Jack Rentfro's hybrid sound grows from earthy inspiration

Band members, from left, Cecilia Miller, Mike Murphy, Laith Keilany, Nate Barrett, Sonja Spell, Jack Rentfro and Bob Deck are members of the Apocalypso Quartet.

Band members, from left, Cecilia Miller, Mike Murphy, Laith Keilany, Nate Barrett, Sonja Spell, Jack Rentfro and Bob Deck are members of the Apocalypso Quartet.

Through four decades in Knoxville, renaissance man Jack Rentfro has served as a linchpin and historian to the city's cultural expansion, acting as a journalist, farmer, pseudo-musician, poet and general writer and observer. His experience lends a unique perspective on where Knoxville has been and where it is going. This cat-bird seat has allowed him to network with and befriend the best and most influential musicians our region has to offer, all of whom seem eager to be involved in his spoken word poetry in Jack Rentfro and the Apocalypso Quartet.

To say Rentfro uses the term "quartet" loosely is an understatement. The act currently boasts an interchangeable cast of nine, which creates vastly differing sets based on who's available on a given night. The seldom-rehearsing act's music is nudged into a malleable direction by Rentfro's jargon-free, allusive suggestions.

"The sound changes up as the band goes through its evolutions," Rentfro explains. "This is a good thing for everyone. The players get to do what they like to do, and I get musicians who find satisfaction in a strange, hybrid kind of act. Lately we have to make the distinction that we'll be a 'true quartet' when we're just four. There are sonic quality advantages to the smaller group, but it's fun as hell to be part of the wall of sound a big band puts out.

"Typically, there's at least one get-together where I meet the musical director, hopefully one or two others, and run down the kinds of sounds I want for a particular piece. Since I'm not really a musician, I'll say things like, 'I want this to have a dentist office waiting room jazz kind of sound,' or 'How about a nice porn groove?' ... As several AQ members will tell you behind my back, I also annoy the hell out of them with dozens of emails and links carrying on inanely about how I want things to sound. ... Between their skill and my obsessiveness, we usually come up with something that works while also providing a vehicle for my stories, monologues and poems."

Rentfro's vision for the "hybridization" of music and prose originated with a love of beat poets like Jack Kerouac, and developed musically over the years through sessions with R.B. Morris, the late Phil Pollard, Tim Lee and countless other local notables. Despite the talented support, Rentfro's witty intellectualism steals the show through a captivating narrative voice that would rival Alan Watts or Morgan Freeman with the everyman's believability of Johnny Cash. The topics range from political and religious to lighter material — the inspiration for which, can come from surprising places.

"Farming is really important to me," says Rentfro. "I was raised close to the soil. As a Southerner, and more distantly, a Celt, I feel a deep kinship with the soil and the natural forces that guide the universe. Dirt is my communion. Chasing the sun shows exactly your place in this world. ... Not to get too woo-woo about it, nurturing little seeds into something that sustains life connects me to the ineffable absolute. You won't see farmers condemning people to hell for being different or running into a hardware store with explosives strapped to their chests. Well, maybe if it's Sears."

To have a conversation with Rentfro and not discuss Knoxville's artistic community would be like meeting an ancient Mayan and not asking about the calendar. Rentfro recognizes new catalysts for progress but hesitates to predict a revolution any time soon.

"Knoxville doesn't now, and never has, appreciated individual musicians for the hard labor they perform," says Rentfro. "AC Entertainment/Bonnaroo, Tennessee Shines, the Blue Plate Special and the new Scruffy City Roots shows may signal some kind of sea change in all that. But at heart, Tennessee is a place where about every third person plays an instrument or sings. So I think, to some extent, being a musician is viewed so democratically, it's actually devalued. As in, 'Anybody can do that.' Well, they can't, as the difference between your cousin Earl picking 'Wildwood Flower' on the front porch and listening to Greg Horne proves. The most telling illustration I can think of is when Nelda Hill told me recently about the travails of one of our late, esteemed jazz musicians, who may not have ever gotten over the shabby treatment received at a country club where he played. He was treated dismissively, like a servant. It's tough when you're channeling all this bright, beautiful energy for people and they begrudge you a living for it."

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Comments » 2

Raincrow writes:

This Rentfro fellow is an idiot-savant, without the savant part.

RandallBrown writes:

Idiot-salve-aunt.

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