Sundown in the City Returns with a Twang

Sundown Entrance on Union Avenue

First, for those of you who were breathlessly anticipating my Chattanooga/Knoxville thoughts, I’m sorry, we’re going to have to put that on hold for the next couple of days. I’ll get back to it, I promise. The return of Sundown in the City is just too irresistible a topic.

Human Burritoes mingled with the crowd.

Cowboys await the show. Larry the Beer Hat guy sits and reads.

I know there were mixed feelings on the part of many downtown residents and businesses about the return of the series. I realize things don’t always go smoothly with Sundown and there are abuses of various sorts. I can hear Sundown from my house and, yes, it’s very loud. For my part, however, I’m glad it’s back. I love its messy energy, the people watching is always great, the music is often good and sometimes great and it’s free. Living downtown yields the additional option of coming and going from the event, which is a very nice bonus.

The party starts at 10:00.

Five million yards of caution tape for the garbage can.

Policemen and preachers mingle beside the Holston building.

One of the most interesting shifts this year is the closure of Krutch Park. I would not have believed it possible to close an entire park, but here, on the eve of Earth Day, approximately five million feet of caution tape was deployed to encircle the entire park. Patrols of yellow-shirted security guards and uniformed policemen patrolled both the interior of the park as well as the perimeter. The Krutch Park annex (I made up that designation) beside the Holston Building was staffed by additional policemen and security representatives and street preachers with large Bibles and an amplified sound system. With all these precautions in place, I think it is safe to assume the teenagers who hang out in these areas were thoroughly prevented from having any fun.

You never know what old friend you might run into at Sundown.

Couple watches Sundown from a second story window over Oodles.

The crowd, as always, featured everything from faux punk-rockers to Goth children and the usual hordes of primping teenagers. The difference this time was the much larger (apparently) rural presence which makes sense given the musical artists. I saw more than my typical share of Skoal being dipped and spit, t-shirts with the sleeves cut off, cowboy hats and boots and tribute attire dedicated to various NASCAR drivers.

Many people hung back on the south end of the square and listened from the distance.

JC and the Dirty Smokers opened this year’s Sundown series.

The concert itself featured country artists, which has rarely been the case in the past. I’d never heard of opening act JC or his Dirty Smokers. I understand they are a local band and I thought they were pretty good. Regular readers of this blog know that I love traditional and alternative country music, but I have very little use for the soulless excuse that is most contemporary country music. At least in their live performance they seemed more traditional to me and I enjoyed them.

Randy Houser is also new to me. I heard his “Going out with My Boots On” on the radio and I was unimpressed. It did catch my attention that he is on the bill for a June concert on the World’s Fair Park with possibly the coolest human being ever to live: Willie Nelson. The fact that AC/DC blared over the PA as the buildup to the show did not encourage me.

Not everyone wore a cowboy hat.

It seems so many country artists today are not country at all, they are a derivative of southern rock. In the 1970’s I very much enjoyed the current country music and southern rock. I was blessed to see Lynyrd Skynyrd when Ronnie Van Zant was still alive. I also saw ZZ Top and the Marshall Tucker Band at their peak, as well as the Allman Brothers Band in one of their best periods. So I really get southern rock. I also saw Johnny Cash, Waylon Jennings and Willie Nelson during this era. Southern rock was very much informed by the blues and by country music, but it was not derivative of either. This music seems an attempt to blend the two and, in the end, it falls far short of either the amazing soul of Greg Allman or Ronnie Van Zant or the honest truth of the music of Waylon Jennings.

Randy Houser, Sundown in the City, Market Square, Knoxville, 2011.

There were moments I enjoyed more than others as Randy Houser performed. I found it a bit jarring that most songs and the monologues in between were alternately punctuated with profanity and “God Bless Y’all.” When he did sing a religious song, which he said is his next single, the drunken college students in my section of the audience declared, “This sucks,” and asked me if I wanted to party with them on the strip. I demurred.

A high point of the night for many in the crowd was when the band played Lynyrd Skynyrd’s “Simple Man.” Most of the people around me knew all the words and belted them out enthusiastically as they were exhorted to do so from the stage. I couldn’t help but remember the near religious experience of hearing Lynyrd Skynyrd doing that song 500 miles and thirty-five years from here. I’d stood directly at the feet of Ronnie Van Zant. The weight of that comparison proved too much a burden on a competent, yet forgettable version of the song on this beautiful Knoxville night.