Rabble-Rousing, Country Music, and Forward Motion

The Montvales' Sally Buice and Molly Rochelson grew up together in Knoxville, spending much of their formative years busking amidst the Elvis impersonators and musical saw players of Knoxville’s Market Square. The duo released Born Strangers in February of 2024.

Molly: In my earliest memories of Knoxville, it’s summertime and I’m in the back of my mom’s old Honda.  The Chicks are playing from the tape deck and we’re headed up into the Smoky Mountains.  I’m eating Cruze Farm ice cream and my fiery social worker mother is lecturing me about things like the patriarchy and how there’s never enough funding for mental health care in Tennessee. In these moments, I’m being exposed to all of the ingredients that still make up my life today: rabble-rousing, country music, and forward motion.

I remember Sunday dinners at my Mammaw’s house-climbing the tree in her front yard and reading in it for hours.  I remember feeding persimmons to the goats down the street and the way the late summer light danced off of the giant, kudzu-laden slopes beside the Tennessee River.  I remember my mom teaching me to harmonize to Amazing Grace and taking me to Big Mama’s Karaoke Cafe in South Knoxville, where I would exclusively sing Strawberry Wine by Deana Carter.

Later in life, summers in the Tennessee Valley would mean swimming in old rock quarries, full moon bike rides, and swapping songs in backyards.  They would also come to include evenings spent in the streets,  protesting police violence alongside my friends and neighbors. I will always love Knoxville for the way it raised me with tenacity, scrappiness, and heart.

This morning found me driving across the misty Ohio River in my beloved current home of Cincinnati- a city that’s proven full of surprises and down-to-earth rust belt magic. I followed the ley lines of friendship and restlessness here a couple of years ago and have been richly rewarded in community and the kind of utter originality that’s allowed to thrive in places that have been overlooked for long enough.  I still miss the mountains- a fact that will need to be addressed one day. But for now, give me this industrial river city and its strange beauty.

Sally: I was born in a university housing complex for married students in Knoxville, Tennessee, where my mom used to sit out on the communal porch knitting with her neighbors. Chronic illness forces unforgiving boundaries onto her life but she has always been resilient in her exploration of the world through painting, sewing, knitting, playing music, and teaching my brother and I to do the same. My dad, a Unitarian Universalist minister, uses words instead to stitch the unthinkable parts of life into a larger picture. I remember hiking through wildflowers in the Smokies with him, wearing a Ring Pop on my finger (candy was his method of reinforcing his kids’ interest in the great outdoors).

As Tennessee continues to make news for its dehumanizing legislation targeting queer and trans kids, I think back on the more difficult parts of my formative years in the Bible Belt. I’m lucky to have parents who encouraged me when I decided to organize with other queer youth at my deeply conservative high school, though I would still be struggling with my own identity for years. Knoxville has seen no shortage of far-right violence, some of it very close to home for my family. Parts of me dreamt about moving to some faraway more progressive place and throwing out the idea of tradition altogether. But East Tennessee is also full of determined community organizers to look up to and learn from. At that time I was also going to square dances downtown, playing in old time jams, and learning to garden at Beardsley Community Farm. My mom and brother and I all picked up clawhammer banjo around the same time and our house became an absolute cacophony of old-time tunes. In the end I feel most like myself when I’m in East Tennessee: looking out at ancient mountains, potlucking with old friends, writing songs.

Of course now I come from more places every day. Cincinnati’s kind people and forests and burgers and closer-to-affordable rents have taken care of me as I cobble together a life in music and farming. A great privilege of touring is the way that towns all across the country become familiar. It feels right to travel around carrying all of my homes within, singing about the people and mountains that raised me.

Saddle Mountain Post welcomes your reactions or questions about this article