Back in May 2010, after local singer-songwriter Jon Worley resurfaced after dropping off the radar for a couple of years, he alluded to some of his troubles at the times when he called up out of the blue.
Founder and leader of the Cornbred Blues Band, Worley was a fixture on the local music scene for several years — playing shows, couch-surfing and getting into all manner of trouble, usually with a good story to tell. But then, around 2008, he said, it was time for a break: “I played 600-plus shows in 2.5 years, and I woke up homeless in the back of my van with my tooth falling out and arthritis in my leg,” he told us in May 2010. “I had to reevaluate and take a little time off.”
Since then, he’s moved back to East Tennessee from the Philadelphia area, and he’s set up shop as the unofficial “artist-in-residence” (our title, nobody else’s) of the Fourth and Gill Neighborhood Center — still known as The Birdhouse — in historic Downtown North Knoxville. He curating shows there, but he’s also using it as a base of operations for a new non-profit organization he’s started — Brother’s Keeper, a helping-musicians-help-themselves sort of outfit that draws on his experiences as both a troubadour and a down-on-his-luck artist.
“(The Birdhouse) is just a physical brick-and-mortar place to employ the philosophy of the non-profit — to have an open community space for people to come together, artistic and otherwise, to create an alternate economy,” he said. “But that’s just half the story. What’s really going on is that I have basically set up a network with Brother’s Keeper, where I’m hosting traveling artists coming through Knoxville, giving them just the basics: help with emergencies if their car breaks down; a place to sleep that won’t give you scabies; hot coffee in the morning; some wi-fi.
“By doing that, we’re showing the rest of the music community on the East Coast that’s traveling at large how awesome Knoxville is, and if they use my services, they have to pay it forward — they have to get a paying gig for somebody else in the network, or host them when they come to their town. It just encourages everybody to let everybody else know where they’re playing.”
Already he’s got one high-profile underwriter on board — Scott West, the man who helped revitalize downtown Knoxville with his wife, Bernadette, and the various businesses they started — Preservation Pub, Earth to Old City, Oodles Uncorked and more. West’s sister now owns the Pub, but West plays a large role in its operation, and supporting Brother’s Keeper makes good business sense for smaller venues, West said.
“We’re in a position in this economy of not being able to pay musicians as well as we once paid them, and if we want the regulars to keep coming in — and the Pub is a cathedral to a lot of people who spend three or four nights a week in here — then we can’t charge those people in a way that allows a musician like Jon Worley to make a living,” West said. “So you have to figure out ways to help the artists make it, and that’s why we’re helping with Brother’s Keeper. We want to provide for them as well as we can, and if we can’t pay them like we’d like to, we can find them a place to sleep or get them coffee or food or a couple of beers when they’re playing shows.We’re trying to underwrite Brother’s Keeper so it can help the very artists that allow us to stay in business and allow the patrons to keep enjoying live music.”
According to Worley, the idea for Brother’s Keeper dates back to when he broke his foot, back in 2007. Trying to scrape up enough money to get it taken care of was a challenge that contributed to ill effects that still plague him today.
“I realized that the social structure that I’m in is so marginalized — you’ve got people that pick your produce, carnie workers, and at the bottom of the pile are musicians, artists and performers,” he said. “We have no safety net. You figure that the average family making $25,000 to $30,000 a year is one car part, one illness from going under, and then you magnify that. I’ve been lving on $5,000 a year for the last 15 years, and it’s only by the grace of God I’m still here. My philosophy is, nobody else has to live like that or suffer like that.”
West agrees, which is why he’s contributing to making Knoxville the hub of a network that includes Worley’s connections who have established Brother’s Keeper outposts in New York, Philadelphia, Atlanta, New Orleans, Asheville, N.C. and Charleston, S.C. His donations — and those of others who will soon get on board, Worley hopes — allows public/private partnerships between artists and community businesses to flourish. By contributing, business owners will be investing in the local music and arts community, Worley said, strengthening it for the good of everyone who benefits from music and the arts — like West.
“I’ve known Jon a long time, and he, like 99.9 percent of musicians, lives a starving artist existence,” West said. “A lot of people in the entertainment industry pick up work as waiters or bartenders, but Jon’s one of the guys trying to make a go of it purely on music. And he’s getting by on $5,000 or $6,000 a year.”
Get him going, and Worley will talk about plans to turn Brother’s Keeper into an artist-run one-stop shop — record label, booking agency and more.Worley himself is heading out next week for shows in New York and Philly, both of them benefits for the non-profit. He’ll be back off and on and running Brother’s Keeper from the road. In the meantime, interested artists (and business moguls) can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.