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ix well seasoned minstrels stroll into a club and politely remove the roof… the sign reads, “Playing Tonight, The Chillbillies”.When you enter the Square Room on this particular night, the stage looks like that of most any other generic musical act—guitars, electric keyboard, drum set. A pair of congas in the corner may be the only clue that the band about to perform is anything but generic.The Chillbillies—a band of worldly men bound by friendship and a common love of music—are a Knoxville institution. True fans remember their days as The Buttermilk Cowboys, more than 10 years ago. “For about a nine year stretch of time we could be heard every Friday night at the corner of Morrell Rd. and North Shore, at the old “Doghouse”,” says Tim Irwin, guitarist/vocalist for the band. “That was sort of our Corner Lounge,” a reference to the home bar of favorite son and entertainer Con Hunley.Today, they’re still packing the house at bars and clubs from Johnson City to Nashville, and at fundraisers, special events, and private functions in the Knoxville area. They truly love making music, just not enough to quit their day jobs. Perhaps the most interesting thing about the Chillbillies, is that talented as they are, their lives off-stage are equally accomplished. Tim Irwin, the acoustic guitarist, is a sitting judge and sports agent, who played football at the University of Tennessee (for the three individuals still in Sharp’s Chapel that aren’t aware of that fact). Teddy Phillips, the drummer, is president of a construction company, though that expression scarcely covers the size and scope of Phillips and Jordan, a colossus in the industry. Larry Patton takes time from running a music studio in Cookeville to play bass guitar for the group. Don Taylor, a former FBI Agent who played flute and horns for the band Lynyrd Skynyrd back in the ’80s, adds his ample talents to the mix. And keyboards and vocals are brought to the party by George Massengill, the front man that just has that live-music-beer-joint look and sound. The Chillbillies, defined
Like any musical group worth their weight in bar napkins, the Chillbillies resist the temptation of onlookers, writers, and music aficionados to compartmentalize their music into a genre. However, to convey a sense of the group’s sound to those who have never heard the band necessitates a degree of labeling. So, when pushed, the band reluctantly self-identifies as “rhythm, boogie and blues.”I call it “Coconut Country.” Since the waning of Southern Rock’s popularity, current trends in music have merged contemporary country with the edgier sound that was Southern Rock. Fold into that mix Jimmy Buffet, the CEO of great live music, and artists like Kenny Chesney, and you get Coconut Country.Or, a better way to explain it: Mix two parts classic country with two parts southern rock, one part parrot juice, a splash of bluegrass, add ice and blend smooth. Repeat as needed.This is not to imply that the Chillbillies play only country music; in fact they don’t even play mostly country music. But all of their tunes bear a seasoning that flows from a love of classic country and Southern Rock. The soul of the band is rooted in this love, and it shows. But don’t be mistaken, their love of music is not in the abstract, as though all music has some inherent artistic value. It is the contention of the Chillbillies that some music is good, some bad, and some, as in the case of Elvis, sacrosanct.In an effort to uncover what falls into the “good” category, I asked what tunes they each had on their iPods. An odd silence fell over the room. This group of gentlemen has undoubtedly purchased a lunch pail full of iPods for multiple kids and grandkids, but probably thought them something of a child’s toy or simply another high tech nuisance. Sensing the need for clarification of the question, I rephrased. “So what are the cds you guys listen to when you’re in your cars”?That did the trick. What came forth was a litany of musical acts and artists as diverse and eclectic as any you might imagine, including The Del McCoury Band, Merle Haggard, The Kentucky Grass Project, Jack Johnson, Johnny Cash, and Lynyrd Skynyrd. More than just “a band”In a world of constantly evolving and in some cases devolving, musical acts and styles, the Chillbillies represent a landmark, a beacon if you will. They’re like an old oak tree that one might use as a point of reference, to give directions to passing motorists. Too accomplished and too seasoned to care very much about new musical trends the Chillbillies are a living tribute to the best live music beer joints and honky-tonks would have to offer.Preserving and promoting music that speaks not only for a region, but for a time in our collective history is all part of their charm, and the driving force behind their significant following, but they won’t cop to that. To the Chillbillies, it’s all about entertaining a crowd. “The audience can dance or not, we really don’t care as long as they have a good time,” says Irwin. “That’s pretty much our thing, to sound good and have fun, but mostly have fun.”And their love of their audience is clear. How would a band begin to cover, “You Don’t Have to Call Me Darlin’”, without the benefit of a crowd to do the sing along?Not surprisingly, the band conveys a similarly cavalier attitude with regard to their music. Their no-practice axiom is well known, but some might not have a true appreciation of what that means. “We don’t use play lists or lyric sheets—in fact, we never even play a song the same way twice,” says Irwin “We never practice and don’t believe in it. We are just a bunch of guys with gray hair, some more than others,” he laughs. “We just love to play.”
To inquire about hiring the Chillbillies for a function or to play at a venue, contact Patrice Staley at (865) 227-4355.
For more information and upcoming performances, go to www.chillbillies.net.