If hearing the word “Knoxville” reminds you of a “Jackass” named Johnny, that’s too bad. Did you know that many people around the world think “avant-garde” when they think of Tennessee’s third largest town? The rise of Knoxville’s Big Ears Festival proves a small Southern city can create a big and unlikely reputation for itself — but only if it’s willing to invest in art.
Story by Rob Rushin
“Knoxville is the ugliest city I ever saw in America,
with the possible exception of some mill towns in New England.”
— John Gunther, “Inside U.S.A.” (1946)
You better believe that one left a mark. Even now, a little more than 70 years on, my new friends from Knoxville – every last one – cringe a little when I mention a once famous, now forgotten travel writer who was clearly in something of a mood when he visited their little town.
You can see what he was talking about if you look at the old photos and squint a bit — the rail yard, the train depot, the old White Lily Flour factory, the JFG Coffee warehouse, the sawmills and textile mills, the abattoirs, and meatpacking plants. Imagine yourself on a Sunday in May of 1945. The Great War has ended, and all you can see are soot-tinged clouds hanging low over a soot-covered wasteland of brick.
It was enough to drive a man to strong drink. Alas.
“Knoxville, an extremely puritanical town, serves no alcohol stronger than 3.6 percent beer, and its more dignified taprooms close at 9:30. Sunday movies are forbidden, and there is no Sunday baseball.”
Timing is everything, and in this case, Gunther was 70 years early. In 2017, when I surveyed the same vista, I could easily imagine that I had died and gone to some version of heaven featuring good grub and drinks and a killer soundtrack.
I’m here for the 2017 installment of the Big Ears Festival, one of the most celebrated gatherings in the world for fans of avant-garde music, and arguably the best festival pound-for-pound in the United States. Big Ears packs in more than 100 concerts; a film festival (including a retrospective of Jonathan Demme films, just weeks ahead of his death); a dozen panel discussions; a guided literary tour focused on past Knoxville residents James Agee, Nikki Giovanni, Alex Haley, Cormac McCarthy, and Frances Hodgson Burnett; and a public reading of McCarthy’s Knoxville novel “Suttree.”.
And then there was the Big Ears Poetry Expo, a three-night slam competition where, if the words delivered at the opening reception by local poet Slam Master Black Atticus were any guide, lovers of the spoken word had their hands (and ears) full as the best voices in the region stepped to battle armed only with wit, rhyme, and rhythm.
The scheduling at Big Ears is intense, enough to drive someone with option anxiety to pure madness. You know that no matter what you choose you will miss something fantastic. The transformative surprises come when you hear something you never imagined and there you are, present at the unfolding of a singular moment in time.
If you can’t find something that lights you up at Big Ears please seek medical attention immediately. Pretty much every genre rears its head, but the big thrill lies in the minglings across boundaries — the headlong collisions of classical, pop, noise, ambient, folk, death ambient (I didn’t know that was a thing), jazz, blues, math rock, raga rockabilly, and more than a few sounds that defy categorization entirely.
And while we’re pondering transformative surprises: How does one of the world’s most eclectic music festivals emerge in a small city in the Tennessee Valley, an area better known for country music, dams, and moonshine? And how on earth did the downtown of this “ugliest city” transform itself into a charming array of restaurants, shops, public gathering spots, and cultural hoo-hah?
That insult delivered by a grumpy travel writer in search of a decent cocktail stung Knoxville, but it was a wake-up call. The citizenry responded with a decades-long effort to highlight Knoxville’s natural beauty and considerable charm: garden clubs, chamber of commerce initiatives, even a gall-durned World’s Fair.
Knoxville’s is a story of steady and continuous progress, of plucky small-towners scratching away at every obstacle to turn their hometown around. Hometown pride, Southern style.
But the hinge, the key variable, lies in the story about how art helped revive Knoxville — a town that, even with its favorable location and abundant natural beauty, damn near died despite all the best intentions the locals could muster.
Ironically, the greatest blessing to befall the Downtown Knoxville of today was its near-total dissolution during the 1970s and ’80s, the go-go decades when many other Southern railroad towns — in a mad rush to modernize — tore down structures that reeked of the old and replaced them with dreary heaps of concrete and steel bearing all the charm of a Soviet apartment block. Add in the “urban renewal” — typical displacements that came with the interstate highway system — and downtown Knoxville declined steadily for a couple of decades, shedding residents and pretty much all of its economic vitality.
All those old warehouses and train depots and office buildings and theaters, those piles of brick and stone adorned with scroll filigree and terra cotta ornamentation? Not even worth tearing down for the dirt underneath.
What was left of “Knoxville” spread into the surrounding hills and hollers, mushroom-like sproutings of strip malls and big-box stores that came to look pretty much like anyplace else between Orlando and Seattle. The University of Tennessee remained the defining emblem of Knoxville, the nearby Oak Ridge National Laboratory a complimentary presence. Both enterprises attracted smart and vibrant immigrants both domestic and international.
But downtown remained, essentially, dead.
The World’s Fair of 1982 was a notable grand-slam effort to merge Knoxville into the Southern fast lane with Atlanta and Charlotte. Like a huge rock tossed into a little pond, it made a big splash for a minute, and then the third largest city in Tennessee settled back into relative placidity behind the higher profiles of Nashville and Memphis. Aside from the memories, just a few ’80s-era buildings and a more-or-less shiny Sunsphere remained.
Around that time, a local boy named Ashley Capps had begun presenting concerts around town. Here was a guy with very broad enthusiasms. Along the way, he presented acts like the avant-garde jazz band the Art Ensemble of Chicago and the head-banging punk rock of the Ramones at the town’s historic Bijou Theatre. In 1988, he opened Ella Guru’s nightclub. For a few years, this was where Knoxville went to hear the Neville Brothers, various Marsalises, Odetta, John Lee Hooker, Tony Rice, a pre-fame Garth Brooks, Sun Ra, Brian Eno, The Roches, etc. Until, in the wake of the first Gulf War I in 1991, Ella Guru’s filed for bankruptcy.
A victim of the times? Capps shakes his head.
“I’d like to say there was an external factor,” he says. “Honestly, I just wasn’t a very smart club owner. But it was like graduate school for me. I learned so much.”
He learned enough to start AC Entertainment, and he was smart enough when the chance came in 2002 to launch a music and arts festival known as Bonnaroo, which now draws almost 100,000 people every summer to little Manchester, Tennessee, about 150 miles west of Knoxville.
Capps was riding a wave of success. And as with many driven entrepreneurs, he asked the inevitable question: What next?
One answer? Big Ears.
The question I had to ask: Why Knoxville? The sort of avant-garde music associated with Big Ears typically finds its audiences in places like New York City.
“It would have been easy to do this someplace like New York, but then everyone would have said, ‘Sure, of course, that’s New York,’” Capps says. “Doing it in Knoxville meant that it would stand out. It’s unexpected.”
Now, the Big Ears Festival draws people from around the world to this Southern city of fewer than 200,000 residents. Walking the streets during Big Ears is to hear the glorious babel of our world, Spanish and German weaving in and out among Norwegian and Japanese conversations. The streets alone are World Music.
In New York, this is everyday life.
While Capps was a prime mover in setting a vibrant cultural element in motion, he didn’t do it alone, and surely “culture” doesn’t claim all the credit for turning a ghost town into one of the nation’s prime tourist destinations. There are also plenty of outdoor adventures, good food and drink, and a terrifically walkable downtown. WalletHub ranked Knoxville No. 17 in its list of “most fun” cities in America and the 9th best wedding destination. (They also ranked it the 10th fattest and 13th most sinful, but hey, nobody’s perfect.) It landed in Travel+ Leisure’s America’s Top Ten Favorite Places.
Over the past couple of decades, downtown Knoxville has seen the redevelopment of around 130 buildings from the early 20th century, including reclamation of old hotels, office-to-condo conversions, a $29-million restoration of the historic Tennessee Theatre, and a million bucks or so to renovate the Bijou. A considerable portion of that came from public funding. You can probably find someone who thinks that was an irresponsible frittering of tax dollars, but by all accounts, Knoxville’s leadership recognized the compelling logic of arts development and threw their full support behind this and a number of other projects.
And here we find a critical factor in a small city’s transformation from nation’s “ugliest” to popular vacation getaway: City leadership recognized the value of its historic assets and committed to establishing the amenities that make people want to come and stay. This is placemaking at its finest.
When it comes to a concentration of prime performance venues, Knoxville stacks up well against the big cities. Nine concert venues are within a short walk from each other, with terrific sound and lighting in every room.
The Tennessee Theatre is a classic 1928 Moorish movie palace from the Paramount Studios lineage. Fully segregated until protests in 1963 forced a change (the first integrated audience watched “To Kill a Mockingbird”), the theater closed off and on for several years beginning in 1977. Slated for the wrecking ball, grassroots resistance turned the tide. By the turn of the century, the building was held by a non-profit trust, and it reopened post-renovation in 2005. Each detail of the original theater was painstakingly recreated, the original Wurlitzer organ reconditioned, all lighting fixtures removed and shipped to St. Louis for restoration. The faded carpeting was replaced by a newly woven version identical in color, pattern, and fabric. Ditto its drapes and valances. And the place sounds terrific, hosting a range of music at Big Ears stretching from Gavin Bryars’ orchestral “Sinking of the Titanic” (a U.S. premiere) to Carla Bley with the Knoxville Jazz Orchestra to the thunderous ambient drone of Deathprod.
People who were there insist Deathprod was the loudest concert in the history of ever.
A couple of blocks down Gay Street stands the Bijou Theatre. Originally a hotel, the ballroom was converted into a theater in 1908, became a Paramount second-run house in 1935, and eventually fell on hard times in the ’60s as a purveyor of “adult art films.” But extensive renovation over the past 20 years adds up to warm acoustics and intimate seating for acts as diverse as Meredith Monk’s quirky quartet and the chilling “space jazz” of Supersilent.
Two churches – the St. John’s Episcopal and Church Street United Methodist – provided awesome acoustics and literally awe-inspiring visual surroundings for acts as diverse as guzheng virtuoso Wu Fei, pianists Matthew Shipp and Lisa Moore, and a parade of Norwegians including accordionist Frode Haltli, trumpeter Arve Henriksen, and fiddler Nils Økland. Who knew the fjords were such a hotbed of creative ferment?
Some of the most arresting concerts of this year’s Big Ears were by classical and avant garde musicians performing in rock and roll clubs like Mill & Mine, a renovated trackside warehouse that is Knoxville’s newest venue. The sound there for pianist Lisa Moore, legendary electronica trio Musica Elettronica Viva, the Knoxville Symphony Orchestra, cello goddess Maya Beiser, and Gavin Bryars’ ensemble was perfect – resonant, airy, richly reverbed — whether the performers were on stage or, even better, interspersed among the audience on the expansive hardwood floor.
This critical mass of performance space astonishes. Look around, wherever you are. Unless you’re in NYC’s Greenwich Village or standing on the border between the Marigny and the French Quarter in New Orleans, you’d be hard pressed to find a greater concentration of top-quality stages. Their presence is reflective of the emphasis on the arts among Knoxville’s leadership and entrepreneurs. And it has made a big, fat difference as the downtown area has developed into a vibrant destination for locals and out-of-towners.
Small town fairs and festivals are as American as apple pie. Most remain small, neighborly affairs, thrown by and for locals with a little encouragement from local business leaders. A fine excuse to gather and gossip and eat and sing and dance and maybe spur a little cash flow in the process. Most of these – like the annual Worm Gruntin’ Festival in Sopchoppy, Florida, or the Ponchatoula (Louisiana) Strawberry Festival – remain primarily regional in appeal. Still, it’s worth remembering that some of the world’s most celebrated festivals (think Mardi Gras!) trace back to humble, local roots.
But such festivals, writ large across a cityscape, generate big economic returns for cities around the South — not just Knoxville. And most of them started very small.
The New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival did as much to turn New Orleans into New Orleans! as anything else in that great city’s history. JazzFest was one of the first festivals to fuse local traditions of music, food, dance, and laissez les bon temps roulet in a package, but attendance at the inaugural fest in 1970 was only 350.
Today, JazzFest attendance figures skirt the half-million mark, and it generates a $300 million-plus boost to its local economy annually.
The Savannah Music Festival over the past 15 years has grown into a widely celebrated cross-genre music festival, with attendance of 40,000-plus over 17 days in 2016. During its first dozen years, SMF barely registered outside its hometown, so, in 2002, Savannah civic leaders committed to developing SMF as a world-class attraction. Since then, under the leadership of former Jazz at Lincoln Center director and co-founder Rob Gibson, the festival has developed an annual operating budget of around $3.4 million. The economic logic of SMF is irrefutable. A 2009 study found the festival accounted for $15.5 million in spending and around $1 million in local tax revenues. Beyond that, the festival actively supports music education in the region, reaching an estimated 12,000 kids every year. And every year, correspondents from Europe and across America visit the beautiful low-country city and sing its praises internationally.
It’s not just about music. Celebrations devoted to food and drink have been popping up like heirloom mushrooms. Crawfish festivals, hullabaloos dedicated to grits, okra, and peanuts, oyster festivals, and strawberry festivals happen from Galveston to Mobile to the Outer Banks. Knoxville’s International Biscuit Festival is a mellow, good-natured affair that draws around 5,000 visitors, while the more upscale Charleston Wine & Food shindig (adults only!) brings in upwards of 20,000 guests and generates $9 million for the local economy.
Tallahassee’s Word of South Festival brings together writers and musicians in a unique lit/sound mashup that has the potential to evolve into a world-class event. Celebrating its third year in 2017, WoS has a modest budget and remains primarily regional as tourist draw. Still, the programming has been impressive: multiple Pulitzer Prize and National Book Award winners alongside Grammy Award nominees, and more than a few up and coming writers and musicians who recognize a unique platform when they see it.
How well such festivals fare over the long term will depend in great part upon local leadership embracing arts development as robustly as has Knoxville. That means money, private and public. Fighting the good fight to establish reliable funding, Word of South is a key element of a community push to elevate the arts as a core component of Tallahassee’s civic identity. The payoff? The 2016 festival generated just shy of $1M in direct spending, about two-thirds of that from out-of-county visitors. Early estimates for 2017 point to increased attendance and spending.
Knoxville has worked for years to become an arts-oriented destination. Tallahassee is still finding its legs, but it is making progress. Alongside Word of South, Tallahassee boasts a season-long performing arts series called Opening Nights Performing Arts at Florida State University. From October through April, around 20,000 people attended an ON event, about 20 percent of them from out of town. How do you get people to visit your off-the-beaten path hamlet? Give them something they can’t get anywhere else.
This year’s Opening Nights series presented classical icon Anne-Sophie Mutter and jazz legend Wayne Shorter and his quartet within a week on either side of Word of South. Mutter played only seven shows in North America this year. The Shorter concert featured a new composition co-commissioned by Opening Nights, the Kennedy Center, the Monterey Jazz Festival, and the Jazztopad Festival/National Forum of Music in Wroclaw, Poland.
You had to go to Knoxville to catch Big Ears; you had to be in Tallahassee to catch these rare events. If you build it …well, you get it.
Towns all over the South are now investing in arts venues. Auburn University is building a $60 million performing arts center, and just poached Opening Nights’ executive director from FSU. Imagine a world where universities fight over arts programmers as fiercely as they do football coaches.
All these communities are striving — to varying degrees — to create points of identity and a tourist honeypot through support for the arts. Merchants make bank, people earn money in jobs that rely on visitor dollars. It adds up.
Big Ears 2017 racked up an overall attendance just north of 16,000 people over four days. Estimates pointed to a little more than half a million in hotel receipts and about twice that amount in other spending. Again, in a place like New York, a million dollars here and there might not mean a whole lot. But in a city the size of Knoxville, the economic ripple is huge.
For someone like Liza Zinni of the Knoxville Arts & Culture Alliance, keeping these statistics at the tip of her tongue is core to her job description. As an ambassador for the arts, she knows that economic arguments are the sole means of persuading some people. But she also knows that the arts mean much more than dollars and cents.
“It is absolutely right and just for us to support the arts,” she says. “In some ways, the economics are secondary.”
Matthew Everett, who was arts and entertainment editor of the alternative-weekly Knoxville Mercury until the newspaper folded earlier this year, also looks beyond the numbers: “Its real impact is even broader than that. It’s a creative catalyst. It inspires big ideas and connects people. There’s an energy that extends beyond this one weekend. And I think Big Ears has changed how some of us think about Knoxville, in big ways. The city is an essential part of the character of the festival. We’ve traditionally not had a lot of civic confidence around here. But now I think people are starting to wonder, if Big Ears can happen here, what else is possible?”
This is the crux. The dollars resonate. But the boon to identity, to collective confidence, to the sense of hell-yes-anything-is-possible that creative work stimulates … this is where engagement with the arts can have its most compelling impact on a community.
During the great culture wars of the ’80s, the arts community accepted the economic debate as the primary field of battle. The value of the arts, in the minds of too many people who should know better, was reduced to dollars and cents, to increased test scores, to improved early childhood development metrics, and so on. And while we can agree that all these are important, they miss the key element of what – back in the day – was called “art for art’s sake.” This was the quaint idea that art is an inherently valuable endeavor, part of our birthright and heritage as humans.
One of the great victories of the anti-art warriors lies in their successful depiction of art as icky stuff that comes from somewhere else. And sure, back in the day — when artists like Mapplethorpe and Serrano and Finley were under attack for sticking bullwhips and crucifixes and yams into unexpected places — it was an easy sell to paint the entire American art project as an unholy invasion of the other. One of Those People™ was getting your money.
Like any good demagoguery, the rhetoric concealed the deeper role of creative work in building our commonwealth, the layers of activity that comprise our culture from the ground up. If the greatest trick of the devil was to convince us he doesn’t exist, then the greatest trick of the culture warriors lay in convincing us that art comes from someplace else, is committed by deeply weird and alien creatures, and is irrelevant to our day-to-day existence.
So for all the global talent on display at Big Ears, it’s worth considering the contributions of local musicians to the festival. The Knoxville Jazz Orchestra delivered a superb performance of Carla Bley’s complex big band music. The Knoxville Symphony Orchestra delivered a heartbreaking concert in the Mill & Mine warehouse to kick off the Sunday schedule, and many of their members worked around town supporting several other productions, such as the hair-raising “Jesus’ Blood Never Failed Me Yet” by the Gavin Bryars Ensemble.
The Knoxville-based percussion collective Nief-Norf presented several excellent programs, including Michael Gordon’s thundering “Timber,” a piece for six percussionists playing amplified two-by-four planks. But their finest moment – and one of the festival’s – was their presentation of Michael Pisaro’s piece for 100 musicians, “A Wave and Waves,” in the atrium of the Knoxville Museum of Art. Most of the 100 were local volunteers, musical amateurs and non-musicians alike. None of them made a dime, but all of them got paid in a currency far more dear.
As we allow the possibility that “art for art’s sake” might be ready for a comeback, let’s jump back to the Big Ears Launch Party. We heard a warm welcome from Capps, a string of Captain Beefheart puns from the stalwart arts booster, Knoxville Mayor Madeline Rogero, and snapping rhymes from Black Atticus. It was finally time for music. Who would play first?
That honor – and our honor to hear it – fell to a 16-year-old from Strawberry Plains, Tennessee, a small town about 20 miles east of Knoxville. Josie Jurkovak is a guitar student at the Joy of Music School, a non-profit initiative that provides 200 free music lessons per week to financially disadvantaged, at-risk youth. It’s mostly donor-driven and volunteer-run. It could not happen in a town that does not hold the arts in esteem.
Josie sang her own song in a clear, light voice. She’s been at it for two years, and she’s darn good. But even that is a little beside the point. Josie, and 200 people like her, are experiencing music as a tangible component of their young lives. Music supports their overall education and helps develop their sense of who they are in a context where generosity and commitment to creative living are core community values.
The Joy of Music School – like the Symphony and the Knoxville Opera and the 18 independent theater and dance companies in Knoxville – is an essential piece of an arts ecosystem, an interdependent ecology where every element plays a vital role in the health and survival of the others. None of this would happen without substantial private donations, but it also relies a great deal on government funding: local, state, and federal.
Public funding for the arts is a pittance in this, the wealthiest nation in the world. Each one of us contributes a slim 50 cents per year to arts funding, yet it remains an evergreen favorite for posturing politicians who want to protect “your money.”
Exhibit A: Mick Mulvaney, the director of the federal Office of Management & Budget, recently suggested that arts funding is a welfare giveaway to coastal elites and that it was unfair to ask a “a coal miner in West Virginia or a single mom in Detroit to pay” for things that apparently only latte-slurping liberals care about.
Put aside the insult and condescension inherent in the notion that a coal miner or single mother is somehow incapable of appreciating art. My map suggests that Knoxville is smack center in the Bible Belt and nowhere near the coast. I’d like to invite Mulvaney to travel to Strawberry Plains, population 4,667, and tell Josie that her music lessons aren’t worth four bits a year in the grand scheme of things.
Cast an eye across history. The cultures we remember, study, and look to as exemplars are the ones that embraced creativity in the arts. Nobody looks to the Visigoths or the Mongolian hordes for clues to creating a vital commonwealth. The Dark Ages are not fondly recalled, to say the least.
Fifty damn cents.
We find ourselves at a significant moment in the history of our commonwealth, this grand and noble experiment in self-governance that has had a pretty good, yet imperfect run of nearly 250 years. The enormous debate over how much (or little) we intend to do for one another in the areas of health care, education, and infrastructure upkeep are defining debates as to what kind of society we will bequeath to the future. They strike at the very question of whether we will continue to self-govern at all.
Vigilance on any one of these fronts is exhausting. Why worry about frivolities like the arts?
It is unsurprising that people who deride universal public education and affordable health care for our citizenry are often one in the same as those who dismiss the arts as unworthy of public support. The further overlap with those who rail against the dangers of racial and sexual equality — or who openly advocate for purging our society of these less-than humans — is also tragically predictable.
It might be too much to suggest that art is the last line of defense against the prevailing wave of know-nothingism, but it at least provides a framework in which to cultivate critical thought and imagination that can fire that defense. As such, “Art” — and the universe of possibilities that word holds — is dangerous and, as at all times throughout human history, an inherent threat to conformism and tyranny.
From 1895 to 1897, Oscar Wilde sat in jail for the crime of homosexuality. While there, he wrote “De Profundis,” his meditation on prison, spirituality, and the place of the arts in a robust civilisation.
People point to Reading Gaol and say, “That is where the artistic life leads a man.” Well, it might lead to worse places. The more mechanical people to whom life is a shrewd speculation depending on a careful calculation of ways and means, always know where they are going, and go there. They start with the ideal desire of being the parish beadle, and in whatever sphere they are placed they succeed in being the parish beadle and no more. A man whose desire is to be something separate from himself, to be a member of Parliament, or a successful grocer, or a prominent solicitor, or a judge, or something equally tedious, invariably succeeds in being what he wants to be. That is his punishment.
Art compels people to ask questions, to challenge assumptions. Art can lead a young man to wonder “what if?” or a young woman to believe “I can be more.” Art can encourage someone who thinks “I have no idea where I am going” to revel in the terrifying freedom and possibility that realization entails. The answers these pioneers come up with might not change the world. Then again...
In 10, 30, 50 years, will people look back on this time in American culture as an age where we just said to hell with it and surrendered to the easy distractions of Duck Kardashian Dynasty? Or will our descendants look back at artists like Josie Jurkovak and enterprises like Big Ears and communities like Knoxville and say, “Damn, those people had a thing going on.”
Here’s my bet, and I am all in:
In the end, art wins.