When someone mentions Knoxville, what comes to mind? Gateway to the Smokies, the Sunsphere, and “Go Big Orange?” All of those are true of course, but did you also know that the city has become the home of one of the preeminent avant-garde music events in the world? Now, in its seventh edition (this year, March 22-25), the Big Ears Festival attracts a wildly eclectic of performers, from icy electronica wizards, to weirdo drone-noise manufacturers, and acclaimed artists representing all forms of classical and jazz music. Produced by Knoxville’s own AC Entertainment (the brains behind big Southern music fests like Bonnaroo, High Water, and Forecastle), Big Ears takes place in several venues in and around downtown Knoxville, including the luxurious Tennessee and Bijou Theaters, the Knoxville Museum of Art, and the Mill and Mine, one of the best new rock clubs in the South. There’s also a film component, as well as lectures, panel discussions, and this year, a keynote address from singer and McArthur Foundation award-winner Rhiannon Giddens.
The scale and scope of Big Ears is mind-boggling and as the title suggests, it’s best to come with an open mind and soak in as much as possible. What makes Big Ears special is the walkable compactness that allows festival patrons to drop in on various performances, staying for just a few minutes or lingering longer. And while Big Ears attracts an international crowd both in artists and attendees, this year there’s a special focus on bluegrass and string music—music that, of course, has some of its roots in the hollers of East Tennessee, although at this fest, some of it may sound like Bill Monroe on acid. But isn’t discovery what the true joy of music is all about? Tickets for Big Ears are available here and following is a selection of try-not-to-miss artists with a playlist.
Abigail Washburn and Bela Fleck: One of Big Ears’ calling cards is that a handful of artists play multiple sets over the course of the festival’s four days. Banjo dynamos—and husband and wife—Fleck and Washburn will perform together, with Fleck playing another set with the string band Brooklyn Rider and Washburn with zither master Wu Fei, in a set that marries the sounds of Appalachia with Chinese folk music.
Algiers: This Atlanta foursome is one of music’s most dynamite bands, whose anthems marry a Southern soulfulness with shards of noisy punk replete with topical lyrics and shout-along choruses.
Anna & Elizabeth: This duo, by way of Virginia and Eastern Kentucky, supplements their glorious harmonies and picking with visual art, puppets, and moving scrolls that completely rejiggers the way people experience mountain music. They’ll also lead a square dance during the day on Thursday as well as late-night jam session at the Jig and Reel, Knoxville’s home for Irish folk music.
Aine O’Dwyer plays William Eggleston’s Musik: This Irish multi-instrumentalist will perform her own set plus a world-premiere of selections from the famed Memphis photographer’s debut album.
Cleek Schrey: This native Virginian ups his picking game by playing a Hardanger d’amore, a Norwegian fiddle with ten strings. The acoustic set fills the room with a mind-bending fullness.
Tal National: Mixing Afrobeat, funk, and hip hop, this Western African group’s energetic live show is as rapturous as it is sweaty.
Also, don’t miss: Pickers John Haywood, Susan Alcorn, and the legendary Jerry Douglas. For something a little more left field, check out electronic musician Four Tet and ambient-techno icon Wolfgang Voigt, performing as his alter-ego GAS in the majestic confines of the Tennessee Theater.