A haggard businessman staggers down the concourse of McGhee Tyson Airport, dreaming of a soft bed and a good night’s sleep before having to deliver a mind-numbing presentation the next day.
Perhaps he stops at Ruby Tuesday for a cocktail, where perhaps a business card left on the bar catches his eye: “Funkmaster V’s Uptown Cabs of Renown.” He makes the call and emerges into the fading light of day to await his ride, oblivious as to just how wild it’s going to be.
The cabbie, you see, isn’t your typical East Tennessee cab driver (if there is such a thing). He’s not a foreign-born speed demon lifted from one of a dozen different Hollywood movies. He’s something else entirely, and likely his passenger will step out of the cab at his destination thinking, perhaps, that he might have just met the most interesting man in East Tennessee.
After all, how many times can a man say he’s gotten a ride from a funk-slapping bass player who’s also a professional wrestler and wants to run for political office next year?
Meet Vinnie “Funkmaster V” Vineyard. If you don’t know him yet, you will.
“I’ve reached a lot of people in a lot of different avenues,” Vineyard told The Daily Times this week. “There’s the music and the people who like the bands I’ve been in (Big Fish Funk Revival, Flipside Runner and Pimpin’ Ain’t Easy, all of which enjoyed healthy loyal followings in Blount and surrounding counties). There are the people who come to watch me wrestle (as Funkmaster V, who will enter the ring this weekend at the Boys and Girls Club, formerly Fort Craig Elementary, for a Severe Attitude Wrestling league match this weekend). There’s radio, because I’ve worked as a deejay. There’s TV, because I hosted a show in Knoxville as Funkmaster V for 2 1/2 years. And I’ve been in social work helping all sorts of different types of people for seven or eight years.
“They don’t all recognize me as Funkmaster V, but I’ve met thousands of people in the area, and when I decided to do a cab company — something a little left of center that will resonate — it all becomes synergy. As Funkmaster, I can tell people about my cab company. As a musician, I can tell people about my wrestling career. As a cab driver and business owner, I can tell people about my political aspirations. Using the Funkmaster V brand, I think, just helps make the whole thing bigger.”
A 1993 graduate of Gibbs High School in Knoxville, Vineyard was born in Baltimore and lived all over the Southeast with his family before setting for good in East Tennessee. He first got into music at church, and the precursor of his long-running musical collaboration with Blount County boy J.R. Horn began as a contemporary Christian project.
“We had a youth service type of thing at a time when contemporary Christian music was up and coming, and I was involved in that scene,” he said. “Big Fish was one of those bands. At that point, nobody was playing bass — everybody was learning how to play guitar. Everybody had these lame acoustic guitars and were playing songs from B to G to A, and I was like, why is nobody learning how to play bass?
“My mom always used to play funk and soul and R&B records when I was growing up, and I loved it. The bass was my favorite instrument, and I used to turn up the bass. So I started playing it, and I started that band with (Maryville High School graduate and drummer) Brian Smith.”
Big Fish morphed into Big Fish Funk Revival, which would transition to Flipside Runner to Pimpin’ Ain’t Easy and back to Flipside Runner. Although the band went through original music phases, the guys found their biggest success as a hard-partying cover band: choreographed dance steps, on-stage comedy bits and audience participation that made the group popular all over Blount County at long-gone venues like Shy Ann’s near the airport and AJ’s, now the home of Nater’z Sports Grill. Over a seven-year period, Vineyard estimates, the band(s) played close to 1,000 shows all over the Southeast, but he soon grew disillusioned with playing music written and made famous by other musicians.
“I remember one night, we played in Cookeville in front of several hundred people, and the next night we played in Nashville in front of almost 1,000 people, but that whole weekend I was just yawning. I remembered (former New York Jets quarterback) Joe Namath saying, ‘When you’re yawning on the football field, it’s time to retire.’ Being a Jets fan, that hit me upside the head. I wanted to do something else, because from the time I had graduated high school until I was 33, I did music to make a living. So I told the guys I was kind of over it, and I wanted to try some new stuff.”
And so he cast his eye toward professional wrestling. He has fond memories of his grandmother watching the World Wrestling Federation and believing every injury, every slight between heroes and villains, was real. (“She would get cussing mad, throwing things across the room,” he said with a chuckle.) Guys like Ric Flair, “Boogie Woogie Man” Jimmy Valiant and “The Rock ‘n’ Roll Express” tag team of Ricky Morton and Robert Gibson captured his imagination when he was a kid, and even as he grew out of it, he enjoyed physical contact sports: He took judo lessons in his early teens, won a judo state championship at 15 and tried to organize a wrestling program at Gibbs to no avail.
As he stepped away from music, getting into the ring opened up the door for some exciting possibilities, he said.
“Wrestling opened up this whole creativity landscape to me,” he said. “There’s a lot of mystery to wrestling. People don’t understand what it is today. Before, everybody thought it was legitimate; now, everybody things we’re all best friends and wrestling on a trampoline. The truth is somewhere in the middle. There’s a lot of stuff to it, and you have to be quick on your feet; it’s a lot of fun developing a character and figuring out how to be successful in that industry too and how to be paid well and how to resonate with fans.”
He got his start as a manager before becoming an actual performer — “Funkmaster V,” a play on a high school gag he found particularly amusing.
“I was working at a gas station, and one of the guys I was working with had a name tag that said ‘Hello, I’m here to help you, I’m Funkmaster B.,’ and I thought that was the funniest thing I ever saw because it was a gas station name tag,” he said. “I went by that name when I was in Pimpin’ Ain’t Easy, and it was my name when I was doing one of my radio shows.
“It’s not too different from who I am really: I love funk music, and I pretty much live life at 1,000 miles an hour. With a wrestling persona, the person you’re portraying is really you, just at a higher volume. With ‘Funkmaster V,’ there’s a lot of him in me and vice-versa. Sometimes it’s hard to tell the difference.”
His wife of 12 years wasn’t exactly happy with his new hobby, he added; although she loved him as a musician (and he still plays on occasion, mostly private functions and lately with his 11-year-old niece and 10-year-old daughter), the idea of him wrestling around with other dudes for screaming throngs of obsessed fans isn’t exactly “50 Shades of Grey” material. Which proves how much he loves wrestling, he pointed out.
The jury is still out, however, on what his family will think of his next pursuit: Running for office. Once Uptown Cabs gets off the ground — the fleet rolls on July 1 — and is well-established, Vineyard plans to throw his hat in the political ring and run against State Rep. Gloria Johnson, a Democrat (“She’s one of the good ones,” he laments. “I wish I could go after Stacey Campfield”), as a Libertarian. He counts Ron Paul as his chief inspiration, and he feels he can bring a healthy dose of common sense to a political landscape so sorely lacking in it these days.
“I love this country — my wrestling outfit is an old ABA basketball outfit that’s red, white and blue — but I’ve really felt like everything about our political system and most things in our country are going south,” he said. “I view the entire American populace as divided, and I think intentionally divided. We argue about a lot of stuff that doesn’t really matter and we’re distracted by things that don’t really matter. Meanwhile, the powers that be are getting richer and fatter and happier while we’re getting poorer.
“I view the entire country like in that Pink Floyd video from the wall, where everyone is on a conveyor belt just falling into the meat grinder. I want to get a message out there and get people to think. I want to get as many people off that conveyor belt as I can. So many people identify as Democrat or Republican, or they feel like they have to vote for one or the other or they’re throwing away a vote, or they’re throwing up their hands and saying, ‘Everybody sucks, so I’m not going to vote for anybody.’ That’s not the way it’s supposed to be!”
Things aren’t just black and white, D or R, Christian or atheist, he added. There are so many shades of grey, so many complexities to individual Americans that don’t fit into preconceived notions of political party or boxes on a census form. And if people — meaning voters of Tennessee’s House District 13 — need proof, they need look no further than the Afro-sporting, fur-coat wearing, socially liberal, fiscally conservative (“Pretty much, but I don’t like labels,” he said of the political tags) professional wrestler who happens to play bass like Bootsy Collins and own his own business.
“What happened when Ron Paul ran was that it just opened my eyes and made me realize there are other ways to view things than two different viewpoints,” he said. “I view the political landscape as a kickball game. The first team picked minorities, the second picked conservative Christians, and then you go down the list and start dividing labor and stem cell research opinions and gay marriage opinions.
“These things aren’t diametrically opposed. What do you do if you’re a black, born-again Christian welder? Or a Jewish big oil man? Who do you vote for? We’ve got to realize — they’ve got us separated, and it doesn’t have to be that way.”