Downtown Knoxville (see also here) is clean and interesting with lots of building going on and an obvious interest in its own growth. Jerry Butler drove us around, pointing out landmarks, especially the hotel where Hank Williams overdosed before later dying in his car. We stopped for a visit at the Mast General Store, which is a fun place combining elements of gift shop, tourist attraction, and first-rate store. The Knoxville Visitor Center is across the street and WDVX FM radio has a studio in the visitor center. Five days a week, WDVX sponsors The Blue Plate Special, a live musical performance there at noon. The best bluegrass, folk, and country acts are scheduled through these events as well as local and regional groups. WDVX programs an eclectic Americana mix, which is reflected in the Blue Plate Special programs.
The Visitor’s Center is located on a busy corner in downtown Knoxville. It has a small parking lot, but that fills quickly. There’s a public lot behind the Mast General Store, and it’s quite convenient to park there and spend a few minutes in the store before crossing the street to go to a Blue Plate Special. The Center itself serves several different purposes. There’s an information desk, a gift shop, a well-stocked coffee bar, a radio studio, and a performance area seating about seventy-five people for live music. Bundled together, the Visitor Center becomes a lively, even joyful, place for people to gather each day at lunch hour for a free performance.
The seats began filling up with a group of students from the University of Tennessee, lunch-timers from offices surrounding the studio, as well as friends and fans of the two featured bands. As air-time approached, on-air host and sound engineer Matt Morelock told the fast-assembling audience how to sound like a huge crowd for the radio audience even though there were only seventy-five or so people in the room. WDVX broadcasts on two rather low power frequencies to the area, but it streams on line broadcasts world-wide and has a large international audience. I began listening to WDVX several years ago on my computer, often from about 4:00 AM until breakfast. During these early hours, the station introduced me to a range of bluegrass, alternative country, and old time country musicians, many of whom have become my favorites. Matt raised his arms for a cheer, introduced Todd Steed and Suns of Phere, and the fast-paced hour was on.
Todd Steed and the Sons of Phere
As is their habit, the Gibson Brothers hit the stage hard and delivered half an hour of their unmatched sound. Two characteristics of this band are intensity and energy. Both were immediately evident and quickly communicated to the responsive crowd. They opened with Tom Petty’s “Cabin Down Below,” the opening track on their new CD Iron and Diamonds, containing seven of their own new songs. A rousing bluegrass version of this rock song, it captures much of the essence of a Gibson Brothers performance. They followed right away with the title song “Iron and Diamonds.” This song has all the best elements of a Gibson Brothers composition: nostalgia for a lost period, respect for working people, a somewhat unusual choice of topic, and haunting melodies punctuated with perfect pitch harmony and rich instrumentation. Without seeming to rush, they continued, offering a couple more new songs as well as Gibson Brothers favorite, “Callie’s Reel,” and closing Jimmy Rogers’ “Blue Yodel #4.” They received a standing ovation. The audience was excited, and eager to purchase CD’s and T-shirts, newly designed for the Iron and Diamonds tour. All in all, this was a wonderful early afternoon of music. We headed for Nashville, elated at what we had heard and looking forward to the next couple of days.