The Best Knoxville Band Ever #3: Smokin' Dave and the Premo Dopes

(112 points, six first-place votes; see the complete list)

You might assume that every band fronted by Todd Steed is just another Todd Steed band. There have certainly been a lot of them over the decades, and they've all featured the same distinctly off-kilter songwriter, singing his funny/wistful songs, playing his jangly/boomy guitar. But that would be selling short Smokin' Dave and the Premo Dopes, Steed's second and (yeah, I'll say it) best band. These guys transcended themselves.

Knoxville has had more famous bands, more popular bands, more successful bands. But Smokin' Dave and the Premo Dopes was our most influential band, daring to embrace its Knoxvilleness at a time when the number-one goal of most musicians here was to get out of town as fast as possible. By doing its own counterintuitive DIY thing, Smokin' Dave set an unlikely example: Carving out a music career in Knoxville might not be such a stupid idea after all. Fame and fortune can be nice goals, but sometimes it's worth doing something because it's worth doing.

Arising from the Fort Sanders/Cumberland Avenue scene in 1982, Smokin' Dave played its first gig at Hobo's, now famous in local music lore for hosting R.E.M. and Iggy Pop. (Do we currently have any small clubs that book, you know, legends—either by plan or by accident?) Unlike their contemporaries, the Dopes weren't notably ugly like some of the punk bands (any group with Rus Harper) or cool-looking like some of the straight-up rock outfits (any group with Brian Waldschlager, who was actually an early member of the Dopes). They were, in a word, schlubby—the record-store clerks of rock 'n' roll.

But onstage, they played like… well, maybe not gods—let's say imps. On any given night, Steed's playful guitar, Dug Meech's frenetic drumming, and Dave Nichols' spidery bass would coalesce into spectacle, sparking the beer- and cigarette-scented air with flashes of unassuming brilliance. Underlying the driving rhythms and crunching guitar solos was a distinctive wit that took this "college rock" into an unexpected place: dizzy sophistication that you could dance to.

Funny, self-deprecating, maybe a little reflective, and always rockin', the Dopes followed their own talents, even if they inevitably led straight back to Knoxville. Their first single, "Ethiopian Jokes"—a bittersweet slam on shallow frat boys by someone who'd actually been to Ethiopia—seemed like it was their springboard to fame in 1986, getting reviewed by Creem and plugged by critic Dave Marsh. But it turned into more of a lesson on how to stay true to yourself. (As Steed recalled in an interview: "We had a couple of labels call us and they'd say ‘Well, I really, really, like your energy and you've got some good ideas. Now if you could just take the humor out…' And it just wouldn't work. Take the humor out? That's all we got, man!")

So the Dopes eschewed major-label control for self-rule, touring the country in their beloved van, performing some 500 shows, and inspiring a music scene's worth of local bands. After breaking up in 1993, the guys went their separate ways (Meech to Nashville, Nichols to the circus, Steed to various countries around the globe before returning to you-know-where), but they reunited to perform in 2000 (first, accidentally, at a West Knoxville pizza joint, and then officially at the Longbranch Saloon). Since then, Smokin' Dave sightings are a nearly annual phenomenon—a pleasant reminder that great Knoxville music is timeless.