Susan Bauer Lee said it best: Is it possible to write a love letter to your hometown?
I love Knoxville and East Tennessee. I was born here, grew up here, came back here in 2001 a beaten and broken individual with nowhere else to go. As I put my life back together, I began to see this place through new eyes. No longer did it seem like a city I wanted to run from, and today I relish the drives down rural backroads where I can get a glimpse of our mountains in the distance.
Being reborn is a beautiful thing, because you get to experience life in a way that seemed unattainable before. There’s a profound sense of gratitude that accompanies a second chance, a desire to do better, to be better, to rise above faults and foibles and do whatever you can to make your particular corner of the world a better place. Yeah, I know that sounds like some bad arthouse film script, and maybe it is, but it’s the one truth that’s kept me away from the dark rooms of my soul where I came so close to losing all that I am.
As I fell in love with my hometown for the first time, I was also discovering just how incredible the East Tennessee music scene could be. I’d come from Myrtle Beach, S.C., where the talent existed for something great but the ambition seemed to get sucked out to sea by receding tides; far too often, promising bands would fold to inner turmoil and brilliant musicians would squander their talents because they didn’t have the willingness to do more with what they had.
In Knoxville, things were different. I met a hell of a lot of talented people, heard an incredibly diverse array of genres and saw a town brimming with possibilities. Some of the best shows I’ve ever seen have been by local bands, by musicians who aren’t playing to impress label scouts or radio executives, who may never scrape up enough money to make another album, but they pour everything they have, everything they are, into one show, one song at a time, because it’s what they do. They play, and if someone happens to enjoy that playing … if they’re fans of the joy or the darkness or the spectacle or the melancholy … then that’s all the reward they need. Sure, fame and fortune are nice dreams to have, and more than a few locals have gone on to achieve such. More often than not, however, most realize they’ll never see their faces on the cover of Spin or their songs on the Billboard charts, and while that’s a fucking shame, it’s also reality. It is what it is. And yet they still play.
I learned these things, heard these bands, befriended these amazing musicians while living in a halfway house off of North Central Street in Downtown North Knoxville. I stayed there from 2002 to 2004, when I came to Blount County, and so it was a with a sense of deja vu that I drove those same streets over the weekend to spend two nights at Relix Variety Theatre, 1208 N. Central St., where WayneStock: For the Love of Drew would take place. When those of us who conceived of this festival first met on Dec. 17 … the same day of Andrew Bledsoe’s memorial service, we had no idea how this past weekend would turn out. We didn’t know how much money we might raise to help out Sentinel entertainment writer Wayne Bledsoe and his family. We didn’t know who would agree to play, when it would be held … any of those critical details.
All we knew was that a friend of ours was in unimaginable pain, and by proxy our own hearts were bloated with grief and shock and helplessness. The first two only time could ease; the latter … well, dammit, we were only as helpless as we allowed ourselves to be. And so we decided to do something about it.
In four short weeks, we turned this around and had what can be described — honestly and without hyperbole — as the best East Tennessee music festival in recent memory. It was perfection on every level, in every sense of the word; it was a weekend of light and love and joy and uplifting moments too numerous to be catalogued, too profound to be described. I can’t quite grasp the scope of how magnificent this weekend was, and I’m afraid to write too profusely about it, because no amount of words can describe how amazing it truly was. You had to be there. You just had to be there, because if you were, then you felt it — a thread of hope and goodness that weaved its way from heart to heart, wrapping us all close and shielding us from darkness.
The list of those I wish I could thank would turn this post into even more of a gray block of text than it already is. So many people came together to make this possible and did so with such selflessness, such purity of heart, that to turn their efforts into a physical thing would be to tap some mystical maple tree where the sap runs so sweet and divine it causes the tongue to sprout rose gardens and rainbows. Seriously. There aren’t enough syrupy sweet images and analogies to get across how driven everyone was to make this festival happen, to make it perfect, for the sole purpose of offering aid and succor to someone else.
There were no egos involved — no grandstanding, no musical masturbation. When a band finished its set, even if there was time left on the schedule for them to play longer, they politely declined. There were no grand entrances into the venue or exits after the show; everyone arrived early, stayed late and watched the other bands. For some, it was the first time they’d had the opportunity to see and hear their peers. Robbie Trosper of Mic Harrison and The High Score, outside on Friday night, was slapping himself almost for never having seen the Melungeons before, even though he first saw front man Rus Harper play in the early 1990s. Katie and the Bass Drums, the one-man act of singer-songwriter Zac Fallon, astounded many who’d never heard his incredibly witty songs before.
Hector Qirko on stage with R.B. Morris, Greg Horne and the Tim Lee 3, returning to the limelight wearing his infectious grin like a veteran Major League pitcher back on the mound for the first time in weeks … Scott Miller blowing the harmonica and wailing along with Mic and The High Score on Warren Zevon’s “Lawyers, Guns and Money” … Bob Deck as “Dr. Manfred Minsk,” clad in a white labcoat as he introduced Todd Steed and the Suns of Phere … Harper’s gibbering, gleeful imp, spewing insults and ripping through a sleazily evil version of “Third Eye,” ending the Melungeons set with his trademark “Cheers, motherfuckers!” … Steven Rodgers back behind the drumkit for Senryu’s set, pounding so hard the cords of muscle in his arms stand out as front man Wil Wright and the McCormack brothers throw themselves forward to the crowd-screamed refrain of “I Am a Battering Ram” … Kevin Abernathy on stage with the Tim Lee 3, Tim Lee on stage with the Kevin Abernathy Band … Randall Brown and Quartjar opening up Friday night’s portion of the event with some gut-churning blues-rock, a portent of the awesomeness to come …
So many highlights. So many moments that a local music geek like myself ends up staring in wide-eyed wonder, asking, “Is this really happening? Am I really witnessing this?” So much good will and charity and kindness. It was cathartic, as the performance by Andrew Bledsoe’s old band, Psychotic Behavior, demonstrated — their words were heart-wrenching, their groove-laden instrumentals gave the young crowd, many of whom were friends with Andrew, a chance to mosh and laugh and remember. For me, I think the most poignant, most beautiful moment of the whole weekend came on the final song of Friday night. The Drunk Uncles, with Sarah Pirkle filling in for fiddler Gordy Gilbertson, did their honky-tonk-meets-reggae version of Bob Marley’s “Three Little Birds” (with Naughty Knots/New Vernacular/Christabel and the Jons bassist Milly Cavender adding some sweet harmony vocals).
It’s an image that will be forever frozen in my mind’s eye — standing at the top of the backstairs, looking down on the crowd, all of whom were singing along … arms raised … arms around Wayne, who stood toward the back with a few of the many who love him, their arms around his shoulders, swaying back and forth to the music, singing, singing, singing: “Every little thing … gonna be alright …”
For one weekend, it was. It was more than alright. It was magic, and going back to the real world on this Monday, I find myself hoping fervently that all those involved, all those who attended, take the lessons of WayneStock — unity, selflessness, making our little corner of the world a better place — and carry them forward. It’s what we should do for one another, as friends and as human beings.
A letter to my hometown? Absolutely. But more importantly, this post is a letter to a scene, one so many people have yet to discover and come to love the way that I do. Driving home on Friday and Saturday nights, I saw crowds lined up to get in the door of Southbound Bar and Grill in the Old City, the butt-shakin’ dance floor songs tumbling out the doors and rattling car windows. Their eyes were filled with simple hopes — getting drunk, getting laid — and I felt sorry for them. They might think they were going to have a good time, and some of them probably did … but only because they didn’t know any damn better.
They weren’t at WayneStock. They weren’t a part of. And so they have no idea what a good time, what a rewarding time, this weekend really was. I’m so glad that I do.
“I’d rather lay here than live any other place …” — “Hometown Bounce,” by Senryu
FREE MUSIC: Download “Hometown Bounce,” by Senryu — right-click here (choose “Save Link As” or “Save Target As”)