This year was one of burbling flux in Knoxville, a veritable lava lamp of preservationist development and political machination, on a backdrop of bursting housing bubbles, rising gas prices, and questions about the future of the economy in general.
Downtown development made great gains, several of them astonishing superlatives—an announcement of the first skyscraper in 30 years, the first new residential development in more than half a century completed, as well as the first new downtown movie theater in 75 years.
Overall, Knoxville took several steps forward and a few steps back, as an enormous and once-promising historic building went up in flames, and our county government, which is the basis for public education, public libraries, and law enforcement (among other things) seemed to dissolve into a goofball slapstick routine.
The whole year, come to think of it, had an edge of absurd surreality: Cormac on Oprah?! Yeah, right. And the basketball Vols will be ranked higher than the football Vols. And they'll reopen the Sunsphere, too. And the Tennessee Amphitheater.
As if. We're not sure what sense to make of it all yet, but here are a few reasons, good and bad, that we'll remember the odd year we called 2007.
Knox County: War Without End
The year 2007 began with political in-fighting and tension, followed by a series of extraordinary court decisions. As we come to the end of the year, we're watching an all-out war. The divisions in county government have reached the point where people are recording conversations, seeking financial punishments, and there is quiet talk about putting people in jail. Audits, subpoenas, and investigations are the order of the day.
It all began on Black Wednesday, Jan. 31, a Commission meeting in the wake of a bombshell state Supreme Court decision informing us that Knox County was being governed by a "de facto" government of people term-limited and ineligible to serve. The removal of four county-wide office holders and eight County Commissioners decimated the political power structure. The removal of long time Sheriff Tim Hutchison, County Clerk Mike Padgett, Register of Deeds Steve Hall, and Trustee Mike Lowe threw a monkey wrench into a political machine decades in the making. Eight empty Commission seats upset the status quo and created a power vacuum.
The two Republican factions led by Hutchison and his nemesis, County Mayor Mike Ragsdale, were determined to gain the upper hand in the new political world order.
In an all-day Commission meeting, Hutchison's forces used clever tactics to rout Ragsdale's forces. This faction, led by Commission Chair Scott Moore, forgot that it wasn't business as usual down at the courthouse. The sheer number of offices and the complications of the selection process generated intense public interest. What the public saw horrified them.
It was a Pyrrhic victory. Moore's forces won the battle of Black Wednesday, but the tactics set in motion a process that would lead to the undoing of everything accomplished that day.
But the complete control of Commission by the Moore forces had them riding high for several months. They passed a budget that funded a pension plan for the sheriff's department. It had suspect funding sources, but Ragsdale was able to present a budget with no new taxes.
The Moore majority then got on with questioning county finances. Ragsdale had angered the Hutchison faction by launching an investigation of the wrecker contract and impound lot operated by the sheriff's department. Commissioner Paul Pinkston, allied with Moore and chair of the finance committee, started asking questions about Ragsdale's staff getting a county car, gas, and a five-figure travel allowance. The questions led to a series of revelations about questionable credit-card expenses, leading to the resignation of Finance Director John Warner and two other Ragsdale staffers. Grants to organizations with ties to Ragsdale's Community Development Director Cynthia Finch were revealed.
Through much of the summer and fall, the Moore faction enjoyed a series of embarrassing media accounts of Ragsdale scandals. Payback was sweet.
But a Ragsdale counter-attack was in the works. The News Sentinel entered the controversy in a big way: Responding to public outrage about the coup of Black Wednesday, the newspaper took the risky step of interjecting itself into the story by filing a lawsuit alleging Sunshine Law violations. The lawsuit was a smashing success—in fact, it smashed the Moore machine by voiding the appointment of 12 office holders.
The tactical victory of January turned into Waterloo toward year's end. Six of the eight Commissioners removed were Moore allies; Ragsdale has a 6-5 majority of the Rump Commission left to govern. Ragsdale's forces were able to delay re-appointing positions until after the February primary. With five members, Moore has still been able to continue to raise questions about the Ragsdale administration, dragging out the Tyler Harber scandal of years past to once again raise the issue of county employees running political campaigns. Ragsdale's forces have countered with allegations about sheriff's department personnel getting involved in campaigns and, lately, questionable overtime payments used as bonuses.
The bitterness between the two groups seems to grow exponentially. Heading into the primary, control of county government going forward is at stake. Should the Moore faction regain enough seats to take control in 2008, we'll see investigations continue, subpoenas issued, county employees and their lawyers hauled before Commission tribunals. Pinkston has demanded that any money improperly paid or spent be paid back—which could amount to a sizable financial hit for Ragsdale staffers.
Should Ragsdale's forces retain control, the investigations will likely consist of audit results released, promises to do better, and a concerted effort to pass charter changes in the August general election.
Either way, 2008 promises to provide its share of fireworks. But Knox County is unlikely to ever see a spectacle to compare with 2007.
City of Knoxville: Peace and Prosperity
Mayor Bill Haslam got reelected in a landslide. Otherwise, things were pretty quiet.
...Unless You're On Fire
Ah, pity the poor smoker. As of Oct. 1, Tennessee's most put-upon sector of society is neither an ethnic nor a religious minority. Thanks to the newly enacted Non-Smoker Protection Act, the slings and arrows of discrimination are now aimed squarely at the roughly 27 percent of the state's adult population that considers a lit cigarette, with all the attendant public nuisance and toxicity, a viable mode of refreshment. Signed into law on June 11, the act prohibits smoking in all enclosed public places, with only a handful of exemptions, most notably private homes and motor vehicles, private clubs, and venues that restrict access to persons 21 years of age or older at all times. A tiny percentage of the state's restaurants and nightclubs responded by going 21-and-up full time; but mostly, Tennessee smokers found themselves in the position of having to suck it up, so to speak, so the rest of us can breath a fresh-aired sigh of relief.
Things'll Be Great When You're—Downtown!
—In the midst of the swirl of downtown development, one huge area of almost a square block has remained unused for anything since it was vacated half a decade ago. But well-known Knoxville developers Bob Talbott, Raja Jubran, and some associates working under the name Devon Group announced plans for the $56 million Sentinel Tower, the first skyscraper to be built downtown in more than a quarter of a century, on the site of the old News Sentinel Building at Church and State. Unlike previous ones, it will have a major residential component, with perhaps more than 50 condos. If all goes well, construction on the 21-story tower will begin in the spring, but don't look for it to change Knoxville's skyline right away. It's scheduled to be completed sometime in the latter part of 2010.
—Developer Jeffrey Nash made a bold move to push downtown's apparent momentum beyond the imaginary boundaries of the business district when he bought a forgotten stone-front apartment house on a part of North Central our parents used to warn us away from. It's a development unusual for Knoxville: the affordable condo. The English-born developer, who has had success with Sandstone Court and Keystone Place downtown, bought the ca. 1930s Graystone Apartments, gutted the interior, and is finishing work on 17 mid-scale condos which will be known as North Central Village.
Nash and Courtland are also sharing a project, with Goss Piercy, to renovate the Crimson Building on Gay Street and Summit Hill. The interior of the previously renovated condo was devastated by a fire several years ago and stalled by insurance uncertainties for much of the period since then. The new iterations, somewhat changed from the original, will include 11 condos, five of which are already spoken for, although construction is still in its early stages.
—The Cherokee Building, the three-story brick building at Market and Church vacant for about a decade and rumored to be doomed to church parking, was completed by Dewhirst Properties as a mid-scale condo development intended to appeal to the elusive smaller-scale downtown investor. Its street level was occupied almost immediately by a law firm, but some condos are still waiting to be sold.
—The long-delayed YMCA project, to convert the 1929 building's long-empty upper floors into condos, seemed finally to come to fruition; its first owner-residents moved in toward the end of the year.
—Gallery Lofts, the upscale residential side of the Mast General Store's building, was completed; at year's end, all but one was occupied.
—Kinsey Probasco/Cardinal's Candy Factory condominium project on World's Fair Park, which has been under renovation construction for most of the year is near completion, with some units already occupied. Several of them are, once again, for sale, presumably those bought by speculators rather than prospective residents.
—Meanwhile, the 24 units at the only brand-new residential construction downtown lately, Residences at Market Square, seem to be completed, or nearly so, with some evidence of occupation, though the ground-level retail spaces remain unfinished and apparently unleased.
—On the same block of Union, something that didn't happen in 2007 was Home Federal's announced construction of a new office building at the site of the old Sprankle Building, demolished after strenuous objection from residential developers and preservationists, including former Mayor Victor Ashe, almost three years ago. The site has been used only for private surface parking since then. Word is that delayed construction on the evolving four-story building may begin in 2008.
The renovation of Brownlow School, the ca. 1914 elementary school in the otherwise well-primped 4th and Gill neighborhood, has been long anticipated, as the school, vacant since the mid-'90s, has been passed among prospective developers. An auction in the fall drew disappointing participation that resulted in only about half of the units being sold, but by year's end Kinsey-Probasco and Cardinal Enterprises have indicated their intention to move ahead with the project.
On The Waterfront
Even our preternaturally optimistic Mayor Bill Haslam admits that the ambitious South Knoxville Waterfront Project will be one of the biggest challenges the city faces in coming years. The massive three-phase project has plenty of planning and know-how behind it, but much of the private investment that is supposed to ultimately drive the plan is still in up in the air, as are questions over where Haslam and future leaders will find the not-inconsiderable public funds needed to drive other parts of it.
Right now, three large private efforts are ongoing; the Cityview residential development; a residential development on Scottish Pike involving prominent developer Raja Jubran; and a mixed-use development on the site of the TransMontagne tank farm, a mix of single- and multiple-family residential units integrated with retail space, overseen by the Cityview project's Camden Management. A fourth project was recently announced: a $58 million private residential project made up of 137 condos and townhouses on four acres owned by Mike Conley near Barber Street and Langford Avenue. In the meantime, though, the implementation of several of the waterfront's phase I projects still remains in question, including portions of the planned riverwalk.
New Urbanism Too New?
Northshore Town Center, located at the intersection of Northshore and Pellissippi Parkway, is an ambitious and innovative idea in a part of town that's rarely unpredictable.
Announced almost four years ago, the massive and seemingly comprehensive project was going to be suburban Knoxville's answer to downtown, an old-fashioned mixed-use neighborhood with offices, retail, movie theaters, and a wide variety of residences.
Some are frustrated with South Carolina developer James Doran's slow pace, but there seems to have been reluctance to commit, especially from local business interests. The concept has shown promise in some other parts of the country, but Knoxville's formula to respond to all innovative ideas is something along these lines: 1. See if it succeeds in Atlanta. 2. Wait 20 years. 3. Try a downscaled version of it here.
However, while acknowledging "unforeseen obstacles as well as changes in market conditions," Doran is forging ahead, working now with powerful local real-estate agencies, and finally, beginning construction on the development's retro-style commercial architecture, which may make it all seem more real.
Five Points Moves On
Early 2007 was not a good time for the Five Points community. The IGA grocery that was the anchor of the area's well-publicized economic revitalization effort, Five Points Plaza, closed and folded back into a grocery store/convenience market. Later this year, Five Points Plaza developer Leroy Thompson forged an agreement with Pastor James Davis and his Mechanicsville-based Eternal Harvest Center to move a new Eternal Harvest location onto the property in an effort to continue the momentum begun by Thompson and co. when they built the plaza and cleaned up the blight that had long afflicted the area. Davis' outreach is a multi-faceted program that is intended to include efforts like jobs training in addition to its spiritual components. In the meantime, city officials say they will likely focus future Five Points revitalization efforts on solving problems posed by the troubled Walter P. Taylor housing project nearby.
Skate Or Die
Knoxville moved inexorably closer to having its own state-of-art skateboard park in 2007. The end of ‘06 saw the first of three planned smaller satellite parks open out west in Concord, off Northshore Drive, and August saw the groundbreaking for the main facility in Tyson Park just off Cumberland Avenue. The new 15,000-square-foot (planned) park, which is designed to include features to please every species of skater, is tentatively set to open, free to the public, by the end of January, with satellites in Powell and Fountain City potentially opening later in ‘08.
Lights, Camera, Auction
In October, more than a year after downtown property entrepreneurs Scott and Bernadette West were charged for their alleged role in a marijuana trafficking/money laundering operation, the IRS finally got around to offering the family's downtown properties, which were seized due to the Wests' plea of guilty to some of the charges, to other developers. When the dust cleared, M & W Properties, owners of the Art Market building on Gay Street, purchased the unoccupied building on the northeast corner of the Square for $530,000; former Metro Pulse owners Cardinal Enterprises purchased the buildings at 16-22 Market Square, which house Oodles Restaurant and the World Grotto night spot, for $2.4 million; and Tim Hill of Hatcher Hill Properties purchased the building at 28 Market Square, home to the Preservation Pub, for $400,000. Thus far, all of the new owners say few changes will be made, other than to seek compatible new tenants for the unoccupied portions of the properties.
Development In Reverse
On a Wednesday morning in early February, McClung Warehouse owner Mark Saroff awoke in his on-premise quarters to the suspicious odor of smoke. Saroff called firefighters and left the building, and minutes later the better part of the blighted warehouse complex on Jackson Avenue was going up in flames.
The fire was the latest awful chapter in the ongoing struggle to get the ancient McClung properties off the city's blighted list and back on its tax rolls; city officials have been anxious to see owner Saroff improve and reuse the buildings ever since the mid-'90s. But Saroff to date has yet to show the wherewithal to come up with and fund a major revitalization effort.
Most of the warehouses were destroyed, but the controversy rages on. City officials are still undecided over whether to use eminent domain to reclaim the properties for effective redevelopment. And former building occupant Ernie Gross, proprietor of Ernie Gross Designs, has filed or is considering filing multi-million dollar lawsuits against both Saroff and the city, which he believes may have been negligent in its handling of the blaze. Even with a few buildings missing, this one isn't likely to go away anytime soon.
The Knoxville area has gotten a lot of accolades as one of the best places in the country to locate a business. Yet, for all the hype and the recruitment efforts of a vaunted Jobs Now! program, this year didn't yield a single announcement of a company locating a new facility here.
In a hair-down moment, Rhonda Rice, who spearheads job-creating business recruitment for the Knoxville Area Chamber Partnership, acknowledges the slow pace but sees progress in the future. "I was worried about this year's numbers. It's been hard," she said. "Things have picked up in the last 60 days. We've got some good prospects who've made site visits...It's all a matter of timing. You can spend all of a year working on something that doesn't happen until the following year."
Rice also points out that there's been a lot of expansion on the part of existing employers, especially smaller ones, as well as new business start-ups. Fledgling high-tech companies like Protein Discovery, Aldus, and Sunlight Direct all got infusions of venture capital that should help them grow.
Despite the housing slump, the service sector appears to remain robust. One need look no further than Turkey Creek to see new retail outlets sprouting all the time. And it seems like hardly a week goes by without a new bank opening its doors. The latest Yellow Pages lists more than 50 banks and credit unions doing business locally.
On the Riviera
Time was when Gay Street was packed with movie theaters—the old Riviera, which operated for more than 50 years until it was demolished in the 1970s, the Tennessee, the Bijou, the Gem on Vine Avenue, smaller places like the Strand and the Roxy, and another 50 or 60 over the last century that have mostly been forgotten. The last 30 years have been dry, though, with occasional classics shown at the Tennessee or the open-air screenings on Market Square during the last few summers as the only opportunities for big-screen action.
But downtown Knoxville finally got its multiplex in August, with the brand-new Regal Riviera 8 on the 500 block of Gay Street, in roughly the same spot where the old Riviera stood. It was a long time coming—two years ago Metro Pulse described it as "much-delayed"—and it's hardly the magic bullet it was supposed to be way back when; downtown seems to have done well enough during the wait. But a neon marquee—even one as deeply recessed as the Riviera's—sure does light up a city night.
The revitalizing Market Square wasn't as busy, openings-wise, in 2007 as in many other recent years, though many new business projects are still in the works. The Square area did enjoy a couple of notable openings in 2007, though, including the Koi Fusion restaurant, with its tantalizing selection of modified Asian cuisine, eclectic gift shop and jewelry store and clothing emporium Mama Jan's, and the new Coffee and Chocolate coffee house, which opened just around the corner from the Square on Union Avenue. Look for further announcements in 2008; rumors of a new Marble Slab Creamery are swirling on the Internet.
One Door Opens...
The old Electric Ballroom never inspired much confidence. The club hosted some legendary shows during its on-and-off existence—Phish in ‘93, when the power went out halfway through the set and the band finished up all-acoustic, the Fugazi show that ended up in the documentary Instrument—but its location, on a spur of Western Avenue near Interstate 275, was hard to find, isolated, poorly lit, and never had much parking.
It's still a little hard to get to, but if things work out the way the old Ballroom's new owner, Gary Mitchell, expects, the club's going to be a destination, surrounded by other businesses in a brand-new, well-lit warehouse entertainment district. That's what the ads say, anyway. Mitchell, who's also co-owner of Blue Cats in the Old City, has been tight-lipped about the details while he finalizes the purchase of surrounding lots.
But Mitchell has given the Ballroom a new name—it's now the Valarium—an interior makeover, and a big new parking lot. The grand unveiling with Dinosaur Jr. happened in late November, and the 1,000-capacity venue was full, thanks in part to hundreds of free tickets distributed in the weeks before the show. The crowd faced some difficulty—the bar inside the Ballroom was removed, so alcohol sales were held outside, in the alley between the Valarium and the adjacent warehouse to the south. The process required drinkers to show ID and pay at one station, then move through another line to hand their receipt over at either the bar or the beer stand in return for a drink.
...And Another Door Closes, and Then Another One Opens Again
Other new venues opened in 2007: The Birdhouse, a gallery/performance space in 4th and Gill, Club 106, an upscale sports bar on the site of the defunct Red Iguana (and before that, ThinQ Tank, and before that, Hooray's) in the Old City, and The Knoxville Pearl, a cereal bar (yes, a cereal bar) that hosts occasional shows. And some venues closed: the all-ages Kennedy Band Center in north Knox County, the aforementioned Red Iguana, and the venerable watering-hole/gold-chain expo Michael's on Kingston Pike. The Bearden jazz club 4620 opened again under new ownership, Old City Java had an on-again off-again schedule of all-ages shows, and Preservation Pub and World Grotto on Market Square survived a federal auction that sold their respective buildings to new parties.
Hot and Cold Food
Knoxville diners are cruel mistresses—they give their love to restaurants in droves, then suddenly depart when the bloom has faded. Several big names in the local dining scene made their departures this year: longtime UT hangout Vic & Bill's, Charlie Peppers on the Strip and on Morell Road near West Town, the Fort Sanders Indian buffet Kashmir, the tapas place Cha-Chas in Bearden, Old College Inn's cloning experiment on North Peters Road, the plush Edison Park Steakhouse in Farragut, and even a couple of places in the shopping mecca of Turkey Creek, the Caribbean Couva Calypso Café and the unexciting-salads-only emporium Tossed.
Sadly, one much-loved local institution announced that it will close its doors on the last day of December, the one and only Vietnamese restaurant in town, T. Ho Bistro; owner Thanh Ho cites health reasons for his decision to shut down after 22 years of serving vermicelli noodle bowls and eggless crepes. Now what are we going to do when we're in the mood for pho? Drive to Birmingham?
Meanwhile, on the plus side, the Riverside Tavern was reborn as the upscale Ruth's Chris Steakhouse, Amerigo Italian Restaurant graced Bearden with its fine Italian cooking, Shane's Rib Shack opened on the Strip, Aubrey's hit Cedar Bluff, Makino Japanese Buffet introduced all-you-can-eat hibachi and sushi to Kingston Pike, Koi Fusion finally landed in Market Square, and Five Guys Famous Burgers and Fries is battling it out with Gridiron Burgers for the title of Best New Burger Joint in Turkey Creek. And word on the street is that Knoxville will at last have its own Del Taco very soon, to the delight of Taco Bell defectors.
Down In The Valley
The notion of a high school in the formerly countrified community of Hardin Valley used to be something of a joke to residents therein, never mind a high school with a name as high-falutin' as Hardin Valley Academy. But with the inevitable thrust of westward expansion being what it is in Knox County, lo and behold, this 250,000-square-foot comprehensive high school is set to open in August of 2008. Its specialized curriculum will feature four academies as well as a regular high-school program, with the academies to include health science; law and public affairs; liberal arts; and science, technology, engineering and mathematics. Roughly 1,000 students will fill the seats when the school opens for business next year, demonstrating once and for all that higher learning can find a foothold even in the most staunchly rural enclaves of East Tennessee.
Party On, Homophobic Jocks!
Most university administrators like seeing their institutions listed in national rankings; it brings the school attention in direct comparison with other places of higher learning. Good stuff. Except, maybe, when it's some of those quirky little categories in The Princeton Review's Best 366 Colleges rankings. In the 2008 edition, the University of Tennessee placed quite high in several not-so-wonderful categories. Among them:
#5 Alternative Lifestyles Not an Alternative—which is to say, UT is not a welcoming campus if you happen to be gay. See next item.
#7 for both Jock Schools and Major Frat and Sorority Scene—so if you're attending UT to study for an advanced degree, you're just a super loser.
#11 Campus is Tiny, Unsightly, or Both—guess that design choice of using grey concrete to cover all visible surfaces wasn't such a hot idea after all.
#15 Party Schools—please see item below.
#16 Their Students (Almost) Never Study—please see item above.
On the plus side, UT did get ranked ninth for Everyone Plays Intramural Sports and 20th for Best College Library. Reputation saved!
More Super, Less Drag
After a four-year hiatus, Knoxville four-piece alt-rock outfit Superdrag finally decided to unbreak our hearts by staging the reunion we hoped for when the band split asunder. The band, you may remember, spent the latter part of the ‘90s and the early part of the new millennium releasing a handful of fine recordings, including two on major-label Elektra Records, garnering a memorable "buzz clip" designation for their video for the alt-rock hit "Sucked Out."
The original lineup of singer/songwriter/guitarist John Davis, guitarist Brandon Fisher, bassist Tom Pappas, and drummer Don Coffey Jr. played a handful of reunion shows in select cities across the country, including a two-night stand at Knoxville's Barley's in the Old City. No word yet on what the future may hold for the reformed power-pop outfit, but you can keep up with band news at their website, superdrag.com.
Where you from, fool? Alcoa rapper Mack Williams, a.k.a. Mr. Mack, finally inked a major-label deal this summer, a year after his self-released single "Where You From? (Da 865)" became the first legitimate local summertime hit single in years, and the first hip-hop one ever. Mack signed with Universal Republic; the company's first priority was to promote his latest single, "So Fly"—the song got some local and regional airplay, but nothing close to the level of "Where You From?" Plans for an album are still up in the air.
Beautiful on the Inside
Thompson-Boling Arena, the 20-year-old metal box on the river that hosts big country concerts, monster truck rallies, Hanna Montana, and University of Tennessee basketball, got a $19-million renovation this year: new black seats to contrast with the Big Orange trim, new luxury boxes, an additional level of seating, and they finally mopped up that sticky floor. Former Vol head coach Don DeVoe said it looked like an NBA arena. Too bad the outside's still a big, ugly, metal box.
Scalpers Got the Gold Mine, 9-Year-Old Girls Got the Shaft
If you wanted to take your daughter to see Hannah Montana's Best of Both Worlds Tour at Thompson-Boling Arena in November, you had to be quick on the Internet sales—like, 15-minutes quick—or have been ready to cash in your retirement plan. Tickets went in record-fast time all over the country, and online ticket brokers were asking more than $2,000 for floor seats in the week before the Knoxville show in November. Nine-year-old girls wept.
Up With Sundown
Knoxville's Thursday night spring-and-summer free concert series Sundown in the City celebrated what was—with a little creative math—its 10th anniversary this season with another strong lineup and more near-to-record-breaking crowds. Highlights from the 2007 series included performances by Boston blues-rocker George Thorogood, alt-country favorites the Drive-By Truckers, the Avett Brothers, the Brazilian Girls, and, of course, our city's own Scott Miller.
Festivals, Festivals, Festivals
It was a mixed bag for some of Knoxville's favorite festivals in 2007. The popular downtown-area Rossini street festival was a little disappointing in this, its sixth year running, partly due to inclement weather, which held the attendance well beneath 2005's record-setting count of 65,000. But we look for the festival to rebound in ‘08, as the Rossini is not only a novel idea, but has consistently been one of the highlights of the springtime since its debut in 2002. The Dogwood Arts Festival also enjoyed a good, but not exceptional, year in its 47th season—but apparently not good enough to keep executive director Robyn Nelson on board, who resigned in December.
But excitement reigned in ska-ville as the little festival that could has turned into the very big festival that could—Knoxville's annual Ska Weekend has evolved into a major event in the larger ska community. The ‘07 model saw 27 bands from all across the country play at various stages throughout downtown and the Old City.
Rhys Chatham Loves Knoxville
On Feb. 4, at a small performance space in Cincinnati known as the Skull Lab, Rhys Chatham, a major player in New York's ‘70s No Wave scene and an inspiration to a generation of experimenters like Sonic Youth's Thurston Moore, took the stage. In this dingy little club that didn't even have heat—and temperatures were well below freezing that night in Ohio—two Knoxvillians, Cain Blanchard and Jason Stark, were also on stage, playing alongside the living legend of experimental rock. Regina Greene, who has since left the Pilot Light and Knoxville for Chicago to continue her work with Front Porch Productions, books many of Chatham's gigs and got the pair spots in his backing band for the night.
The power went out mid-way though the set, but everyone kept playing, even though no one could hear Blanchard or Chatham—until the power finally kicked back on. When it did, it was clear they hadn't missed a single note.
Thank God for Detroit Dave
In 1991, guitarists Detroit Dave and Scott Campbell had a band they called Bluefish. They also had a regular gig at Hawkeye's Corner (may that bar rest in peace). Around that time the harmonica whiz Michael Crawley came to town and teamed up with the guitar man from Detroit. And they played together every Thursday night for the next eight years.
Early this year, Detroit Dave went into surgery to repair a faulty heart valve. Once they had him open on the operating table, doctors realized that they would need to replace the entire valve. The surgery was, thank goodness, a success. His friends and fellow musicians organized nearly a dozen benefit concerts to help cover any medical expenses. Dave was even able to play a short set at his own benefit concert at the World Grotto.
"It's going to be a little slow going," Michael Crawley says. "He quit smoking and changed his diet. He's in great shape."
At 45, Detroit Dave should have many more years with us. Expect to hear his Detroit-blues more often in 2008.
'Till the Fat Lady
On April 25, Knoxvillian Colette Boudreaux was onstage in New York, singing her heart out in Domenico Cimarosa's L'Italiana in London (The Italian Girl in London). She played the part of Madame Brillante, the star-crossed innkeeper who tries to woo a Neapolitan businessman.
The opera was first commissioned by the legendary opera house La Scala in Milan. The libretto comes from Giuseppe Petrosellini and, interestingly enough, the 1778 premiere featured castrati singing the female parts. We're sure Boudreaux does a better job.
The New York Times, in an extremely curt review, said: "Cimarosa's opera is this year's little-known offering in the pleasingly offbeat canon of the Manhattan School of Music."
2007 was Boudreaux's first year with the Manhattan School of Music. She's performed at Carnegie Hall as L'Innocente in L'Arlesiana, too.
The digital revolution has taken firm hold in Knoxville and everywhere else, allowing every joker with a pan flute and an Internet connection to put his music on CD Baby. Some of those jokers are actually worth hearing, though. In that spirit, and with apologies to anybody we miss, here's a list of most of the local stuff that made it to the shelves in 2007:
2nd String, The Defiant Ones; 1220, Miss Legendary; Greg Adkins, Chase the Western Sky; Angel and the Love Mongers, The Humanist Queen; Army vs. Navy, Army vs. Navy 2; Bellfield, These Moments; Doug Campbell, Periodically; Dusty Carroll, The Ersatz EP; Crabs Are Scavengers, Apple Tree Thief; Crossfield, Mirror of Your Mind; deek hoi, The Golden Country; Cutthroat Shamrock, The Wake; Diacon-Panthers, Make It Feel Better; Dirty Guv'nahs, Don't Need No Money; Double Muslims, "Errors of Menace"; Chris Durman and Steve White, Off on Exit 65; East Coast Standards Time, Impressions; eastlanDROVE, Stereo Intervention; Generation of Vipers, Dead Circle; Mic Harrison and the High Score, Push Me On Home; Heiskell, Soundtrack for an Aneurism; Hey McFly!, For Members Only; The High Score, The High Score; Wade Hill and Robert Lovett, Ninety Proof Hank; Hotshot Freight Train, The Devil Pays in Counterfeit; Hudson K, Safety Line; Arrison Kirby, Part 3; the Knoxville Jazz for Justice compilation; Knoxville Jazz Orchestra, Blues Man From Memphis; Clara Landau, the Wolf Lady, Solo Flights; Sam Lewis, One's a Long Time, Two's a Fly By; Daniel McBride, They Don't Just Exist; Scott Miller and the Commonwealth, Reconstruction; R.B. Morris, Empire; Mouth Movements, This Is the Way We Move You; Stewart Pack, Beached Whale; Plan A, The View Through These Words; Psychic Baos, Trouts and More Dumpster Blues; Quartjar, Years of a Monkey; Roman Reese, Gritty City; The Rockwells, Place and Time; Sadville, Make Ready the Cross; Senryu, Blink Blink; Doug Shock Band, Floodwater; Superdrag, Changin' Tires on the Road to Ruin; Tenderhooks, Vidalia; John Adam Thomas, City Seventeen; Thoroughfare, As Yet Unborn; tIME and space, Random Actz of Vandalrhythmz; Stump Tucker, Inside Your Head; the Whisk-Hutzel compilation Music to Steal To; Whitechapel, The Somatic Defilement; Woman, "Open Letter."
Hot for Teacher
The most bizarre love-triangle news story in recent memory got weirder and weirder as the year went on, progressing from a simple North Knoxville crime-of-passion narrative to a sordid tale of alleged sexual misconduct, a smudged resume, and cross-county motel-hopping straight out of a Quentin Tarantino movie. First, in March, Eric McLean was arrested and charged with second-degree murder for the shooting death of his wife's 18-year-old lover, Sean Powell. Soon after that came the revelation that 30-year-old Erin McLean had reportedly started her affair with Powell while he was a student at West High School and she was a student teacher. In the unrelenting media storm that followed—network morning-news shows and national magazines covered the story—Erin McLean moved to Nashville with the couple's two sons, ages 8 and 11, to stay with her parents. But she didn't fade into the background: According to court documents, she lied about her work history in order to get a job at a private school and allegedly started a relationship with a 17-year-old student there. Later, the News Sentinel reported accusations from Eric McLean's divorce attorney that Erin McLean, with her children in tow, has hooked up with a 19-year-old man and has jumped the bill at a series of dumpy hotels in Austin, Texas, Boulder, Colo., and California.
Then, just when it looked like public opinion couldn't sway any further to Eric McLean's side, the prosecutor on the case unleashed a surprising announcement, less than a month before the scheduled start of McLean's trial, that the charge had been upgraded to first-degree murder. The trial has been postponed until September, so there's plenty of time for more shenanigans, shocking revelations, and blind-side plot twists.
Hot for Teacher (Reprise)
The McLean soap opera wasn't the only local case of a female teacher accused of providing a little extra hands-on tutoring, 2007 apparently being the Year of Female Sex Offenders, just like 2002 was the Year of Missing Middle-Class White Girls and 2001 was the Year of Shark Bites. And most of those local stories went totally berzerko off-the-tracks at some point.
In September, former Catholic High School teacher and track coach Dianne Dieterich, 36, pleaded guilty to statutory rape for her relationship with a 17-year-old student, and later revealed that she's pregnant with the victim's child. Kimberly Kallenberg, an assistant principal at Powell High School who had been cleared in 2006 of charges of sexual misconduct with a male student, resigned in September after being suspended for more than a year pending additional charges of grade-tampering. Kallenberg has filed a lawsuit against the Knox County School Board for slander, discrimination, and retaliation. To cap off the year, Claiborne County teacher's aide Christy Michele McCartt, 25, was arrested in December and charged with performing oral sex on two teenage boys, ages 16 and 17, in November. No telling what's coming next in that one.
And even though she hasn't been accused of anything other than taking her shirt off in front of a camera, 28-year-old Inskip Elementary teacher Melinda England's racy MySpace photos stirred up a School Board investigation in October. That's still pending, so there's time for this story to go haywire, too.
Tragedy Upon Tragedy
A double rape-murder of a young couple carjacked from a parking lot in early January, under particularly horrific circumstances, left the city on edge for much of the year, especially after it drew unwanted national attention. Groups ranging from the Ku Klux Klan to neo-Nazi organizations were bent on characterizing the crime, among the most serious crimes in Knoxville history and hardly in need of exaggeration, as a racially motivated hate crime.
The only good thing there is to say about the whole matter is that Knoxville, for the most part, seemed to acquit itself well. The agitators were, by most accounts, dominated by out-of-state busybodies.
The first suspects will come to trial in the spring.
An Arrest, At Last
After two years of tireless but often frustrating effort on the part of her mother, an arrest was finally made in the case of Johnia Berry, the UT student stabbed to death by an intruder in her West Knoxville apartment three years ago. In September, following converging leads, police arrested a burglar in North Knoxville who seemed to make at least a partial confession to the Berry murder. In the weeks following, a possible second suspect, who also resembled the once-ubiquitous artist's rendering of the assailant, emerged, adding another wrinkle to a perhaps still-unfolding mystery.
The Empire Strikes Back
Some say it had to happen: Our very own Metro Pulse seemingly became part of The Establishment in 2007 when the E.W. Scripps Co., owners of our former arch-nemeses over at the Knoxville News Sentinel, purchased the Pulse from former owner Brian Conley and his Cardinal Enterprises back in June. Scripps would later go on to shock the world at large in October when the company announced it was splitting into two publicly traded companies, led by its newspaper/TV operations and by the Knoxville-based Scripps Networks, home of so-called "lifestyle media" stalwarts such as HGTV and the Food Network.
Of course, "corporate" doesn't always equal "bad," and one of the first things Scripps did upon purchasing the Pulse and its sister publication Knoxville Magazine was bring back former editor Coury Turczyn, one of the people most responsible for making the paper what it is today. Our cups are still raised in toast.
If the Trailer's a-Rockin'
What used to be the little trailer that could—WDVX 89.9 FM's original studio was a camper in Norris—is now, a decade after its inception, an award-winning Americana station with 40,000 over-the-air listeners and many, many more around the world who listen to its live webcast. And don't forget the daily Blue Plate Special at the WDVX studio on Gay Street, which has featured repeat performances by locals like Robinella, R.B. Morris, and Scott Miller and national acts like Marty Stuart and Ricky Skaggs. The station celebrated its 10th anniversary in October with a live concert and radio broadcast from the Bijou Theatre with the Hackensaw Boys and Brent Thompson and His Wandering Circus.
The station heretofore known as Farragut's Independent Voice, 105.3-WFIV FM, got rid of its program director, long-time local musician and radio DJ Todd Ethridge, late this year, leading some observers to question whether the Adult Alterrnative radio station will maintain the character that has made it one of the best and most diverse commercial radio stations in Knoxville. Station manager Brian Tatum has assured that's the case, and that current WFIV jock Russell Smith will eventually step into Ethridge's shoes as program director. Tatum says the station will add a little more to the rock side of its playlist, but will otherwise remain in format. He also says the station will add yet more local music to its roster, a feature that already set WFIV apart from the vast majority of commercial stations.
In the meantime, Ethridge says there are no hard feelings, and is forging ahead with his own voice-over business.
Not Dead Yet
Despite the death knell that's been sounding for print media for the past 10 years, Knoxville's publishing scene was surprisingly strong this year as news racks became ever more crowded. Knoxville Voice crowed over its singular alt-bi-weekly independence after Metro Pulse was purchased by media conglomerate E.W. Scripps, and even snared columnist Don Williams after he parted ways with the News Sentinel. Homegrown Eva Magazine continued slugging it out with the Scripps-owned local franchise of Skirt Magazine for Knoxville's women readers. The broadsheet Knoxville Focus appears to be trying to out-Knoxville Journal the Knoxville Journal, with one issue last summer bearing the screaming page-one banner headline, "FOCUS EXPANDS! We're going places...". Although campus rag The Weekly Hangover folded its paper tent (and hasn't posted to its blog since February), a couple of new college-crowd contenders appeared from nowhere: Blank and Paperthin. And if you live out west, you can't help but be impressed by the ads in Everything Out West. And Knoxville even supports its own bilingual newspaper, Mundo, that declares, "It's all about Hispanics in Tennessee."
Cormac: Media Superstar
In the How Weird Is That department, Cormac McCarthy, the elusive Knoxville-raised novelist who, despite awards, movie adaptations, and bestseller status for several of his books, has refused publicity in the past—he's never given a lecture, never had a book-signing, never been on television, and has granted only two magazine interviews in the 40 years since he published his first novel—suddenly agreed to appear on the Oprah Winfrey Show. Actually, she had to go to him, at the Santa Fe Institute, his current hangout.
Slouched in a chair, the 74-year-old author was cordial but didn't allow much. About why he didn't accept several lucrative lecture offers in his early days, when he was a much-praised but not-yet-prosperous writer living in spartan circumstances in rural Blount County, he responded, "I was busy. I had things to do."
He won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction for his most recent novel, The Road. And a previous novel, No Country For Old Men, came out as a major motion picture, directed by the Coen Brothers. At year's end, it's considered a likely Best Picture nominee.
The Inevitable UT Roundup
It was a big year in University of Tennessee sports; but then, seemingly every year is a big year in sports when you have teams like Coach Pat Summitt's Lady Vols basketball squad, which roared to the school's seventh national title under Summitt's watch with a 59-46 victory over Rutgers in the NCAA women's title game last spring. This season, the Lady Vols headed into the Christmas break with an undefeated ranking and holding down the no. 1 spot in the polls for '07-'08.
On the men's side of the floor, Coach Bruce Pearl continued his winning ways by piloting the men's team to a berth in the NCAA tournament round of 16, only the second Sweet 16 finish in school history, at least since the tourney went to its current expanded format. The Vols head into the Christmas break with only one loss, to highly-ranked Texas, and many observers expect this to be the best year in team history.
Did someone says softball? Yep, Knoxville went through a brief period of softball mania in the spring when the Lady Vols went on a roll that ended with them as runner-up in the Women's College World Series. Stalwart Lady Vol pitcher Monica Abbott was named USA Softball Collegiate Player of the Year.
Oh, and lest we forget Vol football, the gridiron Vols opened 2007 on a sour note, with a 20-10 loss to Penn State in the Outback Bowl on Jan. 1, a disappointing end to a 2006 season that had seen the Vols rebound from a losing record in 2005 with a 9-3 regular-season record.
The 2007 regular season was a helluva wild ride. With rumors going around that Coach Phillip Fulmer's job might be on the line, the team came back from landslide losses to Florida and Alabama and a two-touchdown defeat to Pac-10 powerhouse California to win the SEC Eastern division and a berth in the conference championship game. Unfortunately, the Vols couldn't pull out a close one against West Division winner LSU, losing 21-14 and sending LSU to the BCS championship game against Ohio State. The 9-4 Vols will settle for another Outback Bowl trip on New Year's Day, where they'll face the University of Wisconsin.