Tennessee Shines Brings Roots Music to Knoxvillians

On the last Wednesday of every month, the live-radio show known as Tennessee Shines could almost pass for an old-time variety show.

In bluegrass, nobody's a Yankee: The Gibson Brothers, an upstate New York string band, on the Tennessee Shines stage last month.

Photo by Justin Fee, Justin Fee

In bluegrass, nobody's a Yankee: The Gibson Brothers, an upstate New York string band, on the Tennessee Shines stage last month.

As a concert-attending population, Knoxville has a reputation for favoring the familiar, but this Wednesday’s sold-out show at the Bijou will offer a lineup unusual for any theater.

Donna the Buffalo is a rootsy jammish band from upstate New York whose cult following is reminiscent of the Grateful Dead. Scott Miller’s unpretentious country-tinged style had made him a local hero as both folk songwriter and rock guitarist, and a recording artist with an international following. Theresa Andersson is a Swedish-born, New Orleans-based multi-instrumentalist whose one-woman band performance flirts with the avant-garde, but she’s nonetheless suddenly hot; she appeared last month on one of the final installments of Late Night with Conan O’Brien. The Gourds are an eccentric mandolin-based Texas band known for leavening their alt-country sound with some gangsta-rap covers.

Any of these bands might have expected to fill the 753-seat Bijou by themselves, but Wednesday they’ll all be part of one bill, one early-evening show that will last two hours. On the last Wednesday of every month, the live-radio show known as Tennessee Shines could almost pass for an old-time variety show, with a mixture of the familiar and the challenging, maybe not unlike the shows that regularly filled this room during the vaudeville era.

But it’s no nostalgia act. Every show combines some old-fashioned or even artfully corny tradition with a modern edge in a way that can make the evening seem almost legendary, as something that will never happen again. Each month’s fresh lineup of bands will probably never play on the same bill again anywhere. Backstage, sound engineers, aware of how rare a phenomenon this is, are at work recording and broadcasting it, live on public radio station WDVX. If all goes well, many other audiences across the country may witness these shows broadcast from the historic Bijou Theatre in Knoxville, Tenn.

A cadre of community leaders and music-industry honchos sees Tennessee Shines as key to establishing an international identity for Knoxville: as the acknowledged home for American roots music. Whether that effort works or not, and whether the popular show exists a year from now, depends heavily on what will happen this spring and summer. The producers are testing the waters of syndication, and looking for sponsors in a tough season.

Fulfillment of a Long-shot Dream

Maybe it’s just his haircut that makes Tony Lawson look something like David Lynch these days, in a perhaps heftier incarnation, but one might conclude that his prematurely white hair is a result of the stresses of the last decade or so. It wasn’t long ago that he was just trying to keep an unlikely donation-dependent bluegrass-themed public radio station afloat, from its headquarters in a trailer in a field in rural Anderson County. WDVX has become an international success, largely through its Internet broadcasts, and has fans (and donors) in all 50 states and several foreign countries—especially in Europe, where Knoxvillians have more than once been astonished to encounter WDVX devotees. It recently won its fifth national Bluegrass Station of the Year award from the Society for the Preservation of Bluegrass Music in America, a point of pride even though its staff is quick to add they’re not exactly a bluegrass station. WDVX, an independent public-radio station thriving well outside of the NPR/university orbit, has survived largely through Lawson’s tenacity, and his enduring obsession with honest roots music. (Lawson’s faithful companion through it all, since the days when performers came to play on the air in the WDVX camper, has been engineer Don Burggraf, known for his interesting conviction that broadcast music is always superior to recorded music. “I owe everything I do to him,” Lawson says.)

All that acclaim would seem to supply any roots/country DJ in his 50s a sufficiently comfortably quantity of laurels to rest on indefinitely. “We wanted something that would be basically an event. Something that, it doesn’t matter what’s on the bill, something that’s an experience.” Lawson says he likes to think of it that way. “I love the word experience.”

He thinks this particular experience has the potential to go national. To Lawson, Tennessee Shines seems another fulfilment of a long-shot dream.

In 2004 he moved the studio to a permanent location within One Vision Plaza, the Knoxville Tourism and Sports Corporation’s then-new welcome center on Gay Street. There WDVX started hosting weekday noontime roots-music performances with live audiences from the street. It might have seemed a daring and perhaps loony experiment if it weren’t actually the revival of a once-thriving institution. In the days of the Mid-Day Merry-Go-Round, ca. 1936-1954, in another studio a stone’s throw from WDVX, live lunchtime radio performance was a Gay Street habit which helped launch the early careers of Roy Acuff, Chet Atkins, and many others. The Blue Plate Special has been a success, drawing standing-room-only crowds even for obscure acts. Even banjo master Bela Fleck and Australian guitarist Tommy Emmanuel have made visits to the small studio just for the opportunity to play for the noonday crowds on WDVX.

Over the years, WDVX has dabbled in projects for bigger audiences, like a variety-style show at Carl Bean’s Barn in Norris several years ago and the Behind the Barn series on Wednesday nights at Barley’s restaurant and bar in the Old City, which were a draw for a few years, bringing some big-name acts like legendary songwriter David Allan Coe (remembered today as the first to utter the F-word on the air). As growing Blue Plate crowds at the visitors center began challenging fire codes, the Bijou was reopening after a lengthy renovation, opening that interesting option—but rumors of the Blue Plate moving to the Bijou didn’t hint at anything as ambitious as Tennessee Shines.

All this evolved in a provocative context. The last 20 or 30 years have seen a surprising proliferation of public-radio performance shows which were, in one way or another, reminiscent of live-radio shows Knoxville used to have: A Prairie Home Companion, E Town, and Mountain Stage, as well as public TV’s long-running Austin City Limits, which boosted the Texas capital’s now-famous reputation as the “Live Music Capital of the World.”

Plus, there’s the local standard. Many American cities have live-audience radio shows in their histories, but Knoxville’s radio heritage is more vigorous than most. Knoxville was once well-known among professionals as a musical crucible, a place where you could find out whether what you were doing had national potential. In Knoxville, a musician could learn a few new licks, broaden an audience and maybe get a line on a record deal. Radio stations like WNOX and WROL played roles in the early careers of Roy Acuff, Chet Atkins, the Everly Brothers, Flatt & Scruggs, the Louvin Brothers, Don Gibson, and many others. A few, like Acuff, already lived here, but most of the others moved to Knoxville just to play on our live-radio shows.

Builds on Strengths of the Community

A few years ago, Lawson got an unexpected challenge from a guy in a suit, one well known in city hall. Laurens Tullock, former federal prosecutor, former Knoxville community-development director, is now director of the Cornerstone Foundation, the faith-based community-building charity that was behind Four Market Square, the restaurant/bakery/nightclub which opened in December. He’d been a fan of the Blue Plate Special since the beginning, and saw national potential, not only for WDVX, but for the city of Knoxville.

“The reason we exist is to be a catalyst to help the community reach its full potential,” Tullock says. “To take advantage of the means of the community, where you can, the strengths that might make it the best in the world” in some regard. “That’s why we exist,” he says.

He sees Knoxville’s strengths as heavily musical, especially in the realm of roots music. “Plus, it’s fun.”

Over the years he’s also pushed the Lady Vols, and the Women’s Basketball Hall of Fame, but he admits some prejudice toward music. Though no performer himself, Tullock grew up in a gospel-singing family in Nashville, where his dad was known as a guitarist. He first lived in Knoxville as a law student, but says his interest in Knoxville as a music center was piqued when he lived in Washington, D.C., in the early 1980s. At the Smithsonian’s folklife center, he kept hearing that the East Tennessee region had among the richest folk traditions in America, but they were anxious the area was losing it.

Tullock moved back in 1984, originally as a prosecutor in the Butcher banking fraud case. Ever since, he says, he’s been thinking the city should do something with its rich musical heritage.

“What my whole job is is connecting dots, get people who are passionate about things in the room together, get people around the table who share a common interest.”

Tullock knew Tony Lawson of WDVX, and also Ashley Capps, the well-connected chief of AC Entertainment, doorkeeper to the stages of the Bijou and the Tennessee Theatre. Capps, a former public-radio DJ himself, reversed the usual sequence; Capps was best known as a jazz authority as a young man, but became a rock icon only in middle age, as the avatar of Bonnaroo, lately called, credibly, the greatest rock festival in the world. Along the way, he learned a few things about country music, too.

Capps had thought about the roots-music variety show idea before. In the 1990s, former Whittle Communications executive George Piper, then chairman of the Bijou’s board, produced, with assistance from Capps, a live radio-style show at that theater, inspired by the success of A Prairie Home Companion. His idea surrounded a fictitious vaudeville-style showman named Buntyn Mabry. He mounted a pilot show and booked several acts including the legendary gospel/blues vocal group Fairfield Four.

The lineup would have packed the place if it were marketed for a paying audience, but planners reserved most of the seating for this pilot show for complimentary passes for potential investors and sponsors, mostly Knoxville businessmen who were individually invited to attend. Few showed up; none offered substantial support for the unusual venture. Piper cut his losses and abandoned the dream. “It was a premature idea, but also a very, very ambitious project,” recalls Capps.

But the idea didn’t quite die. By 1999 Capps was imagining a Tennessee Theatre attraction, perhaps for webcast, called “From the Tennessee Stage.” The live-audience show, as he saw it, would “celebrate the indigenous culture of the region, which is really extraordinary.” He began thinking again about the potential for such a show again when his company took over the newly restored Tennessee Theatre in 2005. The reopening coincided with some long trips for Capps, which gave him some perspective. Especially in Europe, but also even in southeast Asia, he says he was impressed with “how fascinated the world is with Tennessee culture.” The idea stayed on the busy promoter’s back burner, though. When AC took over the Bijou, the older, smaller theater famous for its acoustics (New York Times jazz critic Ben Ratliff recently called the Bijou “one of the best-sounding rooms I’ve experienced in this country”) seemed a more natural fit.

Lawson and Capps had known each other casually since about 20 years ago when Capps ran a nightclub in the Old City called Ella Guru’s, and Lawson would drop in late, after an evening shift at a radio station. They both seem to have been converging on the eclectic-roots-music-at-the-Bijou idea, but it seemed to take Tullock to get Capps and Lawson, both of them music guys with reputations well beyond metro Knoxville, at the table in a discussion about doing something good for the city.

To Tullock, Knoxville’s ace—perhaps the one thing the city can do better than any city in the world—is its connections to country, old-time, blues, and bluegrass music, the sort that tends to fall under the umbrella lately known, for lack of a better term, as Americana. “If we’re aggressive and strategic about it, one of these days,” Tullock says, “we can stake out the claim that Knoxville is the home of Americana music.”

He brought together several others, including Linda Billman and Steve Dean, associated with the popular Heartland Series on WBIR—as well as Scripps Networks, especially president emeritus Ed Spray, who’s also reportedly a fine mandolinist. They formed the Knoxville Americana Music Foundation, founded to promote Knoxville’s role, past, present, and future, in the development of indigenous American music.

After discussions, the group came up with an ambitious agenda, which included a live-radio show for national syndication and an Americana Festival—and perhaps eventually moving the annual Americana Music Awards from Nashville to Knoxville.

Looking to the Future

WDVX’s 10-year anniversary, held in October 2007 in the recently renovated Bijou, offered an unusual format for a WDVX show, with the Red Stick Ramblers, the everybodyfields, the Hackensaw Boys, and with performer/host Jim Lauderdale, the Nashville musician who would play a big role in Tennessee Shines. Lawson had called him. “I was really interested,” Lauderdale says, on the phone in Nashville. “I’m a big fan of his, and everybody at WDVX. It’s a real important station.” He’s been following it for years.

Folks who attended the show didn’t necessarily realize it was the pilot for monthly broadcast series to be called Tennessee Shines. But the sold-out house encouraged Lawson. “People came out laughing, saying, ‘Wow,’” Lawson says. “We had our concept.”

Within a few months, the KAMF enlisted two corporate sponsors, Pilot and Clayton Homes, which donated $25,000 each in what’s described as “seed money” to get the show off the ground. They get public thanks at each show. A third backer, contributing the same amount, is Cornerstone itself. The charity is quiet about its projects, and unmentioned in the thanks.

Tullock doesn’t expect Cornerstone to stay involved indefinitely. The seed money is a one-year commitment to allow Tennessee Shines to sell sponsorships. “It can’t be sustained by philanthropic funds,” he says. He expects corporate sponsorships to pick up the tab eventually, but he also thinks the project deserves some tourism investment dollars.

By the current model, the $10 ticket—a typical price for a downtown sandwich these days—pays for only about 25 percent of the total budget.

So far, they haven’t announced any sponsors, but Lawson and Co. are in the early stages of presenting the product for review. They’ve been working on editing audio and video packages of the show. Each Bijou show comprises two one-hour radio shows—Lawson says he has two audio versions of the show ready to market, and is nearly done with a third. Several shows were recorded for television, too, some of them aired on Saturday evenings on WBIR, but as of this week, for budgetary reasons, they’re no longer shooting the show for TV. It remains a possibility in the future.

Tullock estimates to keep it going into its second year, to cover the talent, television, radio, and everything, they’ll need about $30,000 a show.

Of course, they could perhaps have picked a better year. The nation’s financial leadership was just acknowledging the recession as they launched Tennessee Shines; the stock market plummeted after that. “We’ve got the year we’ve got,” Tullock says. “It would be hard regardless. And we don’t think companies who are trying to sell their product are going to stop trying to sell their product.”

"Blessed and Honored"

You’d never guess there was anything iffy about Tennessee Shines from the countenance of its smooth, easygoing master of ceremonies. A host in a friendly, unironic, pre-Letterman mold, Jim Lauderdale’s old-Nashville-style delivery makes it seem as if the show has been an institution for years. Lauderdale may mix easily in Nashville, where he’s known as a songwriter for mainstream Music City acts—his works have been recorded by Vince Gill, George Strait, the Dixie Chicks, and many others—but he’s also a Grammy-winning bluegrass guitarist who often jumps fences to play with alternative country groups like Donna the Buffalo. He also hosts the annual Americana Music Awards which are, for the time being, still held in Nashville. Lauderdale, who’s 51, seems to have a history with almost everyone he introduces, and brings it up on stage, and is universally beloved.

Lauderdale has only praise for the show and the people behind it. “I look forward to coming to Knoxville every month to do it,” he says. “I feel really blessed and honored to be a part of this show, and I hope they’ll keep me.”

Opening and closing the shows, following another old tradition, is a house band, perhaps the first designated house band in town since the Dixieland Swingsters on WNOX, half a century ago. They open the show with a lesser Lauderdale composition, a four-bar trifle that’s barely a jingle. The lyrics are as follows: “Shines, shines, Tennessee Shines.” Repeat as necessary. The leader of this band is guitarist Dave Nichols, the Dave of occasionally reunited ’80s rock band Smokin’ Dave and the Premo Dopes, whose unmatched resume also includes leading jazz bands and a long spell traveling with the circus.

Audience members may not guess at the constant activity backstage, the whispering, sprinting, tuning, checking, rearranging. During last month’s show, there may have been as many as 50 people backstage, coming and going: musicians waiting to go on, videographers, technicians, the guy who hoists the curtains. (Dressed in black, he wears gloves as he pulls the ropes just like the curtain man did here 100 years ago; Doug Lauderdale found out he’s a distant cousin of the North-Carolina-born host only after working with him.)

Even if you’ve seen the renovated Bijou’s backstage before, it’s suddenly a more complex place during Tennessee Shines. The basement, which has entrances on both stage left and stage right, is just an old basement, with stickers and graffiti from long-gone acts, but it’s adequate for bands to rehearse minutes before going on. On stage right are the relatively new dressing rooms, stacked atop each other around a flight of stairs, like a tiny urban dormitory, where some performers prefer to wait their turn. On the stage level, behind the curtain, the sound man keeps a close eye and ear on the stage. When there’s feedback or distortion, he moves rapidly; through the gloom he looks like a tennis player returning volleys.

There are minor dramas. The legendary 91-year-old headliner, Pinetop Perkins, has his own dressing room and the door is marked with his name, but several musicians apparently wander in without knocking, mistaking it for the bathroom. A moving curtain knocked over one musician’s treasured guitar, and broke it. It’s just a backup, and the performer’s doing a short set, but Lauderdale is concerned. He brings his own guitar and lays it down, leaving instructions to let the performer use it if he needs it.

Lauderdale’s the same friendly guy on both sides of the curtain. He walks around backstage, smiling and shaking hands. He wants to meet everybody, even reporters, and let them know he’s on their side. “I have to be honest with you,” he says to a young band in the basement that’s just opened the show. “You guys, I gotta tell you, I didn’t like your performance tonight.” He waits for a moment to let it sink in, then grins, and says, “I loved it!”

“In moments of high stress and high pressure, he looks at you like everything will be okay,” says the show’s producer, Mänya Whitney-Miller. She’s one of the younger people backstage, and has less show-biz experience than most of the performers, but she’s the unquestioned boss. The 28-year-old daughter of entrepreneur Eli Whitney, proprietor of long-lost Cumberland Avenue music mecca Schoolkids Records, she worked mainly in Bearden restaurants in her youth, as she went through the usual enthusiasms ranging from hip-hop to Phish. Laughing, she remembers she used to say, like many teenagers do, “I like anything but country.” She got a menial job at AC, but mainly as a secretary and assistant to AC rep Fiona McAnally—who’s a former of WDVX staffer and also Lawson’s girlfriend. McAnally was impressed with her and just thought she seemed up to a demanding job no one else in Knoxville had ever done.

“I talk to people, and I can multi-task really well,” Whitney-Miller says. She compares it to working in a restaurant, which is kind of a family business; her dad was for a time manager of Copper Cellar. “There’s something in the oven for 20 minutes, something on the back burner simmering, something on the grill for five minutes, then you gotta do the salad. That was the only way I could explain it to my dad. He said, ‘Oh, I get it.’ I’ve got the scripts simmering, got the artists in the oven, calls to agents on the grill. But it’s all out to the dining room at the same time.”

She did some artist-liaison work when AC organized Birmingham’s big music festival, City Stages. She had her first experience as a producer at the first Tennessee Shines, last August.

She keeps a schedule of what needs to happen when in a prominent place: a big vertical HVAC duct on which they write, and erase, and write again, in chalk. The show’s carefully scripted; two weeks before next week’s show, Whitney-Miller has a four-page schedule of when the curtain rises and falls, when the host and the musicians enter, and from which side of the stage; of when everything has to happen, and when, to the minute, it has to be over. Probably no show in the Bijou’s 100-year history has been so carefully plotted: This one all has to fit into a potential TV or radio show. She says some musicians are more used to working to the minute than others.

Backing it all up are intent specialists: a technical director, a stage manager, a backstage sound board man, a recording engineer. Tonight, the staff of Double J is also capturing it on video. “They’re like Ninjas,” she says. “They sneak in, they’re quiet, self-contained.”

Ashley Capps pops backstage late in the show. Musician and WUOT jazz DJ Todd Steed makes a cameo. Tony Lawson’s usually back there, too, a quiet, benign presence almost embarrassed to occasionally get in the way of this big thing he got going, but occasionally expressing a concern, often about time.

“I don’t do that much at all,” Lawson says.

“Just cause trouble,” says Whitney-Miller.

At last month’s show, the two tangled backstage, especially about the timing of acts. Whitney-Miller’s concerned they’ll go over, Lawson that they might go under. They’d exchange sharp words, but then hug, as if the embrace was obligatory punctuation, like a salute.

The solo act offers the opportunity to close the front curtain and relax a little, and also make arrangements backstage. Last month, as Erick Baker played an intimate set in front of the curtain, Chicago-blues musician Bob Margolin, the stout 60ish electric guitarist for Muddy Waters, dressed the part with shades. Almost 10 minutes before the curtain opens, he’s ready, in center stage, wearing his shades, holding his guitar, facing the audience he can’t see yet, with his drummer and bassist behind him. He’ll lead into Pinetop Perkins, whose handler walks through escorting Perkins to his piano. “I be sure he’s in his seat, and then I split,” he explains.

The oldest performer on the bill last month was 70 years older than the youngest, 21-year-old Megan McCormick. It may have been an extreme range, but it does illustrate something about the show, its performers and its audience. And McCormick’s not the youngest performer they’ve seen; the previous month saw the teenaged string-band trio the Lovell Sisters.

Throw Out the Rule Book

Tennessee Shines takes some interesting risks, even subverting former paradigms of risk-taking. Most edgy new bands play for edgy young audiences in edgy hip venues. The audience for new music rarely grows out of its original demographic, as older people listen to older stuff. Only a little of what Tennessee Shines presents can be called edgy, but when it is, the format upends the demographic assumptions and hence sometimes causes a bigger stir.

Tennessee Shines, at least as much as the station that sponsors it, throws it all out there together. Audiences seem to have no discernible age demographic. “We have parents and kids, urban and rural—left and right,” says Lawson, who says the Tennessee Shines stage is always non-political. “The common denominator is the music.”

Though staffers say the lineup is often partly a matter of luck, depending on who’s on tour in the area, Lawson says they have an informal ideal that every show should include a solo artist, and some bluegrass, and “somebody who’s kind of a legend” with his or her own following. Most shows do include at least one act that’s old-fashioned, sometimes even single-microphone bluegrass gospel that would have been familiar to our grandparents—and almost as often, one act that’s doing something so new and different the big-city music critics are just beginning to take note.

But rules don’t always count for much when you’re booking a variety show. Though some shows have packed in more than one real bluegrass band, there’s no pure bluegrass at all in next week’s show, which Lawson admits is their least grassy yet. It’ll be back soon. Next month’s show, announced this week, will feature Dailey & Vincent, a traditional gospel bluegrass act that debuted at the Grand Ole Opry a little over a year ago. Rounding it out, in Tennessee Shines fashion, will be well-known Cajun/zydeco group BeauSoleil, singer/songwriter Martha Scanlan, formerly of the old-time Reeltime Travelers, and Knoxville’s Mic Harrison, the rock/pop songwriter, formerly of both the V-Roys and Superdrag.

There’s a hazard to the randomness, of course. The January show presented Alejandro Escovedo. A singer-songwriter in his late 50s, well-known among Texas country musicians, he might seem a prototypical country performer; but he’s an electric guitarist whose furious riffs sometimes betray his origins in the Los Angeles punk scene in the ’70s. It was the loudest act in Tennessee Shines’ short history, and in the course of his brief set he shouted out tributes to friends, the Clash’s late lead singer Joe Strummer and to Ron Asheton, the recently deceased guitarist of Iggy and the Stooges. Elderly bluegrass fans sat politely. A few folkies got up and left, to wait for the next act in the lobby. Some in the audience gave him a standing ovation. Others complained to the management, mainly about the volume. Within the context of Tennessee Shines, it was reminiscent of the legends of Dylan going electric at Newport.

The same ticket bought an appearance by the Lovell Sisters, a more traditional acoustic neo-grass string band, Knoxville’s own melancholy chanteuse Jennifer Niceley, and Canadian hipster-intellectual string band, the Duhks.

Each show seems to have its surprise: October’s was eccentric cellist and tenor Ben Sollee. One of NPR’s Top 10 Unknown Artists of the year 2007, Sollee is a classically trained cellist and singer whose freeform jazz can sound like a soundtrack for a French art film. He probably startled those who came to that show to see the Steep Canyon Rangers, but apparently didn’t repel anybody. “No, older folks are probably not going to a Ben Sollee concert, but only because they don’t know him,” says Capps. “His sound is not that far removed from Sam Cooke.”

Today, when most people pay to see a show, they usually know exactly what to expect. It wasn’t that way a century ago, and it’s not that way at Tennessee Shines. You get the impression that’s part of the Experience.

People like Capps and Lawson are used to not knowing for certain what they’ll be doing in six months, and whether Tennessee Shines does get the sponsorships it needs to prevail for years to come is anybody’s guess. It is, for the time being, a very unusual amenity for the city of Knoxville, and maybe also for the broad-based genre known recently as Americana.

© 2009 MetroPulse. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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