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  The Greatest Knoxville Records of All Time

The 1990s

Down In The Shacks Where the Satellite Dishes Grow

Though for me personally, Jeff Heiskell's voice and vision are tiring after more than a few songs and his stage presence lacked energy, few could deny this was the 'Bats finest hour—and how important the band was to the local scene. When they loosened up, they were one of Knoxville's funnest bands, and always had the young girls dancing. Beneath the bouncy surface of the music was a very, very dark world the young dancing girls never could quite notice—which made Judybats shows something of a cultural freak of nature. And even when Jeff was moody, the rest of the band were bouncing all over, making another funky paradox. This record captures the band at its best even though it was to go on to bigger and better singles. Shacks is the most entertaining 'bats record.

Smokin' Dave and the Premo Dopes

It's telling that every record issued by Smokin' Dave and the Premo Dopes—from the "Ethiopian Jokes" 45 to Live and Not Lern to Too Many Years in the Circus, and HUH?—had its champion on our blue ribbon panel. But in many ways, the group's final defiant HUH? crystallized the career of this most Knoxvillian of Knoxville rock bands. In 20 epic tracks, HUH? captures the many moods of Smokin' Dave as the band treads the fine line between goofing off and offering personal revelations. Musically, guitarist Todd Steed, bassist Dave Nichols, and drummer Dug Meech rocked, but in a way that owed nothing to the prevailing alternative/grunge/metal styles of the day—amiable, jazzy, and always tight-but-loose, they made up their own sound as they went along. And eight years later, HUH? still sounds just as fun and reflective as it originally did, still unbowing to the current rock trends. Among all the keepers (the Nashville vs. Knoxville ode "You Must Be From Nashville," the supremely honest love song "Right-Handed Love," the still-true lament of Knoxville's "Apathy"), the track that most sums up the Smokin' Dave philosophy (courtesy of songwriter Steed) is the choogling "i refuse to grow up," complete with tooting horns: "I got what I asked for/ But I don't want it any more/Like Christmas toys laying on the floor/ Sure looked better in the magazine/ The dream was better when I left it a dream/I refuse to ever grow up...God save me from an unlived life..."

While Smokin' Dave never made it "big" in the traditional rock 'n' roll sense, the band was nevertheless integral in creating the Knoxville music scene as we know it today. By staying true to itself and to its hometown, the group inspired other bands (from the Taoist Cowboys to the V-roys) to do it their way. For that, and a lot of great tunes, Knoxville owes Smokin' Dave a big thank you.

Bob McCluskey
Emergency Lunchbox

Out of the ashes of the Taoist Cowboys and the Estradas came this 1994 solo project from their lead writer. Perhaps the most intimate and honest release ever recorded in Knoxville, it was all taped at home on a four track and captures Bob at his best: relaxed, and his mind drenched in self-examination and beer. It's songwriting minus any bullshit or pretension whatsoever. Like Nick Drake if Nick had a sense of humor and adventure, and could formulate his ideas clearly. In other words, it ain't like Nick Drake at all except it forces you into THAT mood. Almost flawless in its risk of exposing the writer's flaws. Bob takes the everyday and makes it art and makes it interesting. Best cuts: "It's A Nice Night to Do Laundry" and the V-roys-covered "Nobody Cares About The Drunks In This Town."

The Rude Street Peters
Don't Make Me Get Up

The Rude Street Peters (named for Rue St. Peter) keep popping up around the area, but not so much since Gryphon's collapsed (that's another story). The Peters make punk rock like it was invented right here in Vestal. These self effacing East Tennesseans' Sex Pistols-caliber anti-reverence is Kissed with a Rush of Zeppelin and dresses out in Skynard strums that rarely sound dated or Hazzard-ish. Their cassette Don't Make Me Get Up is a winner. It captures the friendly mosh din of their live show. "Walkin the Dawg" is obviously derived from Rufus Thomas' hit with some dirty guitar pickin' and hiccupping yodel and finger in the cheek pops that move it irretrievably from Memphis to the Appalachian slopes. The Peters are the only Knoxville band I know of that birthed a dance/song (like "The Mashed Potato"). Even though most of the songs reference a drunk/stoned party atmosphere, the tempo often races along on stimulants. "Lifesa" races like an early Buzzcocks single along a course of self destruction (at least destruction of consciousness: "When yer thinkin' don't stop drinkin'"). "The Butt Wallow" is a zany romp that'll have you bumping moons with yer drinkin' buddies. The tape ends with a really short gospel number, "Somebody Touched Me." The Peters' "God Save the Queen" is "Rocky Top," ("Rappy Top" on the cassette, It Only Hurts When I Exist) and I've never relished being swept up in a mob as much as joining these guys in kicking that song while it's down.

Regretfully Yours

While "Beatles-esque" pop is, 35 years later, a throwaway tag (the kind of answer you give to people who, even after middle school, still ask what kind of music you like), Superdrag is the rare band that understands the power of embracing that monster while infusing its blood with their own drama and modern way of thinking.

An early flier for a Knoxville show promised "Throbbing, hissing, humming," and, from the beginning, the band delivered in spades. Guitars borrowed from the huge, hazy sound swirls of My Bloody Valentine, but breathed vicious, relentless life into them; this band didn't just look up from their shoes, they stared you straight in the eyes and dared response. Melodies were irresistibly catchy, but keep in mind that a hook is something than can snare and rip your flesh away. Hearts were worn on sleeves, whether in devotion to idols (like John Lennon and Brian Wilson) or ill-fated lovers, but these bloody rare, still pumping life-providers were no pretty pink valentines.

Regretfully Yours found Superdrag at their charmingly innocent pop best in 1996, not knowing any better than to put it all on the line. When John Davis lets loose lines like "I'm tired of dying here alone, but you can set me free," it doesn't matter that you've heard it all before, that it is the cry of broken first loves everywhere. Davis' wail is so dreamily, painfully sincere it cannot be denied; his ache absorbed by thick layers of sound, ringing guitars atop a wash of symphonic echo and hypnotic bass, drums that race and climb to a grand finale. Fair or not, Davis is Superdrag. It might not have worked without the other components, might not have sounded the same, but without Davis' energy, songwriting, voice, it wouldn't have been.

And don't forget that "pop" is shorthand for popular—music that is accessible, irresistible to huge groups of people who will recall your song without effort and be unable to get it out of their minds. Thrill rides like "Destination Ursa Major," "Carried" and "N.A. Kicker" fulfill that promise by raising the torches of the Zombies, Cheap Trick, Badfinger.

But, while the band had long left a bittersweet aftertaste, suddenly they were also showing a side that was almost sour. "Sucked Out" was a last-minute addition, and, while it was the song that put the band on MTV, it stands out from rest of the record. Though there is an undeniable retro neck-snap rhythm and eminent hummability, lyrics like "In my eyes you've already spread my thighs and you're rocking to the next big thing" come-on with a little too much bravado. This missive (which would be echoed on the next record as "Bankrupt Vibration") is seemingly a sure, painful sign the band was losing the stars in their eyes. Girls bruising your heart so hard you feel the need to carve stars into your arm is one thing; complaining of having your dream sucked dry by the very people giving it to you (record labels, radio, MTV) is hard to swallow on a debut record.

The dream is alive and well, though, when the band emphasizes the power of build-up on the album's closing track, "Rocket," their infamous live set closer. It is, simply, an adrenaline rush capable of momentarily wiping out everything else in your head and heart. And any band that can alter the way you feel and think, even for three minutes, is something pretty special.

While Head Trip In Every Key would, two years later, show a remarkable maturity and understanding of studio manipulations, it is "Regretfully Yours" that captures at once youthful abandon and sonic boom, hopefulness and regret—for the band, and Knoxville.

The V-Roys
Just Add Ice

The first E-Squared project for Knoxville's ever-popular V-Roys proved that the band is both loaded with talent and wants to have a good time. The album was released with a great amount of anticipation by the band as well as by their many fans in Vol City. The record was to be co-produced by the legendary Steve Earle, and this just added to the excitement. And the boys hit the bullseye—great songs played the right way brought across the "forget everything else and let's have a party" attitude that the beloved V-roys display every time they hit the stage. Known as the best live band in Knoxville for years, Just Add Ice proved that the band could be just as fun, contagious, and balls-to-the-walls on CD as they could on stage.

Samarai Celestial
Cosmic Gold Millenium
(Carrottop Records)

Samarai Celestial was known to most as "that drummer" who was so amazing, playing with Donald Brown, Relentless Blues and many others in venues ranging from Planet Earth to Club LeConte, playing jazz standards for people to drink. But his own music was drawn from Space through the eyes of Sun Ra, his mentor who taught him a fresh approach to the drum kit in the blistering-hot House of Ra in Philadelphia. It wasn't until after Sun Ra passed away that Samarai had a vision that he must record his own compositions. So, with drum machines, keyboards, and MiniDisk recorders bargained from pawn shops, Samarai immortalized the music in his head in near-endless recording sessions on the road, in his house, his car, with friends. His two CDs, Isis and Cosmic Gold Millenium, have some of the most confounding complexities while being completely infused with huge happiness and danceability. "Established musicians" criticized his keyboard technique, the compound (and intentionally unsynchronized) rhythms, but since when should an innovator bow to the critics? Samarai never did. Cosmic Gold Millenium is a two-CD set that gets two of the sides of Samarai: the acoustic drummer and group, and the indescribable electronic broken-mold fusion. Two things are for sure: there are no standards on these CDs, and his music will blow your head off in a wonderful way.

R.B. Morris
Take That Ride
(Oh Boy! Records)

Earning spots on top-10-albums-of-the-year lists across the country as well as extravagant plaudits from famously irascible critic Dave Marsh, Take That Ride is probably the single most-praised recording by a resident Knoxvillian in history. It deserves the attention. Morris has a reputation as a folk-music poet, but when his provocative lyrics call for it, they're electrified with multiple guitars and percussion; we've never known whether to call him an urban Woody Guthrie or a rural Tom Waits. He is, after all, R.B. Morris, and embraces the urban/rural complexities of this weird city better than any other single musician. After a quarter century of playing Knoxville nightclubs, Morris put some of his best (and most accessible) work on this one album, and got John Prine (his sponsor), well-known guitarist Kenny Vaughan, and former Dylan organist Al Kooper to help make an album of remarkable diversity, including a rare (for Morris) cover, an ominous rendition of Robert Mitchum's "Thunder Road"; "Roy," an interview with a wino who hangs out at a North Knoxville railroad warehouse (Prine himself sings the part of Roy); and the title track, ostensibly about the road from Knoxville to Nashville, but maybe about something else, as well.

Since then he has released some earlier, more experimental work with Hector Qirko (The Knoxville Sessions); his next national release, Zeke and the Wheel, is due out in September.