Best of Knoxville 2011: Arts and Entertainment

Best Museum

Knoxville Museum of Art

Three of the KMA's four galleries feature ever-changing exhibits designed to expand our perspectives, mostly with contemporary art, like the recent exhibit by Chinese painter/printmaker Xiaoze Xie. But in the fourth gallery, the KMA has recently broken new ground with the old. The permanent Higher Ground exhibit, with 150 years of Knoxville-area art, from oil landscapes and portraits through Impressionism to the abstract era and back, is guaranteed to astonish. Also, no local museum has so much fun on a regular basis. The Live After Five series of jazz and blues shows, featuring a bar and an ever-changing variety of catered suppers, remains popular after more than a decade. (As one local wag has it, that early-evening show was "early before early was cool.") (J.N.)

Runners Up: East Tennessee History Center, McClung Museum, Museum of Appalachia

Best Gallery (Place to Buy Art)

Bennett Galleries

Runners Up: Art Market Gallery, Emporium Center, Liz-Beth

Best Artist (Who Shows Locally)

Rob St.Clair

Your art leans on pop culture pretty heavily—what draws you to it?

Pop-culture icons are our modern-day heroes. I try to capture the power and inspiration of my subjects to hopefully inspire others in their creative pursuits, whatever medium they may choose.

Can you give me some backstory on the canvas shoes? What compelled you to make them?

I had been jokingly talking about getting a tattoo of a ninja with a flamethrower riding a unicorn down a rainbow for some time, so in lieu of that I decided the next best way to make it permanent but not permanently on me was shoes. I did my first pair, then second, then began getting commissioned to do them, then tried it out on stretched canvas and it just took off from there. Sharpies and Prismacolors have become my preferred medium. (Travis Gray)

Runners Up: Jim Gray, Kara Jones, Ashley Adair Walker

Best Theater Group

Clarence Brown Theatre

It's hard to beat Knoxville's only standing professional troupe, combining one of UT's best, and best-endowed, academic programs with actors and directors from all over the country. Headquartered in the modernist theater established by an extraordinarily generous gift from UT grad Clarence Brown, the longtime MGM director, the troupe has startled and seduced, amused and alarmed Knoxville audiences. The players are a combination of talented theater majors, recruited professional thespians, and CBT's own troupe of local pros. Recent highlights have included the CBT-KSO collaboration Amadeus and, last season, Clarence Brown veteran Dale Dickey in the role of Blanche Dubois in an original version of A Streetcar Named Desire. Just afterward, Dickey shocked the nation, and awed critics, as Merab in the Oscar-nominated film Winter's Bone. Save your programs to prove you saw them here first. (J.N.)

Runners Up: Children's Theatre of Knoxville, Tennessee Stage Company, Carpetbag Theatre & Theatre Knoxville (tie)

Best Actor (Who Performs Locally)

David Keith

David Keith, a Knoxville boy who made good in Hollywood, sometimes seems like a character in a David Keith movie. Ever since his prominent supporting role in An Officer and a Gentleman, the Knoxville native and UT grad does a lot of Hollywood work, but he still lives in his home town. Known by face, if not by name, around the world, he often plays roles in which he wears a uniform or, in one case, dressed as Elvis, but here he's often seen in Go Vols orange. He was a regular in the recent short-lived but critically acclaimed Fox series Lone Star. Keith has won our Best Actor category so often we've looked for reasons to disqualify him, just to give the kids a better chance. But, damn it, he does live here. Just a couple of weekends ago, we saw him dashing purposefully down Clinch Avenue. And he does occasionally perform here, as he did last spring, when he starred in the Knoxville Opera's Pirates of Penzance. We bet he took on that challenging role just to renew his Best of Knoxville qualifications. (J.N.)

Runners Up: Matt Dearman, Linds Edwards, Daniel Hubbard & Terry Weber (tie)

Best Dance Company

Circle Modern Dance

Runners Up: East Tennessee Children's Dance Ensemble, Go! Contemporary Dance Works, Momentum Dance Lab

Best Rock Band

Dirty Guv'nahs

(See Also: Best Band in the Best of the Best)

Runners Up: Black Cadillacs, Hey OK Fantastic, the Royal Bangs

Best DJ

DJ Slink

DJ Slink's resume reads like a history of electronic dance music in Knoxville, stretching back to the early 1990s at the Underground and Boiler Room through Lord Lindsey, Fiction, and Blue Cats to the gigantic Tokyo GoGo parties now held every Saturday night at the Valarium. (In between, he spent a few years in Tokyo, which influenced the theme of his current gig.) He's evolved from scratching on vinyl to a mostly electronic setup, and his tastes have changed with the times—instead of house and the big techno breakbeats he spun in the '90s, he now delivers the latest in electro, glitch, and dubstep—but it's always "quality booty shakin' beats," as he calls it on his blog. (M.E.)

Runners Up: Eric B, DJ 4Matiks, DJ Drake

Best Hip-Hop Group

The Theorizt

Knoxville's answer to the Roots, the Theorizt is a full live band busting out its own funky beats for the raps of J-Bush and Black Atticus. Like the Roots, the group (J-Bush, Atticus, guitarist Nich Burkhalter, bassist Jon Augustus, drummer Jason Wells, and studio wiz Mike Miller) favors the old-school—soulful, melodic rhymes and a generally positive vibe. The band's folky, nostalgic strums and laid-back rhythms stand out, offering a distinctive take on backpack rap. (M.E.)

Runners Up: 2nd String, Aftah Party, the Jaystorm Project

Best Americana Band

The Black Lillies

Cruz Contreras, the talented guitarist and mandolinist behind the jazzy alt-country combo Robinella, is finally getting his due as the frontman for his own group, the Black Lillies. There was a time when Contreras seemed mainly a sideman, moreover one who seemed to favor instrumental jazz, but when the Lillies' debut recording, Whiskey Angel, came out a couple of years ago, even longtime fans were surprised to learn Cruz had a rich, convincingly blue voice and a talent for authentic hardcore country songwriting. (He formed the Black Lillies about two years ago with four other musicians, including a couple of veterans of the notable group the everybodyfields.) Their new CD, 100 Miles of Wreckage—recorded at East Knox County's old Riverdale School—is at once warm, haunted, and gin-bitter, and is at this moment stalking the upper reaches of the national Americana charts. (J.N.)

Runners Up: The Dirty Guv'nahs, Mic Harrison and the High Score, Scott Miller and the Commonwealth

Best Jazz Band

Donald Brown

It is for so many reasons that pianist, composer, and University of Tennessee jazz professor Donald Brown is an internationally respected figure, beloved of some of the biggest names in jazz—men like the brothers Marsalis and Dave Brubeck and Ron Carter and the late Freddie Hubbard. It is now a tale oft-told, how the late, legendary drummer and bandleader Art Blakey took Brown under his wing in the early '80s, elevating him from relative obscurity to the keyboardist's chair in his Jazz Messengers band and exposing him to a wider world of up-and-coming jazz artists and genre giants alike. Blakey heard in Brown's playing the same elements that have since made him one of the most revered composers in contemporary jazz—a fine technique, an impeccable sense of swing, and a way with a fetching melody that's tempered with an unparalleled ear for advanced harmony, an innate feel for the proper and satisfying placement of blue notes.

But beyond the music itself, it is Brown's humanity that endears him so both here and in the wider community of his peers. More than any other musician that comes to mind, he gives of himself, often without thanks, much less recompense. In the last year alone, he has helped long-time friend and local saxophonist Rocky Wynder put out his first-ever CD release; acted as an uncredited consultant on his own son Keith's first major jazz release Sweet and Lovely; and pulled together artists (as well as performing and writing select tracks for) the local jazz compilation Tenors in Satin, a fund-raiser for the Knoxville Jazz Festival. (M.G.)

Runners Up: Christabel and the Jons, Knoxville Jazz Orchestra, Wes Lunsford Trio

Best Blues Band

Labron Lazenby and the LA3

No one ever gave Labron Lazenby a damn thing. Axe in hand, he's hewn his own rough path over the last two decades, playing honky-tonks and laundromats and blues hovels from here to Texas, and parts north to D.C. Possessed of guitar chops that fuse the best of Chicago-style electric blues with countrified picking virtuosity, and an august baritone sandblasted by years of Winstons and whiskey, he's also established himself as the city's best bluesman. Never mind the years of woodshedding and gigs and festival circuits, the dues he began dropping in the jar at the tender age of 16, wailing frenetic run-on solos like some mad-dog hybrid of Danny Gatton and Albert Collins in Fort Sanders beerholes, or later deploying his own jam platoon the Boogeymen, or backing the late great blues belter Sara Jordan hereabouts. Because last year, Lazenby and his current outfit the LA3 received blues-approval of the highest order when they were one of 10 finalists chosen in the International Blues Challenge in Memphis, from 162 bands that made the cut to go to the river city in the first place. Enjoy him while you can, because there may yet come a day that watching this hard-working thirty-something perform—he's still a young man by blues standards—will set you back more than just the price of a standard cover charge. (M.G.)

Runners Up: Black Cadillacs, Jenna Jones, Slow Blind Hill

Best Cover Band

The Coveralls

Cover bands are among the hardest-working musicians around, and the Coveralls are one of Knoxville's hardest-working cover bands, gigging all over downtown, the Old City, and West Knoxville for nearly a decade. (And if you miss one of their regular club shows, you can rent them for your own private party.) The Coveralls don't specialize—they cover everything from the '60s to the current Top 40, and if you give them enough notice they'll even learn special requests—but they nail everything they do. (M.E.)

Runners Up: The Pop Rox, Same as It Ever Was, the Vibraslaps

Best Concert Venue

Bijou Theatre

Knoxville's crazy lucky to have two interesting and sonically superior historic venues on the same street, within hollering distance. Our favorite has always been one or the other, but this year the Bijou took it. Famous, even nationally, for its acoustics—New York Times writer Ben Ratliff called it one of the best listening rooms in the eastern U.S.—the Bijou still has it, after 102 years. It helps that AC Entertainment, who brings you Bonnaroo, books the place. Completed during the (Teddy) Roosevelt administration, The Bijou has a claim to be Tennessee's oldest theater: It was hosting concerts and wacky, often risque vaudeville shows when the Ryman Auditorium was still a church. The same place that has hosted Will Rogers, the Marx Brothers, and John Phillip Sousa today reverberates with a mind-expanding variety of performers like the Wailers, Sharon Jones and the Dap Kings, experimental Swiss pianist Nik Bartsch, and Leo Kottke—and earlier this year, it kicked off the Black Lillies' chart-climbing new album (see Best Americana Band). (J.N.)

Runners Up: The Square Room, Tennessee Theatre, the Valarium

Best Karaoke

Toots Little Honky Tonk

From the outside, Toots looks like a biker bar. On the inside, it looks like … also a biker bar. But it's filled with karaoke fans of all social strata, turning it into a uniquely Knoxvillian hotspot. It takes only a modicum of persuasiveness to entice your shyest friend into singing her favorite one-hit wonder. Whether it's due to the friendliness of the crowd or the angel-haired owner Bonnie, Toots could have won a barrage of Best Of's. And don't forget to tip the karaoke man. (T.G.)

Runners Up: Big Mama's Karaoke Cafe, Bull Feathers, Club XYZ

Best Rock Club

The Valarium

Runners Up: Barley's Taproom, Pilot Light, Preservation Pub

Best Gay Club

Club XYZ

There's no better place to feel free to be yourself than a gay bar (whether you're straight or gay or have an unmanageable cowlick.) Gay bars don't discriminate, and XYZ is one that Knoxville can be proud of. If you can make it to a drag show, hosted by the riotous owner Raz, it will be a highlight of your week. Or make it an early night of quietly sipping gin and tonics while watching music videos on the screens behind the bar.

Last year at "The Night of 1,000 Dollies" event, where queens from all necks of the woods lip-synced their hearts out in admiration for the one and only, screens around the bar flashed a personal message from the self-described drag queen herself, Dolly Parton. Addressing the audience directly, she introduced the extravaganza to come and basically anointed her chosen few by her mere pre-recorded presence. Pride, indeed. (T.G.)

Runners Up: Carousel, Hott Rods, Kurt's

Best Dance Club

The Valarium

Runners Up: Hanna's, Sassy Ann's, Southbound

Best Adult Entertainment Club

The Mouse's Ear

Runners Up: The Ball, Emerald Club, The Katch

Best TV Station


Runners Up: WATE, WKOP, WVLT

Best TV Personality

Robin Whilhoit, WBIR

Runners Up: Russell Biven, WBIR; Erin Donovan, WBIR; Abbey Hamm, WBIR

Best Radio Station


With its shoestring budget, volunteer disc jockeys, and wide-ranging format, WUTK 90.3 FM continues to win the hearts of Knoxville radio listeners. As UT's other non-profit station, dubbed the "College of Rock," it serves primarily as an institution of learning for the Department of Journalism and Electronic Media. But for Knoxville, it brings a discovery of new (and old) music you won't find on other stations with a degree of personal interaction you won't hear on your iPod. Hearing a real, live human guide you to music you haven't heard before is still rewarding, and WUTK does it the best. (C.T.)

Runners Up: WDVX, WWST, WIVK

Best Radio Personality

Katharine Lusky and Micah James, The Dark Side of the Tunes, WUTK

After only three months on the air, The Dark Side of the Tunes has captured our readers' ears with its eclectic mix of deep cuts ranging from classic rock (Dylan, Zeppelin) to modern alternative (Radiohead, Modest Mouse). Katharine "DJ Shotgun" Lusky and Micah "DJ Pistol" James use their own record collection to guide listeners through what they call the "late Monday night, early Tuesday morning state of mind" every Tuesday morning from 1 a.m.-3 a.m. (C.T.)

Runners Up: Derek and Rob, the Funhouse, WUTK; Marc, Kim & Frank Show, WWST; Red Hickey, WDVX