Redistilled: 25 Years of Knoxville Rock
“There’s no business like no business,” RB Morris once said. He could have been talking about Redistilled , an album of amazing music that confirms the world-class, powerhouse talent in Knoxville, otherwise an industry dead zone. There’s a virtue to that. Our musicians are like some secretive fellows working clandestinely in an East Tennessee holler to produce brilliant, homegrown mash for a highly specialized local beverage. Nothing else quite satisfies like homemade. That goes for everything, from cornbread to whisky to music.
Redistilled takes the inspired gambit of having Knoxville bands record songs performed by their predecessors in the local musical community. Per Knoxville’s Do-it-Yourself ethos, the overall purpose of this unique recording project is to help an icon of college radio, WUTK-FM 90.3—itself the champion of local music—keep broadcasting with the vigorous, imaginative indie philosophy that keeps it real and relevant. The University of Tennessee’s “College of Rock” has been managed most of its quarter century on the air by Benny Smith, a Greeneville native and ’90s promoter who got into radio at an early age and soon became a fixture on Knoxville’s music scene, working mostly from modest quarters deep in the basement of UT’s Andy Holt Tower. While serving as the station’s general manager and primary deejay, Smith has mentored scores of future broadcasters going through the University of Tennessee’s College of Communications. “The Rock” does not receive a direct cash outlay for its operational budget. That’s why the very musicians whose careers were set in motion by WUTK stepped up to raise money for the self-supporting station. “I was trying to think of some way to celebrate being on the air a quarter of a century and this idea came to me,” Smith says. “I looked around and realized that most of the guys and gals playing today were around 10 to 15 years ago and thank God they’re still out there playing—the Scott Millers, the Todd Steeds, the Stewart Packs. I wanted to make a connection from those days to now.” One can hardly disagree with a true believer who claims Knoxville has one of the best — if not THE best — music scene in the Southeast. “We may not have the reputation Athens has or Nashville’s studios but musically and artistically, we’ve got every bit and more. And we’ve had that and maintained it against the odds, venue-wise, entertainment tax-wise and so on. We have the history, but not the industry,” Smith says.
There was kismet to Redistilled ’s genesis. “The odd thing is, Jeff Heiskell had the same idea of recruiting bands for an all-Knoxville project at almost the same time. When he approached me about it, sparks just started flying. Now, if one of the leading musicians in this town simultaneously wants to do this too, then that’s got to be a pretty fertile idea. Jeff and I and Tim Lee (because of his expertise in putting together similar projects like Bloodshot Records’ Larry Brown tribute), Eric Nowinski (drummer for Angel and the Lovemongers; engineer for Rock Snob Recorders) and Don Coffey Jr. (drummer for Superdrag as well as Independent Recorders engineer and creator of the growing Hottfest musical festival) got together and got this thing rolling.” WUTK’s actual funding for day-to-day cash needs from office supplies to Smith’s salary is self-sustaining. It comes entirely from donations, sponsors, underwriters and advertisers.
The School of Broadcasting does not provide an operational budget to WUTK. The university provides overhead—they keep the lights on and the transmitter running, according to Smith—but that’s about it. The station arguably should have “laboratory” status that might be budgeted like any other real-life educational curriculum, but it doesn’t. At one time, there was some piecemeal support, but no direct-line budget. “Now there isn’t even that. They depend upon me to bring this money in. This is a self-sustaining radio station. What better way to get the word out about this than with this record? We need you to pony up and help keep us on the air!” The only expenses incurred during the making of Redistilled were for some outsourced studio time and manufacturing. Every other level of talent and service was donated.
WUTK’s website will provide extra goodies: photographs of the bands—original and covering—and downloads of the original versions of these songs from Knoxville’s past and present. “We want people to be just as excited about the original version of the Taoist Cowboys’ song as the Scott Miller version. And we want both fanbases to discover the music of the other. That goes for all the bands represented—Balboa, the Faults, 30 Amp Fuse and so on.”
Redistilled is energized by the very clusterfuckedness that results in a creative environment that is basically isolated from corporate mentality: this deal has Superdrag, RB Morris, Stewart Pack, Todd Steed, Tim Lee, Scott Miller covered by other artists as well as doing the covering.
Redistilled goes in for the kill on the opening track—a furious rant against corporate radio that was written close to three decades ago. Courtesy of a snarling vocal from the Tenderhooks’ Jake Winstrom, the intelligent rage of the Balboa anthem “104” comes in tooth-and-claw while retaining the late Terry Hill’s innate wink-and-nod. Consider the royal nicking Angel and the Lovemongers give Scott Miller’s “Goodnight, Loser,” a sob-worthy classic from his V-Roys days. What about the exponential cheekiness of Todd Steed covering Randall Brown? See if you can detect the high concept behind RB Morris’ spooky performance of a little-known diatribe written by his contemporary and pal, Roger Smith: “… this world is run by weasels…” Let alone the album’s primal scream of a coda: Senryu’s cover of “No Friends,” one of the first songs written by Knoxville’s alpha-punk—Rus Harper.
Jeff Heiskell, former leader of the Judybats and now fronting his eponymous band, put it this way: “Everyone should be proud of this disc. It celebrates years of talented bands and individuals, all of whom continue to contribute to Knoxville’s regional performing arts culture—a constantly evolving and often tentative legacy which I once heard described as ‘The Little Music Scene That Could.’”
Redistilled is a toast to spirits past, present and future in this Beat old burg by the river. Let us drink to remember. Let us drink to good times to come and along the way, recall “Cumberland Avenue … (where) many a native psalmist would sip moonshine from Wallace Stevens’ jar.”
— liner notes by Jack Rentfro, author/editor of Cumberland Avenue Revisited: Four Decades of Music from Knoxville, Tennessee” (Cardinal Publishing 2003) from which the above quote is taken.