Henley Bridge Is Falling Down
In criticizing the bridge-widening project, Brian Pittman doesn't want to seem like a crank. As an architect, he says, he's impressed with much of TDOT's more recent work downtown: the Gay Street viaduct and the Church Street viaduct.
But he thinks widening the bridge will worsen a downtown problem called Henley Street. Pittman says Henley Street "creates a wall between UT and downtown—between the two biggest pedestrian places in Knoxville. There are 30,000 kids who'd love to be able to walk over here—but it ain't worth it!"
He's also concerned about the convention center, whose lack of clear connection to downtown's attractions has long been subject of criticism.
"What do they do when they go out? They see traffic, vuh-vuh-vuh-vuh! They say screw it, and go back to the hotel." [Jack Neely]
Christopher Scum's Lucky Break
While chronicling the exploits of Christopher Scum and his self-anointed "white-trash psycho rock" band, the Dirty Works, Worldstorm Arts Lab's long-awaited Rebel Scum documentary also shows a subterranean Knoxville that most residents are unaware of, and would probably prefer not knowing about. The Knoxville of Rebel Scum is populated by the angry, the self-destructive, the insane, and the addicted, a subaltern group of lost and rejected souls who feel they never had a voice in society. Rebel Scum is that group's bestial wail, and Christopher Scum serves as their personification and martyr—a patron saint of lost causes. [John Sewell]
About two years ago, Larsen Jay was walking to the office early one foggy morning via a favorite alleyway, when he had a brainstorm. He wanted to make a movie using Knoxville's own scenes, its interesting courtrooms and alleys, and called Hollywood colleague Raul Celaya to see if he had ideas about something plausibly Knoxvillian.
He didn't, but after talking with producer Laura Smith, he did find one script, based on a story by William Gay, a writer often compared to Cormac McCarthy. The source material, "I Hate to See That Evening Sun Go Down," was the title story in Gay's 2002 short-story collection.
"Stop what you're doing," Celaya said. "Read this right now." The story concerned an elderly man escaping from a small-town nursing home and trying to return to his old homestead even as a rough-edged young family is living in it. "I read it and never put it down," Jay says. "It's a story so strong, so compelling, so interesting—it's a real story about real people in the real South." [Jack Neely]
Robert Loest, 1943-2010
In 1992, meeting interesting people in Knoxville was a challenge. Downtown was sputtering, and coffee houses and real pubs were big-city fads, barely catching on here. The Utne Reader, a national monthly known for presenting fresh ideas outside of the usual tiresome political contexts, launched a project to germinate community "salons," Tupperware parties for intellectuals, an effort to get curious people to meet, and maybe challenge each other. Robert co-hosted the first one I remember. Dozens of people showed up, but Robert stood out, as if he were a fictional character, one so unlikely that you would wonder about the author who created him.
He looked like a Roman centurion, a hard-nosed sergeant bearing the standard of pure thought. He was a former naval officer, Vietnam era, who'd washed out of SEALs for color-blindness. He had a Ph.D. in marine biology. He was more recently an accomplished blacksmith known among regional equestrians for his handmade horseshoes. In the real world, there are no Navy-veteran-marine-biologist-blacksmiths. This was Robert Loest, though, and in Robert's world, everything made sense. Things that made no sense deserved no mercy. [Jack Neely]
R.I.P. Shannon "Clint Clinton" Stanfield, 1964-2010
After a two-and-a-half-year battle with cancer, Shannon "Clint Clinton" Stanfield, has left the building. Stanfield, 45, found notoriety at the age of 15 as guitarist of the 5 Twins, a group that mixed Ramones power chords with pure pop to become one of Knoxville's favorite first-wave punk bands. Shannon had effortless cool. He was dead serious about his art, but well aware of the fleeting nature of fame—he possessed the unique ability to laugh at himself and everyone else in the Knoxville music's limited constellation in a sweet, non-judgmental way. Shannon was the Will Rogers of Knoxville rock. [John Sewell]
Good Night Spider
Mark Linkous, the singer/songwriter who led the critically acclaimed band Sparklehorse since the mid-1990s, shot himself to death in a North Knoxville alley on Saturday afternoon, March 6, according to police. He was 47.
Linkous had moved to Knoxville, where his Sparklehorse bandmate Scott Minor has been living for the last couple of years, and was planning to open a recording studio. "He had actually moved there," wrote his manager, Shelby Meade, in an e-mail on Monday. "The studio was moved there on Friday. He loved Knoxville and was happy with all the friends and support he found there." [Matthew Everett]
Big Ears 2010
Bryce Dessner is a busy man. The beginning of March saw the release of his chamber-rock ensemble Clogs' years-in-the-making The Creatures in the Garden of Lady Walton, while his primary gig as guitarist for Brooklyn indie rockers the National has found him gearing up for the May release of High Violet, the long-awaited follow-up to 2007's acclaimed Boxer. Amid the recording and promotion of both records he's also been prepping his annual MusicNow Festival in Cincinnati, the fifth installment of which begins March 30. And over the weekend leading up to MusicNow, Dessner will see the fruits of a year's work in a new role as co-curator of Big Ears 2010.
"It's a new model for a multi-stage festival," he figures. "It's all there, but it's set in a way that's more intimate. It's important that there's advocates for non-commercial music. But at pretty much any point in the festival you can go see something freaky and cool or you can go see something where maybe you're tapping your foot. I think audiences really benefit from having both, and we've tried to pair smaller acts opening for bigger ones, to maybe reach a new audience." [Nick Huinker]
It's a Wonderful Knoxville!
Knoxville, we are sorry.
It has come to our attention that we've been upsetting lots of people with all of our negativity for over the past 20-odd years. Our cynical coverage of local issues has been one big downer. But things are different now that we've been receiving our company-required prescriptions of Scrippszac™ anti-depressants. We're feeling much better, thanks—and have just discovered a whole new world of positive stories to tell. Things are just so much more awesomer than we had ever thought before…
We love you, Knoxville, and we're not going to stop saying so! [Corey Turzin]
Reaction in Knoxville and across the state over the past week to the final passage of a federal health-care bill seemed to follow two very different tracks: the policy and the politics.
In the policy realm, you have longtime advocates of health-care reform sounding at best lukewarm about what the legislation signed by President Barack Obama on March 23 will actually do.
"It doesn't have any cost-containment measures in it," says Dr. Debbie Allen, the medical director of Knoxville's Interfaith Health Clinic, which serves thousands of uninsured patients each year. "It doesn't do anything to support patient-based medicine. The drug companies are heavily involved. It doesn't do anything about self-referral, doctors referring patients to centers that they have a financial interest in. Nothing about tort reform."
Allen, who thinks the best way to expand access and control costs would be a European-style Medicare-for-all system, thinks the bill makes too many concessions to the private interests that already have huge influence on American health care: drug companies, insurance companies, and for-profit medical operations. [Jesse Fox Mayshark]
Knox Econ 2010
If you want to see the precise point in Knox County where the economic tide of the last decade crested and began to ebb, take a ride out Parkside Drive through the retail sprawl of Turkey Creek.
Head west from Lovell Road, past the Super Walmart and Super Target and multiple outlets competing for your happy-hour margarita dollar (Salsarita's, Texas Roadhouse, Abuelo's), and turn left after the big Regal movieplex onto Turkey Cove Lane. There, just a few hundred yards behind Calhoun's, shielded by a row of trees, you'll find a housing subdivision called The Cove at Turkey Creek.
Or, at least, the spectral notion of a subdivision. [Jesse Fox Mayshark]
You could attend decades' worth of school board meetings in East Tennessee and most other places without ever seeing what observers were presented with on April 7 by the Knox County school board: an actual motion by a board member to ban a textbook.
After sometimes heated discussion of a parent's complaint about a brief description of Christian creationism in the book, Asking About Life, board member Cindy Buttry moved "that the book be banned from Knox County schools."
Kurt Zimmermann, a Farragut High School parent, filed a complaint in December about the honors biology textbook's characterization of creationism as a "Biblical myth." (The reference comes in a section of the book that discusses the political and cultural history of the concept of evolution.) A Farragut High School review committee made up of two teachers, two administrators, a student, and a parent considered Zimmermann's complaint and concluded that the textbook was "appropriate." Zimmermann appealed to the school board, setting the stage for last week's collision of politics, religion, and science. [Jesse Fox Mayshark]
The Laws of Man
Last Wednesday, a 44-year-old Indiana man named Warren Tucker stood outside the Roman Catholic Diocese of Knoxville and announced he'd been sexually abused by an East Tennessee priest some 30 years ago.
"I have come forward now, after overcoming the shame, the embarrassment, and the fear that has controlled my life for way too long, to try to spare even one child the hell that has been and is still my life," Tucker read from a statement. Referring to the priest as "Father X," Tucker said the abuse began when he entered the fifth grade and took place from about 1975 to 1980.
Father X was soon revealed to be Father Bill Casey, who served in the Kingsport parish and in Farragut's St. John Neumann Catholic Church during the past few decades. After admitting to Bishop Richard Stika that Tucker's allegations had merit, Casey on Monday was taken into custody by Greene County, Tenn., police. He will be extradited to McDowell County, N.C., where Tucker alleges some abuse occurred and where Tucker filed a criminal complaint last fall. Unlike Tennessee, North Carolina has had and continues to have an unlimited statute of limitations regarding crimes of sexual abuse committed against a minor. If the alleged abuse against Tucker had occurred exclusively in Tennessee, he would have almost no legal recourse against his abuser. [Frank Carlson]
County Mayor: Looking for Boring
It has been hard to remember here recently, but there was a time when the county mayor's office was an oasis of calm in the Knox County political universe. (It was called county executive then, but the job is essentially the same.) About 10 or 12 years ago, the local legislative landscape was defined by seemingly endless, sometimes petty, often entertaining, but generally unproductive feuds. County Commission fought with the school board. The Knoxville Police Department fought with the Knox County Sheriff's Department. Sheriff Tim Hutchison fought with the News Sentinel, and Mayor Victor Ashe fought with whomever happened to be available.
But in the midst of all that, the executive branch of county government thudded along stoically, preparing budgets, offering compromises to the various factions, and just kind of keeping the lights turned on. That was partly a function of the personality at the top, County Executive Tommy Schumpert, a practical-minded former county trustee who liked making numbers add up and disliked drama. But it was also partly a function of the job itself. "County mayor," for all the pomp of the title, is not really a very exciting gig.
As state Sen. Tim Burchett, widely considered the frontrunner to next inhabit the position, says: "It should be a boring job." [Jesse Fox Mayshark]
The Sound of Science
Out of a computer speaker comes a warbly fanfare of electronic tones, and then a man's voice speaks from across the expanse of nearly five decades, in an audio letter to a friend and collaborator:
"Mr. Deutsch, sir! Greetings to all of you from me and the rest of us. Before I begin to show you the modular components that I'm going to send you, Herb, I thought I'd play a little bit on the Abominatron here. Doesn't sound like much when I play it. Maybe someone with more musicianship and imagination can get some good things out of it."
The matter-of-fact voice belongs to one Robert Moog, from a reel-to-reel tape he had recorded in 1964 for experimental composer Herb Deutsch, explaining how to operate a curious new device he had just invented: the modular synthesizer. But his estimation of the "Abominatron's" potential was typically all too humble—in the years to come, this new instrument would leap from avant-garde circles to mainstream pop, changing music itself and becoming both loved and reviled in the process.
Seva David Ball, life-long Moog aficionado and recording engineer, leans forward in his chair at the PC's keyboard, caught up in the excitement of hearing history being made.
"This is probably the first recording of the first synthesizer ever, and in it he reveals not only that he could play, but also that the machine could play chords. I had no idea!" he says, delighted. For legions of faithful Moog followers around the country, such newly uncovered details are the stuff of obsession. For Ball, a longtime Knoxville figure in radio and music, it's a moment of personal fulfillment unlike any other in his 30-odd-year career. [Coury Turczyn]
Tim After Tim
Sometimes things are over way before they end.
That was true of the Republican primary for Knox County mayor, which had started to feel like a foregone conclusion weeks before state Sen. Tim Burchett demolished former Sheriff Tim Hutchison by a more than 5-to-1 margin Tuesday night. It was also true, though somewhat less clearly, of the Tim Hutchison era in Knox County.
When Hutchison was forced out of office by term limits in 2007, he had still never lost an election. His detractors noted that his margins of victory had slipped—he beat Randy Tyree by fewer than 3,000 votes in 2006—but his years as a formidable presence in county politics had made him somebody not to take lightly. There were plenty of signs during the county mayor race that he no longer commanded the respect and/or fear that had, for a while, made him the most powerful figure in county government. The noisiest defector was County Commissioner Greg "Lumpy" Lambert, who, in the closing weeks of the campaign, publicly chastised Hutchison.
But Tuesday night's results suggested that Lumpy's candor (or betrayal, depending on which camp you were in) was just a codicil to a decision Knox County voters had already arrived at on their own. More than half of the ballots in the primary were cast in early voting, and Burchett's margin there was the same as it was in the overall count: a jolting 85 percent to 15 percent. The final tally had Burchett with 29,662 votes to Hutchison's 5,177. [Jesse Fox Mayshark and Frank Carlson]
"This is a pretty complex issue," Jon Lawler says, leaning forward in his chair.
No kidding. Lawler was speaking Monday night at a sparsely attended meeting of the Town Hall East neighborhood association in a church hall on Asheville Highway. His subject, as it has been at any number of meetings over the past three years, was the Ten-Year Plan to End Chronic Homelessness.
What began as an earnest city-county effort to provide "permanent supportive housing" to the most persistent and troubled segment of Knoxville's homeless population has somehow devolved into a civic morass of finger-pointing, suspicion, and misunderstanding. The most obvious sign of trouble takes the form of two proposed referendums aimed at stopping the Ten-Year Plan dead in its tracks. But Lawler, who was hired in 2007 as director of the joint city-county program, acknowledges the referendums are symptoms of a larger problem: In looking for places to house the homeless, the proponents of the plan have not anticipated or alleviated the concerns of the surrounding neighborhoods.
"The housing component, philosophically, makes a lot of sense," Lawler says. "I've never spoken to a Rotary club, Civitan club, church group, that everybody wasn't just saying, ‘It makes total sense.' But then when you move from concept to reality, that there's a site that we've selected to do that, that's where the resistance occurs." [Jesse Fox Mayshark]
The Knox BBQ Bible
St. Louis begat dry rub pork ribs, Texas begat barbecue beef brisket and tomato-based sauce, South Carolina begat pulled pork with a sweetish, mustard-based sauce, North Carolina begat pulled pork with a vinegar-based sauce.
And Knoxville? Where barbecue is concerned, we've done no begetting.
"Usually, everybody that follows barbecue is a purist, and has to have their particular kind," says John Antun, the founding Director of the Culinary Institute at the University of Tennessee. "But Knoxville is a town of disparate populations; because of UT and TVA and Oak Ridge National Laboratories, we come from all over. Consequently, the barbecue that has sprung up is much more varied—we brought it with us. We have no real barbecue identity." [Rose Kennedy]
The report last week that white-nose syndrome has been identified among bats in three more Tennessee caves is only the latest sign that the state's bat population is in grave peril.
"The question is, is it going to lead to total extinction," says Gary McCracken, head of the University of Tennessee's Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology, "or will there be some survival?"
"Right now," he adds, "it's looking like total extinction." [Jesse Fox Mayshark]
It's Our Party
In recent weeks in primaries around the country, the tea party movement has shown itself to be more than just a disorganized expression of anger but a potentially influential political force threatening to dislodge establishment candidates in both parties. This past weekend, when the Tennessee Tea Party Coalition held its first statewide meeting at the Gatlinburg Convention Center, East Tennesseans were given the chance to see what its members look like up close. Judging by the turnout Saturday afternoon, this confederation of 35 tea arties across the state still has some work to do in selling itself to the mainstream.
The convention center looks like an oversized mountain lodge and sits on a relatively quiet street, away from the noise of campy hillbilly craft stores and establishments daring customers to "Believe It or Not." A mundane announcement on the marquee signaled the tea party's presence; without it, there was little to indicate any event at all. Indeed, many inside said they were disappointed by the turnout, and the empty chairs, sparse hallways, and general quiet were hard to ignore.
Broadly speaking, the crowd skewed older, white, and seemed suspicious of the media. [Frank Carlson]
Okay, say you experience a blackout of some sort and when you come to, you find yourself on a high wall built of white boulders, a sort of bridge across a narrow canyon surrounded on all sides by deep green forest. The peculiar stone bridge is broad enough for an intrepid mule maybe, but not a car. Trees grow up from the forest floor, perhaps 50 feet down, and you can almost touch the tops of them. Clouds of frantic moths dance around your head like songs. You hear only birds, and not necessarily the sort of birds you've heard before.
In an English accent, a young man remarks on the rarity of the scene. "It's kind of neat to be up in the treetops, isn't it?"
Unnecessarily you respond, well, yes it is, at that.
It's hot up here, sweltering, but then you descend by a roundabout and barely discernible path to the shadowy floor, and suddenly it's cool, as if chilled by subterranean wind. You peer out a square passage of forgotten purpose at a scene from a movie, a green gorge.
"Who knew, eh?" says the Englishman.
Not you. But where the hell are you?
This is the mini-universe called Ross Quarry, where things exist that are unlikely elsewhere, and as the crow flies it's only about two miles east by southeast of the Gay Street Bridge. The newest addition to Ijams Nature Center is a wonderland of natural and semi-natural features. [Jack Neely]
Race, Abortion, and Distortions
On a breezy Friday afternoon in April, Cecil Clark stood on the corner of North Cherry Street and Washington Avenue in East Knoxville, cooling himself in the shade of a tree and making small talk with passersby.
Wearing a black hat that said "FBI: Firm Believer in Jesus" and a white shirt that read "My God is a powerful God," Clark was just a few hundred feet from True Vine Baptist Church, the humble building where he had been preaching for 20 years. Over the past few weeks, he had grown accustomed to seeing his church from this spot across the street, as he'd spent each Friday among a small group of anti-abortion activists protesting the new Planned Parenthood clinic located just behind him.
As it turned out, though, Clark was a recent convert. "I never paid any attention to abortion or pro-life or pro-choice," he said. "As a matter of fact, I wouldn't have never known the difference. But when I sit down and look at ‘Amaafa 21,' that changed my life completely."
What Clark was referring to is Maafa 21, a DVD documentary given to him by Lisa Morris, spokeswoman for the Pro-Life Coalition of East Tennessee. Released about a year ago, this two-and a half-hour production posits that, rather than being a center for reproductive and women's health, Planned Parenthood is actually an organization dedicated to the eradication of the black race. It's a theory Morris and others say is evidenced by Planned Parenthood's history, and by the fact that so many of its clinics, including this new one on Cherry Street, are found in minority neighborhoods.
Clark was confident it was true, even if murky on the details. "How abortion got started was to kill off all the black babies—that's to get rid of the black race," Clark explained. "Then that's where Hitler ... I believe it was Hitler that got this from—you know, you want to have, like, a pure race? Well, what had happened was, some black guys had got into Germany, and got some white women pregnant. And—when you look at abortion, that's how abortion got started." [Frank Carlson]
By any conceivable standard, the Sundown in the City concerts have achieved their goals: showing civic leaders and others that public events in Knoxville could be more than football, Boomsday, and Dogwood Arts (and that, yes, you could allow beer-drinking without causing a riot); reintroducing Knoxvillians to the Square itself, and to a revitalizing downtown more generally; and, not least, bringing diverse crowds together to enjoy music and each other's company.
But last Thursday's installment, which had local favorites the Dirty Guv'nahs opening for festival mainstays Blues Traveler, also seemed to push at the limits of what Market Square could accommodate. The Square filled up quickly, and then kept filling. Eventually, and for the first time in Sundown's history, the guards at the gates stopped the flow altogether and let new people enter only as others departed.
"What's clear is that the success of the event has outgrown the space where it's held," says Ashley Capps, president of AC Entertainment and the creator and promoter of the Sundown series. [Jesse Fox Mayshark]
Living the Lake Life at Duncan Boat Dock
Arriving by car to Duncan Boat Dock on Fort Loudon Lake is a bit like coming upon a lost civilization in the jungle. As you alternate between cookie-cutter suburbs, thick forests, and the sharp but repetitive curves of Duncan Road, you're lulled into a bit of a trance, so that when the vegetation clears and the horizon opens, the lake and boat dock seem to be appear out of nowhere.
But while obscured to those on land, Duncan Boat Dock is a firmament of summers on the water in West Knoxville. So, too, is its owner and manager, Ben Duncan. Today, on an idle Tuesday afternoon, and most every other day, the 85-year-old can be found sitting in the shade in his padded blue recliner, flanked on one side by an old friend who's stopped by to sit for a while, and on the other by Mary, an elderly woman Ben says "works for me, watching the cash drawer." His friend amends that. "Mary is Ben's girlfriend of 40 years," he says.
Just a few feet away, it's hot out on the water, but it's cool here by the store, a dangerous differential for those intent on staying alert. Only the faint putter of boat motors coming in or going out to the channel, or the still fainter swirl of water the color of old green glass, can be heard. "We've been known to fall asleep out here," Ben admits, chuckling to himself. From this three-pump gas dock, Ben has watched generations of Knoxvillians grow up and grow old, most of them wearing little more than what they were born with. [Frank Carlson]
My heart goes out to people who come to the podium at County Commission, City Council, and MPC meetings to try and convince public officials not to destroy their neighborhoods. It is a wrenching experience and your feeling of loss seems so self-evident it should be obvious to decision-makers.
What you don't realize is that this is your first experience with the destruction of a community—but it's old hat to the decision-makers. There isn't a residential subdivision or industrial property anywhere that didn't result from taking green space and screwing it up. It's called progress. You will also find that a great many people out in the community at large will be sympathetic, but they've heard it all before.
If you want to stop an industrial park in a rural area, you have to have a better reason than the destruction of a way of life. It's the Chamber's job to destroy the rural way of life. [Frank Cagle]
Here Comes the Sun
Two weeks ago, deluged by applications, TVA announced it was suspending new enrollments in Generation Partners, the program that allows homeowners and businesses to sell renewable power to the utility. Within days, leaders of the solar industry arranged a meeting with the federal utility, got them to open the program back up for projects under 200 kilowatts, and began what Southern Alliance for Clean Energy executive director Steve Smith called "a very good dialogue" regarding larger projects.
"What we saw at this meeting was the solar industry exercising a little political clout," Smith says. That the solar industry has political clout at all is a noteworthy development. [Rikki Hall]
I heard my favorite personal Tennessee moonshine story 16 years ago when I was a reporter for The Mountain Press in Sevier County. It was the 50th anniversary of D-Day, and I got assigned to go talk to local veterans who had been there. One told me about his role as official unofficial bootlegger for his unit (but only off the record—he was still a little jumpy about the legalities). As they fought their way across Europe, he and his buddies carried the parts for a small still. Whenever they got a lull, he whipped up some hooch for enlisted men and officers alike.
It is impossible to guess how many stories there are like that bound up in the corn-liquor lore of Southern Appalachia. And the region, obviously, has long had a nudge-and-wink relationship with its moonshine heritage, from songs ("Rocky Top," "White Lightning") to movies like Thunder Road and any number of roadside signs enticing tourists with images of Snuffy Smith types hoisting a jug.
Now, Tennessee is wholeheartedly embracing the mountain dew, turning it licit with a law last year permitting distilleries in 44 counties, rather than the three where they were previously allowed. [Jesse Fox Mayshark]
What Does Bill Haslam Want?
Bill Haslam's time as mayor of Knoxville is the most obvious clue to his approach to governing. But it's hard to say how illuminating it is. He is widely liked and generally respected in local political circles (and it is still hard to find people in Knoxville who will say much bad about anyone named Haslam on the record). He has also benefited from contrast with Knox County government during the same period: While his administration has given an appearance of low-key professionalism, and maintained good relations with City Council, the county has been beset with strife, scandal, and public outrage. A property tax increase passed in Haslam's first year put the city's books in good order, and it now enjoys a $50 million-plus fund balance. (A subsequent reassessment significantly reduced the overall tax rate, but real property tax revenues still rose by 37 percent from 2002-03 to 2008-09.) He touts a revitalized downtown as a major achievement, though he acknowledges the seeds for it were sown to some degree before he took office. Overall, it is a record that does not yield much by way of ideology.
"He's a pragmatist," says Bill Lyons, a former University of Tennessee professor of political science who has worked for the past seven years as Haslam's senior policy director. "There will be issues before him that need solutions. It would be a lot of a problem-solving agenda."
Haslam has recently trumpeted endorsements from some members of regional tea party groups, he knows that he can't compete on the spit-and-snarl front where that wing of the GOP seems most at home.
"I think in a campaign, you get in trouble when you try to be who you're not," he says in an interview in his City County Building office last month, between extended bouts of campaigning. "I was giving a talk last week in West Tennessee, and right before I got there, one of our local supporters said, ‘You need to show a lot more passion when you talk.' And I said, ‘Hey, I'm going to show them who I am.'"
Well, okay. So ... who is he? [Jesse Fox Mayshark]
All You Can Eat, Pray, Love
Local fans of globetrotting superstar author Elizabeth Gilbert, and there seem to be quite a lot of them, were startled to run across this line in her second autobiographical book, Committed, about her marriage to the man she calls "Felipe," the exotic modern romantic hero of Eat, Pray, Love. In the newer book's introductory chapter, she's talking about Vietnam and Indonesia and Bali and Brazil and Sydney, Australia. And then, suddenly, comes this line: "I took a temporary job teaching writing at the University of Tennessee, and for a few curious months we lived together in a decaying old hotel room in Knoxville."
Elizabeth Gilbert did live and work here for a semester, the spring semester of 2005, and while she was here she and Felipe—whose real name has been revealed to be Jose Nunes—lived in the Hotel St. Oliver on Market Square.
For the record, the St. Oliver is an eccentric luxury boutique hotel. Some of the decay may be intentional. [Jack Neely]
Crossing the T
In a nutshell, you can sum up the University of Tennessee's last three football coaches by their fashion choices.
Phillip Fulmer was ball cap and khakis—comfort food for Vols fans, who also accepted surfer-dude-with-a-'tude Lane Kiffin and his untucked baggy polo shirt, until he went coastal.
But Derek Dooley is blue blazer, tie, nice shoes, looking like the lawyer he is. His cultured Georgia twang and self-deprecating one-liners put us at ease, but he's a CEO-type coach with a focus on details, organization, and building the character of young men.
"I'm a guy with old-school values," Dooley told a faculty meet-and-greet in April, "but I'm not necessarily an old-school guy."
After a Big Orange Caravan stop last spring, a young fan was heard to say, "He reminds me of Clark Kent." With Dooley's jet-black hair and dark eyes, he could pass for Superman's alter-ego (or maybe Christopher Reeve). And perhaps that's what fans are hoping for now, a buttoned-down coach with secret, super-human powers to rescue them. [Brooks Clark]
What's Killing Our Bees?
John Skinner likes to joke about his first work space when he joined UT's department of entomology and plant pathology and the Agricultural Extension in 1990 as an assistant professor with a professional interest in apiculture. "They put me at a desk in the hall. Or was it a box and a chair?"
Now, 20 years later, the nation's food supply is facing a threat from Colony Collapse Disorder, and Skinner, his assistant Michael Wilson, and another recently graduated researcher, Paul Rhoades, are key figures in a national team convened to address CCD in 2007, the USDA-ARS Areawide Program for Improving Honey Bee Health. Skinner's work space now? Three rooms, in a trailer-quality work shed at the corner of the Ag campus. Here, apiary puns rule, from the "Bee Happy!" sign on the door to the "It's a bee-u-ti-ful day" scribbled on the dry-erase message board.
They've got a '70s-style refrigerator inside retrofitted to act as an incubator, two microscopes, one fitted with a 2200-pixel digital lens, and lots of pieces of wood and wax sheets and sticky paper to make hives with. All three men are easy about the shabby space, and speak calmly, maybe from all those years of trying not to startle bees. Skinner has a close-cropped beard and wears a brimmed hat sometimes; he's dapper. Wilson sports owlish glasses, worn jeans, and a short-sleeve Opie Taylor plaid shirt; Rhoades a long beard and old T-shirt. They look like unlikely candidates to be battling a mystery disease that could threaten the global food supply [Rose Kennedy]
A few dozen Revolutionary War descendents celebrated John Sevier's 265th birthday last week, with an admirably quirky ceremony and a new plaque for our first governor's already impressive grave. Sevier's actual birthday is today, the 23rd, but I didn't nitpick. Courthouse-lawn wreath-layings and musket-firings are all too rare.
Sevier was the popular multi-term first governor of Tennessee, a combat veteran who'd battled the British at King's Mountain, but he baffles modern concepts of patriotism. If the tea party were to run a candidate against Sevier, their imaginative flacks would guffaw. This is just too easy, they would say. The guy was in secret and unauthorized negotiations with a potentially hostile foreign power. He's been jailed as a traitor to his country. He escaped and ran away from justice. And he's running for governor? You can hear the TV commercials, the ominous slow-motion of Sevier whispering to swarthy foreigners, with that cynical baritone voice-over: "And now this man says he wants to be governor of Tennessee ..." [Jack Neely]
Castles in the Sky
Finding Junior Banks' castle isn't difficult. Located in Greenback, a town of about 1,000 outside of Maryville that straddles the Blount County-Loudon County line, the castle sits about a mile from Route 411, an asphalt ribbon that runs through rolling green hills.
The castle is more wall than anything else, almost like a two-dimensional movie backdrop that Errol Flynn would have battled the Sheriff of Nottingham in front of in Robin Hood. It's made mainly of brick and cinder block salvaged from old homes demolished when 411 was rerouted in 1996 and from the old Vonore High School. Over the years, people have stopped off to contribute their own belongings, mostly trinkets you'd find at a small roadside antique store or garage sale, like dolls, porcelain angels, and 101 Dalmatians figurines. They sit at various spots around the castle wall, in homage to the castle, to God, or perhaps to some loved one, yet there's something profoundly unsettling about finding the playthings of children here, bound with mortar to this gray, inanimate mass being swallowed by time and earth. And if that isn't creepy enough, there's a pet cemetery in the back with 14 headstones, apparently all dogs the builder took in over the years.
In the many rooms, references to everything from ancient civilizations to 20th century pop culture can be found. In one room, a recipe for "Happy Food" is carved into the wall, a dish that promises its consumer he or she will feel just that. Another inscription poses a question and then answers it: "How did the early settlers survive? Cornbread. It is a happy food. It would work today." In what appears to be the dining room, plates of concrete food sit on a concrete table, warmed by the sun as they presumably wait for concrete knights and maidens to consume them. Engravings of Egyptians and snakes are found just a few feet from engravings of Bugs Bunny and Bart and Lisa Simpson.
Walking through this place feels like wandering through someone's mind, a thousand different thoughts all screaming out at once. [Frank Carlson]
Requiem for a Mega Mart
Most people know what you mean when you say "convenience store." People know you can probably pick up some milk, batteries, and gum at a convenience store. You wouldn't necessarily expect to find watches or printer paper. A convenience store may sell cigarettes and lottery tickets. But you wouldn't go there expecting to buy electrical wire, a hammer, or contact lenses. Any convenience store worth its salt is going to have aspirin, snacks, and soda. But just try to find chalk, a motherboard, and fishnet hose at your local convenience store. You want a wig? Forget about it. To find all of that and more, you need a Mega Mart.
Although downtown's retail offerings have multiplied in recent years, nothing has come close to competing with the practical, and impractical, offerings of J's Mega Mart. It's not exactly what you would have called a premier anchor retail destination attraction. But it filled any number of niches for household needs and impractical whims of everyday life in the neighborhood. If you needed it, there was a good chance that J's had it. [Michael Haynes]
Love, Hate, and Tolerance
Jess B. was reviewing a website a student had helped her create this summer. Just coincidentally, he'd designed the buttons on the home page in rainbow colors. She remarked on the choice, "It looks a little gay." He said, "I didn't notice. Do you want me to change it?"
Jess' eyes are full of humor when she recalls her reply: "I told him, ‘No, that's okay. I'm gay.' He was like, ‘No. You're gay?' And I said, ‘Yes I am.' He was shocked, even though he'd worked with me all the previous spring. He kept saying, ‘I don't care, I just had no idea. You just had a baby!' And I said ‘Um hum.' And he was like, ‘What about that guy you talk to on the phone all the time, your husband?'
"‘You mean my wife, Kris?'"
Jess, who's 35, and Kris, who's 33, have encountered similar reactions since moving to Knoxville in summer '09, and they say that's what makes them ill at ease as lesbian Knoxvillians: Most people here still have no concept that there might be same-sex couples among them, even the ones who would be kindly if they knew.
"It's like it doesn't even occur to people here that this sort of family exists outside of San Francisco, New York, and Hollywood movies," says Kris. "There's this disconnect with things that are happening in wider America." [Rose Kennedy]
When Joe DiPietro was named president of the University of Tennessee last Friday, it marked more than just the selection of the fourth UT executive in 10 years (or sixth, if you count the interim terms of Eli Fly and Jan Simek). It also signaled the end of a presidential search process that was touted on the front end as the university's most transparent ever. And even before it was over, the search was already being second-guessed.
It's not that anyone has anything bad to say about DiPietro, at least not yet. He is an apparently popular chancellor of UT's Institute of Agriculture, and his selection by a narrow vote over a West Virginia education official suggested a preference for a known quantity. The three previous men to hold the post—Wade Gilley, John Shumaker, and John Petersen—all came from outside the UT system, and all resigned amid controversies of one kind or another.
But the openness of the search, intended partly to head off a repeat of those past embarrassments, had other consequences as well. [Jesse Fox Mayshark]
Bob Delmore has a gun on the worktable in front of him. It is an M1911 semi-automatic pistol, and it is partly disassembled, its barrel and spring separated from the bottom frame that holds the trigger and grip. Delmore is a gunsmith at Coal Creek Armory in West Knox County, and he is customizing the handgun, tinkering with its mechanics to make its action smoother and its firing more reliable.
"It's probably the most customizable of the handguns out there," he says, admiringly. The gun was designed in 1908 by John Browning—"a mechanical genius," Delmore says—and was adopted 99 years ago by the U.S. Army, which dubbed it the Model (or M) 1911. The .45-caliber weapon was standard military issue until the 1980s, when it was phased out in favor of a 9 mm Beretta, a move Delmore still thinks was a mistake. It remains popular in U.S. Special Forces units, and, especially, among civilians.
That includes Delmore, a tall, red-and-gray whiskered man with round glasses and a skeptical manner—or, at least, a skeptical manner when confronted by a writer from the local weekly whose politics he suspects he may not share. Continuing his disquisition on the 1911, Delmore casually reaches to his right side and pulls up from some not-immediately-obvious place his own Coal Creek-made version, stamped on its black body with the armory's logo: CCA, in three adjacent lightning bolts. With practiced ease, he ejects a round from the chamber and removes the magazine.
"Self-defense is the reason everyone I know who carries a gun carries one," Delmore says. He allows that he has never had to fire a gun to protect himself, but he says he did brandish one once to useful effect. The point is, it is better to have one and not need it than need one and not have it. "It is a piece of emergency equipment," he says, "like a fire extinguisher."
Then he looks up from his seat at the worktable, narrows his eyes a little, and asks, "Why don't you own a gun?" [Jesse Fox Mayshark]
As Dr. Joe Peeden will readily confess, he is a book nut.
The affable Knoxville pediatrician with the graying mustache and wire-rimmed glasses chooses no sides in the ongoing battle for eyeballs between fiction and non-fiction; he reads both, voraciously. A former Air Force major, he describes himself as a constant reader, consuming all sorts of books in all sorts of genres. He loves each and every one. Well, all except one particular type of book: "I'm a non-Kindle kinda guy. I like to have the feel of a book in my hand, and I like to be around people who like books."
Consequently, Peeden spends a lot of time amid the aisles of Carpe Librum Booksellers, the decidedly analog new-books haven in Bearden. It is the sort of place where other book nuts are unashamed to reveal their true natures.
But a few weeks ago, things went horribly awry for Peeden on one of his visits "to look for a book." Relaxing on the shop's couch while thumbing through Philip Roth's latest novel, Nemesis, he was approached by co-owners Flossie McNabb and Shiela Wood-Navarro.
"Shiela goes, ‘Joe, I have something to tell you,'" he recalls with an almost audible wince. "And they said, ‘We're going to close the bookstore.'" [Coury Turczyn]
A Woman of Distinction
November 1935 would seem an unlikely time to assemble a symphony anywhere. Most Americans had phonographs or radios and were getting used to staying home to listen to music. Knoxvillians just weren't coming out for live events like they used to.
Worse, it was the bottom of the Depression. Unemployment had passed 20 percent; bank and business closings were almost too commonplace for the newspapers. Knoxville, specifically, seemed to have slid into a cultural ditch. Clearer-eyed observers admitted the soot-caked city had peaked 20 years earlier. The Lyceum had been torn down, the old Auditorium was a streetcar barn, and the old Opera House hosted wrestling matches. The following summer, Belgian author Odette Keun would call Knoxville "one of the ugliest, dirtiest, stuffiest, most unsanitary towns in the United States ... [an eyesore] of tin frameworks, advertisements and dump heaps."
How symphonic music might fit into that puzzle was a secret known mainly to a 52-year-old grandmother named Bertha Walburn Clark. For her, the creation of the Knoxville Symphony Orchestra was the culmination of a dream she'd been nurturing for a quarter century. [Jack Neely]
A Grand Opera
The roots of Granddaughters: An Americana Opera, a song cycle written by Maggie Longmire and her brother John, go back to just after World War I, when their maternal grandparents got divorced and their mother went to live with her grandmother in Campbell County. But the origin of the album featuring those songs is much more recent: It started in 2006 when John Longmire was facing his 50th high-school reunion.
"He was reminiscing and started writing some things down, memories of his youth," Maggie Longmire says. "He sent them over to me and said, ‘I wrote this, it'd be cool if you could put some music to it.' It was just a little experiment, and we recorded it. We just had two songs, but it opened a floodgate, really, for remembering the favorite stories we'd heard our whole lives."
But Granddaughters is more than one family's history; in telling the story of their mother's life, the Longmires present an intimate portrait of East Tennessee during the first half of the 20th century, and offer a universal lesson about the importance of stories and memory. [Matthew Everett]
Austin-East Dance Company
Even in our post-post-modern flash-graphics corporatized age of high-gloss digital madness, public schools in the United States still have the dead grey institutional look and feel of asylums, circa 1950. Which is why the kaleidoscopic hall in the performance wing of Austin-East Magnet High School is such a welcome respite, the obligatory cement walls somehow taking on a brighter sheen, the hall itself filled with arrangements of student art, photo montages, and African mask replicas and huge 3-D tubes suspended with ballet shoes and pieces of musical instruments.
At the end of the hall is the school's state-of-the-art performance auditorium, which tonight is hosting the Austin-East Dance Company's fall recital, "Voices 2010." And by night's end, any lingering feelings of institutional stuffiness or repression are mostly dispelled, by a night of modish ballet—ballet inflected with hip-hop, West African dance, and plenty of individuality by these 19 students who have choreographed, produced, and danced in 11 song-length numbers, a process that began with the first day of the school year.
"It's called ‘Voices' because the idea is it represents the kids' voices, as dancers and choreographers; there's not any single rhyme or reason behind the different numbers," explains Sara Cohen, co-director of the dance company. [Mike Gibson]
Unwind Your Mind
Todd Steed's latest music project, Unmind: A Solution for Modern Life, might seem like a joke, but it isn't. At least not entirely. It's funny, and it's kind of satirical, but it's also something else that's not quite so easy to identify, and might take a long time to understand.
"These days I don't want to be a guy who just mocks stuff," Steed says. "It's not very good art, and it's not very good for you."
Unmind is an album of droning, drifting ambient music underneath spoken-word readings by Bob Deck, who performs as the character Manfred Minsk, director of the fictional Unmind Institute for Positive Waves. (The Institute's mission, according to its website, is "to help people relax and deal with life's obstacles. And to stop thinking so much about having to relax.") The album seems like a parody at first glance, and it definitely has some of Steed's trademark smirking humor, but its origins run deep.
"It kind of comes from a sad place," Steed says. "I lost three family members back to back over the course of a year and a half. I didn't write a lot of music—I just didn't feel like it. I started wondering, what's the meaning of life? Not exactly, but I did wonder, how do other people handle these things?" [Matthew Everett]
Now, it's December 2010, and Bob Wolfenbarger and his fellow East Knox Countians once again find themselves battling a proposed business park at Midway Road. At its meeting on Monday, Dec. 13, County Commission is supposed to finally vote on the latest revision to the East Knox County Sector Plan, this time with nearly 400 acres of fields and hills around Midway and Thorngrove Pike marked for "light manufacturing, offices and locally-oriented warehouse/distribution services." MPC approved the plan in February, and since then Commission has repeatedly kicked the can, most recently at the request in September of fledgling Mayor Tim Burchett, who called for two more public hearings on the issue.
The word in September was that neither side was sure it had enough votes on the 11-member Commission to either pass or block the proposal. Heading into next week's meeting, the question is still officially too close to call. Few commissioners have committed themselves publicly. But on all sides of the issue, there is a sense of a sort of fevered exhaustion, a 360-degree siege mentality in which everybody seems to feel somehow victimized, vilified, or misunderstood. Ten years is a long time to fight over a few hundred acres of land. So on the eve of what is either the final or, at least, the next stage of the battle, it is worth asking again why each side thinks this particular fight is so important. [Jesse Fox Mayshark]
The city is mourning the impending loss of its oldest restaurant. Regas, which has been open in one form or another since the Wilson administration, will close at the end of the month, after a 91-year run. Bill Regas, the 81-year-old son of Frank Regas, the Greek immigrant who co-founded the restaurant, announced his decision to the large staff on Saturday.
It's a loss to the city, and most longtime Knoxvillians have fond stories of the place, but Regas also makes a case study of adaptation to a radically changing environment. Its history is almost Darwinian.
This Tuesday, in his customary blue blazer, 81-year-old Bill Regas was once again the gracious host, strolling around the series of adjoining rooms that is Regas. At high lunchtime, people approached him to offer their wishes and condolences and thanks, and to, once again, get directions to the bathroom. He can recall when each dining room was a different business facing North Gay.
"That was a fruitseller," he says, "and all the way down at the end, that was Gordon's Drugstore." Standing in one room, he points to three steps up to the next dining room. "Those steps went up to the lobby of the Watauga." [Jack Neely]
Revenge of the (Coffee) Nerds
"You can get really nerdy about it," says Meg Parrish, 29. That was kind of an understatement, as I'd just spent the past 45 minutes listening to her and her husband Shaun, 34, talk about coffee—a conversation that continued for almost another hour. The Parrishes really like talking about coffee.
Why coffee? Shaun says he's obsessed with that elusive quest for the perfect cup. He says he likes championing what he sees as an underappreciated beverage. And then there are the coffee shops.
"There's a whole culture that's built around coffee. It's something that people gather around, and there's this interesting ritual aspect to it," Shaun says.
That culture is a large part of the reason the Parrishes bought Old City Java, Knoxville's oldest coffee shop, three years ago, after Meg had worked there the previous five years. The shop will turn 20 this spring, as one of two remaining links to the great coffeehouse boom of the 1990s. (The Golden Roast Espresso Café just off the Strip near the University of Tennessee library, which opened in 1995, is the other.) Shaun says Java is where he had his first shot of espresso as a teenager living in Oak Ridge, back in those heady days of grunge, back when Central Perk became the new Cheers. [Cari Wade Gervin]