We all know “Knoxville Girl.” It’s been recorded by dozens of performers over the years. There’s the Louvin Brothers’ classic 1956 recording, pretty much the standard for all later takes on the song. It’s inspired wildly divergent interpretations, from the Outlaws’ cosmic-country hoedown in 1975, the Lemonheads’ fuzzy slacker-rock version, and Nick Cave’s Outback Gothic rendition in 1996, not to mention more or less traditional recent readings by the Handsome Family, BR-549, the Pine Valley Cosmonauts, and Roger Alan Wade. There was even a band called Knoxville Girls in the late 1990s, made up of members of the underground blues-rock groups Boss Hogg, Pussy Galore, and the Gun Club.
But that one blood-soaked mountain ballad can sometimes overshadow all the other references to Knoxville that have popped up in pop, rock, and country songs over the last 50 years or so. (We’re talking about songs written and performed by people who aren’t from Knoxville, not the numerous songs by Knoxville musicians that make local references.) There’s nothing to connect most of them—some are culturally significant, some were legitimate radio hits, some are just oddball head-scratchers that don’t really make sense. Here’s a totally unscientific, somewhat arbitrary, and thoroughly incomplete look at some of the Knoxville songs that stand out.
“Cabooseman Blues” from Long Way Blues 1996-1998 (Matador, 1998)
The Bassholes were a two-piece lo-fi alt-blues band from Columbus, Ohio, a little weirder than Flat Duo Jets but not quite as sonically cracked as the Jon Spencer Blues Explosion. In this droning cuckold-revenge phantasmagoria, set to the interplay of two rudimentary, reverb-heavy guitar lines, the cabooseman narrator gets a shock when he sees, from his train, the wife who left him a year earlier. “She was standing on a corner, in Knoxville, Tennessee,” goes the second verse. The cabooseman gets off the train, intent on payback, but she’s gone. (His long-running quest for vengeance comes to fruition years later when his train runs her over and cuts her head off.)
“I Don’t Care (So There)” from Spend the Night (Atlantic, 2002)
This sassy kiss-off from the Donnas’ first major-label album is directed, inexplicably, at a “shy guy from Knoxville, Tennessee.” There’s no context for the reference. A bad night after the show? A chance encounter on the road? A cheap way to rhyme Hennessy? Who knows?
“Copperhead Road” from Copperhead Road (MCA, 1988)
Now that Steve Earle’s moved to New York and reinvented himself as a folkie protest singer, he’s forged an uneasy truce with his biggest hit and signature song: He’ll play it, but don’t request it. Earle loudly shot down a couple of tough-looking bikers who went all “Freebird” over it at the Tennessee Theatre about 10 years ago.
The second verse, of course, has probably the best-known Knoxville reference in popular music of the last 40 years, a sly nod to Robert Mitchum’s “Thunder Road”: “He was headed down to Knoxville with the weekly load/You could hear the whiskey burnin’ down Copperhead Road.” That’s when the song shifts out of its rolling Celtic/Appalachian twang to full-on country metal and turns into a booming, cinematic story about a Vietnam vet/large-scale marijuana grower that updated Mitchum’s song for the Reagan era.
“Knoxville Blues” from America (1971, Takoma)
Finger-style guitarist and folk-music visionary John Fahey died in 2001, but the ’00s turned out to be a significant decade for him anyway. His posthumous influence, thanks to a number of CD reissues, compilations, and tribute albums, spread through a generation of guitarists, including Ben Chasney of Six Organs of Admittance and the late Jack Rose (who also recorded this song).
“Knoxville Blues” is an old country-blues instrumental by Nashville guitarist Sam McGee, first recorded some time in the 1920s. The original version is a vigorous, foot-stomping workout; Fahey recorded it at half-speed, reinventing it as a languid tone poem. If it’s not exactly a classic Fahey track, it’s an emblematic one. In just over three minutes, Fahey shows off his wicked technique, his deep knowledge of the history of American music, and the way he bent that history to his own peculiar musical voice.
“Knoxville” from New Problems (Tiger Style, 2001)
This ramshackle lo-fi song sounds like a leftover from the early 1990s, part Exile in Guyville, part Beat Happening, part Pixies. Karla Schickele’s vocals are nearly indecipherable—if there are any direct references to Knoxville, they’re buried under the 4-track fuzz. But the song is a domestic sketch, catchy in spite of itself, that concludes with a scene of a boy and a girl on a front porch, probably in a neighborhood very much like Fourth and Gill or Fort Sanders, if not one of them exactly.
“Girl From Knoxville” from Apprentice (Wounded Bird, 1974)
Dave Loggins is a cousin of Kenny Loggins and the guy who wrote “Please Come to Boston,” which appears on this same album. “Girl From Knoxville,” a pastoral ode to pretty girls and the mountains, sounds almost like a rough sketch of that better-known song—it’s full of longing, but it’s less delicate and more urgent. Fitting somewhere in between John Denver and Neil Young’s “A Man Needs a Maid,” its bombastic steel-guitar arrangement and Arcadian sentimentality make it an easy target, and it sounds much more like West Coast folk than any traditional East Tennessee music. But if you drop your defenses, that soaring, melancholy chorus (“So I’m gone to see the girl from Knoxville/I just called, and she said she will wait there in the door with outstretched arms”) just might get to you.
The Del McCoury Band
“1952 Vincent Black Lightning” from Del and the Boys (McCoury Music, 2001)
Richard Thompson’s original version, from his 1991 album Rumor and Sigh, is a crime fable set to a tune that sounds like a traditional English ballad. It’s a haunting, beautiful song, and if the tragic tale of Red Molly and the motorcycle outlaw James doesn’t move you to tears, there might be something wrong with you. Thompson’s ballad setting makes the song perfectly suited for a bluegrass adaptation. The Del McCoury Band has energized Thompson’s woeful story with a faster tempo, making the song no less moving but a lot more rousing. In the Americanized version, McCoury also modified Thompson’s reference to Box Hill—“and down to Box Hill they did ride”—to “Knoxville,” giving the city yet another fist-pumping anthem of Appalachian anti-authoritarian defiance to go along with “Thunder Road” and “Copperhead Road.”
“Smoky Mountain Rain” from Greatest Hits (RCA, 1980)
Milsap’s 1980 hit is an ambitious, three-and-a-half minute country-pop operetta, a proto-power ballad that predicts the bombast of the decade to come and reaches a fevered emotional pitch somewhere in between Freddy Mercury and Andrew Lloyd Webber. It’s got as many moving parts as a perpetual motion machine—electric piano, strings, what sounds like a gospel choir of backup singers, a chorus as big as Mt. LeConte, and, weirdest of all, a frighteningly loud, almost dissonant piano chord struck halfway through the chorus—and a sketchy storyline about wanderlust and romantic obsession that drops references to Knoxville and Gatlinburg. The song recalls both Elvis Presley’s “Kentucky Rain” (on which Milsap played) and Glen Campbell’s “Rhinestone Cowboy,” but it owes just as much to Journey and REO Speedwagon.
“The Ballad of Thunder Road” from the movie Thunder Road (1958)
The classic Knoxville song, probably even more than “Knoxville Girl.” Randy Sparks sang a smoother version in the movie, but Robert Mitchum, who wrote the song, had a minor hit with his own recording. Mitchum might not have been a great singer, but he nailed the song’s nervy greaser swagger. “Thunder Road” is nominally a warning against the dangers of fast cars and likker, but it celebrates the vanishing culture of moonshine way more than it condemns it. Who could resist the Byronic appeal of that final verse: “Blazing right through Knoxville, out on Kingston Pike/Then right outside of Bearden, they made the fatal strike/He left the road at 90, that’s all there is to say/The devil got the moonshine and the mountain boy that day.”
Knoxville singer/songwriter R.B. Morris revived the song for a new generation of local listeners when he recorded a smoky, reverb-heavy version for his 1997 album Take That Ride.
Hank Williams Jr.
“Knoxville Courthouse Blues” from After You, Pride’s Not Hard to Swallow (MGM, 1973)
This early Bocephus track has all the musical hallmarks of Jr.’s huge hits from a few years later—it sounds like a Waylon Jennings song with a swampy rock beat. It’s a sexploitation cautionary tale about statutory rape, told from the perspective of the offender, that’s almost as creepy as “Knoxville Girl.” The last verse—“Don’t let yourself be the one/To help mixed-up kids go wild”—tacks on a nominal moral lesson, but the sordid cheap-motel details are what you’ll remember.