Such familiarity pervades Sassy’s every night of the week, but it’s especially chummy on Wednesday nights, when the bar hosts its open blues jams. But don’t think that just because they occur every week that there’s anything typical about the jams. Their defining quality is unpredictability, and each act, let alone each Wednesday night, is an experience in itself.
Around 9:30, the house band Shades of Blue assumes the stage and plays a couple of songs to get the night rolling. Newcomers are instructed to add their names to a notebook placed on a stool by the stage. Once Shades of Blue plays a few songs, the next group of names on the list steps up into the on-deck circle.
While small groups accustomed to performing with each other may begin the evening playing together, few performances are by established bands. Instead, musicians constantly switch up their playing partners as the night progresses, with newcomers jumping in when their names are called or just when they feel the urge. Most everyone seems to know each other before the jam starts, and if they don’t, they’ll be high-fiving and going by nicknames by the night’s end.
Bob, a 44-year-old drummer attending his fourth Wednesday session, explains that, whether he finds himself grouped with novices or seasoned professionals, it’s an education either way. Talk to any of the musicians, and they’ll tell you that hours of practice at home can’t replace the experience of playing on stage with new musicians. “It’s sink or swim,” says Dave Heissenger, drummer for Shades of Blue.
For musicians new to Knoxville, Sassy Ann’s has been a haven, a place to make contacts with others with the same interests. Bob, who moved to Knoxville from Florida with his brother Steve in February, immediately found his niche at the Wednesday jams. “They’re very open, very nice,” Bob said with a smile, just after playing a set with Steve, and some other musicians he recently met at the jams.
Wednesday night regulars will eagerly explain that the jams provide the best blues in Knoxville, and for good reason. Sure, sometimes a hastily assembled group of players will lack cohesion, or noticeably differ in ability, and occasionally highlight a painfully clear discrepancy between a performer’s ability to play an instrument and his or her ability to sing, but this unrefined nature allows for an unpredictability and uniqueness that standard concerts can’t deliver.
At the best moments, you’ll see people shake hands, greet for the first time, and then proceed to play together as though they had the telekinetic musical sense of Grateful Dead members. “That’s the beauty of it,” says Ben Hamlin, guitarist for Shades of Blue. Jeremy Moore, a 25-year-old originally from Orlando, also thrives on that aspect of the jams. “You never know what to expect. Anything goes.”
Sassy’s owner Vicky Vinson admits that the Wednesday night jams may be “off the beaten path” for most Knoxvillians, but they’ve certainly had a pervasive influence on the local music scene. At least five or six bands have been formed by musicians who’ve met at the jams, and a majority of Knoxville’s best blues musicians have been Wednesday night regulars at one point or another, including members of the MacDaddies and Blue Mother Tupelo.
Out of town bands have been known to stop by the night before or after their gigs; rumor has it that Kenny Wayne Shepherd once made an appearance but quickly left because he mistakenly thought he’d have to wait a while before getting a chance to play.
Currently, several Knoxville venues host weekly blues jams, but the Sassy Ann’s sessions are where it all started 10 years ago. The Wednesday jams reached their peak five or six years ago, when local legends (at least to Sassy Ann’s regulars) Sara Jordan and the Leftovers hosted. According to Vinson, Jordan, a talented singer, and the group’s guitarist, Detroit Dave, were the best blues musicians of their kind at the time.
“People were hangin’ off the banisters, it was sofuckin’busy,” remembers Sassy Ann’s manager “Big Ed,” with his characteristic hard-edged enthusiasm. When Sara Jordan and the Leftovers fell apart, Vinson hired a more rock-influenced guitarist, Chris Johnson, to host, and many of the musicians, angered by the switch, spread out over Knoxville to start their own weekly jams.
While Wednesday nights may not be as packed as they used to be, the elements that made the jams so popular remain. For one, Sassy Ann’s is a bar like no other. A first-time visitor could easily mistake it for just another house in Fourth and Gill, save for the neon sign pulsing outside. The cluttered walls of the upstairs bar are dotted with photos of performers and rugged guitars, and the bar is wreathed in colorful chili pepper-shaped lights. Faint moonlight seeps in through stained glass windows on the wall behind the stage—a reminder of the century-old building’s age.
However, it’s the staff as much as the bar’s appearance that make Sassy Ann’s a neighborhood staple. If they’re not pouring drinks or taking orders, you can be sure the waiters and bartenders are cracking jokes with the regulars or heckling the performers with the best of intention.
After noting that other venues around Knoxville provide blues jams as well, Big Ed, off-duty and perched on a barstool, sums it up: “I’d rather be here.”