Big Ears, the four-day creative music festival that draws thousands of interesting people to downtown Knoxville every spring is covered every year by the Rolling Stone, the New York Times, and this year even the staid Wall Street Journal. People come from all over the country to witness the spectacle of performers from all over the world. It has given Knoxville a global profile like few events ever have.
What Big Ears features is mainly New Music, from rock to classical, sometimes, in fact, music so new that critics have never heard before. It's all new to them, and it's why they come. Even professional musicians come here looking for ideas.
But here's the thing. When the critics write about the festival, one thing they write about every year, besides the new music, is all the interesting old buildings the new music gets performed in. History is part of the appeal of Big Ears.
Of the 11 venues listed for Big Ears this year, nine of them were built before 1935. You could almost use Big Ears as a historical and architectural tour of Knoxville.
This year, the oldest building used in the festival was the Jackson Terminal, built in the 1880s on Jackson near Gay to replace a wooden 1860s building of the same shape and size. A freight depot, it represents the dynamic rail era that changed Knoxville.
The second oldest is St. John's Cathedral, built in 1892 and designed by architect Joseph W. Yost, whose work is best known in Ohio; this is his southernmost creation. The room that experienced all this startling new music is the same room that saw the 1906 funeral of the Leipzig-born composer and conductor Gustavus Knabe, and where further author James Agee was baptized in 1910.
The Bijou Theatre, which a Big Ears attendee from the New York Times called one of the best-sounding auditoriums in the eastern United States, was built in 1909, when Teddy Roosevelt was president. Though not as old as Nashville's Ryman, which was built to be a church, it's the oldest theater built as a theater in Tennessee. It has witnessed some of the great performers in American history, from John Philip Sousa to Patti Smith, David Byrne, Tony Bennett, and the Ramones.
The Tennessee Theatre, built in 1928 and elaborately restored 12 years ago, is a rare survivor of the Motion Picture Palace era, it was once a venue for a national live-audience broadcast by Glenn Miller and his orchestra, and has since hosted an array of performers, from Glenn Miller, who did a national radio broadcast there in 1940, to Cab Calloway, Lionel Hampton, Bob Dylan, and Morrissey.
The Mill and Mine on Depot and the Standard on West Jackson are recently converted railroad-district industrial spaces from the 1920s and early '30s that both host musical events even when there aren't festivals going on, and the Square Room on Market Square and UT's Downtown Gallery on Gay are both early 20th century commercial buildings once familiar to shoppers.
Church Street Methodist, used as a venue for Big Ears for the first time this year, was built in 1930, and is an old hand at hosting musical events. It hosted the very first concert of the Knoxville Symphony Orchestra in 1935.
Big Ears always brings fresh, startling, sometimes alarming new music into familiar old landmarks.
It makes an interesting paradox, and there are lots of other examples if you look around Knoxville today. New stuff often happens in old places.