A Short History of Music in Knoxville

Connoisseurs of legend like to speak ominously of the Knoxville Curse. The city is associated with the deaths, or final performances, or final full-length shows, or next-to-final full length shows, of multiple major musicians, including Sergei Rachmaninoff, Hank Williams, singer Nelson Eddy, Ozzy Osborne guitarist Randy Rhoads, Chet Atkins, Johnny Cash, and George Jones. Promoters over the decades have cited rumors about major performers (including allegedly superstitious Rachmaninoff protégé Vladimir Horowitz!) declining to play here for that reason.

While it’s true that Knoxville has witnessed several notable endings, the city has seen many more beginnings. Knoxville’s influence on American music has been mostly positive, often subtle but sometimes decisive.


Scholars have cited an old but not necessarily trustworthy traveler’s description of whites and blacks dancing to street banjo music in downtown Knoxville in 1798 as significant early evidence of cross-cultural influences. Much early music was religious, and this remote former state capital did develop a reputation for sacred-harp music. The Knoxville Harmony was a shape-note choral hymn book published in 1838 and familiar within that national community. Today, a small sacred-harp club maintains that ancient tradition.

Immigrants, especially from German-speaking nations, changed Knoxville’s expectations. Gustavus Knabe (1817-1906), a graduate of the Leipzig Conservatorium and once a member of Mendelssohn’s orchestra, arrived in Knoxville in 1865, and started the city’s first “Philharmonic,” an orchestra and chorus. A sometime composer, Knabe taught hundreds of music students and led numerous musical events for 40 years, earning him the title “Father of Music in East Tennessee.”

A Swiss immigrant, Peter Staub, built Knoxville’s Opera House on Gay Street in 1872. Although it rarely hosted full operas, it brought in a wide variety of musicians, from Jenny Lind to the then-famous Mendelssohn Quintet Club of Boston. Staub’s was the a focus of an annual springtime “Music Festival” in the 1880s, which concentrated on operatic pieces and somehow drew well-known musicians from London and New York.

Country music may have arrived in Knoxville in a particularly ironic way. In May, 1883, an irreverent group of elderly fiddlers hijacked part of the Music Festival, uninvited and unannounced, and amused a Staub’s Opera House audience with an hour of old-fashioned jigs and reels. It’s the first documented performance of country or folk music for a seated audience.

That odd event may have played a role in inspiring an annual fiddling contest held on Market Square up through the 1930s.

Guitarist and harmonica player Charlie Oaks, sometimes described as country music’s first professional, is known for writing a song about the New Market Train Wreck, a catastrophically fatal collision of passenger trains 20 miles east of Knoxville in 1904. Long before country music was available on record, Oaks sold cards, or “billets,” with his lyrics, in the form of poems.

Knoxville was a childhood home of Grace Moore, later to be the popular opera star who was the first actress nominated for an Oscar for a musical role. Her family lived for a few years in an urban section near the modern Old City. In her memoir, Moore (1898-1947) deleted her low-rent Knoxville years, effectively removing a bad memory and reducing her public age. After she was killed in a plane crash in Europe, however, Knoxville’s first elevated downtown highway exchange was formally named the Grace Moore Cloverleaf, with Hollywood singers Kathryn Grayson and Merv Griffin (!) in attendance. It has long since been removed.

Knoxville is the birthplace of blues legend Brownie McGhee (1915-1996), known for his early work with Woody Guthrie and with longtime partner harmonica player Sonny Terry. His younger brother Stick McGhee (1917-1961) was almost as famous, for his early R&B classic, “Drinkin’ Wine (Spo-de-o-de),” often cited as a breakthrough in the evolution of rock’n’roll.

Sterchi Brothers Furniture, whose old 1924 headquarters building still towers over the northern part of Gay Street, was an important early country-music promoter. One of the nation’s biggest furniture chains, albeit based mostly in the South, Sterchi (a Swiss name, it rhymes with turkey) was a major regional phonograph dealer, and seeing an opportunity to expand the market for phonographs to the working class, sponsored some of the earliest recordings of country and folk music. They began with some Knoxville street musicians like Charlie Oaks and George Reneau, as well as better established performers, like vaudeville favorite Uncle Dave Macon. Nashville was not yet a recording center, so Sterchi sent its aspiring stars to New York in the mid-1920s to cut records.

In 1929, one of America’s most successful record labels, Brunswick-Vocalion–represented by jazz pianist Richard Voynow, a former leader of Bix Beiderbecke’s Wolverines—came to Knoxville and set up a recording studio in the St. James Hotel on Wall Avenue, by Market Square. Over a period of several months, they made hundreds of recordings, finding an extraordinarily broad array of styles here, from blues to jazz to country. Due to shifting business plans and the sudden arrival of the Depression, most of the recordings were never widely released. Many, including a recording session featuring Opry star Uncle Dave Macon, are considered lost. Among the many that survive, though, are the first recordings of the Tennessee Ramblers, featuring rare female lead guitarist Willie Sievers; the legendary Tennessee Chocolate Drops, an East Knoxville band featuring bluesman Carl Martin and mandolin/fiddle maverick Howard “Louie Bluie” Armstrong; and Maynard Baird’s Southern Serenaders, an Knoxville-based jazz orchestra that frequently toured the north. Blues singer (and Knoxville cafeteria worker) Leola Manning made her only known recordings at the St. James; they’ve appeared on several CDs in recent years, and her journalistic ballads like “Arcade Building Moan” and “Satan Is Busy in Knoxville” have earned her a cult following. Bear Family Records of Germany is in the midst of a project to make the best St. James recordings available in a box set, for release in 2016.

 

 

Roy Acuff (1903-1992), the fiddler and singer who became one of the most influential figures in popular music (the star credited with making the Grand Old Opry a national phenomenon, Acuff popularized the small string band, then unusual in mainstream music), grew up in Knoxville and began his performing and radio-broadcasting career here. He first performed before an auditorium audience at the Tennessee Theatre in 1932, with a band called the Three Rolling Stones. His later Knoxville band, the Crazy Tennesseans, introduced the then-little-known dobro to country music with hits like “The Great Speckled Bird.”

Chet Atkins (1924-2001), who mastered both jazz and country guitar, and was refined the pop-influenced “Nashville Sound,” was from Union County, about 25 miles northeast of town, but moved to Knoxville in his youth and for several years did much of his early playing for radio broadcasts in studios of WNOX and WROL on Gay Street in the 1940s.

Knoxville radio stations WNOX and WROL both offered live-audience music shows. WNOX, in particular, featured a house jazz band and occasional classical performers. Some of WROL’s earliest live performers were blues acts, like the Tennessee Chocolate Drops. However, thanks to these two stations that Knoxville developed its most famous reputation as an incubator for country musicians. Flatt and Scruggs, defectors from Bill Monroe’s original Bluegrass Boys, were not from East Tennessee, but moved to Knoxville early in their career to perform on the air and work on their act as a duo, and were familiar figures in Knoxville from the mid-’40s to the mid-’50s. Others who lived and worked in Knoxville for the radio exposure included Don Gibson, the Carter Sisters, the Louvin Brothers, Pee Wee King, Kitty Wells, Carl Story, musical comedians Homer and Jethro, Tennessee Ernie Ford (who was a WROL radio DJ in the ’40s), and future Opry comedian Archie Campbell.

At the height of Knoxville’s country-music development, Knoxville launched a durable symphony orchestra in 1936, led by Bertha Walburn Clark, a violinist originally from Cincinnati who was at the time one of America’s most successful female orchestra conductors. Some of the KSO’s early members, especially violinists and bassists, were moonlighting from daytime country gigs. For almost 80 years now, the city has sustained the KSO with subscription concerts, making it the South’s oldest continually operating symphony orchestra.

The city witnessed a melancholy milestone in international classical music. In February, 1943, Russian composer and pianist Sergei Rachmaninoff, who had performed in Knoxville once before, gave the last performance of his career at UT’s Alumni Hall. In pain but unaware that he was suffering from terminal cancer, he canceled the rest of his concert tour, and died a few weeks later. A larger-than-life bronze statue of Rachmaninoff, a gift of a Russian sculptor, commemorates that final concert in World’s Fair Park. The only statue of Rachmaninoff in America, it stands on a hill overlooking the intersection of Cumberland and 11th Street.

Country star Hank Williams, whose death at age 29 is one of the great mysteries of popular music, spent the last evening of his life in the Andrew Johnson Hotel on Gay Street. Although the many contradictions of that evening defy simple explanations, it’s known that Williams checked into the hotel with only a teenage chauffer, ordered a meal, received an injection of morphine for back pain, and was unconscious when he was carried out at about midnight to try to make it to a show in Canton, Ohio. It was only after the chauffeur reached West Virginia that he realized his passenger was dead. Some scholars believe Williams died before he left Knoxville. Although now an office building, the Andrew Johnson is still standing on Gay Street, at Hill Avenue.

The Everly Brothers were originally from the Midwest, but moved to Knoxville with their music-performing family in 1953. During their two years here, they attended West High School, discovered rock’n’roll by way of Bo Diddley records purchased at Dugout Doug’s on Cumberland Avenue, and split away from their parents family band to form a harmonic duo. When they began favoring rock’n’roll rhythms, grocer-impresario Cas Walker fired them from his bluegrass show, which was broadcast from the Mechanics Bank & Trust building near the Tennessee Theatre. Former Knoxvillian Chet Atkins thought better of their work, and shepherded their early career in Nashville.

Another record store downtown played a different role in the history of rock’n’roll. Enterprising merchant Sam Morrison ran the Bell Sales Co., which was mainly a record company on Market Square. Morrison was receptive to unproven new music, and Market Square attracted all demographics, old and young, black and white, creating a sort of microcosm of America respected by some in the national recording industry. Morrison’s store had a particular reputation with RCA as a bellwether for new music that had potential to go national. In the summer of 1954, Morrison reported to an RCA scout an unprecedented phenomenon, an extraordinarily popular rhythm-and-blues record that even older whites were buying. It was a Sun Records 78, “That’s All Right, Mama,” recorded in Memphis just weeks earlier, and it was RCA’s first encounter with the name Elvis Presley.

When Georgia-born jazz singer and songwriter Ida Cox (1896?-1967), famous for “Wild Women Don’t Have the Blues,” retired from the New York stage in the 1940s, she moved to Knoxville, where she lived for the last 20 years of her life and sang mainly in the choir of the Patton Street Church of God. She was living in Knoxville when she was rediscovered in 1961, recording Blues for Rampart Street with the famous Coleman Hawkins quintet. She is buried in Knoxville’s New Gray Cemetery, on Western Avenue.

 

 

Singer-songwriter Dolly Parton is originally from Sevier County, and is commemorated with a prominent statue in Sevierville, about 20 miles southeast of downtown Knoxville. Beginning at age 12, Parton did most of her early radio and television work in Knoxville, much of it on shows hosted by Cas Walker, the grocer-demagogue who had fired the Everly Brothers a few years earlier.

Civil rights activists and recording artists Guy and Candy Carawan were based in Knoxville when they popularized the civil-rights anthem “We Shall Overcome,” on which Guy Carawan shares a songwriting credit. Associated with the Highlander Folk School, the Carawans still live in the area.

In the 1980s and ’90s, the University of Tennessee’s jazz program attracted both students and teachers, the best known of whom is Memphis-raised piano player and composer Donald Brown, formerly of Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers. Brown, a recording artist who has frequently performed in Europe, has been based in Knoxville for about 30 years. Current UT faculty also includes leading saxophonist Greg Tardy, who has appeared on dozens of albums. Several of UT’s jazz stars perform frequently in Knoxville venues.

Beginning in 2002, Knoxville Opera has sponsored an annual springtime Rossini Festival. Its associated street fair has been a surprise success. Featuring a wide variety of live music, this tribute to an Italian composer who died in 1868 has somehow become Knoxville’s consistently most popular street festival.

Historic Theaters

The Bijou may be the oldest actual theater in Tennessee. (Nashville’s Ryman Auditorium is older, but was still a church when the Bijou opened.) The building that holds the theater’s lobby is almost twice as old, a hotel building dating to 1816, which hosted a popular ballroom and therefore has its own musical history. Completed in 1909, the Bijou Theatre was originally a house for Broadway-style plays (opening night featured George M. Cohan’s musical “Little Johnny Jones,” featuring the iconic song “Give My Regards to Broadway”) and vaudeville shows. Among those who performed there in its early days are the Marx Brothers, Eddie Cantor, Sophie Tucker, Will Rogers, Anna Pavlova, and John Phillip Sousa. The Bijou inevitably evolved into a movie theater, but enjoyed a second flowering of live entertainment in the ’40s, when shows starring John Barrymore, Talullah Bankhead, Sidney Greenstreet, and Montgomery Clift, landed there. Two-time Tony-winning singer and actor John Cullum began his career performing at the Bijou. After a nine-year stint as a porn theater, preservationists in 1974 bought the building and renovated it. It has been primarily a performing-arts venue since then. Among the diverse array of influential performers who have played the Bijou in its modern era are Tony Bennett, the Ramones, Ralph Stanley, St. Vincent, and Patti Smith, among hundreds of others.

The Tennessee Theatre was built in 1928 as a Moorish revival “motion-picture palace” but in its early years it also offered live entertainment nightly, including many musical performers, like pop crooner Gene Austin, singer-dancer Fifi D’Orsay, and Nick Lucas, “grandfather of the jazz guitar,” famous for popularizing “Tiptoe through the Tulips.” Later, in 1935, the Ziegfeld Follies, featuring singer-comedian Fanny Brice, filled the house with standing-room overflow for what was reputedly the best-attended show in the theater’s history. In 1940, Glenn Miller brought his orchestra to the Tennessee for a national CBS broadcast, a 15-minute show with a live audience. Later that year, young Cuban musician-actor Desi Arnaz played guitar, sang, and rumba-danced to promote his new movie, Too Many Girls.

Although the Tennessee offered little live country music in its early decades, it played a role in country-music history, because fiddler Roy Acuff, later one of country’s most important recording artists and music publishers, performed his first auditorium show there in 1932. In 1935, a traveling version of the Grand Ole Opry, featuring Uncle Dave Macon and the Delmore Brothers, played a midnight show at the Tennessee.

After World War II, the Tennessee served mainly as a movie theater, with a few notable exceptions. A gala world premiere of the movie So This is Love, about East Tennessee opera star Grace Moore, featured four of the stars, including singer Kathryn Grayson, and her less-well-known co-star Merv Griffin, who played piano and sang “The Tennessee Waltz.”

In the 1980s, the Tennessee became a performing-arts venue again. It is today home to the Knoxville Symphony Orchestra and the Knoxville Opera. The Tennessee has hosted shows by Chet Atkins, the Everly Brothers, Diana Ross, Johnny Cash, Bob Dylan, Elvis Costello, Lionel Hampton, Morrissey, David Byrne, and many other legends of popular music. Thanks to the Big Ears Festival, it has also witnessed performances by important modern composers and groups like Terry Riley, Johnny Greenwood, Vampire Weekend, and Steve Reich.

One of very few historic theaters with its original “Mighty Wurlitzer” intact, the Tennessee hosts monthly organ concerts.