Local spoken word performer Jack Rentfro spices up the scene with some Apocalypso
By Steve Wildsmith (email@example.com)
Given Jack Rentfro’s status as one of the local music and pop culture scene’s more colorful characters, it’s difficult to settle on one story that sums him up.
There’s the 10 years it took for him to get through the University of Tennessee’s Journalism School, a length of time he attributes to his inability to pass the typing test, a struggle that made him legendary on campus. Or maybe it was the time he staked out the Krystal on Knoxville’s fabled Cumberland Avenue “Strip,” having heard through the grapevine that Bob Dylan, in town to perform as part of his “Slow Train Coming” tour in the winter of 1979-80, enjoyed a late night snack of the establishment’s chicken.
“I heard that from somebody, and while I was staking it out, I found this harmonica lying in the snow,” he said. “It was just crazy, like some sort of talisman. And I thought, it had to be Dylan’s. And sure enough, I looked up and saw him coming, this little bandy rooster surrounded by these tall, beautiful soul singers, and I thought, ‘It’s now or never.’
“I stepped up and asked if he’d dropped it, and he took it from me, turning it over like he was looking for some identification that it was his. He handed it back and said, ‘No, I don’t think so.’ But I still have that harmonica, and as far as I’m concerned, it belonged to Bob Dylan.”
All of those stories — and many, many more — play a part of the reputation of Rentfro, who still earns his keep as a local writer and editor while haunting local watering holes by night. In those days of yore, when “The Strip” was a bastion of unimaginable musical talent from bands both local and national, he was a bass-playing sideman. He still plays the instrument, but these days his role is at the front of the stage, reading poetry and spoken word pieces as the face of Jack Rentfro and the Apocalypso Quartet.
Rentfro came to Knoxville to attend UT in 1971, and he soon found himself caught up in a pivotal time for local music. He didn’t know it then; as a young guy soaking up the culture, he was simply a part of something bigger than himself.
One of his first bands was the group Potluck, which included local actor and Blount County resident David Dwyer, a band that was a bit out of its element, he said.
“We were a bunch of hippies that liked to play on the porch who got in over our head,” he said.
He moved on to the reggae-fusion ensemble Cheap Shoes, staying active in the scene and making friends and memories in abundance until 1986, when it became time to make a choice — a steady paycheck or rock ‘n’ roll. He chose the career path that would pay bills, working for the old Knoxville Journal until that publication folded; by that point, he was on disability after a 1991 car wreck exacerbated an arthritic condition that took him out of the 9-to-5 rat race. He’s been a local freelance writer ever since.
Working from home, of course, had its advantages. He began taking part in local poetry readings, including a semi-regular reading of Jack Kerouac’s “Mexico City Blues.” He also threw himself into putting together “Cumberland Avenue Revisited,” a 40-year retrospective that included 100 writers, artists, musicians and scenesters contributed memoirs, essays, anecdotes and good-natured mythologizing about the Knoxville music scene from as far back as the early 1960s to the present day. The book includes a number of old photos as well as stories about bands, solo artists, clubs, bars, college radio and more.
He found a publisher in the former owner of Metro Pulse; suddenly, Rentfro’s vast knowledge made him a much more distinguished local icon to younger musicians who had come of age in the years since. One of those was local player Phil Pollard, an educator whose group Band of Humans trades in what Pollard describes as “lit(erature) rock” — readings of everything from original works to the Gettysburg Address over any number of melodic soundscapes.
“He would invite me to come do shows with them, and I would just tell the band, to do the bass line from ‘Low Spark of High Heeled Boys’ and then wrap something around it, and I would read over that,” Rentfro said.
Gradually, a core group of local players — all of whom were and are involved in a number of their own projects around town — assembled behind Rentfro to form the Apocalypso Quartet. From the quirky percussive-heavy sounds of Pollard to the world music vibes of Laith Keilany to the guitar rock of Tim Lee, the Apocalypso Quartet has become something of a collection of local titans, all assembled to bring Rentfro’s original works to life.
It even sounds slightly nefarious, seeing the band’s name on the bill — as it will be Friday night at Barley’s Taproom, or next Wednesday at Preservation Pub. In reality, Rentfro said, the name stems from a 1986 self-published, one-edition magazine he put out called Apocalypso Now.
“I liked it being a fan of reggae and reggae having such an Old Testament, Jeremiah-like, oh-ye-children-of-Israel-people-get-right kind of thing,” he said. “And of course, I’m from Cleveland, which has an apocalyptic bent being the headquarters for three or four branches of the Church of God. I just absorbed a lot of that through osmosis growing up.”