MUSIC IN THE HILLS: The Greenback Depot is on track to become a lively entertainment destination
Steve Wildsmith dailytimes.com
The tracks were removed decades ago, but it’s not difficult to stand in the middle of the Greenback Depot and feel the ghosts of yesteryear, milling about the old clapboard-covered building waiting for the L&N to carry them away from the Loudon County town that’s changed very little over the years.
“Last week, they were standing in the back, and every chair was full,” says Cable, clad in comfortable-looking, weatherbeaten cowboy boots, thick workingman’s khakis and a baseball cap. It’s a look that those who knew him in his post-William Blount High School days (he graduated in 1991) might find surprising, given that he left East Tennessee for Florida, determined to find his fortune under the bright lights of a big city. He grins when asked what the Taz Cable of 25 years ago — or even 15 — would have said, had he been told that in 2016, he would be selling Benton’s bacon and jars of pickled dilly corn out of a market at the Greenback Depot and organizing concerts and markets under its roof on the side:
“I would have said, ‘You must have lost your flipping mind!’” he laughs.
And yet here he is, not far from the Big Gully community in which he grew up and just down the road from where he lives today. He’s planting roots, he told The Daily Times, and it feels good. They’re not as deep as those of the depot itself, however — but that’s OK. He’s keenly aware that they need to be strong and solid, if he’s going to be up to the task of turning a piece of the community’s history into a viable arts and entertainment center.
“There’s no one in town who’s alive that the depot hasn’t been a part of their lives, whether it was in disarray or remodeled,” he says. “It’s 101 years old — somehow, some way, it’s been a part of their lives. And everybody is saying, this is exactly what this place needs. I think Greenback is ready for activities, for festivities, for excitement and fun and entertainment.”
The depot was built by the Louisville and Nashville (L&N) Railroad in 1914; from its construction until operations stopped in 1954, it was a primary means of transportation to and from Greenback. It was also home to one of the colorful character’s of the town’s history, according to the National Register of Historic Places, which listed the depot as one such site in 2013:
“Although the depot served many essential transportation
functions, it was home to any number of other enterprises due to
the multi-tasking nature of its longtime station agent, William
H. Jones. During his tenure as the station agent from 1910
(housed in the previous depot) until his death in the station in
1954, he served as the deputy county court clerk and squire,
sold vehicles, sold hunting and fishing licenses, and also sold
marriage licenses. He officiated for over 3,500 marriages with
many of the ceremonies taking place within the depot.”
After operations ceased, the structure changed hands a number of times and housed a number of different businesses and operations, including an antiques store, office space for a local boat business and as fertilizer storage for the Greenback Co-op. Ron Edmondson purchased the building in 2012 and restored it, removing a false second story within the building, replacing the roof and making numerous cosmetic repairs. Edmondson’s daughter Wendy Tittsworth and her husband, Steve, had taken over depot operations, renting it out for weddings and using it for a semi-regular craft fair, when Cable returned to East Tennessee from Florida. He’s worked in a number of entertainment-related areas over the years — as a dancer and standup comedian for Carnival Cruise Lines, as a national makeup artist for Glamour Shots, as a television host for PBS, Knox iVi and SMOMOtv. Back home, he began doing trade shows, but he couldn’t shake the restlessness that’s long plagued his spirit.
“The more I was on the road, the angrier I got, but I didn’t know why,” he says. “I was going to buy an RV and chase the sunset.”
Instead, he started his own company — Sugarboxer’s Bistro, Kitchen and Farm — and selling hand-crafted wares from vendors around the area. An encounter with Tittsworth led him to bring some of them to one of her craft shows at the depot, and one look at the building got the wheels in his head turning, he said.
“When I saw this stage and the big freight doors, I imagined the Cruz Contrerases, the Robinellas, the Trisha Gene Bradys of the world up here,” he says. “If you put any kind of music up here, you can hear it all over the city, and when I suggested to Wendy that we do a Christmas market and we played music, that’s something everybody said — don’t stop the music.”
The Christmas market was an overwhelming success: A crowd packed the small front office and spilled over into the passenger area. Cable and Tittsworth realized they had tapped into something special — a hunger for the warmth and authenticity of small town America, which is so perfectly idealized within the confines of a 101-year-old building in downtown Greenback.
“For me growing up, we went to Greenback to see the Christmas parade, and not very much has changed — but there’s a whole lot more people because of the new developments and subdivisions,” he says. “People from everywhere are here now, and the No. 1 thing they say when they come into the depot is, ‘We love it here. Where else can we go?’”
Granted, the sleepy hamlet isn’t necessarily a bastion of entertainment — unless, Cable adds with a chuckle, you like to “hunt, fish, farm, plant and visit with friends.” What he and Tittsworth envisioned was an oasis of music and activity on a weekly basis, and over the past month, the depot has gradually been transformed.
There’s a market in the front of the building now, with coolers and canned goods and craft items. On Thursday nights, Greenback boy and singer-songwriter John Titlow hosts an open-mic jam for area musicians, and the sounds of East Tennessee’s history, instruments and culture fill the old building with the sounds of today and yesteryear.
“The history of that place speaks for itself; you get a hometown vibe by being in there, and it’s just a warm place to be,” Titlow said. “Greenback is my hometown, so it’s an honor for me to be able to host something like that, to have my local family and friends be able to come in and play and jam and be at home. And it’s great for people passing through, because even though it’s in a small town, it’s actually not so far off the beaten path, either. To be able to share these songs and our stories in a historic, listening-room style environment like that, there’s nothing like it.”
Starting next month — Feb. 27, to be exact — the depot will host a “Saturday Homecoming” every week that will feature a farmers’ market, set up from the lawn across the street to the light pole on the depot campus. After the nearby diner and drug store close at 2 p.m., “Food Truck Alley” will be set up between the depot and the post office, and at sunset, the “Saturday Night Sunset” concert series begins. The first act will be the local band The Pea Pickin’ Hearts, and for $10, music lovers can get an intimate experience in a historic environment that has no precedent around here, Cable says.
“We have an opportunity to introduce music to people they’ll never hear otherwise, because they’re not going to to a bar in Maryville or in Knoxville to see a band,” he adds. “Here, there’s no rope separating the crowd and the folks on stage. There’s no green room for the artists to hide in. It’s right here, and I think people are going to love it. I think they appreciate the willingness to expose Greenback’s qualities to the rest of the world.”
The Greenback Depot isn’t a community center, he points out, but as he and Tittsworth like to tout, it’s quickly becoming the center of the Greenback community. Intersected by East Tennessee backroads, surrounded by pastoral hills and rolling farmland, it’s about an ideal a setting as one could want to find two things near and dear to the human condition: music and food.
“We want to have things to uplift their hearts and souls, whether it’s a corn hole tournament or ‘Gong Show’ karaoke or a slab of Benton’s bacon out of the cooler,” Cable says. “There’s something at the depot for everybody.”