Festive Frolics in Tennessee; IAN STARRETT Continues His Series on Wintertime in Tennessee by Taking a Walk in the Footsteps of Some of the Greats of Country Music, by Savouring the Southern State's Christmas-New Year Atmosphere and Listening to an Appeal to Ulster's Female Basketball Enthuasists

The News Letter (Belfast, Northern Ireland), December 29, 2000 | Go to article overview

Festive Frolics in Tennessee; IAN STARRETT Continues His Series on Wintertime in Tennessee by Taking a Walk in the Footsteps of Some of the Greats of Country Music, by Savouring the Southern State's Christmas-New Year Atmosphere and Listening to an Appeal to Ulster's Female Basketball Enthuasists


Byline: IAN STARRETT

SHANE Rhyne is an American country music DJ. Big, bearded and cheerful he loves it with a passion.

He readily acknowledges the great influence that emigrant people from the likes of Antrim, Down, Londonderry and Donegal had on those early country and bluegrass tunes and songs. ''They played a real big part,'' states Shane.

He radiates such warmth about the subject of country and western music that as we stroll round Knoxville it's possible to even forget the sort of bleak midwinter temperatures that make brass monkeys worry about their manhood.

The chill factor is added to by the icy wind from the Great Smoky Mountains, slicing like a knife through melting butter along the festive garlanded streets of a city that US author Jack Neely said is: ''remarkable for its part in the development of jazz, blues and rock n'roll but critical in the development of what we now call country music.''

After we breakfasted on apple juice and warm Tennessee cake Shane began his Cradle of Country Music walking tour and we happily set off on a stroll down country's character-chequered memory lane.

We drop by the Andrew Johnson Hotel, original site of WNOX's live country music variety show The Midday Merry-Go-Round, but also the place where on New Year's Eve 1952 Hank Williams checked into the hotel for what would tragically be the last few hours of his life.

Though he was pronounced dead in West Virginia many believe Williams was dead before his teenaged chauffeur carried him out of his hotel.

Further along we came to a bank building which once hosted the studios of WROL-AM on its top floor. The Everly Brothers, who can trace their family links to Irish-Scots roots, performed there regularly.

We then came to the lovingly restored Tennessee Theatre, built in 1927 as a 'motion picture palace' and which this Yuletide holiday season has been showing It's A Wonderful Life, starring James Stewart, which ranks with White Christmas as one of the best festive movies ever made.

It was at that theatre Roy Acuff gave his first live performance along with his band, who were ironically called The Rolling Stones.

Famous for songs like Wabash Cannonball, Acuff became known as the King of Country Music and performed regularly at Nashville's Grand Ole Opry until his death in 1992.

Standing prominently in the city's heart is the Knoxville Music Monument, dedicated not only to local legends like Chet Atkins, who began his career in the city in 1941 as a studio musician on WNOX before being internationally recognised as one of the world's premier guitarists, but to other lesser known names that contributed so much to the culture of country music.

Shane's sightseeing stroll also takes in the Capitol Building of Bluegrass where on December 7, 1941, a young local disc jockey working at the studios of WROL there brought East Tennessee radio listeners news of the bombing of Pearl Harbour by the Japanese.

That very same disc jockey, Ernest James Ford, went on to become one of America's all time most successful recording artists under the stage name of Tennessee Ernie Ford.

We also dropped by the spot where in 1798 a travelling man called Thomas Weir witnessed what he thought was a remarkable sight. He saw African slaves playing the banjo - which was originally an African instrument according to Shane - for a mixed race audience of dancing blacks, whites and Cherokee Indians.

Weir's written description is believed to mark the first evidence of white people listening to banjo music in that part of America.

Shane's fascinating tour, available to any tourist who contacts the East Tennessee Historical Society, baffled me, however, when we came to landmarks with strong links to the two greatest showbiz names ever to come out of this Southern State.

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Festive Frolics in Tennessee; IAN STARRETT Continues His Series on Wintertime in Tennessee by Taking a Walk in the Footsteps of Some of the Greats of Country Music, by Savouring the Southern State's Christmas-New Year Atmosphere and Listening to an Appeal to Ulster's Female Basketball Enthuasists
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