It’s hard to find someone more rooted in East Tennessee than Rusty Odom. Born in Johnson City, raised in Strawberry Plains and now living in South Knoxville, he’s east Tennessee’s own. And he characterizes all the charm and warmth we like to think our area exemplifies. A few seconds after meeting him I felt like we’d known each other for years. To casually meet him one would not suspect that he’s accomplished something that defies all logic in 2014. But we’ll get to that later.
After high school he attended Pellissippi in 2003, but he didn’t take much to going to class and doing assignments. He did enjoy his Media class and has a sharp memory from the first day that has stuck with him and spurred him toward his current work. After the class settled into their seats the professor asked for the students to raise their hands if they read newspapers. Rusty, thinking it was a silly question, raised his hand thinking, “Who doesn’t read newspapers?” His professor told him he was the only one in all the professor’s classes who had raised his hand.
A year later he was at an Ice Bears game and happened to sit next to a guy named Ryan Rodio who had a camera and a press pass. Rusty asked how Ryan had gotten the pass and Ryan replied that he worked for the Smoky Mountain Herald in Seymour and by the end of the night had agreed to give Rusty a call if there was ever an opening. He figured that was the end of that story, but being a complete sports nerd, it seemed as if it would be a dream job.
Six months later Ryan called and said for Rusty to come in to meet the publisher, Joe Karl. Rusty, who confessed he very rarely gets nervous, felt as he walked into Mr. Karl’s office that this was an important meeting to his future. He didn’t understand why or how, but the feeling settled in. When Mr. Karl asked about his writing experience, Rusty replied, “I could write a mean love letter in junior high.” It didn’t impress the publisher, who thanked him for his time and pointed him toward the door.
On his way down the corridor from the office, something came over him and he walked back into the office. He offered to cover the Pigeon Forge High School game that night and if Mr. Karl didn’t like the results that would be the end of it. The publisher told him to pick up a camera on his way out, “get an interview with the coach and some quotes.”
Wayne Cannon was the coach of the baseball team and his son Tyler, who would later play for the University of Virginia, was the pitcher. In a phenomenal display of talent, Tyler pitched a no-hitter and hit a grand-slam. Rusty got to the coach after the game just as he had cranked a mower to cut the grass on the field. Irritated to have had to turn off the engine, he glared as Rusty asked his first question ever as a reporter, “How do you think this game sets you up for the off-season?” After a pause, the coach gently said, “Don’t you mean the post-season?” It was a painful start.
Six hours and six-hundred words later, Rusty had the story and it was placed on the front page of the sports section. He received twenty-five dollars for each story and wrote for the paper for several years. Eventually he was interviewing Bruce Pearl and Phillip Fulmer and never was as star-struck as the first interview with the baseball coach from Pigeon Forge High School. Ryan Rodio left the paper and Chris Silcox came on. Rusty credits him with teaching him how to write AP style.
Eventually, Rusty felt the need to try something on his own and decided to begin a paper devoted to UT sports. Inspired by his friend Kevin McKie’s “Open Vibe,” Onion-styled magazine, he worked with Kevin McKie on the new project. He says Kevin taught him how to produce a paper. (Rusty is big on giving credit to those around him.) Kevin also designed the first year of covers for the re-named “Blank” newspaper.
The August 2007 issue launched the newspaper with what seemed to be the perfect topic with a bottomless supply of interest in our area. Then UT football went downhill. Realizing that fan interest wasn’t as intense, Rusty shifted the focus on the newspaper to music. It had included music from the beginning, but it now became the heart of the magazine and would remain so. UT sports have always been and will continue to be covered, but music, particularly local music, remains the dominant theme.
That first issue featured the Flamming Lips on the front cover and a photograph of Montario Hardesty graced the back cover. From the beginning Blank aspired to be a monthly paper and mostly made it. Rusty wrote 75% of the early articles. He also edited both his own and everyone else’s and sold ads to keep the whole operation afloat.
He mentions Johnny Flanagan, whose band 11w is playing in Saturday’s Blank Fest as one of the early proponents of a music newspaper. He notes that it was hard at first to get people to believe that at the heart of what he was doing he was “in it for Knoxville.” Others told him that a “good news” newspaper could never make it. He says it has restored his faith that his “scruffy little good news newspaper has lasted now for seven years and is going strong. He pointed out, “Knoxville proved those people wrong. People do like celebrating accomplishments of people who are doing good things.” He says is “blessed to be a part of it,” and likes “giving people a break from all the pessimism.”
He feels we are living in exciting times, saying, “Knoxville feels like its on fire with creativity, right now. Which led him to want to produce Blank Fest. He wants people who aren’t as aware of the local music scene to have a chance to see much of it on display in one place. This Saturday’s festival will center on the Market Square Stage and indoor venues Preservation Pub, Scruffy City Hall and Latitude 35. Local bands will form the core of the shows, but featured bands also include Nashville’s Moon Taxi and Johnson City band This Mountain.
A six dollar wrist band will grant entrance to any of the venues and the music will flow from 7:00 PM to 2:30 AM. Beer will be on tap on the square, as well. And, as you would guess by now, Rusty wanted me to be sure to thank the sponsors including WUTK 90.3, WDVX, Loch and Key Productions (who may be filming), Label 13, Visit Knoxville, Knoxville Tours, Latitude 35, Preservation Pub and, perhaps most prominently Scruffy City Brewery soon to be serving local beer brewed right on Market Square inside Scruffy City Hall.
So what else can you expect? Do you mean besides music, comedy, burlesque, fashion, food and comedy? Well how about food trucks and a Vagabond Fashion Truck? How about a tour of Knoxville Tour Coaches and here’s a cool touch you didn’t see coming: Air Swimmers. Rusty hopes it puts the “exclamation point on the Knoxville scene.”
So, here he is eleven years after realizing that no one in his classes at Pellissippi read the newspaper, in an era in which newspapers are scaling back production or shutting down altogether and he has established a successful newspaper that is going strong just shy of seven years. Come hear some local music on Saturday. And while you’re there, introduce yourself to Rusty, another person who has helped make Knoxville the great place it has become. I promise you’ll walk away feeling as if you’ve found a new friend.