Knoxville's Connections to Appalachian Music

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photo by Frank Carlson

Some see Knoxville as a city profoundly at odds with its Appalachian identity. But a notable exception to this is its embrace of regional music, and specifically of radio station WDVX.

And in a way, this serves as nice metaphor for the complexity of Appalachian identity—replete with diverse, global influences but mostly regarded as monolithic, Anglo-Scotch, and static.

“If you look at your typical bluegrass band,” notes Herb Smith, a filmmaker at Appalshop, a cultural center in Eastern Kentucky, “they’ve got a Spanish guitar, the Yugoslavian mandolin, a northern European fiddle, and an African banjo. I mean, this is the definition of a culturally complex history. And actually a lot of people have attributed the singing to the sound of Native American singing.”

Matt Morelock, a former host at WDVX who now owns a music store on Gay Street, agrees. “Hillbilly music and the banjo especially is a perfect amalgam of African traditions, European traditions, and Native American traditions,” Morelock says. “Really, it’s funny because hillbilly music is actually, probably, the most genuinely multicultural music in the United States. I mean, I equate hillbilly music and jazz as far as being a whole made of multiple parts that come from different places.”

A banjo player himself, Morelock says he often dons overalls and hams up the Appalachian stereotype during performances; at other times, he enjoys subverting that stereotype, and he counts Knoxville’s rap, experimental, and indie music as Appalachian, too. “We have so many great local musicians that come from the hillbilly tradition, but that’s just one scene,” he says.

Yet that one scene continues to largely define the region.

Steph Gunnoe, a singer/songwriter in the band The Lonetones, explores questions of Appalachian identity in her songs. Raised in Charleston, W.Va., she didn’t come to appreciate regional music until she moved to the Pacific Northwest, where she began to examine her Appalachian roots from afar. “In a way it’s sort of been a real homelessness,” she says, recalling that in West Virginia, she was too urban to belong to Appalachia, yet outside the region, she was considered too hillbilly. On her last album, Canaries, she explored in a song called “West Virginia Soundtrack” the tension in belonging to an idea that in many ways does not reflect who she is.

“I’m a good hillbilly,” she sings, “I’ll be your midwife, workin’ alone/I’ll help you bear what’s never been borne.”

Gunnoe says, “It’s kind of a love song to a place that couldn’t hold me, that really couldn’t support me.”

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