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February 15, 2016 | Tom Ballard

GUEST COLUMN: Ashley Capps profiles upcoming Big Ears Festival

Big Ears Festival(EDITOR’S NOTE: You may have received the following email in the past week from Ashley Capps, President of AC Entertainment. It really highlights a critically important aspect of the emergence of Knoxville as a destination for creatives. Take particular note of the number of individuals from other communities who are coming to Knoxville for this year’s Big Ears Festival.)

It’s exciting to be in Knoxville these days. There’s so much tangible energy, excitement, and activity around that it feels like a renaissance, especially downtown and the surrounding neighborhoods. It’s inspiring to be here.

I’m also excited about what’s happening with our Big Ears Festival – which returns on Thursday, March 31 through Saturday, April 2…with a little surprise planned for early on Sunday, April 3.

The national and international profile of Big Ears – and the number of visitors coming to our city – continues to grow at an extraordinary pace. This year, on January 1, The Guardian – one of the UK and Europe’s leading newspapers, selected Big Ears as one of the top events on tap for 2016. They wrote: “Later in the spring, Knoxville will play host to what is surely America’s (the world’s?) most thrillingly diverse festival line up.”

This follows on similar acclaim from The New York Times, the LA Times, and others, including Rolling Stone, which called Big Ears “…a music festival with few American rivals” as well as the “most ambitious festival to emerge in America in more than a decade.”

This year, attendance is growing too. We’ve already outsold 2014. We’ll surpass 2015 in a week or two. Almost 70% of these people are coming from outside our region. The Top 10, in order: Atlanta, New York, Nashville, Chicago, Washington DC, San Francisco, Raleigh, Los Angeles, Asheville/Greenville, Austin. And others from outside the USA.

We’re flattered and humbled by the response…but we’re proud also…we know that we have programmed an astonishing weekend for anyone who takes part in it. We’re also sensing very clearly that we’re on the cusp of something quite extraordinary for our city – a rising tide that could transform not only the way the world views Knoxville but the way we see ourselves.

Big Ears is not merely a music festival…it’s becoming a cultural exchange fueling a rising tide of creative encounters and interaction. Beyond the artists performing and presenting their work, the Big Ears audience represents a cutting edge of tastemakers, influencers, visionaries, and entrepreneurs from throughout the country and beyond. One of the great pleasures of hosting the festival in our hometown is seeing how visitors embrace our city – they love our beautiful historic downtown and its shops bars and restaurants. They sense and experience both the creative potential and the quality of life that our city has to offer.

At the same time, Big Ears gives our own community the unique opportunity to experience some the greatest, and sometimes adventurous, music and performances of our time – to meet and mingle with the creators behind it as well as to get to know ambitious, engaged, like-minded creatives in the sharing and exchanges of interests, passions, and ideas. It’s the spark that leads to fresh perspectives and new ventures that fuel the evolution of any community in our modern economy.

This is why I hope you’ll make the effort to come downtown during the Big Ears weekend…experience at least some of what the festival has to offer…but also take a minute to get to meet some our visitors, find out who they are, and enjoy seeing our lovely hometown through their fresh and enthusiastic eyes. In my experience, it’s truly inspiring and opens up a world of possibilities.

Here are just a very few of the highlights for Big Ears this year:

  • Our own Knoxville Symphony Orchestra will present an extraordinary world-class program on Thursday night, March 31, at the Tennessee Theatre, under the direction of guest conductor Steven Schick.  He’ll lead the orchestra in a performance of 2014 Pulitzer Prize-winning composer John Luther Adams’ Become Ocean, which also won the Grammy last year for “Classical Composition.”  The program will also include Philip Glass’ Cello Concerto No. 2, written for Yo-Yo Ma and featuring the wonderful Maya Beiser as cello soloist. The evening will also include Lachrimae, a beautiful piece by Bryce Dessner, whose music you may have recently heard in the film, The Revenent.
  • John Luther Adams is our composer-in-residence this year, with five additional works of his to be heard during the weekend. Also, Philip Glass, possibly the most known and renowned of living composers, will be at Big Ears as well – performing a duo concert with Laurie Anderson on Saturday at the Tennessee…a North American premiere heard previously only at a festival in Italy.
  • The dazzling Irish supergroup, The Gloaming (also cited as one of the can’t-miss cultural events of the year by The Guardian) will perform at the Bijou on Thursday.
  • There’s a jazz festival within the festival…three of the most highly acclaimed younger artists in jazz – pianist Vijay Iyer, saxophonist and Kendrick Lamar collaborator Kamasi Washington, and guitarist Mary Halvorson along with legendary figures like Anthony BraxtonLeo Smith, and the Sun Ra Arkestra.
  • I’m just scratching the surface. There are more than 40 of the finest artists from the worlds of folk, rock, jazz, electronica, Africa, and beyond. You can check it all out here at or…
  • Big Ears takes place at the Tennessee Theatre, the Bijou Theatre, the Square Room, the Standard, the former First Christian Church…and we’re revealing a surprise new venue, along with a few other sites very, very soon.
  • Did we mention the film component? Our collaboration with Knoxville’s own Public Cinema – to be announced next week – is a further step towards a major independent film festival component.
  • And then there’s the tech collaboration with the Knoxville Entrepreneur’s Center…perhaps just a baby step this year but with so much promise for the future.

There are several different ways to experience Big Ears, with basic single day passes starting at just $49.50.

Where’s this going? I’m not really sure, but it sure is a thrill of a ride and I hope we might entice you to join us in the adventure. I think you’ll find your time and attention deeply rewarded multiple times over.

And then there’s that little surprise on Sunday…more about that as soon as we lock down details.

Again, you can find it all at and, if you’re so inclined, follow us on FacebookTwitter, and Instagram for up-to-date information about new facets of the festival as they are revealed.

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