Todd Steed had just moved back to Knoxville after a couple of years living in Indonesia, when one of his favorite songwriters, Ray Davies, played the Tennessee Theatre.
The show was “unbelievably poorly attended,” but Steed was there. “[Davies] just stopped at one point, like it was a fifth-grade class, and asked, ‘How many people here are songwriters?’” remembers Steed, sitting at Kashmir restaurant.
“I kind of sheepishly raised my hand. He said, ‘Hey, you guys need to keep writing about your hometown and the things you know. Because if you don’t, no one will.’ Because I had just come back from Indonesia and was wondering what I should do, it was inspiring. He’s one of my top three favorite songwriters. He inspired me to get off my ass—Ray Davies says you have to.”
Deeply grounded in a sense of place, Steed has always written about Knoxville. He’s arguably penned this city’s modern day theme song, “You Must Be From Nashville” as well as the anthemic “North Knoxville.” But the directive from his idol made him consider the task more seriously. And, it gave him the idea to record a whole album of songs about Knoxville.
That effort is finally realized with the release of Knoxville Tells, an album that will be made available during “Hank’s Last Night,” a New Year’s Eve show at the Tennessee Theatre also featuring R.B. Morris and Scott Miller.
Most of the songs are new. An employee at UT’s Center of International Education, Steed wrote many of them during the week when state government shut down (“North Knoxville,” an older song is rewritten as an acoustic piece). An intuitive writer, the songs came quickly, he says.
“If it takes longer than 20 minutes to get out, it switches from inspiration to craft. And I’ve got no craft,” he says. “I admire people who have both.” Steed tried the craft approached a few years ago, when he attempted to record an album of songs about his experiences in Indonesia. But, the songs were mostly awful, he says, and he canned them.
The 16-song CD is typical Steed—witty and self-deprecating, but with lots of empathy and heart. As a songwriter, he says he strives to capture the everyday mundane experiences that somehow transcend the everyday.
There’s “New Knoxville Girl,” where the protagonist grieves over the loss of both a girlfriend and the late-great New Knoxville Beer—“I’m gonna miss that beer,” he sings.
Other songs are local novelties. “East Town Mall” is about a kid getting his ma and pa to take him to the mall where the “girls are startin’ to fill out their Guns ’n’ Roses T-shirts.” “Tenncare Buzz” is about getting high on Oxycontin courtesy of state government: “Everybody needs something to get ’em by/ Thank the taxpayers for my brand new high/ I don’t need dope, I don’t smoke LSD/ I gots an uncle on that disability.”
The album closes on two poetic notes: “Sunrise Over Fort Sanders,” with a spoken word piece by R.B. Morris (and some nice wind instrumentation by Ashley Capps); and “The Sounds of this Town,” a touching bit of hometown sentimentality, which disintegrates into background noise (Randall Brown and John Tilson talking, Scott Miller clacking on a typewriter, the rain, and some samples from Steed’s first band).
Recorded mostly at Steed’s house, the album is hardly a one-man show. Friends and musicians Miller, Morris, Hector Qirko, Jeff Bills, Dave Nichols, Mic Harrison, Kat Brock and many others are all featured prominently.
“It turned out to be very collaborative. The best part was hanging out with all the people I don’t get to see that often. I had an excuse to call them up and say, ‘Come on over,’” he says. “People like Jeff Bills, Hector, and Scott all added a lot of ideas. Everybody did. I didn’t know there was going to be a dobro on the record. I’ll be damned if I didn’t use 90 percent of people’s suggestions.”
When Steed started working on the project, he had two rules: all the musicians had to have some connection to Knoxville, and all the songs had to be about the city. The first rule was broken when he let a California musician, Mike Fishell, play bass on it (Steed sent him a CD of the track, and Fishell burned his part onto it and sent it back). And, he admits now, the Knoxville theme in some of the songs is tenuous.
But, the spirit of it is Knoxvillian to the core. There’s something about this town that seems to inspire artists or perhaps just suck them in. “I think R.B. Morris is the one who really started making people think about Knoxville. He was writing about stuff like the Vol Market,” Steed says. “When I first heard that song I thought, ‘Wow, that’s cool.’”
Now, it seems as if all the musicians here are inspired by it. Philip Wisor, who played banjo on the record, told Steed he’s written four Knoxville songs. “And he’s only been living here four months,” Steed says.
If there’s anything definitive about Knoxville music, it’s in relation to another music city to the west, he says. “Our lovely sister city Nashville always provides contrast. We’re always less pretentious. The songwriters here tend to be less sales oriented.”
Steed has appreciated his hometown for a long time. Making the record made him appreciate its musicians.
“Before, with Smokin Dave, we were suspicious of the engineer. We had this attitude—I don’t want strangers on this record. It was a real Appalachian kind of attitude,” Steed says. “The lesson I’ve learned from making this record is I’m going to lean on the talent in Knoxville as much as I can. There really is an incredible amount of talent in this town.”