Knoxvillians spearhead a new cable TV show on Turner South
Floridian Chris “Skillet” Davison, Storm Taylor and Kevin Niceley have started something, and they aim to finish it right, Yokelwise.
by Mike Gibson
The Knoxville-based crew from the Yokel TV show have no idea what to expect when they tumble, stiff-legged and backs aching, out of a trio of rented SUVs they have driven into the heart of a densely populated semi-rural neighborhood on the outskirts of Birmingham, Ala. They know only what the lady at the Birmingham Chamber of Commerce told them—that the man they will be visiting is a gentleman named Joe Mintner, an African-American folk artist of some local renown, who exhibits his unusual wares in the yard of his modest home.
Perhaps they had visions of some spoken sage, some gentle eccentric who traffics in crude watercolors or prosaically traditional wood carvings.
Whatever they expected, it wasn’t this. Mintner’s home, his yard, the yard across the street and, indeed, seemingly half the street he lives on is an astounding monument, a shrine to...something fathomless, something so profound and strange and deeply spiritual that the crew is frozen for a moment, unable to do anything but stare at the wondrous menagerie in front of them.
“Color me impressed,” says the usually cynical Kevin Niceley, his blond hair spiky and disshevelled, his eyes covered by a pair of stylish dark specs. A former Knoxville club owner, Niceley now operates Niceley’s Tavern in Daytona Beach and was tapped as one of three on-air personalities by old friend and the Turner South network’s head Yokel, Rob “Storm” Taylor, a former local club DJ living in Maryville.
Mintner’s one-story home is surrounded by a veritable garden of crudely ingenious pop art, mostly assembled from junk and found objects as well as a few well-placed constructions of sheet tin, boards and plywood. It’s a fantastic amalgam of scrap iron, old toys, discarded kitchen appliances, cement pipe sections, old bricks and rusty sheet metal—even some touches of greenery, such as the obviously non-indigenous giant palm fronds lining some of the rows of creation, which are haphazardly interconnected by pathways and boarded platforms, lined with flagpoles and rugged hunks of monument stone.
And there’s a message here, too, as Mintner’s art pieces are often painted with spot color, adorned with crude pictures or scrawled with text fraught with meanings, both apocalyptic and spiritual, from remembrances of deceased African-American leaders to quotes from nearly every book in the Bible. Says Niceley, at one point, “The whole place is like one giant sermon.”
Mintner himself is a character, a 50-ish black man with a scraggled peppery beard and a weirdly printed button-up shirt, a pair of gold front teeth, a straw hat, gold-rimmed specs and unlaced work boots. He’s been practicing his idiosyncratic brand of multi-media pop sculpture since 1989. He claims his hands are “driven by God,” and there’s an essence of benevolent madness in both his work and his demeanor.
This unwieldy grouping of Mintner, three on-camera personalities, trailed by two camera guys and a boom mike, maneuver awkwardly through the yard, as the artist loudly proclaims the meaning of select pieces: a cluster of poles in the ground, attached to fragments of used crutches, hung with old boots and pieces of painted wood, for instance, stands for “where they defended their villages with spears in Africa.”
Before leaving, Taylor asks to purchase a piece of Mintner’s art, most of which is for sale to the ever-increasing number of passers-by who stop here at the recommendation of the Birmingham Chamber of Commerce. “What does God tell you to sell me, Mr. Mintner?” he asks.
The answer turns out to be piece of salvaged two-by-four on which is painted a pearl of Mintner’s own spiritual wisdom: “God is real. Call Him up.”
Mintner graciously tells Taylor to name his own price. He pulls $60 out of the caravan’s petty cash fund, and the Yokel gang hits the road, treasure in hand. It’s only the first stop on an epic four-day jaunt through the sweltering heart of Alabama in late summer, a trip that will see them through small-town watering holes, coon dog graveyards, plenty of beer and cheap food and a trip to the world’s largest watermelon festival. It will also place this ragtag crew of aspiring filmmakers and neophyte on-camera personalities a little bit farther ahead on the learning curve that measures success in the weird world of reality TV.
Yokel debuted on Sept. 9 on the Turner South cable television network, the first of six episodes that will air in the coming months, featuring the on-camera antics of Storm, Niceley, and Floridian Chris “Skillet” Davison, as well as a behind-the-scenes crew that includes Knoxvillian Dario Gildrie at the helm and local cameraman/editor Dominic Giordano.
Conceived by native Maryvillian Taylor, the show is a reality-style television production, without the overly-scripted sheen that seems to characterize other programs of its ilk. When the Yokel gang hit the road, nearly everything that sees film is spontaneous, interspersed with only a few snippets of pre-planned dialogue.
And unlike other attempts at reality, Yokel doesn’t present real life as a glamorized, slightly-scaled-back version of film and TV. With the show’s sights set on life in small southern towns—warts and all—the people who end up on camera aren’t selected because they’re especially pretty or cultured or polite. “I think the rural South is the last bastion for reality TV,” says Taylor. “It’s also the last place in America that is still generally open-armed and open-minded enough [for us] to come in and shoot the things we do without constraints.”
Yokel’s genesis is indirectly, but nonetheless inextricably, linked to the work of Knoxville’s most infamous celebrity export, Johnny Knoxville, a pioneer of guerilla-style reality television with the wildly successful Jackass series that ran for three years on MTV. A longtime friend of the Jackass star, Taylor was invited by his old buddy to attend various festivities in connection with the European premiers of the Jackass feature film, where he spent many late nights the entire crew.
“While I was there, I realized there was so much funny stuff happening off camera, stuff that wasn’t scripted or rehearsed, just arising out of the group hanging out and wandering around,” Taylor says. He remembers a night when the Jackass bunch tried to invade the hotel floor above them when its occupants—singer/actress/diva extrordinaire Jennifer Lopez, traveling with her sprawling entourage—registered a noise complaint with the front desk.
Later, a group of friendly moped riders gave the Jackass contingent an impromptu tour of the town, which culminated with their attending a huge party at an Amsterdam fire hall. “This was all off-the-cuff stuff,” Taylor says. “And in my head, I’m thinking, ‘Someone ought to be filming this.’ The idea sort of attached itself to my own small-town upbringing, and the realization that small-town America is still not really represented on TV and in film the way it should be.”
Within a few months of returning from Europe, Taylor began pitching his concept of a reality show about the rural South, working with little more than his wiles, a spot of luck, and a few contacts provided by Jackass alumni.
“I tried to get in touch with agents for about a year,” Taylor says. “I’d tell them I wanted to go to small towns and film what goes on. Nobody got it. Heck, that’s so vague, I don’t even get it myself now.
“So I put together some film footage, some ideas of things that might be used. And people still couldn’t get it. I realized I had to keep in mind that most people in Hollywood did not grow up in a small town. So finally we got serious, put together a crew and filmed a sample episode.”
The moment Yokel sets foot in Hogs and Heifers on Thursday night, the patrons of this rowdy watering hole just outside Russellville, Ala., seemingly lose their minds, surrendering good sense and free will to the prospects of appearing on a big-time cable television show.
Within 10 minutes of the crew’s arrival, two fist-fights break out near the cluster of pool tables that occupy much of the bar’s floorspace. “I wonder if anyone has ever showed a real bar fight on TV?” Taylor wonders to no one in particular. The predominantly under-24 crowd of wild boys and good-time girls have been eagerly awaiting the late-night arrival of Yokel. Production assistant Daryelle York—unable to make the trip due to her late-stage pregnancy—called the Heifers owner a few days prior to the trip, and found him more than willing to let the crew have its way with the club for the better part of an evening.
According to Taylor, these night-on-the-town forays have become a mainstay of the Yokel episodes that have been shot and edited to date. They also present a tricky balancing act for the Yokel producers, as they try to walk the razor-thin line between respectful homage and redneck bashing. “County Music Television was interested in us at one point,” Taylor says. “It didn’t work out. They told us that if we get rid of the drinking and cussing, we’d have ourselves a show. But that’s not the reality of it. This is what some people do. Sometimes things get edgy and out-of-hand.”
At Hogs and Heifers tonight, “out-of-hand” almost seems like an understatement. When the fights end, the crew films a handful of successively more raucous antics; at one point, a local kid with the unfortunate nickname “Gump” drives his Harley Davidson into the middle of the bar, and spins out for two long, loud minutes, filling the room with noxious gases and burning a black strip in the middle of the club’s beer-slicked concrete floor. He pulls the burn-out stunt several more times, both in and out of the bar, until it’s impossible to escape the exhaust fumes anywhere within a 100-foot radius of the bar.
By the time the TV guys head back to their hotel rooms in Russellville, most of the male patrons of H&H have made some kind of spectacle of themselves for the benefit of the Yokel cameras; a few of the girls have even bared their breasts for the cause. “I love that part,” admits Giordano, who captures most of the debauchery on a sophisticated hand-held camera. “As soon as it happened the first time, on our first shoot, I instantly got drunk on the power.”
Intent on shooting a full-fledged sample episode of his would-be TV show, Taylor first called on Niceley, a Dandridge native who for several years throughout the 1990s owned Knoxville’s staple alternative rock club, the former Mercury Theater on Market Square.
“I wanted it to be a crew, in order to really hit a town and hit it for all it’s worth,” Taylor recalls. “Instead of a one-person traveling show, I felt there needed to be three. It somehow seemed better than either two or four.
“Kevin came to mind because he’s easy to hang with. But more important is that I knew that if I needed something done, he’d do it unapologetically. If I say ‘Kevin, I need a raft,’ he says, ‘I can build you a goddamn raft.’ And he’ll be out there breaking twigs if he has to. We usually just wing the show on the fly. It’s nice knowing that if I come with an idea, Kevin can accommodate.”
Giordano notes that Niceley is versatile, too: “He puts on the best wet T-shirt contest in America at Niceley’s Tavern. But at the same time, if we visit someone, he’s got the best manners in the world. He’ll make you take off your hat, by God.”
The on-camera trio was made whole with the addition of burly, amiable “Skillet” Davison, a friend of Niceley’s from Daytona. A 34-year-old former bartender, parasail boat manager, charter fishing mate, and radio salesman, Davison seemed a natural addition to the cast when a fellow originally tapped as a co-host didn’t work out as planned.
“Skillet was always hanging out with Kevin, always showing up with Kevin, so he just fell right in,” Taylor says. “He turned out to be this character unto himself. He’s very funny, and likeable, the kind of guy where you say, ‘How could you not want him to be a part of this?’”
Taylor also called on Gildrie, a fellow Blount Countian whom he had known since the eighth grade. “He was the only person I knew who did anything in video,” Taylor says. “I didn’t even know to what extent he was involved. I just knew he was dabbling in it somehow.”
When Gildrie first heard from his old friend in 2004, his “dabbling” had taken the form of his own full-fledged post-production company, Leaping Waters. A graduate of the University of Tennessee art program, Gildrie spent his first years after college working for a Blount-based producer of commercial and industrial films in hopes of making inroads into the industry. He would later spend another seven years working with Knoxville’s Atmosphere Pictures before going solo with Leaping Waters in 2002.
“Storm came to me, and he hadn’t changed a bit; he was still the guy who created a party and played the jokester everywhere he went,” Gildrie says. “The Yokel project sounded like a lot of fun. I saw it as a chance to make a reality show that would be fun, but with a heart, too. My inspiration was the Dancing Outlaw (an cultish independent short-form documentary about a colorful rural character), and my driving thing was to create a fun, hip, progressive version of that.”
His first opportunity to do so came when he and Taylor began assembling footage from a July, 2004 trip to the Redneck Games in Dublin, Ga. Their cut would become the sample Taylor presented to programmers who were intrigued by his concept of the show, and also the first episode, when Turner South signed on in spring of this year.
The coming two days—a Friday and Saturday in late August—are big ones here in Russellville, the principal days of the town’s annual watermelon festival, which last year reportedly drew around 30,000 visitors to the town of less than 5,000 over the course of a weekend.
The choice of the watermelon festival as a focal point of the episode at hand reflects Yokel’s formula thus far—finding a single big event somewhere in the Southeast—other first-year subjects include the Dublin, Ga. Redneck Games, and a foray to a NASCAR race at Bristol, Tenn.—then scheduling nights of bar-hopping and visits to nearby points of interest, the footage from which will be interspersed with that from the larger event.
Their itinerary swollen well past the point of critical mass, the Yokel guys spend two days running pell-mell through an area within a 20-mile radius of the town, beginning with a Friday morning visit to the diminutive outlying community of Frog Pond and the farm of Ernest Graham. A perennial contender in the watermelon festival’s “largest melon” contest, Graham hopes to win this year’s event with an entry that weighs in at close to 150 pounds.
A statesmanlike gentleman in his late 60s, Graham leads the crew on a brief tour of his farm, a sun-scorched swath of hill and pasture anchored in the middle by a couple of thickly overgrown melon patches. As Taylor runs through polite questions—including a gentle, and unsuccessful attempt at stirring up a “feud” between Graham and a rival melon farmer—Niceley grows ever more restless.
“Have you ever blown a watermelon up?” Niceley asks, out of nowhere.
When Graham asks him what he means, he responds, “I mean, like, have you ever launched one out of a giant slingshot, maybe?”
His meaning becomes clearer when Davison emerges from one of the SUVs with a bag full of rocket launchers and fireworks. Within minutes, Niceley has convinced Graham to help them blow up several melons with various explosive devices, each successive explosion yielding a greater harvest of splattery red-and-green melon viscera than the last.
“Go ahead, put two bombs in there this time,” says Graham, after one particularly impressive explosion. “There may not be a TV crew ever come to Frog Pond again.”
By the time the crew leaves, the old farmer has seemingly had as much fun as anyone; after a warm good-bye, Taylor promises to visit the farm again before leaving town and drop off a sample of Tennessee Cocke County moonshine—apparently a must-carry for any Yokel road trip.
But the trip takes a turn for the worse when Yokel visits Russellville’s infamous Coon Dog Cemetery, a coon-dogs-only graveyard located, appropriately enough, at the end of Coon Dog Cemetery Road. Its presence makes for an interesting footnote, but hardly rates the extra time spent looking for it with spotty directions and a local guide who seems to know less about finding his way around here than the clueless visiting TV crew.
And when the caravan rolls into downtown Russellville and the heart of the watermelon festivities a few hours later, the crew hits a major snag when members of the Franklin County Chamber of Commerce—sponsors of the festival—are unwilling to help or appear on camera, apparently fearful that the show will be little more than an exercise in making fun of the locals. They leave the crew to fend for themselves in what is actually a lively small-town street fair, a menagerie of booths and food stands and kiddie rides and craft vendors that covers the better part of the two largest central downtown streets.
After yet another night of bar-hopping, the ill fortune continues on Saturday morning when one scheduled interview subject after another drops out, suddenly unwilling to appear before the Yokel cameras. Unsurprisingly, all of the backsliders seem to have had some contact with members of the chamber of commerce.
“Liars. They set us up and then chicken out,” Niceley says at one point, when a high-school cheerleading sponsor does an about face and declines permission for the interview she had granted only an hour earlier. “I’ll bet she sells insurance on the side.”
Taylor’s deal with Turner South came after some two years of phone calls, letters, beating the streets and general wrangling; he landed his meeting with Turner South executives in March after sending a flood of promo packs, shotgun-style, to all the names on a list of Turner employees and affiliate stations. Impressed with Taylor’s presentation, network executive John Parry at last signed the crew to the initial six-episode run that will be airing this fall.
“They were open-minded, but a little bit reserved,” Taylor says of his negotiations with the cable network, which to date has been primarily a venue for Braves baseball and family-friendly programming. “We butted heads as we went along, but in the end they let us do the show we wanted to do. This was like nothing they’ve ever done; they took a huge chance with us.”
Taylor says the network’s concerns have centered around two issues—the fear that some viewers will see the show as a swipe at Southerners, and frets about the often-wild nightlife sequences interspersed with the more wholesome segments of the show.
Taylor hopes the first episode—in which the three on-camera personalities earnestly partake of Redneck Games festivities such as mud-fights and a belly-flop contest—will allay any worries that Yokel is making fun of its subject matter. “I’m a Southerner, born and raised,” Taylor says. “Kevin grew up on a farm. I’ve worked on a farm; I’ve been there and done that myself, so I hope that puts us on equal ground with the people we meet.”
As to the show’s more wanton elements, Gildrie confesses that even he has occasionally expressed concerns that the show stay in the realm of good taste. “I fight them on some of that stuff,” he says. “Occasionally, I think the guys want to turn it into ‘Yokel Gone Wild.’ That’s when I step in and remind them, ‘Come on, guys. This is not a show about bars.’
“But I think those conflicts have been good for the show. It gives it contrast and balance. In different ways, we all rein each other in.”
The Russellville trip marks the last adventure of the initial six episodes, a run that has seen the Yokels travel all over the greater Southeast—watching a demolition derby in Georgia in one instance, and attending a reunion of the infamous Hatfield and McCoy families in a small town in West Virginia.
“My favorite part of the filming has been all the quirky little moments, the strange scenarios we get into,” Taylor says. “Meeting L-bow (a Dublin mechanic who takes front and center on the initial show) was a pleasure. He’s a guy who wears his work on his hands and face, and he’s great fun to hang out with.
“We had a guy in West Virginia come up to us and pull his artificial leg off. He started talking about his phantom foot; whenever he tried to wiggle his toes, you could see the veins move in his kneecap. It’s stuff you don’t see every day.”
Taylor believes he’ll know soon whether the show’s delicate mix of debauchery, quirky human interest, and wholesome Southern pursuits will sell for a second season.
“Technically, they (Turner South) don’t have to pick up the option until next year, but I think their decision will come a lot sooner,” Taylor says. “I think they’re eager; they’re already talking about how many episodes they would want for another year.”
Just when Taylor and company have convinced themselves their Russellville episode will rely almost exclusively on bar footage and Thursday’s trip to Joe Mintner’s home, something approaching a minor miracle takes place. At wit’s end, they follow up on a dinner invitation from a friendly local family, whose spacious front porch overlooks the heart of downtown Russellville.
The Mashburn clan—winners of the day’s watermelon decoration contest—greet the tired crew with seemingly all of the good will and hospitality that had been missing from the rest of the town after their Friday run-in with the chamber of commerce.
Dinner is delicious—a homemade Italian smorgasbord, topped off with thick slabs of blueberry cobbler and melted vanilla ice cream. And the three-hour visit seemingly yields more usable footage than the previous three days combined. Before the night is through, the Tennessee visitors have shared laughs, stories, and huge slices of melon spiked with more Newport moonshine.
Davison, who has been a trifle quiet for most of the Russellville trip, comes out of his shell, playing games with the Mashburn children, donning a football helmet carved from a melon rind, and careening off the front porch, Jackass-style, in a red wagon barely large enough to carry his considerable bulk.
“To be honest, at first I was mad at the town, and wanting to be a little bit brutal on the show,” Taylor admits. “But this made up for everything. There’s a lot too much good in this town for me to hold a grudge.”
Relaxing in wicker chairs on the front porch of the Mashburn home, the Yokelites still have plenty of hard work ahead in the coming weeks, not the smallest part of which will be sifting through nearly 18 hours of footage and paring it all down to a single tightly-edited 24-minute television show.
But right now, all is bliss, on the big front porch of a beautiful old Victorian home, the breeze warm and soothing and sweet soul music wafting from the festival bandstand only a few hundred yards away. If Yokel can convey even a hint of the pleasures inherent in this gorgeous Alabama night, it will truly have accomplished everything its creators could have hoped for, and captured the sweetest essence of life in the Deep South.