Clay PrewittThe first time I heard Clay Prewitt perform was on the shores of Boone Lake in Blountville, TN.

Our local marinas in East Tennessee are a favorite destination in the heat of Summer and Clay used to play weekends at LakeView Marina. That’s where the myth of the Boone Lake Pirates began as his charisma and impromptu lyrics attracted musicians around the region. This handsome young man in shorts and flip-flops had a shining that gathered a loyal following after his graduation from Emory and Henry College.

Clay is a creative, easy-going guy who loves John Prine and story-telling songwriters. He’s a master wordsmith too, but one of the things that impressed me the most is his scat-like riffs he crafts in the heat of the music. Few people get it, but the musicians do and that’s probably what attracted some of the best players in the area.

It wasn’t that Prewitt was trying to put together a group of elitist musicians. Instead, he seemed to culture a creative carefree setting for acoustic hippies who loved to play their music.

At the root of this new band was Steve Reece. My earliest memories are visions of him hovering over a conga. That’s it. Surrounded by guys with guitars, basses, harmonicas, mandolins and even laptop computers, here’s a guy keeping a simple rhythm. Nothing fancy, but dependable like clockwork.

From there, he became not only a rock-steady drummer, but he’s a great guitarist and harmony vocalist. He can layer soul into a shaker, a tambourine, a triangle – anything able to sudivide time.

It’s rare to find a percussionist who doesn’t beat the world with a stick every time he performs. I came to find out later that Steve’s approach to percussion is obviously an extension of his heart. He’s an intimate person who is well-read, listens and contemplates deep meaning in life.

A teacher at a local high-school, “Mr. Reece” spends the day with an 8th grade geography class, but you won’t find a more priestly soul to talk about music, mysticism and Nature. Like myself, Steve is always searching for more. He started out from UT as a funeral director, turned a one-eighty and now he’s teaching in a public school system. He still tempts me with a trip to Machu Pichu, but we may have to wait for that until he’s married (which may be soon as of this writing).

The Clay Prewitt band (originally called ‘The Sundowners’) attracted many other performers including Carson Waugh who introduced me to the music of Allun Cormier. It was a crude recording made on his first Mac laptop, but he was compelled to share with me an original songwriter who performed with the band on a regular basis at Lakeview.

Allun was a standout too when I heard him and his inspiring songs would eventually attract the attention of thousands in the region as he went on to become a powerful force in the local music scene performing with Folk Soul Revival until his tragic death at the end of 2010.

Eventually, the band changed their name to “These Undowners” and attracted Steve Marshall, a transplant from Clearwater, Florida.

“Doc” as he’s called by the band was an associate professor at ETSU and wasn’t a part of the music scene when he first arrived. A colleague and professor of psychology at the campus, Chris Dula, encouraged Marshall to pick up the bass again and it wasn’t long before he was jamming with the band at the lake. In fact, in a short five years, Steve has landed a regular gig at the University teaching public relations as a tenured professor. He recently married a beautiful woman named Ashley and he’s performing with Jamen Denton and Wise Old River on a regular basis. Life in East Tennessee has been very good for Steve.

Doc is a great player too. He’s meticulous about his instrument, records every rehearsal and gets the “diggity” award everytone the band plays because he’s usually dancing around his upright or the old Fender Jazz bass. He’s a monster player and together with the humility of Reece, they both come together in a rhythm section that is a pure pleasure to work with.

Layered on top of the group is a young man who is a phenominal musician. Blake Collins is a young mandolin player who comes from a talented legacy of bluegrass players in Southwest Virginia. Blake’s father Tony is one of the region’s most talked about flat-pickers and his sister Jamie Collins is an up-and-coming bassist and singer/songwriter too. In fact, there’s no doubt in my mind that this little girl will grow up to be a headliner in a short time.

Blake is one of the best bluegrass players in the region. What makes him different though is his ability to listen and improvise like a jazz musician. He’s articulate, fast and crafts a wonderful melody on a traditional mountain instrument.

It’s atop this layer of extraordinary people, artists and talented musicians that I was asked to join in this band of troubadours.

I’m nut sure who made the call, but I was invited to join the band back at their old proving grounds at LakeView Marina back in 2009. We had played a couple of gigs together with Slow Motion Trio. Jared and the guys were taking some time off and it seemed to be the perfect time to explore a new musical collaboration.

I remember the first night was a thrill too because as usual Clay was unpredictable and entertaining. Playing music with Blake Collins was rewarding too. He immediately inspired me as we could play off each other and stretch me as a player. Our first night together was a lot of fun and recall the celebration with a little Tennessee moonshine and green Jagermeister in the parking lot during a set break. Fortunately, they seemed to enjoy the experience too and that led to a string of unique performances.

Since then, we’ve shared private parties, radio performances on WETS-FM and WDVK, local music rooms including the Paramount Theatre and several festivals like the Blue Plum Festival in Johnson City, Kingsport’s Oktoberfest and our favorite “Bristol Rhythm and Roots Reunion.”

These Undowners have written several original songs and released their first album back in 2009. One of their songs, “Stateline” became one of the theme songs for the annual Rhythm and Roots Reunion and is featured in several videos and promotional campaigns for this festival that attracts more than 50,000 Americana fans each year.

At present (2011), there are several new songs in the works too. The band find themselves playing occasionally as Clay has moved to Knoxville and pursuing his career, but each time we get together, there’s a great feeling of brotherhood and joy with this band with no pretense or drama. I personally look forward to extending this journey in the time to come and can’t wait for the next Undowners adventure. Guaranteed an unpredictable good time…