It was an evening when emotion took precedence. When true Americana music was in the spotlight. When pride and purpose combined. A fond look back and a promising glance forward.
The evening in question was the recent concert — an extravaganza of sorts, really — held in celebration of WDVX’s 20-year anniversary. One of the foremost voices for authentic Americana and grassroots music in the known universe, Knoxville, Tenn.-area radio station WDVX has established an enviable niche in the realms of roots music and other indigenous forms of folk, rock, blues and country. Lauded by listeners and artists alike, many of whom received their initial exposure on the station’s airwaves, WDVX is recognized worldwide as a true bastion of Americana and traditional music in all its many forms.
As befits that outstanding reputation, a host of leading musicians — many of whom have East Tennessee roots — gathered for the occasion. Headliners included Darrell Scott, Sam Lewis, David Mayfield, the Black Lillies, RB Morris, Robinella, Missy Raines, Claire Lynch, Alex Leach, Jill Andrews, and an all-star bluegrass ensemble led by Phil Leadbetter and featuring many of the leading lights of the bluegrass world — Claire Lynch, Steve Gulley, Kenny & Amanda Smith, Missy Raines, Paul Brewster, Adam Haynes, Alan Bibey, Alex Leach, and Jason Burleson among them.
As befitting the proceedings, each portion of the live variety show was introduced by a WDVX on-air personality. Tony Lawson, the station’s co-founder, senior creative consultant, and on-air personality and Kate Cauthen, program director, served as masters of ceremonies. Among the many highlights of the program, which was broadcast live and sponsored by Boyd’s Jig & Reel and Sweet Audrey’s Jazz Club (due to open in 2018), was a special tribute to the Everly Brothers, who traced much of their childhood and professional origins to East Tennessee.
Indeed, the concert was marked by a mix of music and memories, and some sly humor as well. David Mayfield, on leave from his band the David Mayfield Parade, made a pointed reference to the august environs of the historic Bijou Theatre by looking up at one of the boxes overlooking the stage and asking, “How are you enjoying the evening so far, Mr. Lincoln” in an ironic reference to Honest Abe’s fateful evening at Ford’s Theater. He then played a stunning solo on acoustic guitar that ended with him feigning a collapse from over-exhilaration.
Darrell Scott, on the other hand, was flush with sobriety. He opened the show with his trademark tune “You’ll Never Leave Harlan Alive” and later spun his annual holiday staple, “The Day Before Thanksgiving.” Although all the performers received due reverence, and many of them took turns occupying a couch onstage while others performed upfront, it was clear that Scott was the musician held in highest regard.
That said, this homecoming of sorts also found Sam Lewis, RB Morris, Robinella, Todd Steed, Jay Clark, and the Black Lillies taking turns in the spotlight. Morris, the official poet laureate of East Tennessee, stoically showed why he rightfully deserves to be included in the upper tier of American singer/songwriters. Clark, known for his poignant portrayals of East Tennessee’s natural wonders was, as always, superb. Lewis, showcasing a handful of songs from his much anticipated upcoming album, might have rocked more than usual, but he remained as entertaining and animated as always.
Likewise, The Black Lillies demonstrated why they’re not only Knoxville’s favorite sons, but a band whose inner core and Americana values qualify them as direct descendants of The Band in terms of both style and songcraft. Their collaborations with singers Robinella and Jill Andrews were striking as well, giving each of those remarkable singers — a distinction that also belonged to featured vocalists Zoe Nutt and Steve Horton — the sumptuous setting each deserved.
In that same way, Ledbetter’s all-star ensemble offered a rare opportunity to witness some of the best players in bluegrass — bar none — on one stage together. Several of those onstage noted that Alex Leach, a longtime WDVX on-air personality and performer, had literally grown up on the station’s airwaves as host of his own bluegrass show. Kudos too, to another staffer, bassist Daniel Kimbro, as well as to the always-on-call multi-instrumentalist Greg Horne, who backed several of the artists throughout the evening. They were especially propulsive behind Todd Steed, a man whose moment in the spotlight found him capturing the essence of Bruce Springsteen in Americana garb.
Mostly though, this was an evening of celebration, a salute to one of Knoxville’s true treasures and a reason to be proud to share in its accomplishments. When the entire ensemble gathered onstage at the conclusion to sing “Farther Along” and “Long May You Run,” the lessons weren’t lost.