Our Boys in Blue
Arts & Entertainment
Superdrag, Knoxville's punky pop quartet, suffered a bit of a setback in '98 when Elektra, the band's label, decided to invest most of its money in producing the 'drag's second record, Head Trip in Every Key, instead of marketing it. According to band members, the package included almost nothing for touring, promotion etc. On the bright side, look for another S-drag Elektra release sometime next year.
Puckish power trio Boy Genius's own music career was a rags/riches/rags story; after hip-hop stable Tommy Boy Records 'discovered' the Knoxville band by way of a serendipitous mailing last winter, the label released an eight-song Boy Genius EP and then promptly dropped all of its newly-discovered rock signees. The Boy Genius boys did get something out of the deal, howeverin addition to toting away a nifty eight-song calling card, the band took former Tommy Boy employee Max Nichols on board as their manager.
It came out a few months later than we thought it would when we posed in front of the Tennessee Theatre for the album cover early this yearand not on the giant Warner label that had originally signed for it. What's important is that the V-Roys second CD, All About Town, did come out, and it's every bit of what we expected. The October release party in the middle of Market Square drew an estimated 2,000, who drained all eight kegs of New Knoxville beer. Already, All About Town has gotten better publicity than Just Add Ice did, earning them a prominent photo in Billboard and a comparison to Creedence Clearwater Revival in Stereo Review. Catch their traditional hometown New Years Eve party at Moose's.
North Knoxvillian R.B. Morris's Take That Ride made several national lists of one of the 10 best albums of the year. A follow-up is in the works and will likely be released in '99. In the meantime, he released some older stuff on CD for locals only: called Knoxville Sessions, it's an eccentric mix of well-polished songs and wordjazz. The release party at the Laurel in early December was a rare simultaneous appearance of R.B. and two guitar virtuosos, Terry Hill and Hector Qirko, who had both been sidemen on these recordings. R.B.'s songs have also shown up on a couple of nationally released compilations, including two cuts"World Owes Me" and "Roy"alongside cuts by John Prine on the Oh Boy collection, Lucky 13, plusalongside Johnny Cash and othersa cut on the Tom T. Hall Project.
10 Coolest Live Shows in '98
V-Roys/Apelife/Hector Qirko at Market Square
The Everly Brothers at Tennessee Theatre
Bloodlet at Neptune
John Fogerty at World's Fair Park
R.B. Morris/Scott Miller/Todd Steed at the Laurel Theatre
Lucinda Williams at World's Fair Park
Fred Curchack at Clarence Brown Theatre
Don Caballero at A-1 ArtSpace
Tool & The Melvins at the Civic Coliseum
Flesh Vehicle at Longbranch
(In addition to the above list, our webmonkey informally polled a few other folks, and their notable events are below. Many of the picks above were echoed by the people below.)
Steve DuPree: Buddy Guy at World's Fair Park
Mark Schimmenti: Wynton Marsalis at the Tennessee Theatre
Sarah Cochran: Ratdog at the Tennessee Theatre, Leftover Salmon at the World's Fair Park
Mike Dotson: Stinking Lizaveta at Marco's Garage, Gillian Welch at Tennessee Theatre, Vandermark 5 at Tomato Head, Mbele Root at Barley & Hopps
R.B. Morris: the Save the Fort poetry reading at the Tomato Head
Jojo the Webmonkey: the Make-Up at A-1, Stinking Lizaveta at A-1, Soul Coughing at the Tennessee Theatre, Marc Ribot at World's Fair Park, the three (very rare) shows by Dark Logik at A-1.
The Rocket Boys of October
Last spring saw Hollywood bring its lights and cameras right here to pastoral East Tennessee to shoot October Sky (formerly Rocket Boys), the life story of NASA rocket scientist Homer Hickam's rise to prominence from the dead-end prospects of a West Virginia coal mining town.
Heralded as a "story-driven project" (read: no big stars) the shoot did nonetheless bring well-regarded actors such as Chris Cooper and Laura Dern to Knoxville, as well as director Joe Johnston, the mind behind The Rocketeer and Honey I Shrunk the Kids. Shot in a host of locales in Knoxville and surrounding counties, the film is now set for a March 31 release. Don't look for any Sunsphere shots, though....
A New Heyday for Our Historical Theaters
For those old enough to recall Gay Street's heyday as Knoxville's center of entertainment, it was a wonderful year. Both of our last remaining downtown theatersthe Tennessee and the Bijoufound their futures as community fixtures ensured. First, the Bijou finally began its massive, $1.7 million renovation after years of raising money and limping along without modern air conditioning. Those attending the theater's March 1, 1999 reopening (its 90th birthday will be but a week later) will find a dramatically improved facility that'll no doubt last another century. Then, a few blocks down Gay Street, the magnificent Tennessee Theatre celebrated its 70th anniversary with all-star performances, capped by a Bill Cosby gig. Even more importantly, respected theater renovation experts Hardy, Holzman, Pfeiffer Associates put out their architectural study of the Tennessee, suggesting three different levels of renovation for the Historic Tennessee Theater Foundation to consider. It's ironic that these two theatersboth of which faced the wrecking ball in the '70scould be the best hope downtown has to see true revitalization as an entertainment destination.
Our New Country Music Tour
Bluegrass legend Charlie Louvin, Nashville Sound founder Chet Atkins, and rockabilly harmonists the Everly Brothers never lived in Knoxville at the same timebut they were all in Knoxville this summer to give concerts at the Tennessee Theatre and pay tribute to the city's impressive but long-neglected country-music heritage. The occasion was the dedication of the East Tennessee Historical Society's Cradle of Country Music Tour, a self-guided walking tour of downtown aided by a new booklet and series of illustrated steel plaques mounted in various spots that recall a century of Knoxville's often-rowdy musical history.
Unfortunately, one of the few standing buildings identified on the tourthe ca. 1935 headquarters of WROL, where King of Country Music Roy Acuff got his startis adjacent to the doomed S&W Cafeteria and slated to be demolished for the new justice center.
He's a Bad Boy
Knoxville's version of Leonardo DiCaprio continued to impress the critics with Apt Pupil, which co-stars major-league actor Ian McKellan. Brad Renfro plays a high school student fascinated with the Holocaust who discovers an ex-Nazi living nearby. Renfro made headlines locally too, but it wasn't the kind of press he appreciated. In June, the car his cousin was driving was stopped on Andrew Johnson Highway for suspicion of D.U.I. The officer somewhat dubiously patted down Renfro, finding envelopes containing marijuana and cocaine. The next month, Renfro agreed in juvenile court to undergo random drug testing, and if he stays clean for six months the charges could be dropped. But once outside the courtroom, Renfro quickly drew more bad press. New-Sentinel photographer J. Miles Cary, who apparently overheard Renfro swearing at his mother, began lecturing the teen star. Renfro cursed Cary. Sam Venable, a Sentinel columnist, then chided Renfro for his behavior in print, "There are some things you simply don't say in front of your mama, whether you're 51 years old or 15, whether you drive a truck or star in movies." Despite his obvious distaste of the local media, Renfro told a magazine recently that he lives in Knoxville rather than Hollywood because "it keeps me away from the business stuff...It keeps me real."
Tread 'dem Boards
The Actors Co-op was the breakout company of 1998, winding up a successful rookie season with Lanford Wilson's Fifth of July at the now defunct Harlequin Dinner Theatre and rounding out the year with The Importance of Being Earnest on Market Square. Not only has the Co-op greatly improved the quality and variety of Knoxville's theater scene with a diverse offering of works from Sam Shepard to Moliere to Jane Martin, they've also spent the year deepening the East Tennessee talent pool with classes at their Phat Pharm, producing intelligent shows for kids at Ijams Nature Center, and developing local playwrights like Alan Gratz. And artistic directors Amy Hubbard and Katie Norwood maintain their frantic pace with aplomb, good-nature, and stellar performances.
The big boy on the block, The Clarence Brown Theatre, gave us a year full of risks as well, with some more stimulating than others. CBT brought performance artist Fred Curchack to town in May and his take on Shakespeare seemed to both delight and repel local audiences. Dance in Time, a non-traditional, movement-based play, was a risk that paid off while their updating of Brecht's The Threepenny Opera could have used another few hours in the incubation chamber.
Gay Street's Theatre Central celebrated its 10-year anniversary with Spooks, The Haunting of the Skowronski Sisters, which maintained TC founder Mark Moffett's dervish directing style and approach to comedy, proving that there is a place in this town for those who appreciate live, frenetic work.
In sadder news, performance space in town dwindled this year with the closing of the Harlequin and the soon-to-be-closed UT Dance Lab. The oft-discussed Old City performance space has yet to come to fruition. Still, local companies exploited every space they could, ranging from the soon-to-be defunct A-1 ArtSpace location to the attic of Jackson Avenue Antiques.
It happens maybe once in a decade or two that a born-and-raised Knoxvillian merits a full-length biography important enough to be reviewed in the national press. It happened in 1998 to Knoxville artist Beauford Delaney (1901-1979), thanks to Albuquerque-based author David Leeming. His book, Amazing Grace, illustrated with colorful prints of Delaney's groundbreaking work in New York and Paris from the '30s through the '70s, is worth the cover price, but so is the story of Delaney's fascinating and unconventional life, which included close friendships with authors James Baldwin, Henry Miller, and James Jones.
Leeming was in town in February for a reception at the Knoxville Museum of Art, as was Delaney's closest living relative, Knoxvillian Ogust Delaney Stewart.
Other new books: as Hollywood films Matt Damon in the movie version of All the Pretty Horses by former Knoxvillian Cormac McCarthy, the Faulkner-esque author's latest novel, Cities of the Plain, the end of his Texas trilogy, climbed the bestseller lists.
Meanwhile, some nonfiction of local interest also came out in '98: Encyclopedia of Tennessee History and Culture may be the most impressive one-volume reference book about this incomprehensible state ever published; Harrison McClary and Shannon Parks Williams' Volmania is a striking and sometimes frightening photographic look at its subject; and Elena Irish Zimmerman's Knoxville, Tennessee is a hypnotic survey of Knoxville in the extremely early 20th century, via postcard images.
And in 1998, Knoxville got an almost Guntherian jab in a national bestseller, Bill Bryson'sA Walk In the Woods, ostensibly about the Appalachian Trail. In the book, Iowa-born Briton Bryson and his friend Katz wander from the trail to Knoxville, where they find "vast intersections, huge signs, and acre upon acre of shopping malls, gas stations, discount stores, muffler clinics, car lots....gas stations, Wal-Marts, Kmarts, Dunkin Donuts, Blockbuster Videos, a ceaseless unfolding pageant of commercial hideousness."
Bryson adds more municipal criticism from his lowbrow, convenience-loving companion. "Even Katz was unnerved by it. 'Jeez, it's ugly,' he breathed in ... as if he had never witnessed such a thing before. I looked past him, along the line of his shoulder, to a vast shopping mall with a prairie-sized parking lot, and agreed. It was horrible."
We wish we could call Bryson a dirty liar.