Knoxville ho! Big Ears Festival awaits your exploration, even if you’re strapped for cash

I always feel a twinge of regret whenever I see the photos from Scots studying abroad, like those of Spain from our illustrious editor, Emily Huffstetler, in the last edition of The Highland Echo.

I never had the opportunity, mostly because I didn’t have the financial resources, and what I did have, I spent on copious amounts of drugs that nearly killed me (a story for another time). I enjoy, however, living vicariously through y’all’s trips overseas, and soaking up the international flavor that descends on downtown Knoxville once per year.

It’s coming up this weekend, and if you’ve never taken part in the Big Ears Festival, I can’t recommend doing so enough. Even if you can’t afford tickets (and they’re pricey, to be honest), there are a ton of free events surrounding the paid ones, and it brings music fans from all over the world to East Tennessee to take part. I kid you not: Take a walk through Market Square on late Saturday morning, and you’ll hear snippets of conversations in several different languages.

That’s because this is a festival unlike any other, brought to life by Ashley Capps, the guy credited with creating the Bonnaroo Music and Arts Festival, among others. He grew up in Knoxville; got interested in off-the-beaten-path music by digging into the influences of his heroes and the biggest bands of the day; started a club in the Old City that gave a space for some of these acts; launched AC Entertainment, which he sold to Live Nation but booked concerts at the city’s prestigious venues; and continues to curate Big Ears as something of a leisurely afternoon spent in his living room, listening to arcane and beautiful music he’s playing for you.

“The wonderful thing about music is that it’s an endless world to explore,” he told me recently. “I think the magic chemistry of Big Ears is that we’ve been able to attract a large audience from all over the country and the world, which results in a significant audience for these artists that goes beyond the norm.”

Some of them come, of course, because the scope of performers is breathtaking, far too many to list here, but some of the headliners include Los Lobos, Rickie Lee Jones, Calexico, Devendra Banhart, Andrew Bird, The Mountain Goats and so many more. I realize many of you have heard of absolutely none of these, and that’s OK, because for every artist who has a fanbase bordering on cult-like, there are others few have heard of, because the idea behind Big Ears is sonic exploration.

“I’m a fan of many, and perhaps even most, of the artists playing the festival, but it’s also about

exploring ideas,” Capps said. “For me on the fan level, so to speak, a lot of these conversations lead me to discover new things I didn’t know myself, even. It’s this ongoing process of discovery I have, in which something I love will lead me to another artist, to another artist, to another project.

“To me, the real spirit behind the festival is fun. One of the motivating principles behind the festival is to take music that sometimes exists only in a certain environment, and bring it into a new environment to mix it up with certain other things. I love bringing together these audiences and communities that don’t necessarily always meet each other, but are coming together to share their passion for the music they love.

“Those connections, collisions and conversations that come from bringing together people together who don’t normally spend time together is the most exciting thing about the festival to me, and music is the spark that pulls all that together,” he added.

And all you have to do to be a part of it is drive 20 minutes north to Knoxville. Like I said, it’s pricey to attend the ticketed events—single day passes start at $115 and can be purchased on the Big Ears website at—but there are numerous free events that cost absolutely nothing that are part of the festival’s programming. Those include:

  1. At Southern Railway Station, 306 W. Depot Ave. in downtown Knoxville, Big Ears organizers are throwing a street party on Friday, March 31, that’s absolutely free and includes food trucks and activities for all ages. Friday’s performers include Adeem the Artist at 2 p.m.; Xylouris White at 4 p.m.; and East L.A. legends Los Lobos at 6:15 p.m.
  2. On Saturday, April 1, it’s more street party fun, and it all kicks off with a Big Ears parade that begins at noon under the interstate overpass down from Barley’s Taproom in Knoxville’s Old City, continues down South Central Street to West Jackson Avenue to North Gay Street to West Depot, ending at Southern Railway. Saturday’s free performance there include Drugs Up Guns Down, Good Guy Collective and Kauwila Mahi at 2 pl.m.; Danielle Ponder at 3:30 p.m.; Rica Chicha at 5:15 p.m.; and Combo Chimbita at 7 p.m.

Those are just the free Big Ears-affiliated events. It seems all of Knoxville will be taking part in some form or fashion, and for a complete list of other free events, shows, displays and more, visit

Whether you’re traveling abroad in May or, like yours truly, may never leave the country, you can certainly (I hope anyway) afford the trip to Knoxville. Everything you think you know about the city will be turned on its head during Big Ears Festival, and if you’re into exploration of music and culture, you won’t find a better opportunity than an event considered by artists, fans and critics alike to be the literal epicenter of both for one weekend only.

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