cover_story (2006-08)

GAY STREET BLUES: L-R disk jockey Matt Morelock, disk jockey Red Hickey, program director Tony Lawson, sound man John Gillspie.

And soon enough, somebody starts playing some music. What’s drawing them—all these disparate people—is the WDVX Blue Plate Special. The live music show broadcast locally on the air and internationally on the Web is also free to downtowners on their lunch breaks. Some bring their lunches; others buy $6 box lunches prepared by Calhoun’s. The lineup is different every day, sometimes a local unknown, sometimes a major recording star accustomed to playing large auditoriums, but the music usually involves a fiddle or a guitar or both.

The lunchtime broadcast is barely a year and a half old, but as a uniquely Knoxvillian institution known far and wide, it’s beginning to rival the Body Farm. There are rumors that there may still be two or three radio stations elsewhere that still broadcast live performers before a live audience, but it’s safe to say there’s nothing very much like the Blue Plate anywhere in the world.

WDVX is the nine-year-old listener-supported public radio station, independent of any institutional affiliations, that famously started in a camper near Norris. In format, WDVX was dedicated, from the beginning, to roots music—bluegrass, old-time, and “Americana,” a catchall phrase for indigenous music that tends to be left out of commercial radio. WDVX and the Blue Plate Special are famous for bluegrass, but draw all sorts. Visiting bands have a strong tendency to be string-based, but within that rule, they span the gamut in a wide swath around the fringes of bluegrass, from jazz to rock.

According to Arbitron, WDVX reaches 42,700 listeners over the air in their regional market, via various translators—in Knoxville, it’s broadcast on both 89.9 and 102.9. But the station also claims to be Tennessee’s most popular website broadcast; WDVX estimates that 150,000 people regularly listen to the station around the world. One study indicates that 61 percent of WDVX’s website fans tune in from outside the Southeast.

WDVX’s presence on this corner is a rare combination of a public radio station with an international following and a civic-booster project designed to tout the city of Knoxville. It’s still just new enough that some interested downtowners are surprised to happen onto it. But several of those who put the show together—and many of the musicians who play here, even those from out of state—evoke an older tradition of live radio, one that was absent from Gay Street for half a century.

The room includes a gift shop of Knoxville products—books, chow chow, pottery, honey, soap, T-shirts, hot sauce, pickled peppers—and a cafe with a curved counter that serves only Knoxville-ground coffee. That cafe-gift shop combo is unusual in itself. What makes it unique is the rear of the room, where there’s a corner stage, decorated curiously with dozens of bluish Melmar plates, hung on the wall, covering every square foot, as if by a geriatric plate-collector run amok. Each bears the photographic image of a different musician on that stage. And just beside the stage are windows into a muted room with music posters on the walls, and computers and other electronic equipment—it’s a real operating radio studio, and the nerve center of WDVX.

The person most likely to be in there during the day is Red Hickey, named perhaps for the color of her hair and, today, her long skirt. Raised in Knoxville and schooled in fashion design, Hickey made the unlikely jump to country-music broadcasting when program director Tony Lawson hired her to spin disks in the days when the station was still located in a remote camper in rural Anderson County. Life is different today. “I used to go to work in pajamas or sweatpants, rolling out of bed,” she says. “I might work there two weeks and not see anybody.”

As we’re talking in this very different fishbowl studio, people in the cafe are already peering in at us through the big window. “Now I’ve got to wear real clothes,” she says. For her, today, real clothes include white pointy-toed cowboy boots with rhinestones and a satin vest.

Some things are easier downtown. At the camper, a bathroom break meant a desperate dash across a field to a public campground facility. For a DJ working by herself, it presented a challenge. “We had a list of long songs,” she said. “If you wanted to go to the bathroom, you’d put on a long song and run.”

Fortunately, at the Visitors Center, there’s a bathroom just down the hall. She sees a few other advantages to downtown, as well. “It’s great to be able to go to restaurants, walk down the street and see people,” Hickey says. And though some bands did go to the camper to do a live show now and then, the Blue Plate seems more attractive to musicians of all stripes. “We get tons more bands in. They don’t have to drive 30 minutes to get here.” That goes both for local bands and visiting ones, who are most likely to be playing at venues in central Knoxville. “Plus, they couldn’t sell CDs at the camper,” she says, because there wasn’t an audience to sell them to. 

Hickey says this particular venue offers another advantage. Some musicians aren’t used to getting up by noon, much less playing a show. “It’s a good thing having a coffee shop right there,” she says. “We can start pumping caffeine into them the minute they walk into the door.”

One performer who prefers not to be identified talks about the day he arrived hung over, maybe even still a little drunk. He said the place was so inspiring, he rallied and did a good show.

Hickey says many musicians come expecting to do a standard radio promotional performance in a studio, and are taken aback to see a live audience.

She seems to enjoy that moment of consternation. Hickey remembers last year, when Cowboy Jack Clement arrived for what he thought was to be a studio appearance. “Cowboy Jack hadn’t performed in front of people in years,” she says of the legendary Sun Records maverick who, despite recent production work with U2 and for the film, Walk the Line , seemed to have retired from live performances. “I’m not used to getting out there and the artist being more scared than I am,” she laughs. “Cowboy Jack was white as a ghost. But he did a great show.”

Last Thursday, Robinella, the string band fronted by soprano vocalist Robin Contreras, was the featured performer. The Robinella show had been scheduled for weeks, but it happened to coincide with the announcement that the jazz/bluegrass/torch band’s new album, Solace For the Lonely , had arrived at #6 on the national Americana charts. The show drew about 75, some of whom came an hour early to claim the choice seats. This particular crowd is one of several at the Blue Plate that can convince you that WDVX has cornered that much-coveted 1-to-87 demographic.

Everyone remarks on the diversity of the crowds that walk in off Gay Street, and Hickey does, too. “Your artistic types come in, and your businessman in a suit. And you’ve got the Dancin’ Man sitting on the other side of him.” She’s referring to a loony street character who’s a semi-regular. “He heckles the bands a little bit,” she says. “Some think he’s too noisy, but I think he adds color. I think the bands like it. My opinion is, it’s a Visitors Center, it’s a public place. It doesn’t bother me.”

Hickey remarks on one surprising aspect of their audiences. “We might have BR-549 here—a young, hip band. And you look out, and there are all these gray-haired people in the audience.” She thinks it’s only natural that neglected group might find this setup appealing.

“A 68-year-old woman may not feel comfortable hanging out at the Preservation Pub,” Hickey says, referring to the lively saloon around the corner on Market Square where many of the Blue Plate’s bands perform their paying shows. “It doesn’t mean she doesn’t like the music.” Their audiences are made up of older people or working people “who aren’t necessarily comfortable going out at 10 to a bar.”

Sprinkled through the eclectic crowd are a few suits, and familiar faces: among them are Knoxville Director of Development Bill Lyons, Knox County Finance Director John Werner, and philanthropic Cornerstone Foundation chief Laurens Tullock. As it turns out, they’re all regulars.

Asked to comment about the Blue Plate phenomenon, Tullock says, only, “It’s incredible.” The county finance director elaborates on Tullock’s remark. “It’s incredible,”  Werner says.

And a few musicians—not all, but it’s impressive how many—appreciate the historic resonance of the location. Hickey says, “Everybody compares us to Mid-Day Merry Go Round.”

The Merry-Go-Round wasn’t the only live-music show on Gay Street—WROL also hosted live-audience shows with big stars on that same avenue, as did even WIVK in its earliest days. But the Merry-Go-Round was the longest-lived and best known. It left downtown when WNOX opened a new studio at Whittle Springs. The station had a swank auditorium there, but it was never the same, too far from workplaces for many people to drop in casually.

By the 1960s, live-audience radio had fizzled out; but the show with the goofy name lived on as a country-music legend, still recognized by country-music performers, even those too young to have heard of it. Last week, the Gibson Brothers, a popular young bluegrass band from upstate New York, played the Blue Plate, and when they did, brought up the Merry-Go-Round. Marty Stuart, a major Nashville star who came to Knoxville last year expressly to play the Blue Plate, remembered performing on the old show as a child. Hickey says some visiting musicians walk a block and a half down the street to the gap in the buildings on the 100 block, to take a picture with the Cradle of Country Music plaque showing where the WNOX studios were once located.

Some see something of its spirit here. “It’s got a little bit of that old-timey Gay Street feel,” says musician R.B. Morris, a repeat performer who says he discussed the potential of it with Lawson and others long before it happened. “That’s the main thing to see about it. It’s the return of music to Gay Street.” He played there this week, and has played hundreds of venues in America and abroad. “It’s always surprising how good a music situation it is,” Morris says. “I know you’re playing for nothing, and there may be a few people here and there come in to see you. But you’re also on the air, and you’re going around the world on the Web. The people who come in are always a good audience, the sound is really good, and somehow or other, it becomes really musical.”

Hickey recalls, “My grandmother didn’t allow my aunt and mother to go to the Mid-Day Merry-Go-Round. She said, ‘That’s hillbilly music.’ But my aunt used to sneak my mother down from North Hills on the bus.” Her aunt, who’s in her 70s, comes to some Blue Plates, and approves. “It’s a great thing for Knoxville history to have it back,” Hickey says.

Marketing Director Roger Harb is the only one on staff who remembers the WNOX show, albeit the post-Gay Street show at Whittle Springs. Some make the similarities to the Merry-Go-Round sound like a serendipitous coincidence—after all, WDVX actually ran a noontime show of mostly recorded, but sometimes live, music called the Blue Plate Special long before the station moved downtown, and the interest in the live radio show among both audience members and top-flight musicians sounds as if it surprised everybody. But both Lawson and Harb, who was largely responsible for getting WDVX studios ensconced on Gay Street, sound like evoking the glory days of country music on Gay Street was always in the back of their minds.

Harb says one version of the idea grew out of his conversations with Chamber Partnership head Mike Edwards, who thought returning indigenous radio downtown might be good for all concerned; encouraged, Harb went to Gloria Ray, previously best known as a booster of UT athletics, but now head of the Knoxville Tourism and Sport Corp., newly formed from some sputtering booster organizations. “I don’t think Gloria knew about WDVX,” Harb says. “She wasn’t a listener, and we weren’t a sport.” But Ray asked around, and found a great deal of enthusiasm for the station coming downtown. To Harb, using indigenous music to promote the city was an obvious connection. “Travel the world and mention Tennessee, and they’ll talk about music.”

The Visitors Center was originally located on Volunteer Landing; funded largely by major agencies like TVA and the National Park Service, it was criticized for a certain vagueness of purpose, and also for its paucity of visitors, which would tend to be key to a Visitors Center.

Meanwhile, WDVX was suffering, too, outgrowing its famous camper. “That poor camper couldn’t go another winter,” says Harb of their state about four years ago. “Besides, WDVX was becoming popular, people were coming by, and there were security issues.”

The two struggling non-profits, each with its own set of problems and interests, found a common cause.

It didn’t hatch fully fledged. Robin Hamilton, the KT&SC’s vice president for sales and marketing, had his own ideas of how to promote Knoxville interests in the new Visitors Center. With or without a radio station, he wanted to present daily shows or demonstrations of some sort: readings by local authors, perhaps demonstrations by local artisans, maybe a musician now and then, all for the purpose of touting local culture, as does the all-Knoxville gift shop and the slick promotional video that runs in a continuous loop on a screen above the bookshelves. He recalls the concept, as it was maybe two years ago: “It might be music, it might be book readings, whatever, just something geared around the history and heritage of Knoxville.”

The KT&SC chose to add a little life to the Visitors Center by bringing in the camper refugees. “Basically, we have a deal where we provide the space,” says Hamilton. “They pay us rent. But whatever the rent is, we buy back in advertising. Basically, it’s a wash.”

Architects worked a small stage into the program, and in 2004, WDVX began hosting once-a-week live shows.

“At first I thought, yeah, we’ll do it on Fridays,” says Lawson. “We can do this. But talking to musicians, we thought, let’s try to do this every day.”

The live-music show wasn’t an immediate hit with an audience. “Some of those early weeks, we might get in three or four or five people here,” Lawson recalls.

Today Lawson is a portly presence on the fringe of the crowd, a gray-haired Buddha in a railroad cap. He never paces or fidgets or chatters, but watches with zen-like calm as things fall into place, often serendipitously. He talks about the Blue Plate almost as if it’s an organic entity. “We’ve been connecting the dots and the thing took on a life of its own,” he says. At times he seems almost bemused by what has become of the station he used to run from a camper. “It takes on its own life, grows its own way. That’s a lesson I’ve learned with WDVX. We can set out to do something, but it’s going to go its own way. We just try to be its parent, its guardian.”

Lawson is not universally beloved; he has rubbed some people the wrong way over the years. Some have criticized him as stubborn, egotistical, sneaky, capricious, and plain ornery. After a mutiny of supporters, board members, and a disk jockey in 1999 seemed likely to scuttle the young station, Lawson surprised many by keeping it together, protesting that he was misunderstood. 

Musicians seem to like him, though, and most agree that for better or worse, the phenomenon of the Blue Plate Special wouldn’t be here without the enigmatic program director.

After a few months of trundling along as an irregular event at which performers would show up most days, but not all days, the Blue Plate settled into a dependable daily pattern sometime last year. But a certain unpredictable quality has survived, and sometimes prevailed.

Texas songwriter Joe Ely was one of the most-anticipated performers ever announced for the Blue Plate, and drew a crowd of more than 100, many of them jammed in near the door. The problem was that—due to a miscommunication, as it turned out—Ely didn’t show up. Lawson was out of town, attending an aunt’s funeral in Cleveland. He got a frantic call from headquarters, and had a hunch. He asked, “Is Scott Miller there?” Lawson knew that Miller, one of Knoxville’s most successful recording artists of recent years, was an Ely fan.

There aren’t many coffee shops where you can expect to find a well-singer with a reputation on the Americana charts present, but sure enough, Miller was right there. But not expecting to play, Miller didn’t have his guitar with him.

“We have a guitar downstairs,” said Lawson, of the office and storage area beneath the cafe. “Get it.” Miller did an impromptu performance—as Joe Ely doing a tribute to Scott Miller. The big crowd, which came expecting to see Ely himself and had the potential to be an ugly mob, laughed and applauded.

Another time, another Texas songwriter, Hayes Carll, was scheduled to play, but at noon, wasn’t there. Fortunately, out in the parking lot the frantic radio hosts happened to find a fellow named Charlie Acuff. A cousin of legendary fiddler Roy, Acuff leads his own string band whose credits include an appearance on “A Prairie Home Companion.” Acuff was just getting into his truck, but was happy to oblige. He came into the cafe and played a 15-minute on-air set until Carll arrived.

The Blue Plate schedule is peppered with “tentative” performances. A lot can go wrong, but emergency musicians and emergency instruments are never far away. Last week, Billy Contreras, the standout fiddler for Robinella, appeared for the big show, assuming his brother Cruz had brought his fiddle. He hadn’t. Another trip to the basement eight minutes before airtime turned up a serviceable fiddle that had been donated to the station. It happened to be a commemorative one signed by Charlie Daniels, which was very nice, but it lacked a bridge and strings. The young Contreras fixed it up just in time for the Blue Plate’s on-air time of noon.

Sometimes the surprises are welcome. Last Friday, a young bluegrass band, led by mandolinist and WDVX teenage prodigy disc jockey Alex Leach, seemed to be sailing right past the usual 1 p.m. signoff time for the Blue Plate when a lean man in black clothes and graying hair walked in the front door and past the Girl Scouts’ cookie-selling table with his guitar case. He stood politely for a while by the coffee counter, applauding the work of the bluegrass group. At length he introduced himself to Tony Lawson. “Hi, I’m Tommy,” he said, in a light Australian accent. Lawson raised his eyebrows. It was Tommy Emmanuel, one of the best-known acoustic guitarists in the world.

Emmanuel was scheduled to play before an almost-sold-out house at the Tennessee that night, with tickets going for upwards of $20. Lawson had approached Emmanuel’s agent floating the idea that the guitarist might drop by the Blue Plate, but the agent had never confirmed it, and Lawson wasn’t expecting him. The unscheduled virtuoso took the stage at 1:15 and played a 20-minute set of astonishing guitar for barely 30 people, some of them Girl Scouts selling cookies.

Emmanuel mentioned having heard stories for years about the Mid-Day Merry-Go-Round, even gesturing correctly toward the site of the long-gone studio. Later he said he heard about it mostly from his childhood idol and later collaborator, Chet Atkins. Emmanuel and Atkins performed together on some of the East Tennessee guitar legend’s last recordings. He closed with an Atkins instrumental, “Windy and Warm,” which is on Emmanuel’s last album.

Campbell talks about the advantages it offers to downtown workers in almost beatific terms. “Instead of sitting at their desk eating a burger, they’re at the Blue Plate, hearing a show. They’re gaining an hour of life.”

Artist, author, and retired literature professor B.J. Leggett, who keeps a studio at the Emporium, takes a seat at the Blue Plate nearly every day. “It’s very uneven, but most of it’s great,” he says. “It’s consistently interesting. I’ve only left once.”

Another fan a couple stools away from Leggett is an effusive, decidedly non-academic fellow who looks like he’s wearing someone else’s clothes. “This is my favorite station,” he says. Just after a lively show, he’s in the mood to talk about all the things he likes. “I also love Marshall Andy Smalls. He’s on TV on Saturday morning. I also love Wal-Mart. Find you some good deals there.”

Considering the popularity of the shows, some supporters of the radio station itself are already frustrated with the size of the venue, some of them urging Lawson and others to make it something bigger, like Austin City Limits or Mountain Stage. There were discussions of partnering with the renovating Bijou Theatre, and perhaps moving WDVX’s studios there.

Lawson was excited at first, but there were political issues with the city—and now he says he has misgivings about the whole idea. “Imagine a show with only 30 or 40 or 50 people at the Bijou. That wouldn’t work. Anyway, this is the best listening room in town. Everyone is so attentive, listening to the music. Folks are paying attention.”

How much the Blue Plate is helping WDVX in a practical way isn’t yet proven. As distinctive and popular as it seems to be, the Blue Plate has yet to prove it’s a financial boon to the station. “We have not maximized our opportunities, but we will,” says Harb. “We have set the stage to have wonderful underwriting sponsorships and support.” He says the station is poised to earn grants from state and local governments in the near future, which will be used to increase bandwidth and eventually expand its listener and subscriber base.

Lawson’s seat-of-the-pants style is off-putting to some WDVX supporters, but the unpredictable aspect seems to be part of the Blue Plate’s weird energy.

After a show, Lawson reviews the blue Melmar photographic plates behind the stage with the easy pride of a dad showing off a son’s baseball trophies. Hamilton says the plates were the idea of Lind Nelson, the center’s director of retail, “to create a destination, like a little museum” to console those visitors who missed the shows. At this point it functions like a Hall of Fame of people who have played one of the city’s smallest stages. A walk-by can give you the impression that the Blue Plate Special here has a history that’s a good deal deeper than a year and a half and a few square feet of polished wood would seem to allow for.

“There’s Rodney Crowell,” says Lawson, stopping before plates depicting some of the big-name performers who have played here.

“Marty Stuart. When he came here, he asked, ‘What do you want us to do?’ I said, ‘Do whatever you want.’ He played a lot of gospel.”

He moves on. “There’s BR-549. Nickel Creek. Doyle Lawson. Yonder Mountain.” They’re all big names that drew standing-room only crowds. There are several local stars, too: R.B. Morris, Hector Qirko, Todd Steed.

And he points to one not quite as famous. “That’s the Wade Hill band.” He points to a skinny older man on the left of a bluegrass-style group. “That guy is Paul Stanton, who died the night after his performance here. That’s probably the last photo ever taken of him.”

Word’s getting around. Fleck, one of the best-known banjoists alive, played a Blue Plate on a Monday last month, four days and several tour dates before his sold-out show at the Tennessee. Fleck scheduled his whole day around the show, and attended the banjo exhibit at the McClung Museum.

Greg Garing, an eerily talented singer/guitarist with a cult following from Nashville to New York, played WDVX last Saturday (the Saturday Blue Plate is an irregular thing). He didn’t even have a show to promote. “He comes just because he digs this venue,” says Hickey.

Christa DeCicco played with her torchy band last week. “It’s the most nerve-wracking thing I’ve ever done,” she says. “There’s the audience you can see, and there’s the hidden audience,” on the radio. “But it’s also the best stage we’ve ever played. A warm, resonant room. To a singer, it’s inspiring.”

Drummer Jon Whitlock says, “You get e-mails from Montana, Portland—’I heard your show, it was great!’” DeCicco adds, “I heard from someone in Colorado who wanted to buy a CD.”

All this global talk is giving people ideas. There are reportedly plans in the works in several quarters to get the radio station involved in some bigger shows—live-audience shows broadcast on radio or television, perhaps on weekend evenings after the Bijou reopens. An attempt to start a live variety show there, Prairie Home-style, fizzled about 10 years ago for want of investors. But times seem to be different now.

All Lawson will say this week is, “Let’s just see where it goes. If we keep bringing people downtown, who knows what’s going to happen?”