The recent Big Ears avant-music celebration was an event to remember here in Knoxville. But it will not go down as the city's biggest or best-attended music festival of 2014.
That honor will almost certainly belong to Rhythm N' Blooms, the six-year-old annual roots-music round-up happening April 4-6. And while the Rhythm N' Blooms artist roster may be less eclectic than Big Ears, the artists who take the stage will be no less compelling, or accomplished.
"More than anything, I want to make sure everyone who plays Rhythm N' Blooms is a great performer," says Chyna Brackeen of Attack Monkey Productions, producer of the festival since its inception. "So it's not just who has the most radio play but who will put on the best show.
"And from year one, I've tried to put an emphasis on having as many local artists as possible, showing people what kind of talent we have here in Tennessee. Because about 50 percent of the attendees come from out of state."
Brackeen is an old hand at staging and promoting music in Knoxville. Formerly the director of marketing for Big Ears producer Ashley Capps' A.C. Entertainment, Brackeen struck out on her own with Attack Monkey Productions in 2008. She describes Attack Monkey as "a full-service entertainment company—PR, artist management, promotions, festival and concert promotions." Her clients include local favorites the Black Lillies and LiL iFFy and nationally renowned recording artist Dave Eggars. She also produces the International Biscuit Festival in town.
The first year she promoted Rhythm N' Blooms as a free-standing, ticketed event—it began the year before as part of the Dogwood Arts Festival—fewer than 1,000 tickets sold for the multi-stage production. But the numbers have steadily increased; last year's fest drew 12,000, and Brackeen says between 15,000 and 20,000 are expected for the 2014 version.
"That first year, I went out and handed out free wristbands to people to get them to come into shows that were almost empty," she says. "There were times where you were the only person in the venue."
This year's show will feature around 60 performers across eight venues in the Old City on April 4 and 5, with additional performances taking place on Sunday, April 6, at the Knoxville Botanical Garden and Arboretum. An outdoor main stage underneath the Jackson Avenue Viaduct will split time with other Old City venues like Barley's Taproom & Pizzeria, Pilot Light, and Boyd's Jig and Reel.
There will be a beer garden/food-truck oasis dubbed the Village set up in the parking lot at Jackson and Gay Street, a gathering point that will also feature buskers, street music, a climbing wall, and the Knoxville debut of a clothing truck for retail women's wear.
As for the artist lineup, Brackeen set the bar pretty high for herself for 2014, as previous Blooms festivals featured the likes of Amos Lee, Vince Gill, Dawes, and reunion shows by local favorites the everybodyfields and Robinella and the CCstringband.
But she came through admirably, with yet another impressive list of top-drawer traditional and Americana artists, locals like the Black Lillies and the Lonetones scraping elbows with the Felice Brothers, Tim O'Brien and Darrell Scott, and former Drive-By Trucker Shonna Tucker.
Brackeen says she keeps a running list of artists she'd like to tap for Rhythm N' Blooms, knowing that the stars may not align favorably for a particular performer the first time she asks them to play.
"I'm constantly working on my wish list," she says. "There were some headliners I wanted for years before they could finally schedule the show."
She notes that multi-genre singer-songwriter and cellist Ben Sollee, making his first Rhythm N' Blooms appearance in 2014, was originally scheduled to play the inaugural edition of the festival until nature intervened.
"An Icelandic volcanic eruption happened, and it cut overseas travel due to debris in the atmosphere," she says. "Ben was in Europe, and travel was delayed two weeks. We weren't able to get him back until recently.
"That was without a doubt the strangest excuse for a show canceling I've ever heard. I found myself getting up on stage in Knoxville saying, we're sorry, Ben Sollee won't be able to make it because there was a volcanic eruption in Iceland. I told Ben later that he must bring natural disasters with him wherever he goes."
One- and three-day festival passes are available for Rhythm N' Blooms at rhythmnbloomsfest.com, priced at $30 and $60, with three-day VIP passes available fro $125. Proceeds benefit the Dogwood Arts Festival.