Ashley Capps Visit Knoxville
 The Comet is Coming by Fabrice Bourgelle

Big Ears Festival - Why Knoxville?

Why do people come to Knoxville from all 50 states and nearly two dozen countries – traveling hundreds, even thousands of miles – filling our downtown hotels, restaurants, shops, bars, sidewalks and venues for four days or more – to attend the Big Ears Festival each year – with the attendance steadily growing year after year?

How is it that the Big Ears Festival so quickly established itself as one of the most prestigious, internationally acclaimed, and eagerly anticipated cultural events in the world?  What is it about Big Ears that has attracted the glowing reviews and annual dispatches from the festival that appear in the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, Rolling Stone, the New Yorker, the Oxford American, NPR, the Wire, London’s Guardian, and numerous online blogs and tastemaker platforms?

Bill Frisell, courtesy Big Ears
Bill Frisell, courtesy Big Ears

Obviously, the world-class programming is essential.  This gathering of many of the world’s greatest artists – rock, jazz, bluegrass, classical, folk, electronic and beyond – stands apart as a unique and uncommon experience.  

During the Big Ears weekend, spending time in downtown Knoxville can be an exciting, dynamic…even transformative experience.  For me, there’s nothing quite like it.  It’s so much fun meeting people from all over the world and experiencing the city through their eyes and ears. 

Meredith Monk by Christine Alicino, courtesy Big Ears

Which brings me back to that opening question:  Why Knoxville?

When Big Ears was first launched back in 2009, this question was often asked.  Why was this amazing event happening in Knoxville, Tennessee…instead of in New York City or London or Berlin or Chicago or San Francisco or in some major cultural center where it would be an obvious fit?  Sometimes the question was asked based on assumed stereotypes of what our city and state were like, rather than any actual experience of having visited. Fortunately, the festival’s programming offered enough of a lure that many chose to take the leap – and came to Knoxville to check out the festival and see what was up.

The truth is: Knoxville is an essential component of the Big Ears experience.  Put another way, it’s a headliner of the Big Ears Festival weekend – each and every year…and more and more so as our city undergoes its exciting and dynamic renaissance.

​David Simchock, Tennessee Theatre, Courtesy Big Ears
David Simchock, Tennessee Theatre, Courtesy Big Ears

First of all, there are the venues. Remarkably, Knoxville has two world-class historic theatres, the Bijou and the Tennessee, which complement one another in terms of their capacity and offer an incomparable experience for audiences and artists. They are both absolutely wonderful places to experience the performing arts.  While some cities sadly tore their historic venues down a few decades ago, Knoxville is fortunate in having saved these remarkable assets, which have proven to be vital catalysts in the modern revival of the city. 

Big Ears incorporates two of downtown’s beautiful houses of worship –St John’s Cathedral and the Point Church -  both of which also offer the perfect atmospheres for some of Big Ears' exquisite concert experiences. The Mill & Mine provides and extraordinary rock club experience, while other venues give audiences the opportunity for everything from intimate listing to excitingly lively smaller performances.


Mary Halvorson’s Code Girl, Courtesy Big Ears
Mary Halvorson’s Code Girl, Courtesy Big Ears

The variety of experiences that these venues offer – the way they support different types of music and performance and programming – is not easy to find in a city – and helps to support the dynamic, kaleidoscopic nature of the Big Ears experience.

Secondly, an important part of this chemistry is walkability!  Every one of these venues are within – at most – a 15 minute walk of each other, with many of them clustered within a two-block proximity.  The “walkability” of downtown Knoxville is another tremendous asset of the city, as it offers endless opportunities to run into friends and meet people.  It also supports the essential social component of the festival experience – the camaraderie and shared experience that is such an important part of any great festival. We partner with Knoxville Area Transit to provide free trolley service during the festival – a twelve-hour day is a long one, and we want to make it easier for people to travel from one venue to another while having the opportunity to rest up a bit – but there’s no substitute for a great walk when one wants to experience the beauty and character of any city. Knoxville can pay great dividends to those who explore it on foot.

View Down Gay Street by Bruce McCamish
View Down Gay Street by Bruce McCamish

Which brings me to the overall character of the city – both past and present.  For those who live here, it may be easy to take for granted that Knoxville has successfully retained so much of its historic character. That’s one of the reasons why it’s so enjoyable to listen to visitors share their observations and enthusiasm for the city – one sees more when one has the opportunity to see from another’s eyes.  Downtown Knoxville is rich in atmosphere and there is so much to discover, ponder and appreciate.  Many visitors from outside the US – along with many of the journalists – who attend Big Ears are often far more aware of Knoxville’s cultural history than many of its citizens. It can be fascinating and enlightening to follow them down an alleyway pursuing a landmark from Cormac McCarthy’s Suttree or pondering the Andrew Johnson hotel where Hank Williams spent his last night on earth or contemplating the Market Square where an RCA record rep first discovered Elvis Presley. 

Lonesome Dove
Lonesome Dove

At the same time, Knoxville’s downtown is packed with activity. We are fortunate to have a wide array of stellar restaurants – from James Beard award-winning chefs like Joseph Lenn (J.C. Holdway) and Tim Love (Lonesome Dove) to chef Matt Gallaher’s delightful Emilia, chef Jesse Newmister’s Kaizen and Tako Taco, and Brian Strutz’s sourdough pizza staple, A Dopo. Kopita and Yassin’s can satisfy even the most discerning palate’s craving for Mediterranean fare, and traditional favorites like Tomato Head, Sweet P’s Downtown Dive, the Bistro at the Bijou, and Nama never disappoint. Of course, Suttree’s High Gravity Tavern and the Pretentious Brewing Company are both a beer lover’s dream, and the Tern Club, Brother Wolf, Peter Kern Library, and the Hyatt Place’s rooftop Five-Thirty Lounge all mix up fantastic cocktails.

And, again, it’s all within an easy 10-15 minute walk.

Canoeing at Ijams Nature Center
Canoeing at Ijams Nature Center

For those wanting to venture a bit outside of the downtown area, Knoxville has a vast Urban Wilderness of parks, nature preserves, and wildlife refuges, all connected by walking and bicycle trails. Now, one can easily ride a bicycle from downtown and venture out to the beautiful Ijams Nature Center, located at the beginning of the Tennessee River, only 3 or 4 miles from the heart of downtown.

All of these components – the extraordinary world-class venues, the walkability and historic character of the city, the fabulous restaurants, bars, and shops, and the natural beauty of East Tennessee – come together to provide the Big Ears Festival with the perfect environment to create an unforgettable festival experience. While Big Ears brings the world to Knoxville, it also showcases Knoxville to the world.

Since 2016, Big Ears has operated as an independent non-profit 501(c)3, enabling us to better engage with other arts and community organizations to achieve the promise of what Big Ears can offer for our community. Thanks to the generous support of the Aslan Foundation, Ann & Steve Bailey, the Pilot Company, the Boyd Foundation, the Hobson Wood Foundation, Visit Knoxville, the City of Knoxville, Knox County, the Dr. William D. and Dr. Sally C. Johnson Family Foundation, the Hays Foundation, the Tennessee Arts Commission, the National Endowment for the Arts, and South Arts, along with generous corporate partners and many individual donors, Big Ears continues to reach for greater and greater heights.

You can read all about it here:

Full weekend passes start at $350, with Single Day passes starting at $125 and are available here.

This story was originally published by Visit Knoxville.