THEY COME FROM ‘BLACKWATER SWAMP’: Knox rock vets bring the music and the spectacle to Weekend’s birthday bash
By Steve Wildsmith (firstname.lastname@example.org)
Each of Rus Harper’s bandmates in the Melungeons remember their first impression of the man who transforms into a force of nature every time he takes the stage.
Drummer Kevin Trotter, who’s worked with a number of familiar faces in the East Tennessee music scene over the years (Preston Rumbaugh and the late Terry Hill among them), remembers well the first time he saw Harper perform with his other band, punk outfit Teenage Love.
“I wasn’t really that much into punk rock, but when I saw Rus, I was just freaked out,” Trotter told The Daily Times this week. “I thought it was just the weirdest thing, and the weirdness and the energy of it freaked me out. It wasn’t until years later that I realized he was a great poet and writer.”
Bass player Brad Deaton, a veteran of old Knoxville outfit the Taoist Cowboys, was equally fascinated. Harper, who over the years has developed a reputation as the East Tennessee equivalent of Iggy Pop, has a presence behind the microphone that’s confrontational, seductive, creepy and undeniable, all at the same time.
“I remember seeing Teenage Love play at this dance club I worked at out (in West Knoxville), which was booking a lot of these local hard-band, Bon Jovi wannabes, and then they brought in Teenage Love, and it was an awakening for some of the people on that end of town,” Deaton said. “There’s music that draws you in, and there’s music that comes at you — confrontational music that I’m really attracted to, like Jim Morrison and The Doors and Iggy and the Stooges. But when you apply Rus’s showmanship to the music that the Melungeons provide that has this rootsy background, it’s music that pulls you in, but the front guy is coming at you. It’s a juxtaposition that people aren’t used to seeing, I think.”
It’s not that Harper, and by proxy the Melungeons, are antagonistic. It’s that he, and by extension the band, have carefully and brilliantly crafted a band that traffics in swamp-blues and rockabilly, layering it with an atmosphere of mystique and dread. It’s the aural equivalent of a haunted house that’s probably going to give you a heart attack, but the curiosity of what might be revealed behind those sagging walls and grimed-over windows is impossible to resist.
That yin and yang of obsession and repulsion has been Harper’s forté since he climbed on stage for the first time back in 1984. At the time, he was fresh out of the Marine Corps Reserves and had fallen in with the rebellious and anarchistic punk scene in Knoxville’s Fort Sanders neighborhood. The band was Teenage Love, and the East Tennessee music scene hasn’t seen anything like it, before or since.
“It’s amazing what yelling at a room full of people does to mellow you out, man,” Harper said with a chuckle. “It’s some good catharsis. I don’t get very uptight anyway, but goodness gracious, I guess I could if I didn’t get to do my screeching every once in a while. I’m just completely hooked on the experience and have been ever since that first damn time I got on stage in late 1984.
“That first time, it scared the hell out of me, but ever since, it’s like, ‘Whoa, this is fun!’ And I’ve been very lucky in that I’ve got to be around folks who enjoy making songs together and enjoy going out to perform them and actually write decent stuff. I just don’t know if I could have the enthusiasm about it that I do if it was just, ‘That’s OK; it’ll do.’ But Bill (Irwin) and Brad in the Melungeons, and John Sewell and Jeff Cregger in Teenage Love — these are some really gifted songwriters, and I’m just tickled I get to add my creepy-ass poetry into the mix.”
If Harper is the Mick Jagger of the Melungeons, then Bill Irwin — a 1981 graduate of Heritage High School and the son of the late Anna Irwin, long-time crime and courts reporter for The Daily Times — is the band’s answer of Keith Richards. Although he grew up in Maryville, he soon moved to Knoxville and was playing around the Cumberland Avenue “Strip” with bands like the Screaming Hawthornes. Like many people in the scene at the time, Irwin was both fascinated and intimidated by Harper ... until the two got to know one another.
“I’ll never forget walking through Fort Sanders one day, and there’s Rus — mowing his yard! Being domestic!” Irwin said.
At the time, Irwin was living in the fabled “Hippie House,” a party pad/band practice space in the Fort where Teenage Love rehearsed. The band’s guitarist, Chick Graning, had left Knoxville for Boston to attend the Guitar Institute, and Harper and Sewell were in dire need of a replacement in order to fill a commitment to open for the Flaming Lips in Atlanta. They called Irwin downstairs, and a few nights later, Irwin’s first show as a member of Teenage Love took place.
He didn’t stay in the band for long, but he and Harper maintained a steady friendship. In the early 1990s, Irwin launched the blues/rockabilly band Black Velvet Dogs, which included Deaton and harmonica player Doug Hemphill. Teenage Love had since broken up, and Harper was playing with a band called Neowizard, which shared several bills with the Dogs. When that band fell apart, the Dogs often ended their sets by inviting Harper on stage with them. Eventually, the Black Velvet Dogs morphed into the band Evil Twin, which focused as much on entertainment as on music.
“We had so much fun doing that, because with Evil Twin, it was all about how big of a mess we could make,” Deaton said. “Every song had props, and we were trying to make a production out of everything we did. With the Melungeons, we come in with our amps, plug them in and go. It’s like 180 degrees, because the songs are also designed to be minimalistic. If I can get away with playing one note, that’s my preferred way to attack a song.”
When Evil Twin disbanded a decade ago, the various members retired to their separate corners for a few years, until Harper and former drummer Jay Martin decided to get a new project off the ground. Deaton, having recently found himself re-energized to start playing again when he saw legendary punk band The Cramps perform, was in. Hemphill, who recalls his time in the Black Velvet Dogs with fondness, was in. The final ingredient, Deaton said, was Irwin.
“We were going for that old CBGB’s, New York Dolls, 1970s kind of thing, but we weren’t really making a lot of progress on writing new material,” Deaton said.
“Evil Twin had been a really busy band — we were out there working and digging all the time — and I had really sort of said I didn’t want to do anything,” Irwin said. “Rus and Jay, when they approached me, said, ‘Look — we’re not going for it career-wise. It’s gonna be playing music because we love to play music with each other.’ That sounded reasonable.”
In a way, the Melungeons have been responsible for the Black Velvet Dogs performing shows again, and Evil Twin even reunited for a performance over Halloween — “What with all of us in the band being in those bands, they’re a fine line sometimes,” Irwin said. It may seem like the Dogs and the Melungeons are interchangeable — and to an extent, they are — except for a single, very special ingredient: Harper.
He’s a wild-eyed preacher man, a gibbering, undulating shaman who’s equal parts Rev. Henry Kane, the spectral preacher from “Poltergeist 2,” and Randall Flagg, the black magic antagonist from Stephen King’s “The Stand.” He’s a showman if there ever was one, his reputation well-deserved, and when the rest of the band puts it into rock ‘n’ roll overdrive, Harper is the Holley four-barrel carburetor that powers the whole thing.
“Our motto through the years is to let Rus be Rus, and that’s all you need to do,” Irwin said.
“I’ve got the best seat in the house, watching Rus do what he does and watching people’s reactions to him,” Trotter added. “It’s just so much fun. Friday night, I’m looking forward to seeing the faces in the crowd. I feel really grateful to be a part of this, because it’s the most fun band I’ve ever been in.”