It was one of those meant-to-be love stories rarely seen outside of romantic comedies, and if she hadn’t been part of it, Becki Grace might find it hard to believe.
In some respects, it makes the passing of her husband — Jeff Livingston, who died Jan. 27 in a wreck on Alcoa Highway — all the more difficult. In others, she told The Daily Times recently, it gives her a reason to go on. Because Livingston — with whom she founded and fronted the band 3 Mile Smile — would have wanted nothing less.
After all, it’s just the kind of man he was.
“I think one of his superpowers was to be so disarming that he immediately made other people comfortable,” said Grace, who lives in Alcoa in the home she shared with Livingston. “He helped people accept themselves, because he was incredibly positive and encouraging and uplifting and inspiring. He just made other people feel comfortable. I felt that in our marriage, because he always wanted me to feel comforted, and I heard that from his coworkers and (bartending) customers over the years.
“I can’t tell you how many people have told me, ‘He made me feel like the most important person in the room’ — and there were probably 200 other people in the room thinking the same thing.”
Livingston knew how to work a crowd as a musician — originally from Pennsylvania, he moved to East Tennessee as a teen and spent his formative years touring the country in a hair metal band. When he returned to Knoxville and gave up the touring life, he became a bartender, a career he excelled in because of the abilities he developed on stage. He was behind the bar at Half Barrel on the Strip, in fact, when Grace stopped by early one afternoon back in 2006.
“My girlfriend and I were the only two customers in the building, because I had just finished a test at Pellissippi, and I met her there for drinks when they opened at 4,” she said. “I had never been there before, but I became a regular, and I’d be there for four or five hours, just to be near him and get to know him. We fell in love the first day we met, over a 10-minute conversation about ‘Star Wars’ and the Beatles, and then we spent six months fighting the chemistry between us and the pull that was dragging us kicking and screaming to each other.”
Their first date was a week before Christmas that year. As a new couple, they didn’t go big on gifts that year, but the ones they gave reflected the love of music that was their relationship’s bedrock: She gave him a live album by the band Gov’t Mule, and he gave her records by singer-songwriters Ray LaMontagne and Amos Lee. Music, she added, was a constant thread in their relationship from that first encounter on.
Livingston’s son, Randy, knows that thread well. As a 35-year-old senior at the University of Tennessee, he bonded with his father over rock ‘n’ roll, and one of his earliest concert memories well before then is his dad taking him to see KISS.
“I just remember him sharing that excitement with me, and his excitement to see me excited over live music,” Randy said. “He saw that look in my eye when I heard an electric guitar for the first time, and he just grinned and shook his head. It was more of a friendship than a parent-child relationship, and we would text each other when our favorite band was coming to town.
“He bought me my first bass when I was probably 13, and he always encouraged me. He always wanted to come listen to band practice when I was in high school, playing in metal bands, and any time we played a battle of the bands ... he was there in the front row, just beaming. Music just always surrounded him. There was always music on in the car, always music on in his home. If he wasn’t creating it, he was absorbing it, every second.”
And the East Tennessee music scene was richer for it — and will be enriched still, if Grace has anything to do with it. 3 Mile Smile recently released a video for the original song “Haunted by Tom Petty,” featuring a bevy of guests lip-syncing to the chorus, and the bulk of the band’s new album, “Lost and Found,” is mostly complete. Grace and her bandmates have discussed how to go on without the bandleader’s guidance to steer them, but the one thing they’re all in agreement on: The album will be finished, and its release will both memorialize and celebrate Livingston.
“I have every intention of finishing the album as a farewell to him and a tribute to him, and the band is on board with that, and the producer is on board with that,” she said. “Come hell or high water, I’ll make it happen, because no matter how much of a struggle it might be for me because of our circumstances, that was his baby. This band, this album, meant so much to him, and there’s no better way to honor him than to put out his music.
“I think people will really be surprised by this album, and I think it’s a real growth from our first album, with a lot of different styles and sounds. He was really excited to show it off as an example that we can do anything we want, because we have a talented group of artists who enjoy each other and share that passion for music. If anything, that pilot light is now a bonfire, and I think we all feel that sense of obligation to make this work matter and to get it out there.”
Through music, Livingston will live on. But the man himself … the father, the husband, the guy behind the bar who gave a sympathetic and friendly ear to so many … has left a large hole behind, and his son and his wife are still in the early stages of navigating their way around that emptiness.
“It’s hard to capture a man’s character in so many words, but if you were lucky enough to know my dad, you knew that his light shined brighter, and you felt blessed just to be a part of his circle,” Randy said. “It’s normal for little boys to grow up thinking their dads are the greatest in the world, but it’s rare you actually get to hear hundreds of stories from different people — not just family, but people who had just the briefest interactions with my dad that he left an impact on.
“Reading all of everyone’s comments over the last few days has made me think: that’s how a good man carries himself. That’s how you’re supposed to live. He will continue to reveal himself in me, in ways I can only give the credit back to him. Because anything in me as a man is a direct line back to my father.”
As part of a vibrant music scene — as well as a bartender as a number of Knoxville establishments — Livingston’s impact extends far beyond just his immediate family. For her part, Grace has promoted the hashtag #BeLikeJeff on social media, as a way of encouraging those who knew him to give of themselves as much as he did. It was unintentional, she added, but sincere — much like the ripples that always rolled outward from the place where her husband used to be.
“I think Jeff got to live the life that he did, and has left the impact that he has, because he chose to live on purpose, and he chose to invest in the people around him,” Grace said. “It wasn’t that he just poured out onto the people he cared about; he poured out onto anyone who was near him. I think he was constantly putting out the investment and just leaving it there, and what we treasure, what we’re holding onto, what’s getting us through, is the sacrifices he made to stick to those principles. We’re only hurting and sad because he loved us so hard.”