Todd Steed and Robinella are locked in conversation. Steed, one of the grand old men of the Knoxville music scene, asks the country-jazz chanteuse about her influences and compares her to Dolly Parton and Billie Holiday. Robinella's quiet, shy, all blushes and grins.
"I don't know if it's accurate," she says. "But I like it."
A quick cut, however, proves Steed's point. Having picked up her acoustic Gibson, and joined by a previously unseen back-up guitarist, Robinella instantly warms up to both microphone and camera during a rendition of "Everlasting Peace of Mind."
With each musical interlude, Robinella becomes noticeably more at ease. She talks with Steed about her love of jazz, gives him an impromptu demonstration of a collaborative effort she's working on, and jokes with him about country legend Don Williams' habit of making hits out of covers and how Steed's mother should be proud of his interview skills and excellent posture.
It's not Behind the Music, but it's not meant to be. It's called Studio 865, and it premieres Wednesday, March 5, on the University of Tennessee's UTTV and WUOT. Together, Studio 865 and its radio-only encore, Flipside (on WUOT immediately after the televised broadcast) are the two parts of a multimedia effort by the university to reach out to and highlight the local arts community.
Flash back to last fall, when WUOT director and general manager Regina Dean, at the behest of the station's advisory board, set out to create new programming to reach out to Knoxville's entertainment community and give it a regular and established broadcast venue. At about the same time, Thomas Owens, executive director of UT's Video and Photography Center, was looking to create a breakout arts-based show for UTTV, the university's fledgling network partnership with Comcast.
Tom Milligan, Vice Chancellor of Communications at the university, saw the similar goals of the two efforts and brought them together. Under Milligan's watch, WUOT started a collaboration with UTTV to do something bigger than either could do alone. Milligan is setting his standards high for the results.
"Our goal with this is to link up the resources we already have, through WUOT and UTTV, and get something out there that can really be taken advantage of by the community," says Milligan. "Other universities have had opportunities like this to put up content, and they end up with cafeteria menus on there. We didn't want to do something like that. If we're going to do this, we want to make it interesting and engaging."
Dean and Steed worked together previously on Improvisations, WUOT's weekday evening jazz series on which Steed serves as host a few nights a week. The popularity of that program led Dean to suggest Steed as the natural choice for Studio 865.
"[Todd] has been so well received by WUOT jazz listeners," Dean says. "Designing another vehicle for him seemed like a great idea....Knoxville's music scene may be fairly well known throughout the country, but it's less recognized and understood at home. We've heard, largely from outside sources, that Knoxville's music gets an ‘Oh, yeah!' response, and we really wanted to touch on that and expand on it here."
Owens' Video and Photography Center also works on the shows hosted by men's basketball coach Bruce Pearl and football coach Phillip Fulmer, but he wants Studio 865 to go further than his sports staples. "We want a marquee show," Owens says. "We really want to put out something that generates a buzz in the community."
Some of that buzz may be emanating from Steed himself, who has an extensive, if offbeat, broadcasting résumé, which includes his ongoing Improvisations duties, a three-year stint at WUTK, and a reluctant turn in the early 1990s as a fill-in broadcaster for newly democratic Lithuania's only English-language TV newscast.
"I had a friend at the TV station who asked me if I would edit her newscasts," he says. "I did, and one week she got sick and they asked me if I would do the show. I said, ‘Today? I haven't shaved!' They didn't care."
His relaxed confidence with his subject matter and the ease with which he relates to his guests reflects his years of being a musician himself in numerous local bands (currently fronting the Suns of Sphere). He knows his guests and their work, and that familiarity allows him to delve into the deeper issues of playing music in Knoxville.
But mostly, Steed steps back in favor of the guests and their creations. The artists will take center stage, but the real star of the show is the art itself. A hefty portion of Studio 865 will be performance-based—expect four or five songs in a typical 30-minute episode, with the rest devoted to discussion of the creative process. "We want to focus on the performers playing what they want to play," Steed emphasizes.
The series kicks off with Scott Miller, followed by Robinella and R.B. Morris. Steed is keeping an open mind about future guests.
"It's not going to be limited to musicians," he says. "Performers of every type will be fair game....WUOT's listeners are a fairly diverse group of people. My only philosophy on that is, ‘Don't put anything on that will just scare people off or make them want to turn off their radios.' Other than that, anything that sounds to me interesting and acceptable in some sense—everything from 80-year-old Appalachian folk musicians to up-and-coming songwriters who haven't put that much out."
Flipside, 865's WUOT-exclusive encore session airing right after the TV show, is a half-hour radio-only program that grew out of Dean's original plan. It's a laid-back complement to 865 proper; Steed invites upcoming or past guests to WUOT with their own favorite music in tow.
One of the first guests will be singer/songwriter Scott Miller, who's known for his historical narratives and debauched anthems. During the session he and Steed recorded a couple of months ago, Miller started an impromptu John Prine-for-Poet Laureate campaign. He uses Prine's 1972 album Diamonds in the Rough as promotional material and as a jumping-off point to discuss Prine's influence on his own work.
After playing Prine's "The Late John Garfield Blues," Miller's campaign speech switches back and forth between a rapid-fire fanboy dissertation on Prine's merits and a comedic drawl. ("And why do you like it?" Steed asks. "'Cuz it's goooood!" Miller replies.) As Miller starts to recite lyrics from memory, his voice picks up speed and intensity: "Like a master painter paints a picture, you can just see ‘Black faces pressed against the glass/Where rain has pressed its weight/Wind-blown scarves in top-down cars/All share one western trait.' You can just see it."
At the same time, though, Miller and Steed aren't selling Diamonds, or Miller's other choice for the evening, R&B master Bill Withers' Live at Carnegie Hall, or critiquing them—they're just talking about why they like them.
"We sit down and we talk about our favorite records, like you would in your living room," Steed says. It's not the hardest job in the world, he admits. "It's easy to get musicians to talk about what they love."