City Portrait: Knoxville, Tennessee
Musically rich and blissfully glam-free, Knoxpatch hits all the right notes
Knoxville is a town of poetic understatement. To best appreciate what it has to offer, one cannot visit here with brassy expectations of some sort of hillbilly New Orleans or Appalachian Charleston. Save for the handful of times a year when the University of Tennessee Vols football team takes the home field and the campus morphs into an undulating riot of orange fashion and outsize passion, the city, the third largest in Tennessee, is resolutely unassuming, moderate in climate and political bent. While other places strive, aching to be something definitive, cooler or shinier, something to be “kept weird” or “not messed with,” Knoxville defaults to modesty.
Knoxpatch, it is often called. Or, sometimes, Knox Vegas, muttered with lazy irony. The regional humbleness is a long-standing tic, a well-worn ambivalence captured impeccably by Knoxville-bred writers like James Agee, Nikki Giovanni, RB Morris, and Cormac McCarthy (who described his hometown as “obscure and prismatic,” among other things). A 1952 article in Fortune summed up the operating philosophy of the locals, which has evolved little in the years since: “Almost everyone thinks something should be done, but nobody does anything much. They like it fine the way it is.”
Such practiced diffidence is most likely a consequence of many factors, but none so much as the extraordinary landscape surrounding the city. Plunked face-first into the verdant expanse of the Tennessee Valley, wedged in the generous bosom of the Great Smoky Mountains and the Cumberland Plateau, Knoxville is cursed by association, its own charms unavoidably dwarfed by adjacent natural beauty. (Kind of like the heavyset Judd sister, who, let’s be honest, seems like the only fun one.)
This is not to say Knoxville is ugly. It isn’t. The silvery Tennessee River weaves through town, rolling past industrial warehouses and historic neighborhoods alike, its tributaries throwing light like a Kinkade. There is a reason Knoxville native Quentin Tarantino recently shot his new film here. But unlike other cities of similar size that toss up new buildings like confetti and attempt to brand their very geography, Knoxville marinates in its oft-proclaimed “scruffiness,” never trying too hard, a boots and ponytail kind of place, never kitten heels and an updo. As Steve Earle has written, “Knoxville is where the Old South ends and the rust belt begins.”
This is a good thing. For starters, haven’t we all had enough of people, places, and things pretending to be something they are not? Knoxville is the antidote to all that glitter poisoning. A classic, authentic American city from a forgotten time. Big enough for an Ethiopian restaurant. Small enough that you recognize the vagrants.