Knoxville. Tennessee. The Tennessee River officially begins at the confluence of the Holston and French Broad Rivers in Knoxville, Tennessee. It meanders past Knoxville down to Chattanooga, crosses into northeast Alabama, and makes a big curve through north Alabama’s “Tennessee Valley” – passing a couple of miles south of my house in Huntsville – before sweeping northwest through the Shoals, crossing the Natchez Trace, slipping out of Alabama, and passing back into Tennessee and then Kentucky, where it empties into the Mississippi at Paducah.
The Tennessee River is visible from my hotel room in downtown Knoxville on this, my first extended stay in the town.
In the 1970s, when I was an undergraduate and Alabama was still playing half of its home football games in Birmingham’s hallowed Legion Field, the Alabama–Tennessee game was still considered an important game. However, these were the days of Coach Bear Bryant at his peak and Alabama won each Tennessee game from 1971 through 1981.
I didn’t hold any particular animosity against the Tennessee Volunteers back then; they were just an annual rival that we always beat. However, at one of those Birmingham games, while leaving the stadium after another dominating Alabama victory, a rowdy gang of Tennessee fans began to curse and hurl oranges at anyone wearing crimson. These were the days when stadium security was less restrictive about what patrons might bring through the gates.
After being hit hard by a couple of oranges and narrowly dodging a couple more aimed at my head, I decided to never attend another Tennessee game and was confirmed in my opinion that the Tennessee shade of orange is the ugliest shade of orange. And I lost what little respect I might have had for the fans of University of Tennessee football. To quote the great scribe, Rick Bragg: “‘Rocky Top’, mah ass.”
That may be the reason that I have “swung by” Knoxville on occasion on the way to other places but have never entertained a desire to stop. When Knoxville was the site of the 1982 World’s Fair, I found the idea depressing, even when I heard that, by late-20th century World’s Fair standards, Knoxville’s did okay (I read somewhere that it made a $57 profit).
I don’t hold a grudge against the University of Tennessee; the bruises are long-gone. But I do have a very good memory …
So here I am in Knoxville, attending the 70th Anniversary edition of Southeastern Theatre Conference (www.setc.org). I have attended most SETC conventions since 1983, but this is my first time in Knoxville and I’m trying to reconcile myself to giving the place a fair shake. From my hotel window, I see the Tennessee River and the hazy visage of the Great Smoky Mountains in the distance to the east.
The Sunsphere, a relic of that long-ago World’s Fair, is just a block down the way, hovering over the Knoxville Convention Center where I am spending a good part of each day. Over there a ways is Neyland Stadium and the Tennessee campus.
The rain that has plagued us for weeks now is back on my second full day in Knoxville, but there’s a promise of better weather ahead before a cold front and more rains move in on Sunday – just in time for my drive home.
Downtown Knoxville is below me and there is some good architecture I want to check out and maybe photograph if it ever stops raining. Biblical rains have plagued most of the South for a couple of weeks now and some Knox County schools have been closed most of this week due to flooding.
Most of my convention activities are related to my position on the editorial board of Southern Theatre, the organization’s quarterly magazine. However, I managed to see the exhibits and vendors in the exhibition hall and to catch some career-related workshops on acting and directing. A keynote speaker was Elyzabeth Gregory Wilder, playwright, whom I met while she was a young playwright and I was on staff at Alabama Shakespeare Festival. Wilder’s very personal and evocative presentation should be inspiration for anyone pursuing a career in the arts.
I was already familiar with Wilder’s impressive story-telling abilities and it was delightful to hear her account of her very theatrical and tongue-in-cheek debutante presentation in Mobile when she was presented to “society’ by the inimitable renaissance man Eugene Walter – one of my favorite characters. Wilder noted that most in the audience would have no idea who Eugene Walter was, but for those of us familiar with the man and his legend, she handed out another gem to add to the treasure trove.
My favorite takeaway from Wilder’s presentation was the advice to a young writer from her friend, playwright Larry Kramer, who said, “Writing is like throwing up; you’ve got to get it out now and clean it up later.”
After hours of editorial board meetings, keynote speakers, and workshops, the rain subsided by Friday evening and I had time to dash to the downtown Market Square for Knoxville’s monthly “First Friday” event. There was lots of bustle and live music along Market Square and Gay Street but I didn’t find many galleries, even after I asked for directions.
One gallery that I found, however, had a washboard band singing Leonard Cohen’s greatest earworm, “Hallelujah,” as I walked in and tried to gracefully get past the band for the art. At another gallery, reached by a very narrow stairway, I found an interesting art exhibit with a “Human Trafficking” theme. The art itself was intriguing and evocative, but I’m afraid I would not have picked up on a human trafficking theme without the artist statements and explanations which accompanied the art.
My greatest discovery of the night came in the form of a tip about the Oliver Hotel on Market Square (www.theoliverhotel.com). The Oliver is a central city boutique hotel in a 19th Century building that once served as a bakery. The hotel opened in 2011 but is a throwback to the days of traveling salesmen, train travel, and downtown hotels with all of the amenities. It exudes authentic character with two anchor restaurants. The upscale Oliver Royale is a cozy fine dining restaurant with an ambitious and local trending menu. My confit leg of rabbit was stunningly tender and juicy in a brothy mix of endive, bacon, Yukon gold mousseline, asparagus, cauliflower, and kale. The more casual Tupelo Honey Café anchors the other end of the Oliver.
If you walk past the hotel, there is a dark alley, worthy of fiction, with a red light next to an unmarked door with no exterior knob. If you are lucky enough to get the door opened, you are escorted to the line at the entrance to the Peter Kern Library, a cozy speakeasy that seats forty at a time. Once in the Library, with a fireplace and well-stocked bookshelves, you are handed a vintage hardcover book that contains a carefully curated menu of evocatively titled cocktails such as the Holly Golightly, Aeschylus, Brown Derby, Rosaline, and Vieux Carre. The Peter Kern Library is a convivial adventure that is well worth the wait required.
I would almost come back to Knoxville just to more fully experience the Oliver Hotel.
Since this is the weekend before Mardi Gras, Market Square is host to an event called “Mardi Growl,” a Mardi Gras-inspired parade and pet party to benefit the local Young Williams Animal Center. As I headed to Market Square for lunch, the pet party was still going strong with revelry-minded dogs dominating the area and tables outside the various eateries.
Just down and across the Square from the Oliver is The Tomato Head (www.thetomatohead.com), a casual and trendy dining spot that operates from early morning to late at night. “Food Gotta Cook / Don’t Come Out of a Can!” is the restaurant’s mantra displayed on the walls. The menu is full of vegetarian and vegan friendly options with a generous offering of meat dishes or add-ons. Pizzas, salads, sandwiches, and sides are served to a clientele which leans local and young. A pastry shelf is full of enticing cookies, cupcakes, and other sweet treats. My first meal at The Tomato Head was a business dinner but the menu was intriguing enough that I ate there twice.
A long-standing tradition of SETC is a closing night dinner with friends – the “Gang of Four,” I call them – Patty and Kitty, friends from graduate school, and Janet and Russell, whom I met at New Stage Theatre in Jackson, Mississippi. Patty and Kitty are now in Florida and Janet and Russell are in South Carolina. Close colleagues in the past, we only see each other once a year at SETC these days.
As the designated “foodie” of the group, it usually falls to me to choose the restaurant for these annual events. Since none of us had any experience with Knoxville, I was intimidated by this year’s challenge. After much research and menu-hopping, I settled on Café 4 in Market Square (www.4marketsquare.com/cafe4). Historically, Café 4 made its mark in Market Square before the area had developed its current cachet; it’s the OG, it seems, of Market Square eateries. Its dedication to a locally sourced menu is another appeal, as is its location in a landmark structure.
By the time we walked to Café 4, Tennessee had just defeated Kentucky handily in basketball and happy orange-wearing fans were abundant everywhere.
Although we had a reservation, there was a somewhat long wait to be seated. Café 4’s charm is immediately evident in ambience and character. Everybody at our table ordered Old Fashioneds and all but one ordered a steak. Everybody was pleased with the entrée and Russell followed his long-standing tradition of ordering a Brandy Alexander for everyone for dessert. Russell is a true gentleman and a Brandy Alexander is such a dignified ending to a lovely annual tradition among friends.
As I pack to leave on Sunday morning, the much anticipated rain is falling and temperatures will be dropping throughout the day. Knoxville has been a pleasant surprise, with friendly, helpful people and some interesting things to do. On my way out of town, I may swing by the University of Tennessee campus just to say I’ve seen it and to put old gripes to rest.