It’s Big Ears time in Tennessee!

This news crew interviewing Big Ears founder Ashley Capps is from local WATE Channel 6. But dozens of other reporters are in town covering it, too.

The Big Ears Festival opened on Thursday and thousands of folks flooded into downtown Knoxville. They came from 48 states — including Alaska and Hawaii — and 21 foreign countries. (The only states not represented: Idaho and Nebraska.)

It was thrilling to walk down Gay Street and hear, not only foreign accents, but also groups of people speaking in foreign languages, some of which I didn’t recognize. At the ballet last night — Lucy Negro Redux presented by the Nashville Ballet — the folks sitting beside us were from Rochester, New York. Those in front of us were from Charlotte. The Rochester people said they were considering moving here. “We want to live somewhere where the people are real,” the woman confided. “Oh, I can assure you we are real!” I laughed.

All in all, including patrons and artists, there will be more than 16,000 visits to this year’s  Big Ears events, with more than 150 concerts, films, panel discussions, installations and surprises through Sunday when the festival shuts down. Many of the offerings are free of charge. Check out the Big Ears website for more info on everything. Or, look for the News Sentinel’s Go Knoxville section, largely devoted today to Big Ears coverage.

The festival also means lots of exposure for Knoxville as dozens of national and international reporters are in town. The New York Times has sent two reporters to cover Big Ears.

Alan Carmichael enjoys lunch Thursday at Sweet P’s Downtown Dive. Owner Christopher Ford says Big Ears is one of his eatery’s busiest weekends every year.

One of the best things about Big Ears is the fantastic mood it inspires in the locals. It’s like we just can’t believe it’s happening here in our little burg. It feels as if we are on vacation in our own town. Some friends of ours from West Knoxville rented rooms at the Hyatt Place on Gay Street so they could be in the thick of things. We ran into other friends at the restaurants we normally frequent and folks just couldn’t stop smiling. It was as if we were seeing everything through the eyes of our visitors — and we liked what we saw!

“When we held the first Big Ears in 2009, we had no idea what it would become,” said Ashley Capps at the festival’s opening reception at the Knoxville Museum of Art last night. “Much has been made about Big Ears being an avant-garde music festival. But I do not consider it to be avant-garde. Big Ears brings all kinds of music — classical, jazz, rock, folk, bluegrass and now ballet and beyond. It all comes together. That is the essence of Big Ears.”

Capps, the founder of Big Ears, which is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization, thanked a slew of festival sponsors, but gave a special shout-out to the Aslan Foundation, which came forth with funding after Capps had shelved Big Ears following the first two years of its existence. Ann and Steve Bailey also are big supporters, providing the underwriting to make every festival offering held at the Knoxville Museum of Art free of charge.

Here’s something else that’s free of charge: my advice that you get out and enjoy the unique experience that is Big Ears. Just sample a little of it this year and next year you’ll want to buy a four-day pass!

More than 200 folks filled the Ann and Steve Bailey Hall at the Knoxville Museum of Art Thursday for the Big Ears opening reception.

From left, Knoxville Vice Mayor Finbarr Saunders, Fiona McAnally, Mayor Madeline Rogero, Ashley Capps and Carissa Stolting, managing director of Big Ears.

Wow, what a spread! Food was by Jesse Newmister of Tako Taco and Kaizen. (Get a load of those huge pork rinds at the top of pic!)

Knoxville City Council member Seema Singh-Perez and Rick Held at the reception.

Megan Venable, left, and Casey Fox. Megan is covering Big Ears for VIP Knoxville magazine.

Alan and Karen Sims enjoying the repast. He writes the Inside of Knoxville blog and is devoting a lot of coverage to Big Ears.

From left, Angie Wilson of Visit Knoxville with Mark and Kristin Williams.

Baron and Gayle Bustin, left, with Ellen Bebb and Finbarr Saunders.

David Butler, left, executive director of the Knoxville Museum of Art, with Ashley Capps. “The museum has been extremely busy today,” Butler told Capps.

Two downtown guys! Rick Emmett, left, is the city of Knoxville’s downtown coordinator. Bill Lyons is deputy mayor and a resident of and booster of downtown.

A portion of glass artist Richard Jolley’s “Cycle of Life” installation loomed over the reception. It was a bit of a foretelling of the ballet that was to follow. Both are a little racy!

Between the reception and the ballet, we stopped for dinner at J.C. Holdway and ran into friends. Chef-owner Joseph Lenn is at left. My friend John Winemiller is at right with his buddy Kael Schneider, in town from Minneapolis. John had seen the ballet on Wednesday and was going to see it again on Thursday. “I heard it’s a bit risque,” I said. “Why do you think I’m going back?” he quipped.

Unbelievable! Scallion hush puppies with smoked onion aioli. I know our visitors will love this food!

Pimento cheese with house-made benne seed crackers. Wow.

My go-to dish at J.C. Holdway: slow-cooked farm egg with potato gnocchi, chicken confit and hen-of-the-woods mushrooms. Chef Lenn invented this dish when he was executive chef at the Barn at Blackberry Farm. It’s his version of chicken and dumplings. You simply must try it.

Alan can’t resist the Springer Mountain Farms wood-oven roasted chicken with potato puree, foraged mushrooms and turnips.

Like at Blackberry Farm, Chef Lenn keeps the centerpieces minimalist: just a sprig of rosemary in a simple vase.

Now, the ballet. As this backdrop tends to indicate, “Lucy Negro Redux” is about a love triangle.

Based on a series of poems by Caroline Randall Williams, the premise is that Shakespeare’s “Dark Lady Sonnets” were written about his love affair with a black brothel owner, the title character, referred to as Lucy Negro.

Knoxville Mayor Madeline Rogero at the Tennessee Theatre for the ballet.

Knox County Commissioner Evelyn Gill.

Paige Travis, left, and Fiona McAnally, both with the city of Knoxville.

To add to the drama, Shakespeare apparently is bisexual, also having a love affair with a young man he refers to as the “Fair Youth.” And then THAT guy and Lucy hook up! Yep. Pretty complicated and dramatic. And, if that’s not enough to hold your attention, the dancing is fabulous. The characters almost seem weightless. And the costumes can at times make them appear naked. (I can see why my friend John wanted to see it twice!)

Rhiannon Giddens and Francesco Turrisi wrote and performed the score.

The three main characters take a bow. From left, Shakespeare (Owen Thorne), Lucy Negro (Kayla Rowser) and the “Fair Youth” (Nicolas Scheuer).

After the performance, some of the key figures came back on stage to discuss the piece and take questions from the audience.

From left, Francesco Turrisi and Rhiannon Giddens, who wrote the score for the ballet; poet Caroline Randall Williams, who wrote the libretto; and Paul Vasterling, the artistic director and CEO of Nashville Ballet who choreographed the work.

My favorite question came from an older lady who asked, “What was it all about? It was lovely, but I am so confused. Can someone please tell me what it’s about?”

Caroline Randall Williams’ answer: “It was about a love triangle between Shakespeare, Lucy and the Fair Youth. It’s about how can we see ourselves as beautiful and how can we love who we love?”

Good answer.

Artists Tommie Rush and Richard Jolley being photo-bombed by Alan Carmichael after the show.

Susan and Kent Farris, left, with Melinda Meador, visiting from West Tennessee.

OK. There are three more jam-packed days of Big Ears. Do yourself a favor and experience it!

(Disclosure: Moxley Carmichael does some public relations work for both Big Ears and the Tennessee Theatre. But we would have given just as glowing a review even if we didn’t!)

Here are a couple of interesting links regarding the ballet.

A local review by KnoxTNToday’s Harold Duckett:

A wonderful New York Times article:


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4 Responses to It’s Big Ears time in Tennessee!

  1. Alan Carmichael, on March 22nd, 2019 at 2:26 pm said:

    The panel discussion was very interesting. As the artistic director said, ballet is attempting to redefine itself. “Lucy” certainly is a different take on how ballet can be performed and how music and dance (and poetry) can be paired. Awesome performance.

  2. Cynthia Moxley, on March 22nd, 2019 at 5:20 pm said:

    So far, Big Ears has been awesome. But that ballet is going to be hard to top! (I wish I had seen it twice like my friend John did.)

  3. Gay Lyons, on March 22nd, 2019 at 6:44 pm said:

    The performances are great, of course, but I love meeting the people who come here for Big Ears. I had fun talking with visitors at the Kick-Off last night. I love that they love our town.

    Hey–those pork rinds on the buffet? I never made it over there, but I suspect those were Tako Taco’s fabulous fried chicken skins, which are similar to pork rinds but are over the top better.

  4. Cynthia Moxley, on March 23rd, 2019 at 12:37 am said:

    Gay: I agree about loving the folks who love Knoxville. It’s like a big surprise to them. And I didn’t know about the fried chicken skins. Thanks for info!

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