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Wayne Bledsoe at Steve Wildsmith

Steve Wildsmith

A cross between Rolling Stone, Soldier of Fortune and the Oxford American

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Waynestock: This year’s cause is a personal one, so you should go.

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“Have you ever seen a scarecrow filled with nothing but dust and weeds, if you’ve ever seen that scarecrow then you’ve seen me … have you ever seen a one-armed man punching at nothing but the breeze, if you’ve ever seen that one-armed man then you’ve seen me …” — Bruce Springsteen, “The Wrestler”

I hear that song  in my head every time I drive the side streets of Downtown North Knoxville. It’s a neighborhood that’s a little more spit-shined and polished than it was when I first arrived there in 2002, standing outside the door of a quaint little house on Hinton Avenue, shivering less from the late-March cold than from the lingering chills and spasms of opiate withdrawal. Back then, the hookers and the homeless walked up and down Central Street at all hours of the day, lowered heads and eyes roaming the sidewalk cracks for change and cigarette butts. They’re still around, but with more and more businesses opening in the area and more middle class residents drawn to the genteel charm, they’ve been pushed further back into the shadows.

It’s not easy clawing one’s way out of the black abyss of addiction and alcoholism. We’re marked by scarlet letters as weak, as morally bankrupt, as men and women who have brought our affliction upon ourselves. In one sense, that’s true; our dire straits are of our own making, a result of one bad decision after another going back to the first time we picked up that first drink or did that first drug and it flipped some switch deep inside our heads, setting off a cascade failure of life-altering proportions. For whatever reason, we get fucked up as a coping mechanism — to feel good when we’re down, to feel even better when we’re up, to dull pain and quell anger and dampen depression. We use, and then we use more, and the promises we make to ourselves, the “I’ll never do that” and the “I won’t cross that line,” fall like dominoes with all of the other promises we make. We steal, we lie, we cheat, we con, we manipulate in order to get more of what our bodies and brains scream to have, and when we come down the crush of guilt and shame strikes our souls like an avalanche of heavy stones, and before we know it, we’re walking those cold and lonely streets, not recognizing the reflection staring back at us in grimy storefront windows and pleading for just a second glance, a flicker of acknowledgment, from those who pass us by.

“These things that have comforted me I drive away, this place that is my home I cannot stay, my only faith’s in the broken bones and bruises I display …”

By the time I got to the E.M. Jellinek Center, the only things I had in the world were a suitcase full of clothes, a job here at The Daily Times that gave me one chance to straighten out and my life. My family, wounded and hurt by the pain I had inflicted upon them, had cast me out. Friends whom I had manipulated pushed me to the margins of their own lives. I laid my head down at night praying to whatever God exists to kill me in my sleep, and I threw a fistful of curses His way when I awoke the next morning, still alive. I knew nothing except self-inflicted pain and guilt, and that what I had become wasn’t what I wanted to be anymore.

For two years, I lived on Hinton Street and slowly put my life back together. Under the mentorship of the late Frank Kolinsky, I re-learned those basic fundamental principles instilled in most people as children, those that addiction had slowly worn away over the years: Be good to other people. Take pride in your appearance. Help others. Have discipline. Treat others with respect. It was the simple things at Jellinek that made the biggest impact: Tuck your shirt in before you enter the dining hall. Carry out your assigned duties with pride and efficiency. Make your bed. Don’t be late to meetings. Don’t curse in front of women. (One rule I’ve woefully failed to uphold; my apologies, Frank.) When I moved out in 2004, I had two years clean, and I’m blessed to be able to say that I haven’t had a drink or a drug since March 2002. Some of that, of course, is due to my own diligence, but I owe a great deal of that, too, to the E.M. Jellinek Center. The people there taught me how to be a man, and in so doing set the stage to help me be a good husband, a good father, a decent human being.

That decency, I like to think, played a part in helping get Waynestock: For the Love of Drew off the ground in 2011. When my friend and fellow writer Wayne Bledsoe lost his son, a few of us couldn’t just offer condolences. Those were well and good, but we felt driven to do something more, and so we put together a three-day festival of love and light and music drawn from the deep well of talent here in East Tennessee. We came together and celebrated the legacy of Andrew “Drew” Bledose, lifted up Wayne and his family and realized we had created something special. The next year, we can together and did it again for the family of the late Phil Pollard; last year, we selected the Community School for the Arts as the recipient of Waynestock 3’s proceeds. This year’s event, which takes place Thursday, Jan. 30 through Saturday, Feb. 1, will benefit the E.M. Jellinek Center.

Ever since Frank Kolinsky died a few years ago, the facility — which has been helping men who suffer from alcoholism and addiction for roughly 40 years — has struggled to stay afloat financially. Times are tough, and Frank was the glue who kept things together when it came to state funding and other bureaucratic matters. I was asked to serve on the board of directors a couple of years ago, and the center has made a number of changes to keep the doors open. The biggest is the opening of a 21-day treatment center, named after Frank, that adds another level of care to the center’s programs.

Throughout all of the uncertainty, however, the doors have remained open. There’s no sign out front — “This is our home, not the Holiday Inn!,” Frank used to declare when asked why — and a drive down Hinton Avenue might reveal little but a row of white houses with green roofs, well-kept lawns and a sense of peace and quiet that’s in stark contrast to the cacophony of the surrounding neighborhood. When I pull up to the curb in front of the main house, I’m reminded that this place, these people, are still home to me, because during the darkest time of my life, it was the light that led me back to the land of the living.

“These things that have comforted me I drive away, this place that is my home I cannot stay, my only faith’s in the broken bones and bruises I display …”

Today, the E.M. Jellinek Center serves as a beacon for similarly afflicted men. I’ve met so many good, decent people in the years since I lived there who have no idea of my background, who seemed shock to learn that I was once one of those lost souls plodding toward the next stop on a long, rocky path to hell … that I was once that “one-legged dog making its way down the street.” The E.M. Jellinek Center saved my life, and I’m honored, and so very, very grateful, that it’s the beneficiary of this year’s Waynestock.

This year will be the first Waynestock my wife and I won’t be able to attend; in the past, we’ve manned the doors and collected the cover charge (a paltry $5 per night) and strapped on wristbands. We’ve hugged friends and helped stage manager/Waynestock guru Tim Lee make the trains run on time. We’ve taken care of artists and watched local musicians with hearts bigger than they are leave everything they have on the stage, all for the sole purpose of giving away to someone/something else. We have a newborn this year — another of those blessings that I’ve been granted in this life — whose status as a preemie makes it a bad idea to take him out during cold and flu season, so as much as it pains us — and believe me, I feel despondent about it — we’re having to cheer the event on from the sidelines this year.

But if you don’t have a newborn … if you’re a regular Waynestock attendee or have never been … if you have no plans (or if you do — stop by afterward!) this weekend … if you want to support a good cause and give back to a worthy organization that’s given back so much to men like me over the years … then please, attend Waynestock this weekend. I guarantee you that the music you see and hear will go toe to toe with everything else going on in town, whether it’s Art Garfunkel or Queens of the Stone Age. I promise, you’ll be caught up in the love and life and beauty of the event and the people who make it such a wonderful part of Knoxville culture. (The full schedule is here, and you can confirm your attendance on the Facebook event pages for Thursday, Friday and Saturday nights.)

But more than anything else, when you’re driving home after all is said and done and you see those shadow people in the doorways and under the bridges, the men and women who exist but do not live, you’ll know that you’ve done something to help them out. You haven’t put a $5 bill in their hands, and you haven’t walked by pretending as if they don’t exist. You’ve helped them, and in so doing, you’ve helped me … because I once lived in those same shadows and reached out for help with the same trembling hands. I’m grateful the E.M. Jellinek Center was there to grasp mine, and that with the support of Waynestock, it will continue to help others.

“You’ve seen me, I come and stand at every door … you’ve seen me, I always leave with less than I had before … you’ve seen me, but I can make you smile when the blood it hits the floor … tell me, friend, can you ask for anything more?”

Written by wildsmith

January 27th, 2014 at 12:31 pm

Some parting thoughts on love and community and Waynestock 3 …

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There was a moment during Waynestock 3 when the tragedy that spawned this whole beautiful thing came rushing back.

Kevin Abernathy was on stage, singing his heartbreakingly gorgeous song, “Love Alone.” It’s a track that first appeared on his sophomore album, “Beautiful Thing,” and one he re-recorded for his most recent solo effort, “Some Stories.” It’s also the song he played on stage at The Bijou Theatre during Andrew Bledsoe’s memorial service.

Working the front door with Andrew’s dad, Wayne — the guy for whom Waynestock is named — I caught a glimpse of it in the man’s eyes, which brimmed with tears. It wasn’t the only time he got emotional over the weekend — his remarks to the assembled crowd before the all-star jam that brought Waynestock to a close included a few as well — but it was a reminder of how Waynestock started.

“There would be laughter, bouncing off the walls … smiles in photographs up and down the halls … if you could live on love alone …”

The tears, however, were few and far between.

This year’s Waynestock rose money for the Community School of the Arts. Although the past two Waynestocks were held in response to tragedies — the death of Andrew in late 2010 was the catalyst for Waynestock 1, held in early 2011, and the death of beloved local musician Phil Pollard in late 2011 was the driving force behind last year’s event — this year was different. As one of the organizers, I freely admit my uncertainty of how well another Waynestock would be received without such visceral pain driving the momentum.

It’s human nature, really. When Andrew died, those of us who love Wayne wanted to do something, anything, to help our friend. Everyone we asked, from Daniel Schuh at Relix Variety Theatre (the gracious home of Waynestock since the beginning) to the musicians who played that first year to the sponsors who helped get the word out to the donors who gave of their time and equipment, agreed to take part without hesitation. The folks who came to see the music gave generously above and beyond the $5 cover. After such a weekend of magic and beauty, it seemed impossible that we could repeat its success.

But we did, last year. Again, tragedy was the catalyst, but remembrance and love became the legacy. And while there was no single beneficiary, no fallen friend or loved one, to whom Waynestock was dedicated this year, love remains the post-Waynestock emotion that best sums up the whole weekend.

“Tangled up in kisses, on the side of the road, still running on empty with a million miles to roll, if you could live on love alone …”

The doors opened Friday night to a dedicated group of Con Hunley fans who had driven all the way to Nashville and arrived four hours before he was scheduled to take the stage. Warrior-poet Black Atticus charmed and entertained, and Abernathy was the perfect lead-in to the night’s big event.

Every act who took the stage at Waynestock made fans of those in attendance who’d never heard them before, but the act that brought in the most people was Con Hunley, backed by Mic Harrison & The High Score. For Mic and the boys, it was a big deal; family members came to see them share the stage with an icon, and they were in fine form. Mic and guitarists Robbie Trosper and Chad Pelton provided killer licks and sweet backing vocals for Con’s amped-up brand of country soul, and when they opened the show (after Mic and the boys warmed up everybody with “The Colonel Is Dead”) with a rousing, juke-joint inspired version of “Livin’ on the Funky Side,” the exhilaration was palpable. Con’s older fans felt rejuvenated (and even got their balladeer fix on with a few of his slower-tempo numbers), and fans of the local music scene were content to watch in wonder as history was made with Hunley’s return to Central Avenue.

It was the sort of magic that defines Waynestock, and it would be repeated throughout the event. The Rockwells, absent from the local scene for a few years now (save for a single performance last May), were as enthusiastic as the dancers that crowded the stage during their set, with mild-mannered Tommy Bateman peeling off one killer pop-rock lick after another and Jonathan Kelly managing an impressive leap mid-song that would have made Pete Townsend proud. The Mutations, performing in front of a screening of the 1967 Peter Fonda flick “The Trip,” kept the dancers happy, with Harold Heffner getting down among them for a fired-up and impassioned version of Sam Cooke’s “Twistin’ the Night Away.” Yak Strangler, featuring Andrew’s brother, Rylan, on drums, wrapped up Friday night, and with winter weather moving in throughout the day on Saturday, the turnout for night two appeared, at first, to be in doubt.

Those who stayed at home missed a hell of an exotic set from Saturday’s two openers, the Gypsy jazz-influenced Kukuly and the Gypsy Fuego and the klezmer band Dor L’Dor. (Dor L’Dor dad/bandleader Ken Brown even brought out the shofar, the traditional Jewish ram’s horn pipe, for the group’s finale.) Johnny Astro and the Big Bang steered everyone back to the middle of the road with some straight-ahead American rock ‘n’ roll done to perfection, and the Americana outfit Guy Marshall proved that it’s East Tennessee’s answer to the beloved and long-running Murfreesboro band Glossary. Sam Quinn and his Americana power-trio co-horts — Tom Pryor and Jamie Cook of the Black Lillies — were the perfect lead-in to the grand finale.

“Too bad the heart has to have a mind, to tell it what to do when the eyes are blind …”

And once again, art and community and love were elevated into something else. Magic seems too hokey, too generic, to describe it, but what other word fits? What other word accurately captures the wonder of seeing the Tim Lee 3 (Tim and Susan Bauer Lee with drummer Chris Bratta) sharing the stage with Greg Horne, Mike McGill, Kevin Abernathy, R.B. Morris, Black Atticus and Jodie Manross? Atticus flowing smooth the lyrics of R.L. Burnside’s “Snake Drive” while the band powered behind him like a growling muscle car … the boogy-woogy honky-tonk of McGill and the rest howling through his original, “Women, Whiskey and Pain” … Sam Quinn, grinning like a madman and watching the Lees blister through his haunting takes on Neil Young’s “Like a Hurricane” and “Cortez the Killer” … Manross and Morris, trading lead as well as Bonnie Raitt and John Prine ever did on Prine’s “Angel from Montgomery” … the whole damn family, wrapping up the night with a gloriously ramshackle version of Morris’s “Distillery” … that’s the stuff that Waynestock is made of. That’s the juice.

That is magic.

“There’d be no children troubled in their sleep, nothing else desired, nothing else to need, if you could live on love alone …”

After the house lights went up and the instruments were packed away and the last drinks poured, those of us who conceived of this thing felt like exhausted children on Christmas night. We take no credit for the creation of that magic, and like everyone else who walked away amazed and grinning and wearing those “did-that-just-happen?” expressions of slack-jawed joy, we recognize that Waynestock is so much more than just us. It’s so much more than Andrew Bledsoe and Phil Pollard, who no doubt were in the house and dancing and grinning along with the rest of us over the weekend. It’s so much more than the assuaging of grief and the remembrance of those departed and the banding together to overcome tragedy.

It is about celebration. It is about unity. It is about beauty and music and lifting up what is so good and right about this beautiful, brilliant and occasionally bizarre scene. It is about raising a flag in Happy Holler and declaring, “WE ARE KNOXVILLE.”

If we could live on love alone, then we would never have to leave Relix. The kegs would never run dry and the bottles would never dwindle. The sound would never be muddied and the instruments would stay tuned and the infinite possibilities of musical mayhem would play out for the rest of our days.

Love alone, unfortunately, isn’t always enough. And in a way, that’s OK, because Waynestock then becomes this bubble, this magical (yeah, yeah; there’s that damn word again) world to which a door is opened once a year and everything good about who we are as musicians and music lovers and human beings who call Knoxville, Tenn., home manifests itself in vibrant, vivid ways. Shutting that door for another year — and knowing there’s no guarantee it will open again — is bittersweet, but something tells me this will happen again. Part of me screams that it must. It’s too good, too special, to not revisit.

Besides, the key is simple … love. It opens the door. Love alone is all that’s needed to get back to the place that Waynestock shows us is possible. Love alone … well, sometimes it is enough.