It's 8:30 a.m. on a drizzly spring Thursday, and I'm driving up through the fog on Interstate 75 to Norris with an odd sense of grim anticipation. I have taken the morning off from work. I gassed up the car the night before. I stocked my wallet with cash and remembered to bring the checkbook in case things get crazy. I have not told anyone of my mission, thus avoiding unwanted competition. I have also skipped breakfast—stealth and urgency are my guiding forces.
I am on the hunt for vinyl records.
Lucking into the ultimate score is the dream of every vinyl hound. The Internet is rife with tall tales of amazing finds. We read about them on collector forums, gritting our teeth in bitter envy. There's the apocryphal story of the guy just minding his own business, walking down the street, when he suddenly comes across someone's trash on the curb, put out for collection—and discovers crates and crates of untouched, still shrink-wrapped vinyl. Or maybe it was unopened boxes tossed into a Dumpster behind an old radio station, full of DJ copies yet to be played. Or it's a flea market where someone just wants to get rid of dozens of their uncle's old, worthless bebop records from the '40s—just take them, please. And in every story, these finds just happen to be exactly the sort of records each collector personally treasures and won't sell no matter how many thousands of dollars they may be worth.
Will this turn out to be one of those stories? It has never actually happened to me before, and I don't really expect it to on this trip. But you never know. The Craigslist ad for the estate sale was just vague enough to spark the imagination: 10 boxes of records. That means hundreds of discs, maybe a thousand or more. Whoever had collected them must have been serious about music—that's a lot of vinyl to keep together over the years. Typically, garage sales yield one or two boxes of LPs, mostly of the easy listening variety—umpteenth variations on Sing Along With Mitch or Firestone Christmas carol collections. (Why in the heck did a tire company think it a smart marketing plan to issue Christmas albums every year? It is one of those pop-culture mysteries doomed to be lost in the mists of time.) To find 10 boxes at an estate sale is most unusual—particularly at an estate sale that opens at 9 a.m. on a Thursday, in a town 20 miles north of Knoxville.
All of these omens meant one thing: I actually have a chance to buy some of them before somebody else does.
Record-hunting has become a highly competitive hobby in Knoxville. Yes, indeed—"vinyl is back." The kids are buying records again, rock bands are demanding LP releases, vinyl sales are increasing as CD sales are decreasing, etc., etc., etc. We all know that. But for longtime used-record collectors, this makes it the best of times and the worst of times. The LP's unexpected return to economic and cultural viability creates scenes that were unimaginable a dozen years ago, when garage sale–hopping was an often solitary sport—now collectors with graying goatees find themselves frantically flipping through boxes as spry tattooed hipsters streak ahead of them to find the choice sides.
But not this time! I make it to the address at exactly 9:05 a.m., and there is but one other car parked on the street. Even if it is a collector, I will still be able to examine the stash, working my way through it from the other end. If there is gold to be found, we will have to share it. I brace myself for battle.
Inside the small, plain house is a depressing scene of bachelor decay. Clearly, the fellow had not bothered to keep the place up for the last 20 or more years—the frayed green carpeting is congealed with dirt, layers of dust adhere to shelves of long-forgotten books, and the smell of ancient canned meals still lurks in the disordered kitchen. Remnants of a long-ago career in broadcasting are scattered about the tiny rooms: pictures, certificates, manuals. A premonition of what may someday befall my own collection of stuff dampens whatever sense of adventure I had started out with.
Worse, there are no records. The only other shopper is looking at some movie posters from the '70s. Where are the 10 boxes of vinyl LPs? They ought to be filling up the entire living room. I go outside to ask the estate-sale organizer, a portly, bald fellow perhaps unchanged from the '50s.
"They already got bought and carted away," he says.
"In under five minutes?!" I ask, wounded to the core.
"Yep," he replies. "Paid full price. Then we took him to the storage unit and he's buying six more boxes we had in there."
Clearly, these must have been important records for someone to buy them in total, immediately upon arrival. Visions of a complete run of Blue Note records—the most sacred of all jazz labels—well up from the corner of my brain that's usually able to restrain such paranoid fantasies. Ugh. I have been outfoxed, again—most probably by one of the ever-growing number of vinyl purveyors in the Knoxville area.
There are more retail outlets for records in Knoxville now than during vinyl's final heyday in the '70s and '80s before it was finally crushed under the deadweight of millions of Compact Discs in the '90s. With five dedicated stores and numerous other record repositories, Knoxville has become something of a vinyl hub, actually attracting collectors from Asheville or Nashville to come shop. While the return of vinyl as an object of consumer lust may have made life more difficult for cheapskate LP collectors like myself, it has also sparked a retail resurgence that makes it easier to find what you're looking for—at a price.
So, rather than continue feeling the sting of disappointment at estate sales, I have decided to search for my quarry—mid-century jazz, late-century rock—in the bins. Here's a tour of Knoxville's vinyl corridor, in a quest for black gold.
Raven Records & Rarities
1200 N. Central St.
No survey of Knoxville's vinyl trade can be complete without first paying homage to the scene's godfather, Jay Nations.
Starting in the mid-'80s, his Raven Records shop—originally tucked away in a micro-sized space in an alley off the Cumberland Strip—competed against national and regional chains like Turtle's, Cat's, and the Record Bar. While they have all joined the Pharaohs in the annals of myth, Raven moved, expanded, expired, and then returned from the dead.
The new Raven Records & Rarities—co-owned by pop-culture collectibles impresario Jack Stiles—moved into the Happy Holler about a year ago. It's the perfect union of resurgent retro neighborhood and resurgent retro medium. When you pop into Raven, you feel like you've stepped into a fortuitous time warp to find all the cool stuff you know you wanted but never got around to finding. (It's just more expensive now.) The room appears filled to the ceiling with sci-fi models, monster-movie posters, and rare vinyl—a happy explosion of nifty things.
In terms of record selection, you can expect to find just about anything. After closing his original shop, Nations became a veteran of the record-show circuit, and continues to regularly head out in his king-cab pick-up with the camper top to make deals and buy collections, bringing the booty back to Knoxville. But this wasn't always his long-term plan.
"I was getting a little spooked 10 years ago," Nations says. "Here I was scrapping around doing record shows and stuff, and we were looking at each other at shows going, ‘Is this going to be viable in 10 years?' There's no one new coming into these shows—it's the same guys and they're not getting any younger."
Well, that tide has turned as younger generations of vinyl buyers have indeed come forth, boosting the trade back into the realm of trendiness. But why do teenagers born and raised on MP3s suddenly think vinyl is cool?
"Because it is cool," Nations says, chuckling at the obviousness of it all. "It always has been and always will be. Find one person to tell me the first download they ever got—it's irrelevant."
So, perhaps some members of the digital generation have found they want a more tangible connection to their music in order to make it more personal, I theorize. Nations' observation is simpler, if contrary to commonly held patterns of musical evolution.
"It's a neat time in history when a lot of kids like what their parents like in terms of music, and they dislike what's on the radio," he says. "So they'd rather pick up a Led Zeppelin or Beatles record than anything that's new. It's a different time."
For Nations himself, the lifelong collector enjoys the feeling he gets playing original sources of pop culture, artifacts from the actual time when the artists were creating their music—and history.
"I get a connection with the artist," he says with enthusiasm. "If I've got a Reprise tri-label Jimi Hendrix in my hand, then Jimi Hendrix—this giant—was walking the Earth when it came out. Sniff the grooves and you might be breathing the same molecules that Jimi Hendrix breathed!"
• Power of Soul by Idris Muhammad (Kudo): $6, used
Creed Taylor's CTI jazz label used Kudo for its soul jazz or world music efforts, so I was expecting some '70s-style African jazz, but this turned out to be full-on rock-jazz fusion. But it does not suck.
• Filles de Kilimanjaro by Miles Davis (Columbia): $10, used
I'm in the process of filling out my Miles Davis collection, mostly the '50s and '60s-era titles. This 1969 work by his second "great quintet" hints at his upcoming electrified fusion sound of the '70s. I like this better.
5009 Chapman Highway
When Matt Adkisson bought Basement Records in South Knoxville and took it over around a year ago with his girlfriend Athena Mondello, he thought he had a pretty good idea of what to expect, having worked record sales in his hometown of Morristown. And back in high school in the '80s, he had even made regular trips to Knoxville just to shop at Basement. He knew it well. But he has discovered his new clientele to be nearly unpredictable.
"Every time I think something's going to be a seller here, it may not. Every time I think something will never sell, it will," he says. "So I've used just about every one of my forecasting models in my brain to figure out what will and what won't sell. And I figured out that I should just clean them up and put them out there."
His small store's biggest market is the mainstays of R&B, jazz, and '70s and '80s rock (the expected popularity of country music did not pan out), but he will try just about any genre on the racks to see how it does. That's how he became one of the few retailers to offer 78s—the thick black discs made of shellac that became popular in the 1920s, offering about three minutes of music per side. Subsets of audiophiles claim 78s can sound even better than the 33 1/3 Long Play—the format that killed 78s—capturing more musical information at their higher rate of speed. But by now, they're usually scuffed and scratched.
"Most stores don't want to touch 'em, and I do have them because there are those people who come in for them," Adkisson says. "One 78 collector will talk to another collector: ‘He's got 78s down here.'"
Another big surprise for him is the increasingly rapid wane of CDs and DVDs—while he knew they were on the decline, he says "they have really taken a nosedive in the last year with people streaming and downloading." Thus, his greater reliance on used vinyl records, which have increased in sales just as much as used CDs and DVDs have declined, he says. And even as he sells more LPs, even more keep coming in—Knoxville appears to have as-yet-untapped wellsprings of un-resold vinyl.
"It's odd to me that I keep getting vinyl from people as sales go up," he muses. "The amount of inventory is almost endless at times because people who have collections from years back know it's becoming more popular so they're beginning to offload them. Now that they know there's some value to it, it's coming in droves. The more popular vinyl becomes, the more people are selling it."
• Fulfillingness' First Finale by Stevie Wonder (Tamla): $8, used
This early '70s soul and funk classic is a little scratchy, but I can't complain for the price.
• Who's Next by the Who (Decca): $8, used
Although an early pressing, it is not (alas) from the Mastering Lab as hoped, and thus may not sound as good as that reputedly awesome pressing; this one was probably contracted out to another plant.
2615 Chapman Highway
Knoxville's oldest running record store has been a mainstay of the local music scene for more than 20 years, starting from the humble beginnings of owner Allan Miller's backpack when he was a grad student at the University of Tennessee. It soon became a massive temple to the CD—but more recently has expanded its goods to include gifts, posters, apparel, and, about five years ago, used vinyl records.
Now it has a dedicated vinyl room that features used records with prices that start at $2.99, and nearby racks featuring LPs on nearly every price level: 25 cents, 99 cents, and $1.99. But it also has the widest selection of new vinyl in town—you can actually buy a new record on the day it comes out. Furthermore, Disc Exchange actually puts new discs on sale—and even has a clearance rack of new records. And it's also the biggest provider of Record Store Day products in the area.
If you want to witness youth culture's newfound obsession with vinyl, it's here. A lot of new vinyl releases by young bands are limited editions—meaning there are only so many being pressed, and thus creating high demand. That's a big factor in why Record Store Day—the annual retail "holiday" that features special editions of albums, many of them on vinyl—creates such a frenzy. You have to act fast if you want that record.
Seth Gourley, one of the Disc Exchange's vinyl buyers, stresses that the store doesn't only go for the limited editions.
"If a particular artist's CDs do quite well for us, then we're probably going to get the release on vinyl as well," he says. "Of course, you'll also see the classic stuff in there—all that Dylan, Dead, and Beatles, that stuff's timeless, so it'll be around forever. And then from what we hear from customers—younger kids these days really enjoy the interaction, holding the art, flipping it open. You actually participate."
Furthermore, Gourley estimates that their customer demographics stretch all the way to vinyl shoppers in their 50s, though he notes that range seems to be the cut-off age for those still interested in LPs.
"We don't see a lot of elder customers—60 and older," he says. "It seems as though they're the ones who come in a lot unloading old records. They're still buying up the CDs—maybe they remember what a pain in the ass vinyl could be if you're not taking care of it!"
• Double Nickels on the Dime by the Minutemen (SST): $13, new
A brand-new double LP for $13?! That's unheard of these days. But '80s punk label SST apparently never stopped pressing some of its classic records, and still believes in affordability.
• Coltrane Plays the Blues by John Coltrane (Atlantic): $6, used
This looks to be an early pressing, and although a bit scuffed, plays cleanly. A total bargain!
Wild Honey Records
1206 Kenesaw Ave.
You may need Google Maps to find Wild Honey Records—it's located deep within the winding Sequoyah Hills neighborhood—but it's well worth the search. The well-ordered, cozy shop yields what may be the cleanest selection of used records in Knoxville. The jackets are not dinged or faded, and the vinyl is clean and unscratched. They look nearly new. And the collection is primo stuff—from neatly filed '50s-'60s jazz (separated from the '70s-'80s jazz) to British Invasion bands to '80s alternative rock.
Its prices are definitely higher than those at its competitors, but Wild Honey offers connoisseur-level stock that may cause many collectors to recheck their bank balances. And the new-vinyl selection reveals a similar level of taste, with many offbeat reissues of once-rare titles by boutique labels.
Unfortunately, the young couple who owns the still-new shop prefers not to be quoted in the media. But they're very friendly and will no doubt share their story if asked.
On a recent Saturday, two neatly groomed twentysomething preppies perused the racks until one of them exclaimed in glee: "Check it out! I can't believe they have it!" The other replied, "Wow—right there at the front, just sitting there." What rare find was it? Perhaps the latest limited edition release by a hip college-radio favorite? No, the lucky treasure hunter held a copy of Aja by Steely Dan in his hands, originally released in 1977 and added to the United States National Recording Registry in 2010.
We live in a different time indeed.
• Coltrane Jazz by John Coltrane (Atlantic): $12, used
Its source is not labeled, but it's pressed on 180-gram vinyl and "BG" is signed on the deadwax—maybe a Bernie Grundman mastering, possibly issued by Rhino? Hope so!
• Milestones by Miles Davis (Columbia): $24, new
I could not resist this mono reissue left over from Record Store Day. The sound quality of this series of reissues is superb, though the packaging is flimsy.
Lost & Found Records
3710 North Broadway
Another iconic Knoxville record store, Lost & Found originally opened in the early '90s on Kingston Pike, then moved to the Strip in 2004, then closed in 2006, then reopened in North Knoxville a few years ago. It's driven by the passion of co-owners Mike and Maria Armstrong, whose stated philosophy is "as long as we can find great records, people will always want to buy them."
It's a way of business that has served them and their customers well—the homey shop (literally homey, as it's located in an old house) features a constant influx of new (used) stock, with many choice titles that may go for a lot more elsewhere (prices range between $6-$15). The store is so well known even among non-vinyl listeners that many people go there first to sell old collections found in basements or attics, Maria says.
"I don't look for it," Maria says. "I don't go to estate sales, I don't go to yard sales. I've never been the early bird. Every time I go, I say ‘Where's the records?' ‘Oh, somebody was here two hours ago and got them all.' There's always somebody ahead of me. I've never done well with the estate-sale thing. They just come through the front door."
And that's just what happened now as a woman from Lenoir City has arrived with about five boxes of LPs and CDs, divesting the collection of a family member who was a serious audiophile. As Maria digs into the hefty boxes, she quickly assesses what she can afford to pay for them.
"A lot of times, we just know what we can get out of stock—we go by the condition that it's in, how much we gave for it," she says. "But we really price our records to sell. Some places price pretty high, but we want to move them, as long as we can make a little money off of them."
Clerk Nathan Moses, who started working at Lost & Found in 1996, notes that back then, punk or indie rock were the main genres selling in the vinyl section—and he would sell seven or eight CDs for every vinyl record. Now, classic rock—perhaps the stuff of collections once sold and now being reclaimed by those coming back to the vinyl fold—is the big seller, and CDs are in the minority of sales.
"I had lots and lots of people in the '90s sell their collections and now they're buying them back: ‘I can't believe I sold all my stuff!'" Maria says. "Everybody thought that the Compact Disc was the greatest thing when it very first came out, and then they realized the sound wasn't as good. Then they wanted their records back."
• Out of the Storm by Ed Thigpen (Verve): $12, used
This is an original issue from 1966, with an all-star band of Kenny Burrell, Clark Terry, Herbie Hancock, and Ron Carter. Nice!
• High Voltage by AC/DC (Atco): $10, used
Australian issues are reputed to sound better (and cost a lot), but this 1976 U.S. edition has got to be more listenable than the many later remasters for CD.
108 E. Jackson Ave.
Down in the Old City resides the most unique consignment shop in town: Hot Horse, purveyor of electric guitars, old stereos, clothes, and records. It's Knoxville's original urban outfitter, offering an organic eclecticism that can be inspiring. Every visit uncovers something surprising.
The vinyl selection is mostly supplied by Raven Records & Rarities, but the store is manned by clerks with a passion for records who also acquire them when collections come through the door. Charlie Finch (also a Metro Pulse graphic designer) has been working in record stores since 1994, when he got a job at his favorite shop, Schoolkids Records in Raleigh, N.C. He's worked in record stores ever since, and is one of the city's many alumni of Disc Exchange. You get the sense that record stores are his natural habitat.
"I came out here in 2001 and I always dreamed of owning a record store, but didn't think it would be supported, especially after Lost & Found closed down and did their stuff in antique markets," Finch says. "I was like, ‘Wow, Knoxville really doesn't care about record stores.' That's why I'm so surprised to see so many people selling records now, but it's cool—I'm glad to see that."
What he does not like to see is the recent surge in prices for both new and used vinyl. While companies press small amounts of new releases in order to ensure they sell out, it results in immediately inflated prices on the collector market. Which means a lot of people just can't get access to the music on vinyl they want, he says. (Don't even ask him about Record Store Day and its limited editions.) And then there's the eBay effect, which causes sellers to come into the store thinking they can cash in on their "rare" records—most probably a Beatles LP pressed in the millions.
"People go on eBay or Discogs or whatever, and see that ‘Oh, there's only two of these records around, and one guy's selling it for $500,'" he says. "So it's automatically worth $500, which really isn't true. You have to take into account a lot of factors when pricing records like that."
• 's Make it by Art Blakey (Mercury): $10, used
I'm a huge fan of jazz drummer Art Blakey, and had never heard of this 1964 album before. It is not one of his better efforts.
• Jazz at the Philharmonic (Verve): $12, used
This set of mono reissues from the '40s is purported to consist of "Impeccable Japanese Pressings." Not sure I can tell the difference.
5214 Homberg Drive
As a collector of jazz, blues, R&B, and soul records for the past 30 years, Bob Kirk (an 82-year-old professor emeritus from the University of Tennessee) is facing an issue that every vinyl hound inevitably has to deal with: divesting his collection. Only Kirk's collection is on a much higher scale than most; he had accumulated upwards of 20,000 records in his travels around the country, poking around flea markets and record stores. Now, after selling them off for the past 13 years at local antique shops, he's down to a mere 12,000 discs.
Amid the thousands of records kept in his barn are rare jewels: Charlie Parker Big Band from 1954, The Genius of Art Tatum from 1957, Blue Note records from every decade of its existence. They're priced accordingly on an inventory list. At Nostalgia in Bearden, however, he offers his lesser titles for "The Best Deal in Town:" Buy three (most are around $5-$10) and get 25 percent off. And you can still find choice albums.
The resurgence in vinyl interest has only slightly bumped up his sales, he says, but he has noticed a younger clientele for what was once considered "old-fashioned" music. One of his best customers, in fact, is a fellow who's 24 years old—he recently bought $600 worth of albums, mostly jazz.
"In my opinion, the youngsters can't quite relate to the new jazz artists as much as they are able to relate to older ones that they'd never heard before," Kirk says. "And when they listen to some of those, they become attracted to them."
But Kirk is no staid traditionalist—he also sells new turntables, primarily a USB model by Numark that allows users to make digital copies of vinyl records. He professes to not always hear the difference between CD and LPs, though he knows many of his customers do.
"Those who are musically inclined indicate there's a tremendous difference between the sound of CDs compared to the LPs," he says. "They don't mind if they can't find the best quality copy that they want–they'll take something that has minor scratches or something of that sort and enjoy it."
• Further Adventures of Jimmy and Wes by Jimmy Smith and Wes Montgomery (Verve): $6, used
Organist Smith and guitarist Montgomery have put out roughly a million records. This is a DJ copy, which hopefully means it was an early pressing and didn't get played as much as a retail copy.
• Odyssey by James Blood Ulmer (Columbia): $5, used
An entirely different sort of jazz guitar, from the early '80s.