Saturday, December 12, 2009

Between Two Cities

As with all recent First Fridays of the month in Knoxville, this last one was devoted to the art and music without cost up and down the chilly sidewalks of the city. I don’t get out much on First Fridays. The truth be told, whenever they roll around, I don’t think about it, and I’m often more inclined to spend the time staring across to the other side of the couch at my wife whom I’ve not seen for half a day. But I happened upon two friends at a bus stop, and I was blessed not to get away before they told me of the daring plan they had hatched. In short, it was to host a concert in their downtown apartment featuring the musical stylings of Joseph Gillenwater. I smiled politely, but underneath the placid surface I was flabbergasted. Joseph Gillenwater? The oft seen but rarely heard wunderkind of quiet, blessed, indefinable music whom I’ve not heard play in years? I laid plans of my own to be present at the occasion.

I sometimes feel as though my heart is aloft somewhere between Knoxville and Nashville. I’ve grown up hearing the Nashville sound spill out of the radio in all its glitz and glamour and honesty and clarity. The winnowing process that I’ve gone through over these few years has led me to appreciate great art from Music City and also to appreciate the greatness in art that had a bad day or was ill treated. I’ve learned a lot about how to make music from those mid-state folks, and I owe them more than they know or I can repay, but the Nashville sound is certainly a different thing than the Knoxville sound. Nashville is big on business. It’s where people go to “make it.” Everyone there is a musician or a writer, down to the quiche-wielding chef who catered to my dad, his cohorts, and tag-along me at the Sound Kitchen. Music feels like a big deal there, as it should be if it’s paying the mortgage.

Knoxville? Well, Knoxville just isn’t. We’re not as concerned with the business end here, and that plays through in the tunes. Joseph Gillenwater’s music and attitude are, at least to me, quintessentially Knoxvillian. This was the guy who, when I met him at his local food market job, told me that he wasn’t really interested in recording. All my Nashville pipe dreams and ploys balked and crumbled like a playing card house in the face of this unconcern. Besides that, this makes Joseph’s music difficult to catch. You have to watch for the opportunity, but as I told my friend who hosted the evening, it’s like finding a pearl of great price buried in a field. Few other things that move with such quiet humility and grace could hold captive a room of fifty boisterous people, many in various states of inebriation. But, in his unsophisticated way, Joseph shuffled through a telecaster, a banjo, and a small but characteristically quirky electric organ in the effort to convey blessing to us. We were all spellbound. What is more, when we thought the sound couldn’t get any smaller or sweeter, his sister Jessica got up and sang a couple of songs with him.

Many records I hear spur me toward the idea of recording, of seeing what sort of life these songs can take upon themselves. But hearing Joseph spurs me on to write, to gather my most desperate hopes onto paper and hum them into someone’s ear at a tempo not exceeding the pace of frost melting in the sun.