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  Who's Driving This Thing?
The Year in Review


Still Strong Armstrong

Still irreverent and irrepressible at 91, jazz/blues/country fiddler/mandolinist/guitarist Howard Armstrong flew down from his Boston home to play a homecoming show at the Laurel Theatre this fall.

Originally from LaFollette, Armstrong spent about a decade of his early career playing the streets of Knoxville, appearing on live radio and making his first recording here in 1930, before moving to Chicago and greater fame with his old Knoxville chums as Martin, Bogan, and Armstrong. Carl Martin and Ted Bogan are long gone, but the amazing survivor played and sang about 30 songs, swapping from gospel to blues to ragtime, suggesting what the streets of old East Knoxville sounded like some 75 years ago. His astonishingly energetic show at the Laurel lasted two full hours, awing his audience and even his Boston sidemen, who said it was one of the best performances he'd ever given. A public-television crew from Boston was on hand to record the occasion.

Funny Names. Great Art.

Just when you thought you knew what to expect from this august institution, the Knoxville Museum of Art decided to up the ante with some remarkable shows in 2000. It Is Is It, a collection of works by M.C. Escher, graced the walls in April and May, showing the city what a tessellation really is as well as hinting at what the fourth dimension may look like—if one were to render it in pen and ink. the Escher show set record attendance levels...until It's Alive, glass works by Dale Chihuly, came along. These hand-blown baubles redefined how Knoxvillians view big balls, only these were created with heat and sand, instead of concrete and steel. Now, if we could just get Chihuly back here to add one of his works to the other spherical objects that grace our skyline...

In 2001, the KMA will prove that this groundbreaking year wasn't a fluke when the museum is host to an Andy Warhol collection. Start saving your Campbell's Soup labels now.

Shuffling About

A couple of new art galleries popped up this year, giving Knoxville art lovers some new walls on which to fix their peepers. The Bearden Gallery of Fine Photography—the name gives you a pretty good idea of the art that's inside—set up shop in, uh, Bearden, while another Bearden gallery owner, Susan Key, opened up a new shop on Market Square. Also on Market Square is Nomad, a gallery/boutique run by Emily Dewhirst that features art and gifts from around the world. North Knox at long last now has an art space in its environs as well—the Flow Museum was just getting on its feet at year's end.

Movin' On Up

Praise be to the celestial powers that control these sorts of things! Finally, after five years of flitting from venue to venue, the Actors Co-op found a place to hang its hats...and scabbards and wigs and petticoats and all of the other sorts of garments a theater company collects. Their Black Box Theater, located in the amorphous Homberg area of Bearden, had its grand opening in December with The Cocktail Party as the kick-off production. And cocktails are just what Amy Hubbard and company probably needed after getting this former carpet gallery up to code and off the ground.

Changing of the Guard

UT's Clarence Brown Theatre underwent a sea change this year when its producing director/Theatre Department head Thomas P. Cooke decided to pursue other interests. Two national searches later, Blake Robison, who was then director of the National Shakespeare Company in New York, was found, which has brought some fresh ideas into a rather staid institution. Sure, CBT this season has made some safe choices, like Cinderella, but its moves have gotten bolder and better, as with the recent jaw-droppingly good Dha-Fuzion. Finally, some real educational experiences for the folks on The Hill.

Reinventing the Arts Council

For all its well-intentioned effort, the Knoxville Arts Council has become a whipping boy for failing to champion the cause of the arts locally. With considerable fanfare, a consulting firm from Boston, Wolf Keans & Co, was enlisted for $150,000, to advise the Council on reinventing itself with a clearer sense of mission and more clout. But after Wolf Keans submitted its report at the end of 1999, it was left to a volunteer task force to give birth to the reinvention.

A year later, about the only thing the task force has agreed upon, according to one member, is that the name Arts Council has got to go because of its perceived ineffectuality. There's no consensus on a new name, the composition of a new board of directors or the selection of a new full-time executive director to succeed the one who left in the wake of Wolf Keans' ministrations. Getting more governmental funding for the arts remains a mantra, but the notion that our hard-strapped city and county governments have any more to spare is as wishful as the presumption that the city's diverse array of performing arts organizations would welcome having some big brother fend for funds on their behalf.

ET Film Commission: Phone Home

The good news: Everybody seems to be behind the new East Tennessee Film Commission, started in March with $25,000 from the county as a wing of the Knoxville Area Chamber Partnership. The city kicked in $125,000 later in the spring, and the new commission hired Florida state film commission vet Mona May to run the show. The commission's first project was even coordinating a site for a made-for-television production of James Agee's novel, A Death in the Family.

That's how we get to the bad news: They selected a site in suburban Nashville, rather than one in Agee's home town.

Notable Books

Three books with local connections simply jumped off of the shelves at us this year—two are from authors you know, one contains authors you'll know, hopefully, by the time this next year ends. All three use both photography and text to tell their stories, which provides for more enlightening visions of this particular section of Tennessee better than either medium could all by its lonesome.

Sam Venable (yes, that lovable coot who writes a column in Knoxville's daily) and Paul Efird (shutterbug at that same paper) traveled about the Southern Appalachians to collect text and images for Mountain Hands (UT Press). The book is both a biography of the people who work in the region and a series of portraits that capture the hands that do the work. While Efrid's photos are rich with detail, it is Venable's writing that truly makes each subject come alive in this wonderful study of a place and its people.

The same can be said for Breathing the Same Air: An East Tennessee Anthology (Celtic Cat Publishing), a collection of work assembled by the Knoxville Writers Guild and editors Doris Ivie and Leslie LaChance. This weighty tome provides a fairly comprehensive sample of the types of writing being done in Knoxville, from Carpetbag Theatre founder Margaret Miller's piece on culture to Metro Pulse arts writer Heather Joyner's poetry to remembrances of trucks, summer, and Fort Sanders. Breathing is more than just words, however; some beautiful photography graces its pages as well and Jean Hess' cover painting is simply to die for.

Lastly, but certainly not leastly, is The Scopes Trial: A Photographic History (UT Press). This thin volume walks the reader through one of the more important legal battles that this country has faced, which rocked the small town of Dayton, Tennessee. The Scopes Trial uses pictures of the players, the town, and the surrounding countryside to show you what it was like during those 12 days in 1925. UT Professor Edward Caudill's introduction sets up the legal maneuvering, Pulitzer Prize-winning historian Edward Larson's photo captions walk you through these collected images, while our own Jesse Fox Mayshark contributes an afterward on the legacy of the trial in Tennessee.

Johnny Knoxville Takes Over MTV

The first time a lot of people, even those in his namesake hometown, ever heard about Johnny Knoxville was when Rolling Stone ran a short feature on him in its annual what's-hot issue this summer. Within a few weeks, though, he was a national phenomenon. His Jackass show quickly became MTV's most popular half-hour, with Knoxville and his cohorts in California translating the bizarro stunts and Alan Funt-on-crystal-meth-style gags (like alligator wrestling, bicycle jousting, and the unspeakably gross Poo Cocktail) that they had originated on underground skate videos onto national prime-time television. It's fleeting—and, at times, nauseating—glory, but it's still glory. Added local flavor: an upcoming episode will feature a prank on Ed Harvey, proprietor of Eddie's Auto Parts and the world-famous butt of this town's most noted guerrilla prankster/performance artist, the late, lamented John Bean.

Lock, Stock and Teardrops

The V-roys (Scott Miller, Mic Harrison, Jeff Bills, and Paxton Sellers) called it a century at their no-holds-barred/balls-to-the-wall New Year's show at the Tennessee Theatre at the start of this year. While each fan of theirs, including most of the staff here at MP, heaved a little sigh (while heaving some other things after the last set) when this kick-ass show ended, the boys from the 'roys are still flitting about K-town, making some great music.

Harrison, Bills, and Sellers, along with former Ramblin' Roy Robbie Trosper, have formed The Faults, which has been playing blistering sets around town and should have an album out by early next year. And Miller, who is now sometimes billed as "A. Scott Miller," has had a busy year as well, what with playing a couple of dozen acoustic shows, putting together a live album (also due out early next year), and cutting a rock 'n' roll record. Oh, and a certain band called Superdrag is providing Mr. "A." with some sonic bombast on a couple of cuts, which should make for some muscular tunes. The V-roys, while they may be dead, have also had a brief reincarnation on a movie soundtrack, with three songs making the cut for You Can Count On Me, an indie flick that has been getting great reviews.

Speaking of Superdrag...

John Davis and a revamped line-up (founding drummer Don Coffey joined by Nashvillians Sam Powers on guitar and Willie Tyler on bass) released their third full-length album this fall on the indie Arena Rock Recording Company. In the Valley of Dying Stars established once again Davis's standing as a wizard of buzzsaw rock and gorgeous pop. So take your snide comments about one-hit-wonders somewhere else, bub.

Sunrise for the City?

While the politicians and developers fretted about how dead and in need of saving downtown is, local concert mogul Ashley Capps actually did something about it. In a monthly series of free Thursday evening "Sundown in the City" concerts, A.C. Entertainment brought out huge crowds that simply wanted to enjoy good music and beer. The eclectic series included headliners Webb Wilder, Darryl Scott and Tim O'Brien, Room Full of Blues and ÁCubanismo!; along with some primo local acts like Robinella and the C.C. String Band and Scott Miller. Not even a heavy downpour during one of the shows could keep people away. Capps plans more concerts next year.

Playing Musical Clubs

Knoxville's erratic club scene continued being erratic, but there were signs of life. A welcome arrival was the Pilot Light on Jackson Avenue in the Old City. Decorated like someone's basement hangout and furnished with dusty old couches, the little club has hosted several great noisy rock bands. The kids love it. A.C. Entertainment started booking acts at Moose's Music Hall, bringing in stalwart modern rock acts like Yo La Tengo, the Flaming Lips and Elliott Smith. After losing both its beer permit and alcohol license, the notorious Underground got its alcohol license back, reopened and tried to keep a low profile. Keeping far too low of a profile was three nineteen at 319 S. Gay St. Owners of the would-be concert-venue, art house and community space toiled all year to try to get the building up to snuff for fire and building codes, and although a number of grand openings were anticipated, the club has yet to emerge.

Patrick Sullivan's booked more acts on its third floor, including impressive talents like Amy Rigby, Scott Miller, and Trent Summar. Everyone's favorite hole on the Strip, the Longbranch, remodeled its upstairs to better accommodate bands and then, strangely, stopped hosting bands. But, the management soon came to its senses and brought back live music. Long Live Rock!

No Rock 'N' Roll Allowed

Bluegrass good; rock 'n' roll bad. That's the way it looked last year at the annual Dogwood Arts Festival. The notoriously tacky festival has showed signs of—gasp—fun of late. The most encouraging sign was when the Dogwood—known for shutting down at 5 p.m.—added a bluegrass showcase in Market Square one weekend, two years running. The Tomato Head restaurant proposed a second weekend of rock 'n' roll bands, which would give the Dogwood something for a younger crowd. At first it was a go, but then Dogwood organizers got a little nervous about the "language" some of the bands might use. So, the rock 'n' roll was canceled. Apparently, the Dogwood officials prefer family-friendly bluegrass songs about murder, drinking and adultery.

Rockin' Rachmaninoff

It showed up unannounced several years ago, a 14-foot plaster statue that looks alarmingly like Sergei Rachmaninoff, the famous Russian pianist and composer. It was the work of a Russian sculptor, who decided to donate the statue to the city in America where his idol gave the final performance of his career.

Perhaps unfortunately for him, that city turned out to be Knoxville; Rachmaninoff performed at UT's alumni gym in early 1943, then canceled the rest of his tour due to his struggles with cancer. He died a few weeks later. Knoxville might have seemed an unfortunate choice to the sculptor, who expected any city would accept it with gratitude, bronze it, and find a suitable place for it. However, UT has turned it down, as has the KMA, and until this year, the city was reluctant to commit to it. So it has stood on the second floor of a lofty-ceilinged Gay Street condo for years; at year's end, it appeared to be headed for the small park in front of the City County Building, not too far from the Andrew Johnson Hotel building, where the ailing legend stayed in 1943.


In June, Keep Knoxville Beautiful unveiled a large Music Mural on the side of a building on Jackson Avenue in the Old City, planned and painted by local artist Walt Fieldsa and his assistants. The mural depicts figures from the entire history of Knoxville music, from an unknown banjo player mentioned in spectral travel accounts of the 1790s, to poet-rocker R.B. Morris. The unveiling was attended by several of the 40-odd musicians depicted, including Guy and Candy Carawan, Sparky Rucker, and jazzman Donald Brown, but the star of the show was the legendary Howard Armstrong (see above).

December 21, 2000 * Vol. 10, No. 51
© 2000 Metro Pulse