Like dozens of East Tennessee bands, Cell Block 8 isn’t likely to be listed on the marquee at Thompson-Boling Arena anytime soon.
The guys — drummer John Hill, guitarist/vocalist Michael Burkhart and bassist/vocalist Dave Underwood — wouldn’t turn down rock stardom and all of the trappings of success it entails, should such opportunities come knocking. But they’ve been playing around these parts long enough to know that winning that lottery is often a pipe dream, and with full-time jobs that keep them grinding 40, 50 or 60 hours a week, they don’t have the time to devote to landing the elusive record deal that might make it possible.
Instead, Underwood told The Daily Times this week, they do it for the sheer love of a rowdy Friday night, serving as rock ‘n’ roll preachers at a fiery tent revival of classic sounds.
“In my opinion, music runs in a true musician’s veins,” said Underwood, on a break from his job as a maintenance supervisor with a Knoxville-based company. “If you don’t have it in your veins, if don’t have a feel for it, then it’ll wear you out. For us, working all week and playing in a band on the weekends, that Loverboy song sums it up: ‘Working For the Weekend.’ That’s what we love to do.”
It’s what Underwood has loved since he was 9 years old and caught the fever while watching variety shows like “Solid Gold” and “Saturday Night Special,” and the bands that appeared on them would set a template for his preference of cover songs even today.
“I saw bands like Rick Springfield and watched his drummer, or Men at Work, or Kiss and Journey, and I wanted to be in a band,” he said. “I got fascinated with the drums, and by the time I was 14 or 15, I started playing bass and following in my dad’s footsteps. Then, by the time I was 30, I had the ambition to learn the guitar, so I can play that now, too.”
Underwood and Hill played in a Christian band for a while and struck up a solid rhythm section chemistry; later, he and Burkhart played in the local band Project Wolfpack, but left that group to pursue something harder.
“That band, they wanted to do things like Roy Orbison or Bob Seger or Elton John, and that stuff is great, but we wanted to rock it out a little harder, I guess you could say. That’s when we decided to step away and start Cell Block 8.”
A power trio that specializes in everything from Journey to ZZ Top to Lynyrd Skynyrd to Great White to Van Halen, Cell Block 8 seemed a catchy moniker that would engender fans, Underwood said.
“We wanted a name we could have a following with, and since Cell Block 8 makes everybody think of being in jail, we thought our fans could be inmates with us,” he said.
And on a Friday night after putting in a week of 10-hour days, the three members of Cell Block 8 rely on those fellow inmates to start a rock ‘n’ roll prison riot, in a manner of speaking. When they punch into a down-and-dirty cover of ZZ Top’s “Tush” or get the crowd swaying with the bluesy refrain of “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door,” few things can compare, Underwood said.
“It doesn’t just give you a boost; it takes you to another level,” he said. “The adrenaline, it just pops out. Your fingers move faster, you sing better, you play better. And when you look out and people are singing songs you play, you realize that even if you don’t like that particular song too much, other people do, and when you see them singing it while you’re up there performing it, you realize that you love it as well.”
And Barley’s Maryville, where the band returns on March 30, is as good of a rock ‘n’ roll penitentiary as any, he added.
“They seem to have a crowd that draws us to them, and them to us,” he said. “Knoxville’s not a bad place, but there are a lot of bands in this area. I’m not saying we draw a huge crowd in Maryville, but we always seem to have a packed house.”