Trees aren’t the only thing: History matters, too

Betty BeanDowntown, Union

The last two times I saw Chet Atkins he was honoring his heritage, which is also Knoxville’s heritage. The first time was when he showed up to help dedicate the Cradle of Country Music Park in 1986. The second time was when he slipped onto the stage at Ciderville to participate in the official Last Reunion of the Midday Merry-Go-Round.

Here’s something I wrote about that reunion a few years ago:

Kitty Wells, L.E. White (the “After the Fire is Gone” guy), Bill “Hotshot Elmer” Carlyle and a whole bunch of others, crowned by the presence of The Country Gentleman himself, who slipped quietly in the back door and joined a big crowd on stage. All of a sudden you could hear this guitar that sounded like angel chimes, and there he was – Chet Atkins. When he was done, he simply slipped out back again, and was loading up his guitar to go back to Nashville when I went running out like a fool to tell him that I knew his daughter. He was so sweet and gracious to me, even though all he wanted was to get out and go home. ‘Course Cas was there, too. One of the most special occasions I’ve ever had the privilege of experiencing. Wish they’d had T-shirts.”

A recent drawing of Chet Atkins by Union County artist Betty Bullen.

Long before he moved to Nashville and became one of the most powerful figures in the music business, Knoxville gave the shy, soft-spoken Luttrell boy his first big-city opportunities, and he never forgot us. Although he wasn’t in good health by the time of those last appearances – he spent his last years battling multiple cancers – it was important to him to show up.

He was gracious, grateful and humble at the park dedication, even though the old WNOX building was by then just a hole in the ground in the 100 block of Gay Street. And if it bothered him that the park wasn’t much more than a wide spot in the median at the Vine Street intersection, he never let on (yeah, its modern name is Summit Hill Drive, but I’m clearly stuck in the 20th Century. So, sue me).

Chet Atkins simply seemed happy that anybody remembered the place where he and so many others started their careers. I think he’d be pleased by the modern-day success of WDVX’s daily “Blue Plate Special” in the welcome center just across Gay Street from the park. It would probably remind him of the Merry-Go-Round, although nothing happening downtown today can touch those enormous weekday crowds.

I’m not old enough to remember when they used to line up to get into the “radiotorium,” but I’ve heard about the days when local fans were treated to daily performances by future stars like Atkins, Roy Acuff, Archie Campbell, Homer and Jethro, Don Gibson, Kitty Wells, the Louvin Brothers, Charlie Monroe, Pee Wee King, Bill Carlisle, Arthur Q. Smith and so many more. The powers-that-be never embraced country music, but it was a real big deal down in the 100 block, and Lowell Blanchard’s Merry-Go-Round talent became a farm team for the Grand Ole Opry.

And even though Knoxville was soon eclipsed by the big city in Middle Tennessee with its insurance company money and its clear-channel radio station, our role in country music history is worthy of recognition. Hyperbole aside, we weren’t the cradle of country music – Bristol, Shreveport, Chicago and other points West and South must be included in the conversation – but we were in the conversation.

Artist rendering of “Pier 865,” a sculpture planned for the Cradle of Country Music Park. The finished piece will not have the purple, yellow and red swaths.

The city’s casual disregard for the tiny memorial park is hard for some of us to swallow even though nobody is surprised by this demonstration of indifference for our history. The plan to change the park’s name and cut down its trees to make room for an aluminum shell manufactured in New York City by an artist who’s planted similar structures all over the country just flat makes us mad.

A lot of people are upset about the plan to cut down the trees, but a few of us also remember those old entertainers, many of whom lived their last days feeling forgotten. Some of them were pretty bitter. I understand that better now.

The “City of Knoxville” (whoever that is) in 2017 said this about the park which it was still calling the Cradle of Country Music:

“In 1986, the Cradle of Country Music Park was developed to recognize Knoxville’s role in the promotion of country music and is included on the East Tennessee Historical Society’s self-guided walking tour. The Knoxville News Sentinel donated the original 18-foot sculpture of a musical treble clef to commemorate the newspaper’s 100th anniversary.

In 2009, the treble clef sculpture, made of fiberglass and metal, was deteriorated beyond repair and removed. The city stated that there would be a public process to discuss the future use of the park.”

A year later, “The City” was much more straightforward about its intentions in a 2018 Request for Qualifications (RFQ) to produce an art installation for the little memorial to Knoxville’s role in country music history:

“It is the city’s intent to potentially rename the park. The city has not determined what the new name will be. The city is letting potential qualifiers know this so that they do not feel as if the work of art has to have something to do with country music.”

“The City’s” cavalier plan to “re-imagine” the park, change its name and cut down its trees to make room for an aluminum shell manufactured in New York City by an artist who has planted similar structures all over the country for similarly large sums of money continues the tradition of government disrespect for this city’s cultural heritage, although the architect/artist who calls his studio Everymany won the bidding process fair and square and is legally entitled to collect his fat fee.

But I’m thinking that “The City” is lucky that Harley “Sunshine Slim” Sweet, who spent World War II in the South Pacific with the United States Navy, is no longer with us. He was probably the last surviving Midday Merry-Go-Round performer and was the guy who organized the last few Midday Merry-Go-Round reunions, and he’s the one who decided it was time to pull the plug after he failed to persuade the Dogwood Arts Festival to add the reunion to its annual schedule of events. He tried as hard as he could, but he just couldn’t bring them around. And he knew he was wearing down.

Sweet closed the final show with the tribute song he’d written so many years before (the last line of which was “And the greatest of all was Sunshine Slim”), gave Dogwood Arts a final cussing and said good-bye. I wish I could remember his entire speech, but I couldn’t get away with channeling him in this venue, so I’ll just be glad that he won’t be here to watch “The City” cut down the trees and install a slick hunk of aluminum that our grandchildren will someday haul off to the junkyard.

Betty Bean writes a Thursday opinion column for KnoxTNToday.com.

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