Now Playing: Martha Spencer at Funny Ears Fringe Festival

When Martha Spencer takes the Scruffy City Hall stage March 23 for the Honky Tonk Nighttime Ball, trading riffs on guitar, fiddle and mandolin with old friends Matt Kinman (Old Crow Medicine Show) and Alex Leach (Bill Stanley’s band), don’t be surprised when she suddenly drops her axe and starts cutting the proverbial rug in the middle of the show, engaging mountain music fans with a nimble display of traditional flattop dancing.

“There will probably be lots of trading instruments going on, and I’ll probably dance,” Spencer explains in a recent phone interview, speaking with a distinctive Appalachian drawl. “It’s a lot of fun, and it’s an interactive thing. In a lot of the bands I’ve played in, the crowds are dancing, so there’s often some give and take.”

Flattop, Spencer explains, is a dance form with Scots-Irish derivations, in which the soles of the performers’ feet usually hover no more than a few inches from the ground. It differs somewhat from its close cousins, clogging and buck dancing, in that it is quieter than clogging, and less high-kicking and physically demonstrative than either.

The West Virginia Encyclopedia online calls it “the mountain artistic reaction to hard-driving fiddle music.”

Though still a young woman, Spencer is already a globe-trotting veteran performer, having grown up as a member, along with her parents Thornton and Emily Spencer, of the long-running Whitetop Mountain Band — so named for a tiny town in the highlands of Virginia. Through her childhood years and over the course of innumerable music festivals and fiddle competitions, Spencer developed her alternately sweet and baleful singing style as well as her flattop dancing skills, and mastered every stringed instrument relevant to the traditional mountain repertoire.

“I never took lessons,” Spencer says of her flattop abilities. “I just picked it up from people that would come over to my parents house, or who I saw at festivals. I’d watch, and then I’d join in.”

In the years since, she’s toured extensively both stateside and overseas, playing a mix of traditional mountain music, bluegrass, and throwback country in a variety of contexts and configurations. “I grew up in the old-time mountain tradition; those are my roots,” she says. “But I love a lot of different music. I love bluegrass. I love George Jones and Merle Haggard, too.”

The upcoming Honky Tonk Nighttime Ball show will not be the first time she’s crossed paths with either Kinman or Leach. The three musicians have a considerable history together, Spencer says, having shared stages and guest-starred on one another’s solo records many times over the last few years. They have collaborated so often, in fact, that Spencer says the March 23 show probably won’t require much in the way of advance rehearsal. “We’ve played enough together that we can come up with a good mix of songs almost on the spot,” she says.

“We’ll probably do a variety of music — including some old-time mountain music with a little bit of dancing,” Spencer continues. “We’ll probably do some bluegrass, because bluegrass banjo is Alex’s thing. We’ll probably do some country and honky tonk as well. I’d say we’ll probably put some of our own stuff in there, along with traditional things that people might recognize.”

Martha Spencer will play the Honky Tonk Nighttime Ball at Scruffy City Hall on Thursday, March 23 at 8 p.m. as part of the Funny Ears Fringe Festival.










downtown dirt by manhole: FEFF

bunny-435170_640Our time here is short today, but in the precious moments allotted to us, we would remind you that February is nearly done. Which means March is on the way, and with it, the new tradition hereabouts known as Funny Ears Fringe Festival, a weekend-long multi-band concert extravaganza offering a sort of local and (ahem!) less expensive counterpoint to a certain better-known music fest running concurrently the same weekend, that being March 23 thru 26.

This year’s FEFF will feature some 45 bands (give or take) across our two favorite venues — those being Scruffy City Hall and Preservation Pub, natch — representing a range of genres too dizzyingly long and diverse to recount in the short space of a single internet post — trad-country and Americana and experimental indie and psychedelia and funk-ska and reggae-surf and pirate rock (!!!), and on and on…

Watch this space for more information on the event sometime in the next couple weeks. But in the meantime, here’s a hint of what you can expect from our fair city’s youngest and weirdest and bestest downtown music festival in 2017:

— Hillbilly hair farmer Andrew Dale Pirkle, singer-guitarist of Knoxville honky-tonk heroes the Barstool Romeos, will curate the Funny Ears Honky Tonk Nighttime Ball, beginning at 8 p.m. Thursday March 23 at SCH. Expect plenty of bearded, beer-swilling redneck foolishness from Emcee Pirkle, in addition to performances from the likes of Matt Kinman (Old Crow Medicine Show founder) and Alex Leach (banjo player for Ralph Stanley).

— Sultry soul chanteuse Yasameen Hoffman-Shaheen and keyboard/piano ace Ben Maney will open the lineup at SCH on Friday March 24 with their 6:30 p.m. performance. Yas is best-known as the lead singer of neo-soul outfit Electric Darling, while Maney has been one of the city’s most in-demand instrumentalists since forever.

— What the hell is Gypsy Folk-Funk? Damned if we know. But if you’re as curious as we are, be sure to show up at the Pub on Saturday, March 25, for a performance from GFF artists Sirius B. out of Asheville, N.C.

— Last but not least, the weekend closes out at SCH on Sunday, March 26 with Bristol-based stoner-psych outfit Indighost. Trust us when we tell you that these guys are worth the (low) price of a weekend’s admission all by themselves.

And those are just a few of too-many highlights to name. Again, see us here in two weeks, for more in-depth dope on FEFF, plus more on March goodness yet to be named.

Now Playing: Fireside Collective

When asked about the genus of his four-piece string-band outfit Fireside Collective’s music, bandleader/singer/mandolinist Jesse Iaquinto replies that the answer may vary from moment to moment, and from one observer to another.

“Depending on where you come from and your experience with folk music, you may think we’re very traditional, or on the other hand, consider us a progressive act,” he says. “We appreciate both ends of the spectrum and may lie on a different end on any given night.”

Based out of Asheville, N.C., the three-year-old outfit began as a sort of solo project for Iaquinto. Having drifted from Greenville to Asheville at the end of his college career at East Carolina University, Iaquinto tells that he was looking to delve into bluegrass and traditional musics after playing in a Greenville-based jam band for a number of years.

Tapping his former bass player Carson White for the project, Iaquinto began working through a cache of songs he had been writing over a period of years. The duo recruited, then parted ways with, several potential bandmates before settling on the current lineup, which includes dobro player Tommy Maher and guitarist Joe Cicero.

The goal upon which the band was founded, says Iaquinto, was “to play bluegrass, and to make it presentable to a larger audience.”

And while, at times, the band approaches the music with due reverence for its traditions, the Collective is unafraid of pushing the boundaries of those traditions when the moment is right. “When we play big bluegrass jams at clubs in Asheville, what we do goes beyond what some of the other more traditional players are doing,” Iaquinto says. “We do a lot of jams, extended parts, improvisations like you might hear from the Grateful Dead.

“Those things aren’t typical of the bluegrass world. We want to honor the traditions, but we also want to be able to step outside of them.”

In fact, Iaquinto argues that bluegrass, as it was conceived by principal pioneer Bill Monroe, was never intended to be a hidebound, rigidly structured art form. Rather, it was a novel melding of old-time and country and pop music — a sort of backwater musical experiment, rendered with an iconoclast’s flair.

“The original vision was truly progressive,” Iaquinto says. “But then over time, it became about how accurately you could cover what’s already been done. To me, that stifled the genre.

“I’m a folk music enthusiast. I once read a book about folk that put forth the argument that the folk musician’s job is to take the struggle of the common man and present it in a way that’s relevant to the time, albeit with acoustic instruments. It’s important to stay relevant. It’s 2017; you can’t be singing about working on the railroad all the time.”

It’s worth noting, too, that, according to Iaquinto, his bandmates are united by their universal fondness for classic rock, beyond even their love for bluegrass; their live repertoire includes a handful of rock cover songs from the likes of Paul Simon and Tom Petty.

“We all have a deep love of classic rock music, Tom Petty, Led Zeppelin…,” Iaquinto says. “We’re always finding ways to incorporate that into the music we play. We do some interesting covers, and we also have something we do where we slow the music down and put a bit of a groove underneath it. We call it ‘funk-grass.'”

Next up, Fireside Collective plans to release an album of 12 new original songs in May, then take to the road, with an eye toward the festival circuit. “We’re kind of an ideal festival band,” Iaquinto says. “We’re acoustic, and we’re very in touch with our roots.

“But also — and this gets back to our rock influence — we really honor the show. We want to put on a performance. To us, it’s about putting on more of a rock ‘n’ roll type of show than just playing bluegrass on a stage.”

Fireside Collective will play Scruffy City Hall Friday, Feb. 24 at 10 p.m. 

Now Playing: Annabelle’s Curse

Bristol-based five-piece Annabelle’s Curse began life as a relatively traditional outfit, a folk- and bluegrass-inspired unit with incipient tendencies toward the likes of Mumford and Sons and the Lumineers — commercial Americana bands that were popular at the time of their founding in 2010.

But over the course of seven years, three full-length albums, and a just-released EP, the band has evolved a sound that is wholly of its own making, a mature melding of traditional Appalachian music and modern indie rock, neither too hidebound nor too precious in its rendering.

“The music’s evolved to being a little different from what it was in the past,” says vocalist and mandolinist Carly Booher, on the eve of releasing the band’s new EP Here and Now. “It’s a little more indie-experimental.

“We’ve had more time together, and we know how everyone works. I think we feel more comfortable being creative, or being a little experimental now. We’ve tried some different time signatures; we’ve evolved our sound texturally. As we’ve all gotten older, we’re figuring out who we are as a band.”

Booher adds that the band’s latest round of music — recorded back in July in Philadelphia — also keeps past producer Bill Moriarty at the helm. “That made things easier,” she says. “We could skip the awkward first few days, and just dive right in.”

Annabelle’s Curse started as a three-piece in 2010, the brainchild of singer/guitarist/banjoist Tim Kilbourne and guitarist Zack Edwards, fellow Emery and Henry grads. Gradually, they added and subtracted members, finally settling on the current lineup with Booher, bassist Tyler Luttrell and percussionist Travis Goyette.

The name Annabelle’s Curse derives from an old stand-up bass the band members chipped in and purchased for their first performance, at a local open mic in Bristol. They named it Annabelle, only to see it subsequently broken, twice in quick succession — the band’s original bassist played that first gig on a half a neck with only two strings — before retiring it to a corner in Booher’s home.

The outfit’s first release was 2011’s Monsters LP, a strong effort that didn’t stray too far from the trad/folk influences all of the members brought to bear on the project. The band’s evolution began in earnest with LP number two, 2013’s Hollow Creature, and continued with Worn Out Skin in 2015, under the direction of the aforementioned Moriarty.

Booher says Here and Now is the band’s most venturesome release yet. “We still cling to our roots,” she says. “There’s still a traditional element. But there’s also an idea of putting traditional instruments toward music you might not associate with those instruments, music that isn’t usually considered, say, mandolin music.”

But maybe the best measure of how far Annabelle’s Curse has come will be revealed later this year, when the band will release its fourth full-length. AC’s plan is to build momentum with Here and Now, Booher says, then begin touring and promoting in earnest on the strength of the new LP.

Notably, this will be the first album Annabelle’s Curse has released that has not been crowd-funded.

“We’ve been super lucky to have a great fan base,” Booher says. “As we’ve gone through changes, our fans have had our back, and they’ve come along with us. We’ve gotten great feedback so far on our new music.”

Annabelle’s Curse will play Preservation Pub Friday, Feb. 24 at 10 p.m. with special guests Time Sawyer.



downtown dirt by manhole: February

The bowl games are over, the holiday hangovers have finally subsided and most of the Resolutions have been broken, sacrificed to the Gods of Sloth and Indolence on the Altar of Broken Dreams. IOW, it’s February, Jake — the frigid heart of the winter doldrums, and the shortest month of the year.

But they say good things come in small packages, and at least in this instance, that old saw is true. The February calendar at Preservation Pub/Scruffy City Hall offers up more value for your entertainment dollar than any sane and caring liberal society should rightfully allow. Who knew it was possible to cram so many musical goodies into the space of a mere 28 days?

Some of the deets are forthcoming in the rest of this issue of Scruffington Post — see our fine features on local indie rockers Meob and Gamenight, both of whom will grace the stage of Scruffy City Hall on Feb. 11. But if that alone isn’t enough to set your hearts a-thumping, know then that the Crumbsnatchers will play the same night, plying their loopy, frenetic brand of pogoing pop-rock on the stage of Preservation Pub.

Makes for a bit of a quandary, I suppose, but keep in mind that on most nights, your door charge is good for entrance to both clubs. Meaning that you can easily bounce between venues, drinking in some tuneful Gamenight goodness before flitting over to watch mop-topped Crumbsnatchers frontman “Guetts” Guetterman storm the Pub stage like some crazed Muppet hopped up on Peruvian Marching Powder.

One of the newest and hottest stars on the Knoxville music scene, classically-trained chanteuse Yasameen Hoffman-Shahin will take the stage in Scruffy City Hall twice this month. The first time will be Feb. 10, when she appears alongside longtime local keyboard and piano ace Ben Maney, whom you may recognize from — and this is only a rough estimate, Jake — around one billion popular local blues, jazz and rock acts from the past 20 years or so.

Then on Feb. 18, Yasameen and the rest of Electric Darling will share the bill with the Burnin’ Hermans. Also featuring guitar ace (and former Dirty Guv’nah) Cozmo Holloway and bandleader/multi-instrumentalist Kevin Hyfantiss, Electric Darling is on a fast track to rate as arguably the city’s best rock ‘n’ roll act, so it’s best you catch them now, before they move into bigger paydays at larger venues.

And speaking of good things in small packages, Feb. 19 will see the Pub host West Virginia two-piece outfit Blackwater Mojo, a wicked little husband-wife duo who ably mix Delta Blues rhythms with traditional mountain and string-band sensibilities, making for a heady musical brew redolent of smoke and sin and sex.

And it’s been far too long since Bristol-area folk/string band Annabelle’s Curse have graced a Scruffy City stage, but the drought ends come Feb. 24, when the aforementioned five-piece will appear at the Pub, led by the nightingale-sweet vocals of singer Carly Booher, and girded by the sterling musicianship of guitarist/banjoist Tim Kilbourne and his equally talented mates.

Understand that these are just a few of many February highlights; we haven’t even mentioned the likes of jam-rockers Mister F and Earphorik (Feb. 13 at the Pub) or beer-sotted outlaw country hipsters Mike and the Moonpies (Feb. 16 at the Pub) or progressive folk and bluegrass artists the Fireside Collective (Feb. 24 at Scruffy City Hall.) Or the Knoscars, Knoxville’s very own Oscars party, Feb. 26 at Scruffy City Hall. The rest is up to you to figure out your own damned selves. So get off your collective asses, and we’ll see you here in a couple weeks.