(152 points, five first-place votes; see the complete list)
The V-Roys’ six-year career, legendary as it is around these parts, was beset with bad luck almost from the start: the early departure of founding member/songwriter/singer/guitarist/boy genius John Paul Keith; the legal challenge from a dormant Jamaican band that forced them to change their name from the preferred Viceroys to that barely scrutable, badly abbreviated title they ended up with; the rumored falling-out with Steve Earle, whose label released the ’Roys’ two proper albums; the noticeable road-weariness that marked the band during its last year together. Not exactly tragic, but the band’s history could read like a case study in unfulfilled promise—a shorter, Southern version of The Replacements, maybe, if you want to read it that way.
Screw that. In the late 1990s, The V-Roys were one of the best bands in America.
Their first album, Just Add Ice, is about as close to a perfect record as any Knoxville band has ever gotten. It was the first disc on the recently sober Steve Earle’s now-defunct E-Squared label, and Earle produced it himself with his musical partner Ray Kennedy. Superdrag’s Regretfully Yours had been released by Elektra in the spring of 1996; when Ice came out in the fall of the same year, it seemed like Knoxville was poised to be a major-league music town. That never happened. But the sense of looming possibility in the air those days, distinct as it was, isn’t what made that time special. It’s what did happen.
Scott Miller, Mic Harrison, Paxton Sellers, and Jeff Bills accomplished something extraordinary during their run together. At the time, it was almost enough to make you believe in magic. As much as any other local band, The V-Roys made it. Ask anybody from Knoxville who ever saw them live. To expect more would almost be unseemly.
Onstage, no one could touch them. They swung from honky-tonk pathos to punk-ish ferocity, and by the end of a show it was sometimes hard to tell one from the other. Local concerts were genuine events, with advance tickets, sold-out clubs (escalating from the Mercury Theatre to Flamingo’s, Moose’s Music Hall, and Barley & Hops on Cumberland Avenue and finally, for their farewell show on New Year’s Eve in 1999, the Tennessee Theatre), and besotted encores that often lasted nearly as long as the regular set. At their tightest, The V-Roys were an intuitive combo with what seemed like a telepathic connection; at their sloppiest and drunkest, they may have been even better. (It probably depends on how drunk you were, too.)
It was tough to describe the band to someone who hadn’t heard them. They were called “country rock,” “roots rock,” or “alternative country,” but none of that was ever adequate. There was some twang—check out “Pounding Heart” or the walking bass line on “Wind Up,” from Just Add Ice, or any number of Harrison’s solos, or especially Miller’s “Virginia Way/Shenendoah Breakdown,” from 1999’s All About Town, where they were backed by most of the Del McCoury Band. There was even more rock, though, in their sound, from classic Buddy Holly Telecaster bashers like “Cry” and “Strange” to embittered power pop like “No Regrets” and “Sooner or Later.” It was essential music, a concentrated and complicated amalgam of pretty much all the kinds of pop music made by white people with guitars during the second half of the 20th century. Despite its hodgepodge roots, though, no matter where it came from—and they drew on everything—it always ended up sounding like The V-Roys. And if that’s not enough for you, nothing ever will be.