We hear it all the time: People
like Knoxville because, well, it's next to the mountains. And it's got the
biggest damn college football stadium in known creation. There are a lot
of restaurants here, too.
But there's got to be more to life
in Knoxville than that. There are many little details, we suspect, that make
life here worth living. They may not be world-renowned--heck, they're probably
not all that obvious even to us. They're the kind of subliminal facets of
daily living that you only really notice by accident. You'll be driving along,
minding your own business, and the thought will suddenly bubble up on its
own accord: "Thank heaven for Greek pizza." Or "God bless Margie Ison." Or
maybe even "County Commission meetings are a hoot!"
So what are some of the elements here
that improve our quality of life? We asked our crack team of writers to wax
poetic about the things they like about Knoxville. Our criteria was simple:
No mountains, no restaurants, no Vols. (After all, our Best of Knoxville
Reader's Poll is chock full of those.) What we wanted were the things that
contribute to our sense of Knoxvilleness, whether they be earnest or silly,
important or quirky.
Here then are some words of appreciation
for things Knoxvillian we sometimes overlook (and if you've got some ideas
for other choices, write 'em in--we'd like to print them).
The Legends of Cas
Pity the poor Knoxvillian who never knew Cas Walker. Councilman, mayor,
political boss, TV and radio star, launcher of careers and breaker of
reputations, tormentor of the silk-stocking crowd, coon hunter, obstructionist,
salve-seller, philanthropist, working-class hero, living legendnobody
ever wore as many hats in this town as the Old Coon Hunter.
And let's don't talk past tense. Walker, possibly the only human ever to
lick Alzheimer's Disease (he was misdiagnosed and sent off to a nursing home
with the supposed ailment a decade or so ago), turned 95 this March and is
in residence at his North Knoxville home. He's had some bad spells, but,
at 92, was still threatening to come back and run for City Council, reasoning
that no more than the present bunch gets done, he'd not have a speck of trouble
keeping up with the workload.
Country way before country was cool, nobody had to persuade the canny old
grocer of the value of local television, and most everybody over the age
of 25 remembers waking up to the sounds of Red Rector and Honey Wilds and
David West and Danny Bailey and all the rest twanging out the theme song
of the Cas Walker Farm and Home Hour every morning at 6 a.m.
Pick up the morning paper when it hits the street. Cas Walker's prices, they
just can't be beat. Buy that Blue Band Coffee and you'll want some more.
Do your grocery shopping at a Cas Walker's Store.
For decades, there was likely not one literarily-inclined outsider who came
to UT who didn't harbor an aspiration to crank out the first Cas Walker
biography, and even relative newcomers probably know that his show launched
Dolly Parton and that he fired the Everly Brothers because he couldn't stand
rock 'n' roll. And lots of people saw the famous photo of him punching out
a City Council colleague that wound up in Life magazine. Many saw it hanging
on the wall of Guy Lincoln Smith, editor of the real Knoxville Journal and
no small legend himself. Years later, in the waning days of the Journal,
a paper for which he had a particular fondness perhaps because of his great
interest in the Milk Fund, Walker rasped out a rusty old chuckle and admitted
that the whole thing was a fake, a set-up.
But not enough folks have had the opportunity to hear about how he kept Digger
O'Dell buried in the parking lot of the Chapman Highway store, or about the
time he brought Hazel Davidson (Madame of the best little whorehouse in
Knoxville) onto the Milk Fund Telethon toting her little poodle Pierre, or
the morning when he kicked a woman in the butt live on Channel 10.
The Enormous Amount of
I was never sure exactly what it was I was missing, every time I go
out of town, until a few years ago when, returning from a trip up north,
I happened to look out of the window of a Delta jet. I looked down at my
hometown and saw, mostly, green. From 4,000 feet, Knoxville looks like a
city emerging from the jungle, still struggling with the wilderness after
more than two centuries of beating it back.
Other cities don't look like that. Suddenly I understood why I'm never completely
comfortable anywhere else. Compared to Knoxville, most other places seem
dusty, desiccated, empty, soulless. We may not have any more going on here
than most places do, but swathed in green, we can always believe there's
something here, some hidden possibility we can't make out clearly through
the broad, green leaves.
I'm not the only one who ever noticed it, of course. When Disney wanted to
film The Jungle Book convincingly without leaving North America, they
came to East Tennessee. That was mostly up in the mountains. But I'd bet
you could parachute a National Geographic photographer into city-limits
Knoxville, and he could spend weeks in the kudzu jungles of South Knoxville,
the mimosa-and-pokeweed orchards of Sequoyah, the honeysuckle thickets of
East Knoxvilleand then return to the office and tell them he'd been
sojourning in Sumatra or Madagascar or Belize, and show enough shots of lush,
exotic greenery and the consequent bright-colored tree frogs, bare-tailed
marsupials, and noise-making insects to fool the editors at the
Societywho'd even sign his expense reports from King Tut's.
Before we pat ourselves on the back for making more space for trees and bushes
than most cities do, remember that we really don't. We've been doing better
just lately, but Knoxville isn't known for its acreage of park land. We've
taken its green so much for granted that we haven't established sanctuaries
for it except in our unmown backyards.
It may be that our soil is more fertile, being, as it is, at the junction
of two rivers that flow hundreds of miles through three states before they
merge at our southeastern city limits, then flow through town as one. In
Knoxville, a square foot of upturned dirt doesn't stay barren long. You have
to dig deep here to find red clay that doesn't contain fertile seeds of
something. If something wild and green doesn't burst up from within it, bet
that soon enough something green will creep across it and swallow it whole.
In fact, it doesn't even have to be fertile dirt to turn green. I remember
a summer in Maplehurst when kudzu claimed a parked car enveloped it
in three days.
But deserving the most credit, I think, is our chief meteorological distinction.
For an American city, we're neither particularly high nor particularly low,
neither especially hot nor especially cool. What does make Knoxville different
is an especially great amount of rain. We get more inches of rain each year
than most American cities, even more than famously rainy Seattle. Rain makes
It stands to reason that with all this photosynthesis going on, we'd have
access to more life-giving oxygen than most earthlings have. The blood cells
flowing through Knoxville brains are, theoretically, better nourished than
You'd think we'd find some way to use that to our advantage.
Downtown office workers walk along Gay Street on their lunch hours,
calmly enjoying the warm sunlight of another blue-sky day. Suddenly, without
warning, a lime green monstrosity crawls down the middle of the thoroughfare.
An unwitting bank clerk ambles across the street right in its path, unaware
of his impending fate as the vehicle lurches closer. Concerned pedestrians
turn and stare.
"HEY YOU!" the beast blares from its loudspeakers. "CAN YOU FEEL THE SURGE?
The clerk momentarily freezes in terror then dodges out of the way, another
consumer scared out of his wits by the "Surgemobile" prowling our city streets.
Will this brazen marketing tactic make him want to purchase the new,
frighteningly caffeinated soda? Don't know about that, but it sure is fun
You'd think that Knoxvillians would be used to being marketing guinea pigs
by now. We have nearly become the skeptical villagers to Coca-Cola's Dr.
Frankenstein, exposed to every new experiment escaping from the lab. But,
although we may not have bought every new super soda they've foisted upon
us, it's been a pleasure just to get a sneak peak at what those zany beverage
scientists will think up next.
Not long ago we had the opportunity to consume Josta ("Unleash It"), the
brownish liquid that had guarana as an ingredient (an herb that purportedly
gives you an energy boost). The crouching panther logo made some sort of
connection with South American jungles, giving the drink a would-be exotic
flairas if loin-clothed natives had guided Pepsico executives into
the darkest Amazonian jungles so they could dig up guarana roots for our
You can probably still find a few stray bottles of Josta on the shelves of
your nearest Dairy Mart. Not so lucky was Coke's OK Soda ("A Unique Fruity
Soda"), which had an even larger marketing push. With teams of local high
school students acting as "marketing advisors," nicely designed packaging
from hip cartoonists, and cases of the stuff being sold locally at cut rates,
OK looked like a winner. How could we reject it? Well, it tasted awful.
Knoxville's soda drinkers turned up their noses to OK, and thus another would-be
cola replacement was doomed to the test-market graveyard.
So, although experimental products may not always taste good going down,
there's always that quick thrill: Maybe we'll discover the next big thing.
And personally, I still really miss Royal Crown Draft.
The Video Collection at Lawson
McGhee Public Library
Going to the video store these days can be a dispiriting experience.
You scour the racks hoping for something to catch your eye, and you're confronted
with shelf after shelf of the latest Hollywood star vehicles47 copies
of Liar, Liar, but no trace of that Cuban comedy or low-budget drama
you've been reading about.
Fortunately, you live in Knoxville, which boasts a public library video
collection of staggering breadth and depth. With about 7,000 titles on the
shelves and 600 or so added each year, Lawson McGhee's movie catalog is a
treasure trove for hard-core film buffs and dilettantes alike. Arranged
alphabetically so you don't have to figure out whether to look for Pulp
Fiction under "Comedy," "Drama," "Action," or "Cult," the rows of tapes
are fun to scan for their sheer diversity. There's Kevin Smith's sophomoric
indie comedy Mallrats, for instance, right next to The Maltese
Falcon and just a few titles down from the savage French satire Man
Bites Dog. Although there's no shortage of blockbustersfrom Star
Wars to Forrest Gumpthe library specializes in classic and
"We want a diverse collection," says Dale Watermulder, the library's audio-visual
manager. "The fact that something isn't very popular isn't necessarily a
That's why the collection also includes a good selection of documentaries,
in addition to instructional videos (piano lessons, quilting), a lot of
children's movies, and a variety of concert films. The rental fee$1
a night per videois a bargain, especially since the library considers
the weekend (Thursday through Monday) one night.
"I remember somebody was visiting from L.A., and he said, 'The L.A. library
doesn't have anything like this,'" Watermulder says. "And John Updike was
very impressed with our collection. We had a Gene Kelly movie that he had
written about, but he hadn't been able to find many places."
The Tennessee Theater's Mighty
It's not the only one of its kind in the world, as the myths around
town would have you believe. It's not the loudest, nor the biggest. It's
not even the only one around that goes up and down on its own little elevator.
But still, it's undeniably a local wondera "unit orchestra" of such
beauty, in both the physical and musical sense, that the Wurlitzer Corporation
used its image to promote its products around the world in the 1920s.
Consisting of three separate keyboards, 1,125 individual pipes, and an array
of hidden percussion and sound-effects instruments (hence the unit orchestra
moniker), the organ at the Tennessee Theater lends mightily to that venue's
appeal. It is, in fact, part of the decoreven its console was designed
by the theater's architects. It was installed in September of 1928, just
prior to the theater's October opening, at a cost of $50,000. And though
it was designed to accompany silent movies, it never ever did; the Tennessee
opened playing The Fleet's In, a Clara Bow talkie, and never looked back.
Instead, it was thenas it is nowpart of a combination bill, played
solo as an added entertainment just prior to the dimming of the lights and
beginning of the evening's feature presentation. But to those who love its
majestic, melodic reverberations, the mighty Wurlitzer of the Tennessee Theater
has always been the main event. It's a spectacle for both the eyes and ears,
made all the more fascinating by the fact that it's University of Tennessee
Chancellor Bill Snyder up there pumping those keys.
Like all good theaters built in the '20s, the Tennessee was created to take
your breath away. This it does, with all its Spanish/Moorish visual splendor,
transporting you to a beautiful castle in some unspecified far-off land where
your voice echoes in the onion domes and alcoves, where you can wile away
hours finding new details in its stained glass and gilt ceilings. But once
that organ begins its magic ascent from somewhere beneath the stage and you
hear the first notes of "Tennessee Waltz," your attention is indubitably
Neyland Drive at Night
On home-game Saturdays, Neyland Drive seems mostly utilitarianand
just barely that. Cars pack its four lanes (in the stretches where it still
has four lanes), moving just fast enough to put some flutter in the orange
flags mounted on their windows. Pedestrians crowd the shoulders, and police
cars blink blue lights from the intersections as red-vested officers tirelessly
wave vehicles through one left turn or another.
But come back the next evening, when the Vol faithful and visitors alike
have long since departed, and the parkway takes on an entirely different
persona. At night, Neyland Drive is Knoxville's most evocative highway, an
open curve of asphalt that chases the river under four bridges from east
to west and back.
Drive it from the west and you pass the darkened agriculture campus first.
Depending on the hour, you may still see fishermen near the sewage plant,
angling for a late dinner. But it's around the bend and under the railroad
bridge where the view really opens up. The obnoxiously bright electronic
billboard on the side of Thompson-Boling Arena mars the atmosphere slightly,
but it can't distract much from the nocturnal grandeur of the wide Tennessee
River and the Henley Street Bridge.
The ripples on the black water's surface look different at night, more angular,
more menacing and mysterious. Barges slough through the dark like lost whales,
their dots of red and white light the only hints of the massive bodies beneath.
High above, the bridge's lights (white most of the year, orange during football
season, green and red at Christmas) sparkle like a forlorn landing strip.
The bridge itself is an arcing monolith, striding across the water in graceful
half-loops of concrete and steel. And beyond the bridge, the downtown bank
buildings rise up as half-lit silhouettes, their lights shining with a vitality
and purpose they never match in the daytime. Knoxville never looks more like
a city than after dark.
It's all mostly an illusion, of coursethe river is muddy and polluted,
the bridge is just a link between the manhole minefield of Broadway and the
four-lane hazards of Chapman Highway, the downtown is almost completely deserted
after dusk. But on Neyland Drive at night, you can imagine otherwise for
a few minutes, and Knoxville seems just a little more interesting.
Jesse Fox Mayshark
The Laurel Theater
In its 99 years, the old church at the corner of Laurel Avenue and
16th Street has seen its share of joyful noise. But it's doubtful the building,
with its vaulted ceiling and polished hardwood floors, has ever seen
moreor as many different kinds ofcelebration than in its current
incarnation as the Laurel Theatre.
It's inadequate to say the Laurel is owned and operated by the nonprofit
Jubilee Community Arts. The theater is a physical embodiment of the group's
mission, a space that makes Jubilee's aspirationsto preserve and propagate
the traditional arts of the Southern Appalachianspossible.
"It's very unusual for an arts group to own their building," says Karen Dotson,
Jubilee's programs coordinator and a member of the group for 25 years. "It's
a very unique space, because it's so good for acoustic music."
The Laurel is maybe best known for the variety of performers it brings to
Knoxville, from folk singer Iris DeMent to The Bill Frissell Quartet, and
deservedly so. It's hard to think of a better, more intimate venue in town.
With room for just 200 people, the Laurel is a music-lover's dream. Highlights
from the shows are broadcast weekly on WUOT's Live at Laurel program, which
Beyond the big-ticket shows, though, which provide some of the theater's
income (the rest comes from a grab-bag of public and private sources, including
the Knoxville Arts Council, the NEA, and several foundations), the Laurel
is a center for local arts groups of all extractions. Three traditional English
dance troupes practice and perform there, along with local contra and
Scandinavian folk dancers. The Knoxville Writer's Guild uses the building
for regular meetings, as do the Knoxville Old Harp Singers. A local church
group rents the space out for Sunday services. The theater's eclecticism
is a vivid reminder that Knoxville, despite appearances, boasts a thriving
diversity of people and traditions.
Brent Cantrell, Jubilee's new executive director, hopes to broaden the Laurel's
community involvement even more, reaching out to the Knoxville area's newer
Asian, Middle Eastern, and other cultural groups. He'd also like to mount
an exhibit celebrating the region's rich musical heritage.
"I think it brings the whole sense of community arts," the professional
folklorist says. "I firmly believe arts cannot exist without a community.
They can only exist in a cultural milieu...When an old-time band or a Cajun
band is playing for a dance with a bunch of friends around, that's something
that doesn't exist anywhere else."
Green Acres Flea Market
GREEN ACRES...is the place to be, especially on a Saturday morning
'round 9 a.m. Although the smell of corn dogs and funnel cakes can be a bit
much to bear at that hour, you can head on inside the "Air-Conditioned in
the Summer, Heated in the Winter" building and pour over all sorts of
collectibles, in varying states of wear and tear. Looking for old Atari games?
All manners of sports cards? Comic books and old magazines? Glassware? Ashtrays?
Posters? Sheet music? The missing figure needed to complete your Star Wars
collection? A Mork from Ork dollor lunchbox? It's probably here, tucked
away among all sorts of knick-knacks, bric-a-brac, and so much clutter. Yes,
clutter; you'll most likely have to dig through some frogs before you find
your prince, but that's part of the adventure. And, when you're ready, you
can make your way outsidewhere the real fun is. Even if you're not
in a buying mood, this is a people-watching and oddity-ogling paradise. Where
else can you see card tables weighted down with Third World cough syrups
("Now with quinine!") next to caged chickens next to buckets of every kind
of nail and screw you can imagine next to leopard-print car seat covers?
Chances are you'll find something you "need." Green Acres is an irregular
time capsule, spanning a host of decades and cultures; it's your second chance
at pop-culture oddities you missed out onor just plain miss; and it's
a must-visit stop on any Knoxville thrifting excursion.
Carlene Malone's Relentless
A few years ago, political insider Bill Baxter was predicting the
outcome of the race to choose the successor to the late Councilman Milton
Roberts. Baxter mentioned a well-connected son of Fountain City who had the
right stuff and was a cinch to win.
But what about Carlene Malone, he was asked.
"Not a chance," he snapped, pointing out that Malone was a transplanted Yankee
whose penchant for the fine points of zoning regulations had gotten on the
nerves of just about everybody who counted. A vein stood out on his head
as he pronounced Malone's political career DOA.
This year, Councilwoman Malone (dubbed "Too Tall" because she towered over
the mayor and all her Council colleagues save one when she lined up for that
first group portrait) faces her third election, unbowed by being on the short
end of more 8-1 votes and unseconded motions than anyone would care to count.
Working from her kitchen table command center, Malone has become the "go-to"
person for underdogs from Vestal householders in danger of being uprooted
for a Southside waterfront project to the Citizens for Haley Heritage Square,
in danger of having the fruits of their labor wrested away by the city.
Live in 4th and Gill and worried about Bill Meyer Stadium? Call Malone.
Concerned about the wetland standing in the way of the Parkside Drive extension?
Ticked because the city didn't do a final inspection on your new home, even
though it's required by law? Call Malone.
She began her Council career by having the undiluted gall to read the minutes
of the previous meeting before approving them. The old bulls harrumphed.
It only got worse. She was for term limits and against the 202 Fund (the
$40,000 allotted to each member of Council annually for "discretionary
spending"read "political slush fund"). She pointed out over and over
again that the city beer board hadn't revoked a permit in 10, then 11, then
12 years. She hauled the powerful Ingram Group into the dock and boxed their
ears. She challenged the mayor's math on projected waterfront project revenues.
She hired a lawyer and challenged legal interpretations. She hired a
parliamentarian to challenge Mayor Victor Ashe's procedural rulings.
She discouraged a burgeoning Malone For Mayor movement.
And she's also Cas Walker's favorite city official.
The JFG Coffee Sign
It stands like the lonely sentinel of some long lost Vegas outpost,
sparkling with a golden halo of blinking lights. But as you drive closer,
southbound on the Gay Street bridge, you see that this is no swanky casino
nestled in those green hills. Instead, it's a remnant of a bygone era when
billboard-sized neon signs were not only advertisements but declarations
of success. Built around 1953, the sign was one of a half-dozen in the region
(there's also one atop the company's current building in the Old City). JFG's
Special Coffee is "The Best Part of the Meal," promises the electrically-charged
neon gas, and in the face of such spectacle you have to agreeespecially
if the scent of their freshly roasted coffee beans is still wafting through
the air. But what the sign is really saying is: KNOXVILLE IS THE HOME OF
JFG COFFEE. And with that little shot of visual pride, you drive onward,
perhaps thankful that somebody is willing to spend that much money and effort
to make such a fine pronouncement.