Archive for May, 2012
El Deth may not be as active as the Knoxville-based label once was, but mastermind Arrison Kirby is still doing music and helping others make it as well.
In addition to his own projects Memetics and Never Sorry, he sent me a new album by a one-off project called Cop back in December. Kirby teamed up with Wes Wyrick (Star Mountain, DolphynRyder) and SK (The Glaring Sound) for the CD, titled “Urgency.”
It’s an apropos title, given the frantic energy that crackles to the surface on every song. The trio crafts a sonic groove on “Urgency,” a three-part telepathic freeway from their collective minds to the listener’s ear. It can be a jarring journey, as on the pounding drums crash into a sustained reactor-is-failing buzz of guitars on the opening track “You’ve Gotta Go,” but songs like “Botched Operation,” with its undercurrent of menace, can also call to mind the soundtrack to a seedy crime film, where the anti-hero is pushing his way through a crowded dance floor, gun drawn, looking for the bad guy. Slow-changing progressions, wrapped in shimmering electronic effects and the occasional quick-slap of drums, quicken into a frenzy on the album’s centerpiece, the 13-plus-minute “Formal Misgivings,” and by the closer, “Filthy South,” Cop channels the slow-before-slamming thrust of the blues, drenching the whole mess in fuzz and feedback that oozes into the brain like river sludge.
The next El Deth project is the upcoming release by West Tennessee band Dire Con. Kirby, who produced the self-titled album, describes the band (fronted by singer-songwriter Hamilton Ellis) as “a dirty Southern rock band, with a gruff and gritty exposition of the darker aspects of Southern living.” Kirby’s lo-fo approach to the board adds to the dour tone of the record, which kicks off with the doomy lament of “Cocaine” (”One minute seems just like a day, I hope I don’t get stuck this way,” Hamilton moans). The ravages of “Pills” gets dissected on the EP’s second track, but this time the subject matter is set to a jangling guitar echo that almost sounds pretty, in the way the feeble sunlight filtered through stark-naked tree branches might seem on a cold winter day. Uneasiness is woven throughout “Dire Con,” but there’s also a resolve beneath it all: “Dealing with the pain is better than feeling numb,” Hamilton tells us on “Empty Room.”
At the end of April, we told you how Raven Records and Rarities, that fine purveyor of awesome vinyl and cool pop culture trinkets, was pulling up stakes in Bearden and heading to Knoxville’s scruffier (and in our opinion more charming) Downtown North neighborhood.
Not the shop is teaming up to both spread the word and to raise money for WUTK-FM, 90.3 “The Rock,” the University of Tennessee’s campus radio station that is to the airwaves what Raven is to your record collection. (Utterly damn cool.)
The part starts at 5:30 p.m. Saturday, June 16, and it takes place at Relix Variety Theatre, 1208 N. Central St. in Downtown North, a few doors down from Raven’s new home at 1200 N. Central. Admission is a paltry $5, it benefits WUTK, and it’s an all-ages affair. Here’s the lowdown:
“The event includes a multimedia mix of entertainment beginning at 5:30 p.m. with the Tennessee Archive of Moving Image (TAMI) showing videos on the Relix big screen of the Knoxville television shows ‘The Cas Walker Farm and Home Hour’ and ‘The Jim Walter Jubilee featuring Bonnie Lou and Buster,’ along with rare live footage of a 1987 performance by Knoxville’s legendary band Smokin’ Dave & the Premo Dopes. At 8 p.m., the show moves to the Relix stage with live performances by Knoxville bands Jack Rentfro and the Apocalypso Quartet, Guy Marshall and The French. Longtime local musician and filmmaker Rus Harper will be showing 1980s era performance footage from several Knoxville bands during set changes. And just after midnight, The Knoxville Horror Film Fest will present a screening of a classic horror movie.”
Raven will open its doors at noon on the 16th to kick off the full day of music and fun. For more information, call Raven at 558-0066 or hit up WUTK General Manager Benny Smith at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Words comes tonight of the passing of a great Old Time music icon, the legendary Doc Watson. Much will be written in the days to come, but I had to point out a Blount County connection: Twelve years ago, Watson was one of the performers at Steve Kaufman’s Acoustic Concert Series, the two-week-long series of concerts held in conjunction with his instructional camps. They’re held every year on the campus of Maryville College and get under way this year on June 11; in 2000, Watson was one of the featured performers. That says a lot about both the quality of the musicianship Kaufman offers for the series, and for the kind of man Watson was.
“I never intended to become a celebrity, and if people think I am, they’re mistaken,” Watson told me in 2003. “I’m just one of the people, like you and everybody else. If people like you for what you are on the inside, that’s great, but the talent, it’s God-given. It’s just there. What I’ve done for music, I did because I love the music, but I also needed to provide a living for my family.”
A year earlier, we featured Doc on the cover of the entertainment section, and he talked at length about his career and the devastating hole left in his heart after the death of his son Merle. I reprint that 10-year-old story here. I’m honored I got the chance to interview him in my career.
Originally printed June 28, 2002:
If you’re headed to The Tennessee Theatre tonight to see a performance by one of Americana music’s living legends, look carefully at the stage.
On Doc Watson’s right hand, where his grandson Richard and longtime partner Jack Lawrence will perform alongside the godfather of the flatpick guitar style, there’s a ghost keeping watch, phantom fingers moving up and down the neck of a slide guitar.
You may not be able to see him, but he’s there. Watson knows it. He feels the presence of that ghost — his son, Merle, who died in a 1987 tractor accident at the age of 36 — every time he picks up the guitar.
“I’m very aware of Merle’s absence, and when I’m playing, it’s like he’s standing right behind my concentration,” Watson said in an interview this week. “In a way, I’m always with him because I always miss him.”
Despite the near-undefinable legacy of Arthel “Doc” Watson, the death of his son almost 15 years ago remains the defining moment of his life. It continues to affect him today, in both his performances and his personal life. Aside from his prowess on the slide guitar — his father once described him as the best slide player Doc had ever heard — and his years of making music with his father, Merle Watson continues to influence Americana music, even in death.
The year after Merle’s death, Watson teamed up with his close friend, Bill Young, and the director of development at Wilkes Community College in Wilkesboro, N.C., B. Townes, to put on the Merle Watson Memorial Festival. That year, the performers played on the back of flatbed trucks to about 4,000 people. Ten years later, MerleFest, as it came to be known, had grown to 13 stages, almost 50,000 attendees and a reputation as one of the biggest Americana festivals on the East Coast.
It does Doc good to see that many people show up to an event that was designed as a loving tribute to his son, performing partner and best friend, Watson said.
“It does, but sometimes it makes me miss him that much more,” he said.
Watson has long since turned over planning of the event to Townes, but MerleFest remains one of the few dates he plays faithfully every year.
“I’m just one of the artists who works there, and I work there because I want to,” he said. “Wouldn’t I feel like a rascal to charge for something that does so well as a tribute to Merle? I play for the people who come there and show they love him.
“One of the main ingredients in MerleFest is that it’s family-oriented, and that’s one of the things that made it successful. They keep drugs and alcohol out of there as much as possible, so it’s a giant homecoming as much as it’s about music.”
These days, Watson has slowed considerably from his schedule of 40 and 50 years ago, when he crossed the country performing the Appalachian roots music he grew up with as a boy in the hills near Deep Gap, N.C. To recount Watson’s entire career and legacy would entail a novel, but fortunately, anyone who’s a fan of traditional music has at least a passing knowledge of the elder statesman of Americana.
Watson was born in 1923, and because of a defect in the blood vessels of his eyes was born blind. His first instrument, a harmonica, was given to him by his father, Gen. Dixon Watson, who, as a day laborer and farmer, also played the banjo and sang in the nearby Baptist Church.
Watson credits his humble upbringing with his discomfort over being idolized for his contributions to music. He’d much rather pretend he’s sitting around a familiar front porch with a group of friends that picking on a stage in front of hundreds of fans.
“Getting out on stage is like exchanging a friendly handshake with the audience,” he said. “I like the applause, but I’ve learned to be totally informal on stage, to be down there with the audience instead of up above them. I’m not a pedestal product, in other words. I grew up poor in the Depression, and in those years I learned what it was like to have little or nothing. I barely had patch britches covering my body.”
As a teen, Watson attended the N.C. State School for the Blind in Raleigh, where he learned his first few guitar chords. His father bought him his first six-string — a $12 Stella — and in doing so helped propel his son into the history books.
Throughout the 1950s, he supported his family by playing music, and upon being discovered by folklorist Ralph Rinzler, Watson was introduced to the coffeehouse circuit in the Northeast and, subsequently, the Newport Folk Festival in 1963. A year later, a historic performance with bluegrass inventor Bill Monroe cemented Watson’s reputation. That same year, he began touring and recording with Merle, forging a partnership that continued for two decades.
Watson is probably best known for the birth of flatpicking, in which he transferred the bounce and rhythm of fiddle music to the guitar. He first began playing them on an electric guitar but soon transferred them to the acoustic flat-top. Combined with Watson’s other influences — Mother Maybelle Carter’s thumb lead, Jimmie Rodgers’ straight picking and the music of Hank Garland, Merle Travis and Chet Atkins — the style has been imitated and worshipped for years.
And the vast catalogue of songs he’s put to record over the years means that a set list for tonight’s show is virtually impossible to write out beforehand, he said.
“The repertoire is so large, I never make out a set before going on stage,” he said. “I try to program it from songs I know. Richard will be playing on the first half of set, Jack on the second half of the set, and we try to build the sets as we go with different kinds of material. If I try to tell you the names of the songs we’ll play, I’d forget them when I got there.”
With the success of “O Brother, Where Art Thou?,” the music of Watson’s mountainous upbringing is suddenly en vogue, and while he sits on the fence regarding the recent roots music fad, it’s pleasing to watch while it lasts, he said.
“It’s very gratifying to see that kind of interest in the music,” he said. “The movie did it, and it’s somewhere between a fad and honest, good interest in the music, but I don’t know how long this resurgence will last. I will sit on the fence on an actual, straight-off answer about that one.”
These days, Watson has cut back his performances, making tonight’s show that much more special. With his family’s health problems — his wife has had numerous heart surgeries — he’s keeping an eye on the future to provide for those he’ll leave behind one day, he said.
“Losing Merle almost killed his mother,” he said. “It literally broke her heart. When she had her heart surgeires, they asked if she drinks or smoke, and she said no, none of those things. I told her that the only reason she had this heart attack was because her heart literally broke.”
Rosa Lee Watson struggles with ruptured discs in her back, he added, and because of medical problems current and unforeseen, he and his wife live modestly.
“We don’t want to spend our savings,” he said. “I’ll soon be 80, and I don’t know what will be needed to take care of us when we can’t take care of ourselves. Some people, it does the opposite to them — once they get a chance, they want things.”
And when asked about his legacy, he’s quick to answer the question of how he’d like to be remembered:
“As one of the people loved for who I am, not what I’m doing,” he said firmly. “I’ll keep on doing what I’m doing. I don’t just play traditional music. I’ve listened to a lot of music over the years, and I’m glad I didn’t get cuaght in one little niche like bluegrass and stay there this whole time.
“I’m just very uncomfortable being put up on a pedestal. Maybe a college-aged person can get away with it, but people on up closer to my age, I feel kind of foolish when they do that. It makes me want to hide away from it.”
If you trace the lineage of rock ‘n’ roll through its various sub-genres, you’ll come across some interesting characters and bands that, unless you were living in those respective scenes at the time, you might not know existed.
Take college rock (see also: jangle-pop), for instance. Not the stuff you hear today on a station like WUTK-FM, great though that might be. We’re talking music from the early 1980s, when the guys in R.E.M. were working on an EP called “Chronic Town,” a sound that fell outside of punk and New Wave and everything else going on at the time. It wasn’t the most popular, and the bands wouldn’t conquer the world (R.E.M. being the exception, of course.) But bands like Let’s Active, Rain Parade, The Windbreakers and more helped set the stage for the ’90s alt-rock revolution, even if they get little credit for it today.
Thanks to Camilla Ann Aikin, a University of Mississippi graduate student, some of those musicians are getting a little credit these days. To complete her master’s thesis in Southern Studies, Aikin put together a short documentary titled “We Didn’t Get Famous,” a fantastic piece of Southern college rock history that features local rocker Tim Lee. Tim and his wife, Susan, front local power trio the Tim Lee 3, but back in those days, Lee was part of The Windbreakers. And as the resident expert on those times and that sound, he gives Aikin’s film two thumbs up.
“I thought she did an excellent job,” Lee said. “When I met her, I was really impressed by her knowledge. She’s young — in her 20s — but she knows her music inside and out. She knew stuff about music from that era that even I didn’t know about — just some very obscure stuff. It was very impressive.”
Aikin has plans to expand on the film, Lee said, and there are tentative plans to screen the documentary at a Fourth of July part at Lost and Found Records in Knoxville.
Reggae artist Michael Franti performed Friday night at The Bijou Theatre in downtown Knoxville, and a friend at the show reports it was about what you’d expect: Great reggae, with hardcore followers grooving mightily to Franti’s Bob Marley-inspired one-love vibe. (Opener Nic Cowan reportedly was a hard act to follow, my pal reports.)
I interviewed Franti for last Thursday’s edition of Weekend, and while our conversation focused predominantly on the music, we also chatted a bit about the gay marriage debate that’s been a flashpoint of this political season. The day before we talked, President Obama had come out in support of gay marriage, and Franti has a very Zen-like attitude toward the opposition to the issue.
“I don’t think it’s a homophobia — it’s just a generational thing,” Franti said. “In previous generations, people grew up with churches a lot more in their life than today. People in the gay community have made themselves visible and seen as the beautiful people they are; as a productive part of society; as kind and as helpful and willing to participate in the world as anyone else. I think it’s great these things are coming to a head now, and it’s a huge step with Obama coming out in favor of it.
“I think all of the things we view as advances in our society — freedoms like women being able to vote and black kids going to school with white kids — these are things that people struggled for for a long time, and now they’re taken for granted. Gay people can fight and die for our country, but they come back to a country where they can’t be married — I see that as something that’s going to go away on the very near horizon. Whether it’s gender, religious differences or whatever, people should all be treated equally.”
Rhonda Vincent is a pretty big deal in the world of bluegrass music.
How big, you might wonder? Well, she received the International Bluegrass Music Association’s “Female Vocalist of the Year” Award in 2000, 2001, 2002, 2003, 2004, 2005 and 2006. Her 2010 album “Taken” peaked at No. 1 on the Billboard Bluegrass Albums chart, No. 3 on the Heatseekers chart and No. 21 on the Top Country Albums chart — no mean feat, considering the pop-country competition.
Now, she’s got a new CD and a DVD project in the works. The former, “Sunday Mornin’ Singin’,” will be out July 10; the latter is a gospel concert filmed at a church in her hometown of Greentop, Mo. (no word on its release details). Both will include a song co-written by a feller whose name most local music fans will recognize: Jeff Barbra.
The song, “Silent Partner,” was co-written by Barbra and Sevierville-based singer-songwriter and bluegrass guy Darrell Webb. And you can hear it this weekend, when Jeff and his fiddling/singing partner and wife Sarah Pirkle spin it on their Sunday morning radio show, “In the Spirit.” The spiritually oriented program airs from 8-11 a.m. Sundays on WFIV-FM, 105.3 on your radio dial. You can tune in and listen live via the station’s website.