“Country music was born in Bristol but it grew up in Knoxville” is a well-known local saying and it has some truth to it. From Luttrell-born Chet Atkins playing on WNOX to Homer and Jethro and The Everly Brothers a few short years later, Knoxville has always been an incubator for musicians who grow up here before migrating away to Nashville or Los Angeles. Knoxville has never been short of remarkable musicians but today, more and more musicians are choosing to stay here. In a town full of incredible guitar players, here are a few to keep an eye on:
Mike Bagetta plays the kind of skronky, noisy-jazz, improvised music that alternates between finding beauty in ugliness and simply being beautiful. Born in western Massachusetts, he spent fifteen years in New York City making a name for himself as an improvisational guitarist and composer, heavily influenced by David Torn. However, Bagetta grew tired of New York. “It’s fascinating,” he says, “but after fifteen years, I grew tired of the constant influx of sensory overload.” After meeting a woman from Knoxville and visiting, Bagetta says that he found “Knoxville was just amazingly welcoming and it was more my speed.” He relocated here about eighteen months ago and now teaches guitar at East Tennessee State University and Pellissippi State.
Of his style, Bagetta says “I come from a jazz and improvising background but in my artier moments, I like to consider myself post-genre. I like everything from classic country to noise-rock and it isn’t so much that I am experimental as that I don’t want to exclude anything that could make song or a moment better. And today, that’s OK because artists like Marc Ribot and Nels Cline have allowed these sort of sounds to filter down into the mainstream.”
Today, Bagetta is still working on projects in NY and LA as well as performing locally. He has several records with both a trio and a quartet as well as TIN/BAG, a collaboration with trumpeter Kris Tiner. Bagetta’s latest album, Spectre, is a set of compositions based around a live sampling technique recorded as a trio. He has also recorded an album with fIREHOSE and Minutemen bassist Mike Watt and legendary session drummer Jim Keltner that will be released soon and is working on an album of his trademark composed/improvised compositions with Nels Cline of Wilco on lap steel. Bagetta can be seen on the last Monday of each month at Barley’s in the Old City as well as the occasional show at the Bijou by the Bistro.
Knoxville native Andy Wood resides in Nashville but performs here frequently. As a touring guitarist for Scott Stapp, Sebastian Bach, Gary Allan, Rascal Flatts, and LOCASH, Wood is perhaps Knoxville’s most well-known guitar player. However, Wood didn’t touch an electric guitar until he turned eighteen years old. He grew up playing bluegrass mandolin from when he could first hold the instrument and he placed second in the prestigious World Championship Mandolin Contest in Winfield, Kansas at the tender age of sixteen. Once Wood discovered electric guitar, it took hold quickly as four years later he beat out 3,400 other entrants to win Guitar Center’s Guitarmageddon contest.
Today, Wood says, “I’m comfortable playing huge shows, I mean playing in front of 25,000 people with Rascal-Flatts doesn’t suck, but I love playing smaller shows where I am leading things also. They are both important to me and I don’t think I’d be happy without both options.” “Sometimes,” he continues, “because I play commercial music, there is a misconception that I don’t have other interests, but I enjoy playing most types of music. The only difference between a ripping solo in something like Chick Corea’s ‘Spain’ or Eric Johnson’s ‘Cliffs of Dover’ is tone and how you bend. At a certain level it becomes about what you choose to play and not what you are able to play. People like Bela Fleck and Jerry Douglas play what they want, and on my new album that’s what I tried to do. I’d love it if someone said, ‘I went to see Andy and all he played was bluegrass mandolin.’ I want every show to be different.”
Wood’s most recent work is his third solo outing Live at the Bijou, recorded at a sold out Bijou Theater on Gay Street and released with an album release party at The Open Chord at the end of November. It is available on CD and DVD as well as on iTunes and Amazon. Today, Wood is concentrating on promoting this disk before his next A-list sideman gig: “There is something about a live album; it’s all about how you entertain people. We even covered Gladys Knight. I want the guitar nerds to go ‘ooooo’ and for their partners to go ‘I like that.’ At this point, I just want freedom to play what I enjoy.”
Mick Murphy of My Ruin has come full circle from playing every small club on the strip in the early 1990s to a twenty year career in Los Angeles to moving back to Knoxville and playing Van Halen’s “Eruption – You Really Got Me” with the Foo Fighters in front of 20,000 people at a sold-out Thompson-Bowling Arena. Murphy grew up in Knoxville and moved to LA in 1996 when his band Hypertribe (also featuring Nick Raskulinecz, producer of the Foo Fighters, Rush, and Alice in Chains) began to gain traction. In 2000 in LA, Murphy met Tarrie B, a young rapper and protege of Easy-E. They immediately began dating (and eventually married) and recorded eight albums as My Ruin. Of the time, Murphy says, “It was crazy and intense but I was ready for a new adventure. I was twenty-eight and here was this crazy new roller coaster that we rode for fourteen years and eight albums.” In that time, Murphy also met Taylor Hawkins of the Foo Fighters and played for three years in his cover band, Chevy Metal, and recorded an album with Hawkins’ original group Birds of Satan.
Eventually, LA wore on the Murphys. “I started to realize that all that I wanted to do could be done in Knoxville. I missed my friends and family, and all the people I wanted to play music with were here. It felt very natural for us to move back.” Musically, Murphy says, “I’m a rock guitarist. I like what I like. I’m not super well-rounded because I’m obsessive about what I like, and I’m not interested in a lot of other kinds of music.” Murphy is now in Heavy Seventies, a band he formed with old Hypertribe buddy and Knoxville native Manning Jenkins and drummer Zak Stinnett, and is working on his solo project Neanderthal, for which he plays keyboards, guitar, bass, and drums. Murphy says of Neanderthal, “I want it to be unpredictable. I love playing music for that one guy who says ‘I can’t believe he did that.’ The people who like instrumental music of this kind aren’t a huge group, but I don’t care. I like it. Right now, I just want to have fun and play.”
You can hear Murphy on January 20th at The Open Chord with more Heavy Seventies shows to be announced. You can follow him on Facebook and Instagram.
The Up and Comer
Cameron Moore was born in Memphis and raised on that city’s music: blues and jazz and Stax Records. He moved to Knoxville after high school to attend the University of Tennessee and study micro-biology. However, Moore played guitar in local bands and at churches all through his college career and after earning his undergraduate degree, he came to a crossroads. “I could either attend school for five years or more or try to earn a living playing what I loved. It was a really hard decision, but so far I don’t regret anything.”
Moore soon met Ben Gaines and formed Three-Star Revival, a fluid, improvisational jam band based around Gaines’ sturdy songwriting and Moore’s spiraling, melodic soloing. The band has toured extensively in the South, recording two albums (they are working on a third now) and playing with
Portugal, The Man, The Royal Bangs, and Moon Taxi. Additionally, Moore formed Milkshake Fatty to indulge his jazzier side. “I guess I’m part of that ‘jam band’ thing,” Moore says, “but I always considered myself a jazz player first. I am influenced as much by someone like Grant Green as I am by Derek Trucks.”
Three-Star Revival headlined the Mill and Mine Christmas Party in December, Milkshake Fatty plays the Preservation Pub the second Wednesday of every month, and Moore leads a improvised jam session on the third Wednesday of each month. He also plays in the church bands at Cokesbury Baptist and New Providence and is available for lessons by contacting his Facebook page: Cameron Duffy Moore.
The Rock and Roller
Andrew Leahey was born in Richmond, Virginia and currently owns a home in Nashville, where he is a well-regarded sideman and a music journalist for Rolling Stone Country and other outlets. However, his wife attends school at the University of Tennessee and Leahey is splitting his time between the two cities. This feels entirely natural to him, he recalls: “Knoxville is the first city that I didn’t live in that I found an audience in. I love the old architecture and I love the fierce pride folks have in the local music scene. When you play in Nashville, people are watching you and how you play, analyzing everything. In Knoxville, people want an experience. They want to participate and be part of it, and it reminds you why you worked so hard to be good to begin with.”
Leahey splits his time between sideman duties with a host of artists and front man duties with his band, Andrew Leahey and the Homestead. His first record, Sky Line in Central Time, was produced by Wilco co-founder Ken Coomer and distributed by the prestigious Nashville marketing company Thirty Tigers. That record, based around hook-laden rockers like “Little in Love” and “Penitentiary Guys,” gained him a strong following. His next record, We Came Here to Run, is almost complete and will be released in mid-2018. Furthermore, Leahey recently joined Elizabeth Cook’s touring band. Both things are important, Leahey says: “I like being a sideman, focusing on one thing and getting better at it, concentrating. But I like the responsibility of being in charge and running my own thing as well. They are both a big part of my life.”
Leahey plays regularly in both cities now. He sometimes plays with Handsome and the Humbles here, and members of that band play with him in Nashville. He fronted a Tom Petty Tribute on December 16th at Scruffy City Hall with a group of Nashville instrumentalists backing up a group of over a dozen Knoxville-based singers. The Homestead will also play the Shed in Maryville in May 2018.
In my conversations with other guitarists, the one name that continually came up was that of Mike Seal. Words like “miraculous,” “incredulous,” and “monster” were tossed around with some regularity. Seal is the guitar player’s guitar player, the one player that every other musician in town seems to want to see. And, when one sees him, it is obvious why. Fingerpicking an Ibanez electric, with fretting fingers that hardly seem to move, Seal is impossibly fast but never loses the melody. He reminds one of every player who was ever on the cover of Guitar Player magazine, while also somehow being completely himself.
Born in rural Virginia, Seal grew up in a musical family as his father and brother are both talented musicians. He moved to Knoxville in 2003 to attend the UT Jazz program. However, Seal dropped out after a couple years as he began playing with Jeff Coffin and Jeff Sipe—his touring schedule made attending classes impossible. “Knoxville was the coolest place I had seen,” says Seal. “I grew up in a place where you could not be a professional musician. It impressed me to no end that you could not only make a viable living, but that due to the location, we were close to all these other scenes like Atlanta and Louisville where you could launch yourself nationally.”
Seal started off playing in famed local bands like Primordial Soup and Mountain Soul. That variety was what drew him, he says: “I only came to play jazz. I wanted to do it for the rest of my life but then I found all this other stuff like country and American that I didn’t really know. I met Robert Richards and Chad Melton and wound up doing a few reggae gigs with The Natty Love-Joys. That kind of variety shaped how I play now.” Seal also did a short stint in The Black Lillies and a one-year tour with Larkin Poe. The Larkin Poe gig turned out to be a pivotal moment as he married co-founder Megan Lovell in 2015.
Today, Seal still plays with the Jeff Sipe Trio and has been the guitarist for the Jerry Douglas Band for the last eighteen months. The Jerry Douglas band will be playing the Big Ears Festival in Knoxville in the Spring. And, in February, Seal says he is excited to bring a band with Danny Barnes, Eric Thorne, and Jeff Sipe to Barley’s in the Old City. He will also be teaching at the Tommy Emmanuel Guitar Camp in Memphis in July along side Douglas, Pat Ferguson, Steve Cropper, and Emmanuel. Finally, he hopes to have a solo record out next year and has a YouTube channel to which he posts often.
Of course, these six artists are only the beginning. From Brock Henderson’s Zappa-tinged surf with the Brockefellers to Barry “Po” Hanna’s tasteful fills with A1-Hundo and The Reflectors, to Hector Qirko’s returns to Knoxville with The Lonesome Coyotes and Running Dogs, to the various cover bands of Sevan Takvoryan, Chris Canada, Jim Rivers or Cory Smith, Knoxville has more incredible musicians than we could ever hope to cover. Get out, check it out, and let us know what you find!