Outlaw Country

Some surprising veterans of Knoxville's music scene have come together to make old-school honky tonk

J.C. Haun and the members of his new band, the Dirty Smokers, don't exactly have purebred pedigrees for the kind of hardcore honky tonk they're playing these days. Haun spent most of the last 10 years as lead guitarist for the jam bands Left Foot Down and Garage Deluxe; guitarist Andy Wood stars in the alternative hard-rock group Down From Up; bassist Aram Takvoryan and drummer Zane Harkleroad played, years ago, with patio maestro Dave Landeo, and Takvoryan later performed in the Caribbean-ish pop-rock band St. Somewhere and then Garage Deluxe.

"I love it, especially because it's an outlet for me on upright bass," Takvoryan says of his work with the Dirty Smokers. "For 21 years, I played electric bass. Now, for the last 10 months, I've been branching off into a whole new world."

That whole new world is classic old-school outlaw-style country, characterized by covers of Johnny Cash ("Orange Blossom Special") and George Strait ("Amarillo by Morning") and a dozen or so original tunes with bouncing bass lines, weepy steel guitar, and tales of heartache, booze, and backwoods mischief. The originals range from the barrelling Bakersfield train roll of "Bottles" to the mournful "In Spite of Myself," with the fiery "Year of the Gun" serving as a showcase for the band's instrumental chops. Then there's "Hammered and Nailed," which combines two of the great themes of country music—drinking and cheating ("While I was getting hammered, she was getting nailed"). Few bands in Knoxville are this committed to the hard country sound of the 1960s.

"I spent years doing rock 'n' roll," says Haun, who, with his gaunt face, battered white cowboy hat, and tattoos resembles a latter-day incarnation of Hank Williams. It is, in fact, hard to imagine him as anything except a singer for a country band. "It's weird how life is. I moved here in 1998 and didn't know a soul and decided to be a musician. I had a great job back home in Roane County, but after my dad passed away I quit my job and moved to Knoxville."

After leaving Garage Deluxe three or four years ago, Haun spent some time writing songs and preparing to be a singer for the first time. "I took six months off from playing and just woodshedded," he says. "I wrote a bunch of stuff, mostly about shit that's happened in my life and to my family. Here lately I've been writing stuff that doesn't involve me, which I figure means I'm moving forward as a songwriter.... I didn't want to quit playing music. But I'd been afraid to sing, so I had to get over that after 10 years."

Haun recruited his band—Wood, Harkleroad, Takvoryan, and pedal steel player Brock Henderson—just in time for their first gig, at Barley's Taproom last September. They've maintained a relatively low profile since then, in part because of the members' other gigs but also as a calculated measure to take things slowly. They recorded a handful of demos earlier this year and have some live recordings, but they're taking their time with the first full-length, tentatively titled 80 Grit—like the sandpaper.

"It's the most relaxed situation I've ever been in," Haun says. "When I was in Left Foot Down, it was hard to be a guitar player and try to steer things. Now I've got my own thing and I call the shots. It's very, very stress-free.... I never thought I could be a singer. All these years, all these bands, and now I'm doing what I thought I'd be doing all those years ago."