin with, and this particular aggregation is genuinely historic.

Knox Heritage is hoping to find a good home for the architectural remnants, whether temporarily or permanently. A prospective reconstruction project is taking shape, but KH is entertaining proposals.