The Blue Plate Special

We arrive in downtown Knoxville just before 10am. On the way we’ve passed signs for Bristol (we’re playing there Thursday) and Dollywood. The heat is scalding. Even at this early hour we have to walk on the shady side of the street to help cajole those degrees downwards. We pop into a café and make a quick change in the restrooms (toilets to you and me). After all, we’ve got to look good; we’re going to be on radio!

Knoxville Visitor Centre is only 200 yards up the street, but by the time we arrive there we’re brimming in perspiration. As soon as we enter, like in ever place we’ve been to date, the chilly air of the air-con hit us like a welcome wall of relief. We’re welcomed immediately by the staff and hang out for a bit, waiting for what will be our first radio broadcast on The Blue Plate Special. The radio programme takes its name from the American term restaurants used to use to describe a daily changing bill of fare that included your meat and three veg, ‘a main course with all the fixins, a daily combo, a square for two bits’. Our host and the presenter Red Hickey strides in. She’s tall, confident, her hair tied back in a shock of red and sports a belt buckle that could stop bullets.  Her shoes are pitch black with the letters R-E-D stitched into their sides. Those boots are made for walking. She greets us with a winning smile and in a beautiful southern accent comes out with that phrase we’ve heard so often in our short time here, “Hi, y’all.”

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Red makes us feel immediately at home and outlines the set-up for the day. We meet Daniel whose going to be responsible for the sound, both here in the studio and live on the air. Studio isn’t quite the right word for the venue. It’s basically a corner of the foyer of the visitor centre. The studio and sound booth for WDVX is hidden behind glass panels to the rear. We’re going to be performing on the dedicated stage that fronts onto the foyer to a lunchtime audience who drop in daily to enjoy some of the best local, national and international roots and Americana music. The backdrop to all of this are what must be sixty plus blue plates, lined up in rows on a series of shelves, each carrying the image of a former performed on the show. Someday we might just get our own one up there too.

The other performers, Lovechild Zombie join us. The name belies what a wonderful pair of performers these guys are. They are Morgan and Joel and they play some of the sweetest county influenced music we’ve head. Check them out on Facebook. Talking to the guys we realize the huge effort and sacrifice they regularly make to make a living in this industry. Morgan lives in Nashville and she gives us some insight into what it takes to make it in that competitive environment. The guys are up first and to a growing audience they play some fantastic music. After their 25 minutes performing, Red in that wonderful drawl, smoothly segues into the back announcement and promo for the station. We take the stage and Daniel quickly sets us up. Red gives us our intro and suddenly we’re off…

I can’t tell you how nervous we are. My hands are shaking and as the audience’s applause tail off I fumble into the first few notes of ‘The Flower of Magherally O’. Thankfully the girls come in strong and pretty soon we’re back in the groove playing the music we love so much. We're a bit up on our usual tempo, but for a first radio broadcast, it’s going well. The audience are wonderfully attentive, and clap with real enthusiasm ever time we end a song. Red interviews us briefly from the side of the stage and really makes us feel at home. She’s a quick one and not much gets past her, “Did Mariah not make it through Customs?”, but we’re loving it. Pretty soon it’s all over, much too soon, and we’re having a 'Shake and Howdie!' with the crowd. One of them, Pete, gives us a series of photos that’s he’s taken and all wish us the very best on our two week trip, suggesting places to visit, eat, see, you name it… We feel so welcomed.

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After the show we pop down to a local, The Tomato Head – the regular after-gig eatery – with Joel and Morgan to have the chat and grab a bite. The food is great, fresh and healthy. We say our goodbyes and quickly pop into Matt Morelock’s Music Shop on Gay Street – www.morelockmusic.com  Matt was largely responsible for getting us in touch with Red. Check out his beautiful shop and the fantastic range of vintage and new instruments. If my luggage allowance was bigger I’ld be coming home with a lot of stuff. I come away with a coffin case for a fiddle none-the-less. It was built by a local man’s father and will be a new home for my instrument when we get back to London. Then it’s a quick stop off to say our goodbyes to Red and the staff at the visitor centre. They don’t let us leave without a t-shirt, some bumper stickers and a few mugs. And then before we know it we’re Asheville bound again through the crooked roads of the Appalachian mountains. Take me home country roads!