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Besides Dolly, Knoxville has the Big Ears Festival

James White’s Fort, home of the first settler in Knoxville.James Sullivan

KNOXVILLE — Is there a state in the nation that has given as much to American music as Tennessee? The Volunteer State can make a solid claim as the birthplace of the blues (Memphis), country music (the small city of Bristol), and rock ‘n’ roll (Memphis again). Nashville, of course, prides itself as “Music City USA.”

And then there’s Knoxville, where Dolly Parton, born and raised in her Tennessee mountain home not far away, is a patron saint. Besides Dolly, Knoxville has Big Ears.

The Big Ears Festival launched in 2009, the brainchild of Ashley Capps, the concert promoter who’d previously created the annual music festival known as Bonnaroo. After a few down years in the early going and, more recently, an enforced hiatus because of COVID, Big Ears celebrated its 10th year this past spring in style.


Or should we say “styles”? The 10th-year festival featured soul, gospel, jazz, and contemporary classical music, performers representing Mexico, Brazil, Pakistan, and the Sahara Desert, and music at historic theaters, churches, train stations, and old warehouses. Knoxville, the state’s first capital and the home of the University of Tennessee, is a walkable city, full of old-fashioned charm and newfangled hospitality. And Big Ears is a sound excuse to go.

The lineup for the next festival (March 21-24) will be announced on Sept. 12. True to the name, Big Ears is more about musical discovery than encountering the familiar, though there is that, too. Among this year’s performers were Los Lobos, Rickie Lee Jones, and Bela Fleck; David Byrne made the rounds, discussing projects new and old.

But pass holders roam the city taking educated chances on all sorts of events. (Four-day general admission began at $300 this year for early birds; single-day passes started at $100.) If you’ve heard enough at one venue, you simply get up and head off to the next one. There’s usually someone in line outside who will gladly take your place.


When Knoxville was bidding to host the 1982 World’s Fair, the Wall Street Journal declared it a “scruffy little city.” The Sunsphere, a centrally located observation deck in a structure that looks like a giant disco ball, is the city’s proud reminder of its winning bid.

Pianist Vijay Iyer performs with the Parker Quartet at St. John’s Cathedral during the Big Ears Festival 2023.James Sullivan

In recent years Scruffy City (yes, the locals have embraced the pejorative) has seen an infusion of top-notch restaurants. The pedestrian mall at Market Square is lined with destinations — Tupelo Honey, Not Watson’s. A few blocks away, Old City, the revitalized historic sector on the edge of downtown, is peppered with breweries, boutiques, coffee shops, and a onetime brothel now called Lonesome Dove, where the bartender will smoke your whiskey cocktail on a glass-domed cake plate.

At the Knoxville Visitors Center, the lobby walls are lined with scores of blue plates. Each dish features the image of a musician or band that has appeared on the Blue Plate Special, the noontime live performance showcase of the listener-supported community radio station WDVX. During this year’s Big Ears the station hosted an Appalachian blues group, a female singing duo from Barcelona, and an accordionist from New Orleans.

The Blue Plate Special takes place year-round, six days a week. But with temperate weather and rolling landscape along the Tennessee River, there’s plenty to do beyond music in Knoxville. The city is home to a popular nature center called Ijams and the Women’s Basketball Hall of Fame; history buffs can visit James White’s Fort, site of the log cabin where the city’s founder established residence on a land grant after the Revolutionary War.


West African band Etran de l’Air performs at Jackson Terminal during Big Ears 2023.James Sullivan

The fort is a short drive from the future site of a new ballpark for the Tennessee Smokies, the Double-A minor league affiliate of the Chicago Cubs. Pioneer House, a combination printmaking studio and vintage Western wear shop, recently moved to an industrial area adjacent to the construction site.

Proprietors Julie Belcher and her partner, “Cowboy” Phil Rupp, sell letterpress prints and period-piece honky-tonk clothing. Phil also stocks a large collection of vintage baseball uniforms, including a Red Sox cap he says once belonged to Jean Yawkey.

Around the festival weekend, attendees compared notes on their favorite sets of music. Several were overheard raving about Gatos do Sul, an enthusiastic Brazilian jazz band led by Philadelphia-raised keyboardist Brian Marsella. That group played the Bijou Theatre early Friday afternoon.

The Blue Plate Special stage, home of live broadcasts for community radio station WDVX, in the Knoxville Visitors Center.James Sullivan

The following day, a four-piece family band of “desert blues” musicians from the West African country of Niger packed the former freight terminal serving as Big Ears headquarters. With their frenzy of electric guitars, traditionally played at weddings, Etran de l’Air had each and every body in the cavernous hall dancing.

Earlier, the downtown movie theater screened a new documentary about a mixed-race South African punk band from the early 1980s called National Wake.

“While we were dancing,” recalled one of the surviving band members, “there was no apartheid.”


James Sullivan can be reached at Follow him @sullivanjames.