Music Writers on Knoxville: of Fabergé Eggs and Deep Audience Crossover

The Knoxville I grew up in was content to be—in fact, considered itself undeservedly lucky to be—"Home of the Vols." It aspired to little else. That was its identity. Knoxville was an obedient wife, content to be a "Mrs." One who never sought attention of her own, or got much.

In recent years, the Vols have fielded three teams—one football and two basketball—that have been significant national contenders, with multiple games covered by the big-city papers. Whether the Vols are winning or losing, coverage only occasionally mentions the word "Knoxville," and almost never offers a description of the place, positive or negative. Sometimes they'll mention fan behavior, like the Vol Navy, but when it comes to sports coverage of the city of Knoxville, it's rare to encounter an actual adjective. To much of the country, even those who follow NCAA sports, the word Knoxville draws a shrug.

When we host an unusual music festival, though, it's a different story. The three-day Big Ears music festival two weeks ago earned Knoxville a ticker-tape parade of prominent national press. In national newspapers and critics' blogs, Knoxville has lately been called "comfortable," "affable," "classy."

Moreover, our distinctive public institutions, especially the Bijou and Tennessee Theatres, were singled out for lavish praise (even when some descriptions clashed: one called the Bijou "ornate"; another called it "spartan and intimate"). Music author and longtime jazz critic for The New York Times Ben Ratliff, who came to Big Ears last year and called the Bijou "one of the best-sounding rooms I've ever experienced in this country," this year wrote of looking forward to his return.

The Tennessee Theatre wasn't a Big Ears venue last year, but got crazy praise this year. Rolling Stone's Matt Hendrickson cited "the ornate Tennessee Theatre (seriously, it's like watching a show inside a Fabergé egg)"; a long, unsigned article in the Chicago-based Internet music magazine Pitchfork echoed that imagery: "a Fabergé egg of a place, with gilded walls and a ceiling that suggests staring into the heavens."

It's funny how that peculiar analogy is suddenly popping up, more than 80 years after the place was built: I first heard it last year, when the lead singer for Pink Martini told the audience that performing at the Tennessee was like performing inside a Fabergé egg. It seems obvious, having said it, but the association had never occurred to me in almost half a century of attending shows there. Now suddenly it's breeding.

Ratliff called it "a Moorish-revival movie house...recently renovated, and dreamier still: a palace as big as an ocean liner, where sound reveals itself naturally and precisely, in what Wallace Stevens called its ‘spontaneous particulars....'" (That's from an interesting piece called "The Creations of Sound," a poem which may be about the limitations of poems.)

Pitchfork reported it "felt like a long weekend of paradise." Rolling Stone called Big Ears "arguably the classiest, most diverse festival in the country."

Coverage was instructive even when it wasn't positive. Hendrickson led his Rolling Stone article with "When you think of classic college towns, Knoxville, Tenn. doesn't exactly spring to mind. Unlike Athens, Ga., or Chapel Hill, N.C., whose respective universities spill into the downtown streets creating a vibrant, eclectic social hub, the University of Tennessee buttresses ‘The Strip,' a mostly soul-crushing stretch of countless fast-food chains and down 'n' dirty student bars...." I'd disagree with one detail. I actually can count the fast-food chains on the Strip. I prefer not to.

Most of the press was positive indeed. Well-known music and cultural critic Ann Powers, who raved about Knoxville's alternative scene even in the 1990s, and now writes for the Los Angeles Times, came back to call Knoxville a "classy college town."

Of course, "college-town" talk is a bit of a misnomer, positive or negative. Unlike Athens or Chapel Hill, UT has never accounted for as much as 25 percent of Knoxville's population and economy. (A century or more ago, UT was less than one percent of what constituted Knoxville.)

Most interesting to me was one of Ratliff's observations in the Times. He refers with some intrigue to what he witnessed at Big Ears, a phenomenon he called "deep audience crossover."

He elaborates: "...not just an artist deciding to mix disparate styles, or listeners who are basically one set of bohemians talking to another..." He's used to seeing mixing of styles onstage, he says, but not in audiences. "It's still rare. That's where there's work to be done. I saw that kind of crossover at Big Ears."

With some astonishment, he describes what he saw here: "Curious people were walking into events that weren't necessarily aimed at them, their age group, their interests. There were well-put-together retirement-age women listening to Shelley Hirsch and the Shaking Ray Levis play loony, aggressive, improvised music at a club, and trendy kids listening to a Terry Riley string quartet in a concert hall."

A lot of those people, I'm sure, were people who came to Knoxville for the festival. But I know that many of those odd ducks in the wrong audiences, including some of the well-put-together retirement-age women, were Knoxvillians.

We've gotten used to it, in recent years. The monthly Tennessee Shines shows at the Bijou, as well as the daily Blue Plate Special, bring teenagers and octogenarians, professors and farmers. Big cities are famous for fostering diversity, but big cities also allow people to segregate themselves into microcultures. Go to New York, and whether you love emo, bluegrass, cool jazz, or heartwarming musical theater, any night of the week you can find an event where you're in the company only of people like you, an event that you'll enjoy, and one that won't challenge you at all. Life in a mid-sized city requires us to challenge ourselves now and then. Here, Deep Audience Crossover is a way of life.

Anyway. We need to support stuff like Big Ears. If only because music writers seem to write about cities a lot more than sportswriters do.