They Dream a Highway

Learning how to say goodbye with Dixie Dirt

Kat Brock keeps having the same dream over and over again. In it, she’s standing by the railroad tracks, watching a train rush by. The cars have names of songs from the audacious rock opera she’s working on with her band, Dixie Dirt.

Called The Unending Perils of a Predestined Destiny, the opera is about anxiety, neurosis, love, and loss, and will be performed on Valentine’s Day as a goodbye to Knoxville. This spring, the group will relocate to Athens, Ga., in search of new energy and opportunity. They’ve been working on the opera since last summer, but two weeks before show time, they don’t have all the kinks worked out and there are two parts unwritten.

And, thus the dream: “I’d be watching a train go by, and all the cars had names of different songs on them. But there were these huge spaces in between. I was freaking out,” she says.

“I didn’t know how much it was creeping into my daily life.”

The band is practicing in a basement on Central Avenue. It’s a small room with eggshell foam glued to the walls, ashtrays scattered around the floor, and a dormitory-size fridge stuffed with 16-ounce cans of Pabst Blue Ribbon.

They begin playing, just two guitars and a bass. Angela Bartlett—normally a guitarist—is playing bass on this tune and she curses herself sporadically for messing up. But, they finally hit a groove, as their insecurity melts away to intuition. And then all three musicians sing in soft, plaintive voices: “Hey, don’t worry about today/ We will worry about it tomorrow.”

I thought that I gave a lot but now I’m not so sure.—from The Unending Perils of a Predestined Destiny

Kat Brock has been around Knoxville long enough to become a fixture here, a rock ’n’ roll renegade and heartthrob, perhaps the city’s own version of PJ Harvey or Cat Power. She’s been in a number of bands and projects—including, Mars Hill, Subbluecollar, Fire/Fighter, and Fabula Rasa. But it was her latest band, Dixie Dirt, where she found the most empathetic bandmates.

She moved to Nashville for a short spell in 2001, where she met Bartlett and drummer, Simon Lynn. The three hit it off and Brock, who missed her hometown, convinced them to give Knoxville a chance.

They formed Dixie Dirt and recruited Brad Carruth (who played in Liftoff) on bass. Earlier last year, they recorded the EP Springtime Is for the Hopeless and Other Ideas, perhaps the most popular local release of 2002.

Their sound bridges the gap between rock ’n’ roll and post rock, with extended musical sections that speed up and slow down. But the group doesn’t abandon the melody, and they work in some occasional choruses.

“Kaleidoscope” might be the best song they’ve ever written, an eight-minute elegy on Knoxville, life, and love. The guitars begin softly, as Brock sings in her broken wail: “Thought we’d never have/ What it takes to have something.” Her voice cracks and falls off key, but you can hear the joy in it. “So everybody’s wondering what it takes to have something.”

The chemistry in the band, the intuition for each others’ playing, is undeniable. Brock and Bartlett’s guitars sound like the same instrument; Carruth and Lynn drive the thing along.

Unfortunately, that chemistry didn’t last for all of them. As the year wore on, tension between Lynn and the other three members grew. Eventually, the band kicked Lynn out.

Although some people thought they broke up, the three remaining members kept playing music together. “When Simon left we didn’t really miss a beat as far as writing goes. We were down here all the time practicing,” Bartlett says.

I hope geography is the cure ’cause I could be a home to you.—Dixie Dirt

After the release of their EP, Dixie Dirt embarked on two tours, taking them around the South, Midwest, and Northeast.

“The first time we came back from tour, it was really good to be back,” Carruth says. “The second time, it was really depressing.”

“We were living our fucking dreams,” Bartlett says of the second tour. “Every night, it was our job to play rock ’n’ roll.”

The group started to think that Knoxville didn’t offer them enough of a chance to push themselves and make a living playing music. So, they considered other cities to live in. A couple of places grabbed them—Bloomington, Ind., and Boston.

But, Athens, Ga., stood above them all. The prototypical Southern college town, some notable musicians have hailed from here: R.E.M., Pylon, the B-52s, Vic Chesnutt, Drive-By Truckers, Widespread Panic, Jucifer, and a number of pop bands from the so-called Elephant 6 collective, including Olivia Tremor Control, Elf Power, and Of Montreal. There’s also a healthy supply of homegrown and granola-esque restaurants, bars and coffee shops.

“Both times down there on tour, all three of us were in heaven,” Brock says.

They don’t really have any friends there, but the vibe was friendly. “The only people we know there are people who worked at the places we played. We got a really good response. It wasn’t packed or anything, they just really took us in,” Carruth says.

Although Athens is smaller, it’ll be harder to woo crowds there. The talent pool is too big. “It’s a test for us,” Brock says. “If we go down with the idea we want to make this work, we’ve got to work for it.”

The band says they’re not looking for MTV or major-label success. “I want to pay the bills,” Brock says. “If we can’t come out of Knoxville I want to at least come out of the South,” she adds.

Their feelings about Knoxville are bittersweet. Brock is from East Tennessee, and she’s lived in Knoxville longer than anywhere. Carruth came here from Memphis to go to UT; Bartlett came here to escape Nashville. But, all three of them have a lot of friends here.

“Knoxville makes me want to blow up the whole city sometimes,” Bartlett says. “And then I’ll be walking around thinking about how I’m going to miss it so bad: no downtown rooftops to go up on, not being able to take whiskey into bars, not knowing the bartenders.”

After the two shows this weekend, they don’t plan on playing out in Knoxville until after they move to Athens in mid-May.

Believe me, I’m trying to take care of all my shit and quit bleeding.—Dixie Dirt

It was last summer when they came up with the idea for a rock opera, and the group decided it would be an appropriate way to say goodbye to Knoxville.

“All our songs are eight or nine minutes long anyways—why not have a stream of conscious flow rather than have a starting and ending point,” Bartlett says.

The idea behind The Unending Perils of a Predestined Destiny is as anguished as the title suggests.

“It’s not a story line as much as a tour of emotions,” Brock says.

Filling in on drums is David Campbell, who drummed in several of Brock’s earlier bands, including Subbluecollar. There’s also going to be a choir and a saxophone player filling out the sound.

The show will begin with each band member giving a monologue about his or her own insecurities. As of a week ago, the monologues hadn’t been written yet, but the plan is that everyone on stage will be speaking at once. “Just like your mind works, there will be a lot of noise and then one cohesive thought and then a lot of noise again,” Bartlett says.

There will be a series of movements, some with words, others without. There will be an intermission halfway through. Later this year, the group wants to record the opera.

Although it touches on a lot of subjects, Unending Perils… is mostly about insecurity.

“Your neurosis, the things that would stop you from doing what you want to do,” Bartlett says. “You feel this way one day but you wake up the next and you’re unable to deal with it because of all your insecurities.”

“The end of the thing will be just accepting the way it is. You have fears, you have paranoias…. [I]f your mind is not necessarily the way you want it to be you have to accept it and move on instead of flipping out about it and acting so goddamn weird all the time,” Bartlett says.

A lot of the songs deal with love, although it’s not pegged as a Valentine’s Day opera. (Carruth says they thought about billing it as “a paranoid love song.”)

None of the band is terribly fond of Valentine’s Day.

“It’s terrible. It’s the worst fucking holiday if you’re single,” Carruth says. “If you’re in a relationship, it can be awesome. But it’s fucking expensive.”

There’s one song in the opera where Brock sings about waking up next to her lover. She sings: Of course I’m gonna smile/ When I open my eyes/ You’re lying there/ besides me in the morning/ I have always been a fool/ You have never been a fool/ gives me excuses to go out unsure/ with nothing to lose/ and I could ask you to let go/ Or I could always be with you as you are.

“It’s about accepting someone as they are, not who you think they should be. And knowing in the back of your mind that you could try to change them, but what’s the point?” Brock says.

And for all their aggravated uncertainty, the musicians say they’re certain about one thing: each other.

“I’ve never felt this way about anyone ever,” Brock says. “The three of us know each other inside out. It’s weird, having the ultimate trust in people.”

“Yeah, I’m pretty gaga about you guys,” Bartlett says. “If this is love, [playing music together] is the best sex ever.”

© 2003 MetroPulse. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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