Guitarist Labron Lazenby's happy-hour set with his band the LA3 at the Preservation Pub earlier this week was officially in honor of Knoxville-born and Kingsport-raised bluesman Brownie McGhee, who was born on Nov. 30, 1915 and died in 1996. The show was also a tribute to the late blues singer Sara Jordan, who died in 2001. Maybe most important, the show also served as the coming-out party for the Tennessee Valley Blues and Heritage Foundation, a new local organization dedicated to preservation of the blues traditions of East Tennessee and the surrounding region and promoting contemporary blues artists.
"This area's almost turning its back on the fact that it's had, along with a very rich tradition of country, bluegrass, and mountain music, a tradition of blues, too," says Michael Gill, one of the foundation's founders and head of Bluegill Productions, which manages the Alive After Five series at the Knoxville Museum of Art.
Gill's been a blues patron in Knoxville for years, not only with Alive After Five but as president of the Knoxville Blues Society from 1998 to 2000. (Not long after his term ended, the group moved from Knoxville to Maryville and became the Smoky Mountain Blues Society, which has just resurfaced after a several-year hiatus.) In 2006 he staged the Hard Knox Blues Bash on Market Square.
"That was pretty good, but our benefactor changed her mind late in the game the next year," Gill says. "But in the past year I really began to feel like the music I love, particularly the blues, wasn't getting enough attention."
Gill points to several of the too-often overlooked key figures in East Tennessee's blues history: McGhee, who spent decades performing with the harmonica player Sonny Terry and was a central figure in the folk revival of the late '50s and early '60s; the singer Ida Cox, who performed with Charlie Christian, Coleman Hawkins, and Lionel Hampton and spent the last years of her life in Knoxville; Morristown native Wallace Coleman, a harmonica player who's worked with Guitar Slim and Robert Johnson acolyte Robert Lockwood Jr.; and stringband pioneer Howard Armstrong.
"I don't want to see the blues become like ragtime or some other museum piece," Gill says. "I still see it as a viable style, and in other markets it is. It can still be a vibrant scene."
Gill says he hopes to revive the Knoxville Blues Society's educational outreach programs. The most important part of his plan, however, is another installment of the Hard Knox Blues Bash next summer, with national and regional headliners supported by local acts like Lazenby, Slow Blind Hill, Chico Crawford, and the Hector Qirko Band. He also sees the group broadening its vision to include jazz and R&B.
Part of Gill's mission is to demolish stereotypes about the blues.
"There are plenty of blues fans, and then there are people who get into blues music when they hear it," he says. "I had the pleasure of talking to Little Milton once, and he said, ‘It's unfortunate the music got called the blues. People just had the wrong idea about it.' That's something I want to smash once and for all. I don't want to hear anybody ever say, ‘It's too sad and depressing for me.' Blues covers the whole spectrum of emotions."