The biggest star of the Big Ears Festival? Knoxville.

Steven Matijcio, left, executive director of the Knoxville Museum of Art, and Ashley Capps, founder, artistic and executive director of Big Ears at the opening reception of this year’s festival held at the museum.

The 11th Big Ears festival ended its 4-day run late Sunday and one thing was very clear. Although there were quite a few musical and creative luminaries on the playbill, the biggest star of all was the city of Knoxville.

“I can’t believe all the beautiful venues — all the historic buildings you all have,” said a man from Asheville with whom we shared a drink at Five Thirty Lounge. “We don’t have that.”

Two older guys from Connecticut said the same thing. “Your downtown is just so walkable,” one noted. “It’s great that all the venues are so close together.” These two had flown to Knoxville, booked a room at the Hyatt Place for four days, and ate every meal out. Multiply that by the thousands of visitors who came for the long weekend. (Big Ears has not yet released official attendance numbers for this year, but four-day passes sold out before the festival started.)

Of course, almost everyone commented on the friendliness of the people.

Although there were more than 200 musical, film and discussion options, the real star was downtown Knoxville and our beautiful venues — especially the Tennessee Theatre.

All the hotels were booked solid. A musician we met on Wednesday at Emilia on Market Square said he couldn’t find a room downtown and was staying at The Graduate hotel on Cumberland Avenue. Many visitors said they were in Airbnb or Vrbo rentals — some as far from downtown as Fountain City and deep West Knoxville.

Some downtown restaurants that normally close on Sundays decided to stay open to take advantage of the crowds. These included two of our favorites, J.C. Holdway and Bisto by the Bijou.

Big Ears wasn’t the only tourism draw to downtown Knoxville last weekend. The Knoxville Convention Center hosted a youth basketball tournament, the University of Tennessee welcomed folks to parents’ weekend, and there was a major cat show at Chilhowee Park. Still, Big Ears attracted a very unique clientele to compliment the others.

“Big Ears is awesome for Knoxville,” said Kim Bumpas, president of Visit Knoxville, the city’s main tourism organization. “It brings a music and arts vibrancy to downtown and shows off our wonderful venues.”

“The response from artists and fans this year has been extraordinary, over-the-top really,” said Ashley Capps, artistic and executive director of Big Ears. “It was a remarkable and memorable weekend. We’re already planning for next year, but I do not anticipate any major changes. The current parameters feel like they work very well – and enable us to maintain the special character of the event and deliver an exceptional experience for all who attend.”

The festival has contracted with AngelouEconomics of Austin, Texas, to conduct an economic impact study every two years. The latest, in 2022, concluded that the festival generated more than $37 million for the local economy that year. Based on those calculations, festival organizers estimated the impact last year was more than $50 million.

Here’s a look at the weekend as experienced by my husband, Alan Carmichael, and me. Our good friends Phyllis and Jim Nichols stayed with us downtown because they live in the “379-too-far” zip code in West Knoxville! It was a blast.

UPDATE: Late Tuesday, the folks at Big Ears released some partial attendance numbers. They said total ticketed attendance was 30,443 for the weekend. This is 1,675 less than last year, because they capped ticket sales at 500 less per day than last year (except on Thursday). They did this, they said, to create the best possible experience for everyone.  We think it worked!

Knoxville Mayor Indya Kincannon, left, and former mayor Madeline Rogero at the opening reception.

Two Fulton High School guys — Ronnie Collins, left, and Alan Carmichael at the reception.

Fantastic food was catered by the Mill & Mine. Clockwise from left, spicy pickled mango sticky rice spoons, caramelized onion stuffed soft pretzels, barbecue chicken rillette and pimento cheese tartlets, and curried pistachio chutney and tomato jam sandwiches.

Mayor Rogero and her friend Peggy Mathews who was visiting from Virginia.

We started our festival experience at the Knoxville Visitor Center with three music critics telling us what they were must looking forward to. From left, Ann Powers of NPR; Ashley Kahn, a Grammy-wining music historian who teaches at New York University; and veteran jazz critic Nate Chinen.

I listen to NPR so much that I feel as if Ann Powers is a personal friend! Ha.

But, first things first! We had reservations at J.C. Holdway for dinner on Thursday! From left, Jim and Phyllis Nichols with Alan Carmichael.

Sommelier Jason Drotar being sure that I get every last drop of Pinot Grigio from the bottle!

We stopped by the Tennessee Theatre to see guitar “genius” Mary Halvorson (second from left) and her band.

Then, on to St. John’s Episcopal Cathedral where rapper-turned-flutist Andre 3000 was performing. Unfortunately, he didn’t allow cell phone photography. But here’s his logo! Ha.

Friday morning, we jumped out of bed and ran to Oliver Royale on Market Square for brunch. We had decided to split up and each see acts we were most interested in.

For me, that meant the Mill & Mine for Hooray for the Riff Raff fronted by Alynda Seggara.

Alan headed to RED Gallery in the Old City to see Steve Keene, an extremely prolific painter who churns out dozens of paintings a day and sells them for $20 each. Time magazine once called him the “assembly line Picasso!” (Photo by Alan Carmichael.)

Then, back to the Tennessee Theatre for John Paul Jones, formerly of Led Zeppelin. The crowd roared when he rose out of the orchestra pit on the Tennessee’s Mighty Wurlitzer organ!

He is 78 now, but apparently young at heart. He said he couldn’t decide what kind of mandolin he wanted, so he got three of them!

He called this a “collapsible guitar.” He said he had it made so he could fold it up and stash it under an airplane seat!

It sounded good!

He also does a great job on a regular mandolin!

Then we got a text telling us we were invited to a happy hour at Five Thirty Lounge atop the Hyatt Place on Gay Street. This happens all the time during Big Ears. New appetizers were brought out every five minutes! Here are Wagyu sliders and shitake poke tacos.

John and Amy Gibson were up there, too.

It was windy on the roof! Andrea Bailey, left, of the Aslan Foundation, a Big Ears funder, and Big Ears development director Casey Fox.

Then, we really lucked up! A friend texted that she had a hard-to-get dinner reservation at A Dopo Sourdough Pizza that she couldn’t use! We jumped on the opportunity! Cheers!

Yum! That’s my favorite pizza on the right, covered with arugula and grated Parmesan. I think everyone else got a Pizza Margherita.

Phyllis and I headed to Jackson Terminal to hear one of the more unusual acts on the schedule: Molly Lewis, a professional whistler! If you saw the “Barbie” movie, you heard her! It was interesting.

We ended the night with one of my favorite Big Ears performers, Rhiannon Giddens. She was at the Tennessee Theatre.

She’s been at the last four Big Ears Festivals, I believe.

We took a little break on Saturday because some among us wanted to watch some basketball on TV!

But we weren’t about to miss dinner! We had reservations at Emilia on Market Square. Clockwise from top left, I had salmon, Phyllis had gnocchi, Alan had the filet, and Jim had meatballs and polenta. Delish!

And then, one of the highlights of the festival: 83-year-old jazz legend Herbie Hancock at the Civic Auditorium.

We saw lots of unusual instruments at this festival.

Terence Blanchard was amazing on trumpet.

Lionel Loueke on guitar.

James Genus was on bass.

Trevor Lawrence Jr. on drums.

Devin Daniels on sax.

A well-deserved standing ovation.

On Sunday morning, we headed to Chesapeake’s for brunch. (It looks like I am in a breakfast rut, doesn’t it? It’s just that I don’t make crabcake Benedicts at home, so I get them whenever I can when we go out!)

Alan and I headed to Regal Cinemas to take in an unfinished documentary about New Orleans’ great Allen Toussaint. You can see it’s not finished because there’s a “placeholder” telling them to insert the credits. Called “The Songwriter Tapes,” it was excellent. We recommend you see it when it is finished and released.

We headed to the Knoxville Museum of Art. All programs there throughout the festival — about 12 — were free.

We were there to hear journalist Marcus J. Moore, left, interview Jon Batiste, who would perform later.

The insanely busy entertainer said he gets through by planning “an imaginary vacation!”

I think they should have put out more chairs!

Early dinner Sunday was at Nama. When I told them to “toast,” Alan grabbed my martini and Jim grabbed the soy sauce!

Some of our delicious food. Clockwise from left, steamed shrimp dumplings, Asiago crab dip, and salmon.

Back to the Civic Auditorium for Jon Batiste.

Mayor Kincannon was there with her aunt, Linda Bailey.

David and Annie Colquitt waiting for the show to start.

Gretchen Hartmann and Mike Cohen.

Becky Hancock, executive director of the Tennessee Theatre, posed with Alan.

He put on a great show. The energy level was amazing.

Pretty cool.


The place was packed.

Phyllis was into it.

So was everybody else!

Batiste and a backup singer. (Photo by Alan Carmichael.)

Our friend Eric Smith grabbing a shot.

And Alan Sims of “Inside of Knoxville.”

About this time, I slipped out to head to the Bijou to hear the Knoxville Symphony Chamber Orchestra play. I made it at 8:58, with two minutes to spare!

There was a good crowd there, too!

They were performing with Grammy-winning singer-songwriter Aoife O’Donovan, in a program based on the Women’s Suffrage movement.

I noticed Eric Smith had made it to the Bijou, too!

KSO Music Director Aram Demirjian.

There was even a youth choir!

Some of the KSO musicians. Clockwise from right, Steve Benne, Edward Pulgar, Kathryn Gawne, and Joshua Ulrich.

Great seeing our friends Maureen and Neil McBride, back, Joyce Feld and Charles Glisson, front, and Grier Novinger, right, at the conclusion of a wonderful weekend!


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6 Responses to The biggest star of the Big Ears Festival? Knoxville.

  1. Gay Lyons, on March 26th, 2024 at 2:20 pm said:

    Looks fantastic! And exhausting! good thing there are so many places to find sustenance in our fabulous, walkable downtown.

  2. Cynthia Moxley, on March 26th, 2024 at 2:30 pm said:

    Gay: I think we made the most of the Festival opportunities — and the chance to visit our favorite eateries and watering holes. One must keep up one’s strength!

  3. Alan Carmichael, on March 26th, 2024 at 2:44 pm said:

    It was a great weekend for us and Knoxville. Big Ears just keeps getting better and better. The vibe was good throughout.

  4. Jennifer L Holder, on March 26th, 2024 at 2:51 pm said:

    What a great storytelling of Big Ears!

  5. Phyllis Nichols, on March 26th, 2024 at 3:15 pm said:

    Often I had to remind myself that we were in Knoxville. We ate, danced, and walked the entire area. Kudos to Ashley Capps for his vision.

  6. Monique Anderson, on April 4th, 2024 at 5:57 pm said:

    Looks like you had a fantastic time!

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