Adeem the Artist Serves Communion

Adeem the Artist, Blue Plate Special, Knoxville Visitor Center, May 2024 (Photo by Luke Frazier)
Adeem the Artist, Blue Plate Special, Knoxville Visitor Center, May 2024 (Photo by Luke Frazier)

(Today’s article is by recurring guest writer and relatively recent Knoxville transplant Luke Frazier.)

I’ve been to at least twenty five Blue Plate Special performances, the live radio show that WDVX puts on inside the Visit Knoxville Visitors Center on Gay St. five days a week (on Fridays they broadcast from Barley’s in Old City). I’m lucky because I live just down the street and it’s a pretty low barrier to walk over there and see what’s shaking. I love bringing out of town visitors to it, host Red Hickey keeps it lively and the production values are top notch. Every time I go, I appreciate the fact of live music, and the truth of creativity in action to whatever degree it’s executed. Even if it’s not my cup of tea, I’ll always stay for a sip or two. 

Most of the time it’s rewarding, some of the time it’s awesome, and occasionally it borders on sublime. This past Tuesday earned a new, singular (thus far) designation: spiritually significant. The two guests were Robinella and Adeem the Artist. The last time I was in church there was plenty of stained glass and strained singing; but in the church of the WDVX there was an altar of ceramic plates and soul-stirring voices. Red brought the congregation to order and pointed out it was a truly East Tennessee day on the Blue Plate. 

Robinella, Blue Plate Special, Knoxville Visitor Center, May 2024 (Photo by Luke Frazier)
Robinella, Blue Plate Special, Knoxville Visitor Center, May 2024 (Photo by Luke Frazier)

First up was Robinella, who has been making music in various bands for 20+ years and enjoyed early success with Robinella and the CC Stringband, garnering national attention by opening shows for Bob Dylan and Willie Nelson. They also gigged on late night TV, made a video for CMT, and appeared on the Grand Ole Opry.  

As the world does, however, things spun ‘round in crazy ways and it all came to a halt after a marriage break up and a dose of record industry disillusionment. So Robinella, according to her website, “…returned to her home, the foothills of the Great Smoky Mountains, and got back in touch with what she truly wanted—love, family, friendship, music, art, truth.”

And that whole journey was heard in her striking, jazz-inflected voice on the small stage inside Visit Knoxville. Robinella paints vivid pictures of life on life’s terms, front porch dispatches of “hissing bees through the Sycamore trees” and a “land where milk & honey flows, haunted by the Holy Ghost.” She references reaping and sowing, preacher daddies, and “not being able to hold onto an angel when she’s ready to go home” in her singing. Accompanied by a guitarist named Jack who seemed to effortlessly toss off some mighty crisp and tasty licks, the effect was weighty in all the right ways. There was depth to move among, and the acapella finish of the spiritually-themed Minerva Song was breathtaking. The sacred had been invoked and we were ready for lift off.

Adeem the Artist, Blue Plate Special, Knoxville Visitor Center, May 2024 (Photo by Luke Frazier)
Adeem the Artist, Blue Plate Special, Knoxville Visitor Center, May 2024 (Photo by Luke Frazier)

Adeem the Artist came on after a short break and their stage presence was startling in its immediacy. They stood comfortably in a worn-in jean jacket, mesh-backed ball cap, dark shades, floral accented shirt, and a red bandana around their neck. The fact that Adeem’s guitar strap was also decorated with a flower design didn’t fully account for the impression I had of looking at a beautiful blooming flower in its natural habitat. It was an alchemy of sorts, formula unknown.

I felt a sense of wholeness emanating from within them as they just started playing. I basked in their confidence and trusted that wherever they chose to take me musically I was going to benefit from the journey. Right away the experience felt like surrendering to a skilled shaman who gently gathers you in their vision of holiness and hope. A communion of sorts, if you’ll allow such a notion.

From there, Adeem the Artist took to the spiritual highway in their set, with lyrics that included “pleading the amazing grace” and declaring “don’t do us like Jesus” at one point. I’m just starting to go through their catalog and seeing the heavens and hells throughout previous recordings, which makes sense in the context of their brief interview with Red between songs.

Adeem shared a religious history that included exposure to a contemplative prayer tradition and other church involved activities. They spoke of giving language to their feelings by writing songs, which they reflected can take a long time to write. They made a bawdy remark at one point about sweating too much and the inability to prepare oneself for “the big time” that seems to be headed their way (including opening slots with Tyler Childers and Jason Isbell this summer). What I perceived was a comfort with self, even while recognizing the messy complexities of being human. 

Adeem the Artist, Blue Plate Special, Knoxville Visitor Center, May 2024 (Photo by Luke Frazier)

I didn’t know much about Adeem prior to this event, only hearing grand praise and knowing identity politics played a role in some of the attention. My plan to listen to Adeem’s recordings before the show didn’t happen, so I was more or less a blank slate. Catching up with the press and recordings now leads me to conclude they write country songs of a unique outlaw brand and revel in it. Their Patreon site is titled “The First Church of Trash” and bestows Congregant, Chaplain, and Bishop labels for various levels of financial support. I’m in the midst of learning more and following links.

What I do know is what I experienced that day: the richness of voice, powerful lyrical imagery, inventive vocal phrasing, and overall “it” factor that was there in the flesh. What really sealed the deal was the song RotationsIn a completely reductionist way, you could say Rotations, which is on Adeem’s latest album Anniversary, is a parent to child love song, sweet as can be and idealized all the way to the Milky Way. But I got to tell you, after listening to it a bunch of times, my perception is that it is so much more. 

Rotations is a prayer about time and togetherness, and the eternal connections between Spirits made flesh. It’s biblical in the sense of lamentation to the Gods of possibility, asking how much time will I get to have with someone when what you really want is for it to never end. One chorus goes like this:

How many rotations am I gonna get with you?
To share with you the wisdom & magic spells I have accrued?
How many breakfasts before sunset?
How many songs you haven’t heard yet?
Only so long until I forget who I am and what I do
When I’m gone, you’ll carry on & carry all that there is left of me with you


Adeem the Artist, Blue Plate Special, Knoxville Visitor Center, May 2024 (Photo by Luke Frazier)

Adeem the Artist locates the miracle of unconditional love in a four and a half minute song about their daughter balancing on a chair, collecting dandelions, mixing potions in mason jars, and making bad jokes & silly drawings. They acknowledge time goes fast and everybody knows it (“it’s just a thing you’re supposed to say”). But what they refuse to do is look away from the truth of mortality and longing. And that’s where the miracle is found, “But it’s true, and it’s coming fast for you / That sweet and beautiful eclipse.”

Right now I’m in the middle of reading a Francine Prose book-length essay on the painter Caravaggio, a genius of light & shadow and a long-time favorite. One of the things about Caravaggio is that he broke with conventions in his depictions of epic biblical scenes by using ordinary folk and riff-raff as models. Prose talks about Caravaggio communicating the paradoxical ordinariness of miracles, that they happen to “human beings whose faces resemble faces we know, and who share our inescapably human doubts and pain and fear.” 

That’s what I’m hearing so far as I get to know Adeem’s music and artistry, the universal in the particular, the connection amidst all the distraction, the meaning right in front of us on a daily basis. Without any authority except my certainty that it fits: I hereby christen Adeem the Artist our Country Music Caravaggio, sacred song maker of the church of Holy Sh*t that sounds good!

Adeem the Artist performs at the Bijou Theatre this Friday night, May 10 (tickets here).