It’s a Viceroys show at the Mercury Theater on Market Square. As four grown men wearing ties weave plaintive country ballads, you lean forward to hear the words. Then there’s a pop song you didn’t expect, a melody with enough hooks to catch a bluegill. You don’t notice your leg moving. Then the band launches hard into some loud, fast, rock ’n’ roll you’ve never heard. When the rhythm section opens up, you’re riding a flatcar on a freight doing 80 mph over an iron trestle, buzzing on seven cups of hobo joe.
People who didn’t come to dance start fidgeting, jumping, doing things they didn’t expect to do, maybe things they’ll regret tomorrow. But it’s the Viceroys, after all, and it’s not like they play in their hometown every month. On rare evenings in the music business, quality still draws a crowd. The Viceroys aren’t copying anybody, aren’t making fun of anybody, aren’t following any latest trend. This is a local band making music that’s original, well-rooted, native, honest, good. And people go nuts about it.
The Viceroys already seem a bit like a legend. From the first days, there was always a mystique about them, unlikely rumors of outrageous fortune and ill fate that hounded them across state lines. Their complicated reputation was something like that of a successful and maybe benevolent bootlegging syndicate.
They already have a history that approaches mythology. You might easily forget that the first time a local band practiced together as “Viceroys” was only two years ago. Or that one year ago, they barely survived the unexpected departure of their frontman. It’s been a rocky road that, to be fair, has been more than two years long.
Smoking cigarettes around a kitchen table in Fort Sanders, the Viceroys don’t look like members of a signed rock band. They’re short-haired, mature-looking guys in conservative clothes. They’re polite, humble, almost courtly in a Southern manner you keep thinking you’ve seen the last of. Laughing with each other, they’re quick to deny that they’re even musicians.
“To call us musicians would be an insult to real musicians,” Scott Miller says.
“I’m just a country boy,” confesses newest member Mike Harrison.
That’s too much for Jeff Bills: “And life ain’t nothin’ but a funny, funny, riddle, is that right, Mike?”
They’re evasive, hard to pin down. They deny they’re anything special. To hear words like “charisma” or “magic” or “genius,” you’ll have to talk to those people out there sweating in a manic Viceroys audience.
Some people call Bills the best drummer in local memory, a distinction he’d never claim for himself. Despite his wisecracks and his wildman reputation, he’s humble about the Viceroys, especially humble about his part in the band. He’s fascinated by everything from astronomy to Flannery O’Connor, and asks questions. You could meet him and talk to him for a couple of hours and never hear him mention that he’s ever touched a drum set, or that he’s in a band about to release an international CD, about to launch an overseas tour.
But he’s no side man. If he doesn’t lead the Viceroys from the back seat, he drives them like Roy Rogers in some old cowboy movie.
Having come to UT from West Tennessee, the tall guy with the Buddy Holly specs showed up almost a decade ago playing in “alternative” bands like the Taoist Cowboys and the Swamis. (He earned a degree of some sort in ’89, but doesn’t care to talk about it.) Working at Raven Records on the Strip, he encountered an unlikely preoccupation: Roger Miller. The same Roger Miller we used to see on TV all the time, singing “King of the Road.”
“It was serious country,” Bills says, with no trace of irony. “It blew me away.”
He came to share the Roger Miller fetish with Scott Miller (no relation, except spiritually), a singer/songwriter then doing acoustic shows up the hill at Hawkeye’s. More than one observer has noted Miller’s physical resemblance to Hank Williams. Picture Hank with an education. Raised in Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley, Miller studied at William and Mary. Arriving in Knoxville in 1990, he quickly became known by word of mouth for his clever, biting lyrics.
Miller has an almost childlike openness about him that’s charming, disarming, and misleading. There’s steel in his talent and his temperament.
Bills and Miller hooked up with local legend Todd Steed to form a loony, politically incorrect trio they called “Run, Jump, and Throw Like a Girl.” It didn’t last. Steed went to Lithuania. Miller and Bills, both past 25, showed symptoms of settling down in ways that most of us do sooner or later. Miller took a clerical job with a downtown law firm, cheerfully pushing a handcart along downtown sidewalks. Bills got work as a research assistant at the Knox County Archives, looking up records for folks doing genealogical research.
For months, Bills and Miller passed each other on Market Street sidewalks, had lunch together on the Square, a couple of nice-looking, short-haired college guys in ties. They had girlfriends and a pretty good living—but they still wanted to cause some trouble.
“We both like to sing music,” says Bills. “And we’ve had the same kind of influences and things.” Unsatisfied with his Hawkeye’s career, Miller was open to suggestion.
They met a skinny teen genius from Blaine, one of the finest guitarists to emerge in Knoxville in a long while. John Paul Keith couldn’t legally drink in the bars he played in (and wouldn’t be able to anytime soon). He got a job in the downtown library, around the corner from Bills and Miller, pushing carts of returned books.
Keith had been playing with a chum from Carter High. Kodak-raised Paxton Sellers was only 20, but had paid some dues, playing bass with a low-rent cover outfit that did Motown and modern country hits for corporate Christmas parties, motel lounges, and seedy dives beyond the city lights.
Just for fun, Miller and Bills sat in with Keith and Sellers for a four-track session, liked what they heard, and took it to the stage at the Mercury. Faithful smokers, they soon called themselves the Viceroys, a name that’s now causing them trouble, as almost everything does.
Never a big fan of roots country like Miller and Bills, Sellers says the main thing that appealed to him about the Viceroys was the opportunity to play in clubs he liked, for people he liked rather than corporate executives and rural roughnecks (who for some reason share a taste for pop cover bands). Raised on punk and lately immersed in jazz, Sellers’s current appreciation for what the Viceroys do was an acquired taste.
They wear ties. Not smartass punk ties. The Viceroys (with the possible exception of Keith) seem so comfortable in ties that they make not wearing ties seem affected. Asked about their dress code, Miller says, “I like it.” Bills says, “I like it.” They don’t agree on a whole lot. When they do, don’t mess with it.
It’s the look of what they do. Miller and Bills speak reverently of the raw, honest, pre-1960s country music which much of the Viceroys’ best work evokes. Roy Acuff, Jimmie Rodgers, Hank Williams—those guys always wore ties on stage. Come to think of it, it was when Porter Waggoner and them took off their ties that country music seemed to take a dive.
The Viceroys’ individual reputations were such that even their first shows were crowded. “Right off the bat there was a great buzz about the Viceroys,” says music promoter Benny Smith, who says Viceroys shows have been a phenomenon comparable only to Superdrag. Guitar teacher, performer, and godfather Terry Hill, who’s been on top of local music for more than 20 years, was awed by them. “They had a big dose of that thing that’s so contagious, that makes a band so much more interesting to hear,” he says
Playing rootsy country rock turbocharged with pop/alternative takes on rockabilly, the Viceroys stood way out. Lurching through a spectrum of musical styles from blues to surf, they were, above all, a solid, enthusiastic rock ’n’ roll band with a very tight rhythm section. The guitar work bounced off the melody only, the vocals were smart and right in your face, the songs unheard before, anywhere.
But unlike nearly all other bands of college boys that play music with country licks, the Viceroys were no campy parody. Miller’s famous wit took a back seat in the Viceroys’ coupe.
Their distinctive look and sound even fired believable rumors that, scarcely a year after they began to practice, they were on the brink of a big-time record deal.
A reputation for barely suppressed wildness didn’t hurt their rock ’n’ roll image any. When they returned from a Nashville show a little over a year ago, Miller wore a sling due to a broken collarbone. Those who had to ask heard that Bills had something to do with it. Miller shrugs it off. “We were just wrestling in the yard,” he says. “Jeff got the jump on me.”
Miller and Bills have battled for years. “Things flare up,” says Bills. “The test is how you handle the situation. Scott and I went through a time—but we’ve gotten along well for five or six years.”
“I love him like a brother,” Miller says. “There are times we want to kill each other, times we hug each other. There’s friction there, and sometimes friction’s good. Conflict’s good, if it’s handled right.”
It hasn’t always been, and one contest left a wound that didn’t heal as easily as a collarbone. “John Paul and I had a good little system going,” Miller recalls. “I guess it wasn’t as well-oiled as I thought.”
A year ago, as word was getting out that Steve Earle was working with the Viceroys toward a likely album project, the youngest Viceroy quit.
“We tried to work it out,” Miller says. “I guess it’s to his credit that he didn’t keep doing it when he wasn’t happy.”
Few expected the Viceroys to prevail. Keith had been lead guitarist and singer for the band, had written several of their songs, and he was the one the girls yelled at. Moving quickly before they lost momentum, Bills talked an old pal from home into coming to town.
Mike Harrison isn’t a die-cut, razor-thin, wild-timing Viceroy. The 30-year-old Harrison is a married man, a lumber inspector by trade who has run a sawmill back home for years. When he joined the band last May, he and Bills had to go shopping to get him a tie.
But he’s no stranger. He remembers when he and Bills played a couple of ”hijeous” shows back at Bradford High over a decade ago. All along, Harrison had been messing around with his own songs. He played a few writers’ nights at the Bluebird in Nashville. “It wasn’t overwhelming or nothing. At least they didn’t boo me.”
Almost three years ago, Harrison worked with Bills, Miller, and others on his 1993 tape “Don’t Bail.” One Harrison song, “Sooner or Later (I’ll get offa my knees),” was a Viceroys standard even in John Paul Keith days.
After a few months of practicing with Harrison in the fold, the new Viceroys premiered last August—away from Knoxville scrutiny, at a Greeneville music festival. Encouraged by the crowd response—some swore they were better than before—they picked up where they’d left off.
Though all Viceroys songs are collaborative efforts, with everybody adding something of his own, Miller’s chiefly to blame for most of them. Harrison’s impressed with his pace. “I’ll write one,” Harrison says, “he’ll say, ‘I’m not gonna let this happen,’ and he’ll write three.”
He’s as loath to call himself a “writer” as he is to call himself a “musician,” but Miller confesses he’s written well over 100 songs in earnest, but only ten or so that he considers Viceroy songs. He’s not especially proud of the early Hawkeye’s era work that spawned his local reputation. He now calls it “smartass stuff.”
“It did me well, helped me learn to rhyme,” he admits. “I could crank out the wit, that wasn’t a problem. But it’s easy to be a smartass, to tear something down. It’s much harder to take something ugly and make it beautiful.” That’s the Viceroys’ job.
“I still have songs that I write that aren’t band songs,” he says. He frequently plays with a quieter trio which generally includes Sellers and either Harrison or banjoist John Taylor. “Two kinds of music stuck with me through all my weird phases,” Miller says. “Bluegrass and Creedence.” He and Bills both talk about Creedence Clearwater Revival with the same respectful hush they otherwise reserve for Roger Miller.
Introduced to the Viceroys by former Knoxvillian and sometime Earle sideman Dub Cornett, Earle bestowed his blessing upon the re-formed ’Roys. He invited them to open for him and tour with him, and offered to produce their album. Weeks after their first public performance last year, the new Viceroys began recording the album they finished this February after several sessions in Nashville.
Most of the guys have been around too long to get big-headed notions. All four still live in old places within an easy walk of each other in Fort Sanders, pop in at the local groceries for cheap beer and cigarettes (“supplies,” Bills says, keeping the receipt), and practice three nights a week in a basement cluttered with old furniture.
Tonight they’ve each had several beers, but direct their attentions toward an earnest, disciplined, practice session of about three hours. They spend a full hour on a song Miller wrote a few days ago. After an hour of replaying the song, and parts of it, Miller’s still not convinced they’re on the right track. He’s clever on stage, friendly in person, but in this basement he’s an uncompromising perfectionist, patient only up to a point. “Scott’s very into what he does,” says Sellers, allegedly the only “musician” in the band, who nonetheless seems a little awed by the intensity that develops between Miller and Bills. “I just do what I need to do.”
Harrison’s impressed with the band’s alchemy, too. If a song needs something to push it over the top, he trusts the Viceroys’ rhythm section to find it. “When it needs the cajones there, they put ’em in,” he says.
Bills is characteristically modest. “We all have input, but it’s basically Scott and Mike. They write it at home—and we kind of tweak it in practice.”
You can hear country (not to mention cajones) in almost all their work, especially Miller’s guitar playing as it loops around the melody in a bluegrass style borrowed by the Byrds and, later, R.E.M., in a beautiful piece like “No Regrets.” Some songs, like “Long Time Leavin,’” are electric hoedowns. A fine song like “Lie I Believe” could stand with the best of country writing.
What was once witty ridicule in Miller’s lyrics sometimes survives in the Viceroys, matured into a weird irony. “Goodnight Loser” is a slow song that starts out with an R&B take on Pachelbel’s 18th-century Canon. The soft lullaby of the melody belies the bitterness of the lyric: “When you dance with him / You look so thin / I can almost look through you …”
The Viceroys do throw in the odd whimsical piece like “Cold Beer Hello” (featuring drummer Bills on guitar, easily the funniest solo of the year) just to prove they’re not above dopey humor. His guitar playing’s fine, it’s just that the rest of the band’s not changing key fast enough to suit it.
All three of those songs are on the CD, due for a late-summer release here but out in England by July. The Viceroys will back Earle on a Jimmie Rodgers tribute CD in a song called “In the Jailhouse Now,” also due out this summer.
Between practice songs in the basement, Sellers takes off on a Charlie Parker bebop riff, “Scrapple From the Apple.” It’s unexpected, but then so is a good deal of the regular work. “I’m Gonna Be All Right” is a poppy Beatles-ish song that veers suddenly into something like heavy metal for a few bars. “She’s Strange” is of the Secret Agent school, with echo licks. A new song they’re working up samples part of the old surf instrumental “Pipeline.”
Miller says Sellers brings musicianship to the band. Harrison offers more of a “pop feel.” Bills’s grounding is in alternative rock. Miller’s own contribution to the band’s personality, he says, is the bluegrass he was raised on. That may be a bit of oversimplification, but it’s clear that the band members’ diverse backgrounds open the Viceroys to an array of influences.
All four deny any special gift, talent, skill, insight. This frustrated reporter is insistent. People do expect to get something from a Viceroys show, don’t they?
“They expect to get drunk,” Bills explains.
“They’re all girls. They come out for Scott’s good looks,” Harrison says.
“Paxton’s the pretty boy,” Miller protests.
Talent, looks, musicianship, or any kind of appeal is a hot potato the Viceroys want to toss into the next guy’s lap. Sellers, being the youngest and quietest, ends up with everything.
Unfortunately, there’s a problem with that great name. Another group, a Jamaican reggae band, goes by the name of the Viceroys, and allegedly has the copyright. Hearing of these here Viceroys, their counsel apparently implied some challenge. To avoid confusion, our own ’Roys sometimes go by the name “the Knoxville Viceroys” in other cities (an Atlanta club last year billed them as “the Knoxville Viceroys w/ Scott Miller”). They’re presently considering permanent solutions. V-Roys is a working title.
No one can guess where the Viceroys, by any other name, will go from here. We can only be confident that whatever they achieve, it’ll be their own damn fault.