Knoxville has always been a music town, but the 1982 World’s Fair helped finally bring Knoxville into the musical spotlight. Read on and click through the links to hear some tunes on YouTube!
Many great artists performed at the Fair, from Hollywood legend Bob Hope to classical greats Isaac Stern, Leonard Rose and Leontyne Price, to country legends Willie Nelson, Merle Haggard, Loretta Lynn and Conway Twitty, to rock pioneers Carl Perkins and Jerry Lee Lewis, to then-new MTV stars Men at Work. But it may have been the artists who were returning home to perform at the 1982 World’s Fair who held the most significance.
Nashville, Memphis and even Bristol overshadowed Knoxville in musical notoriety. However, those who know their history realized that Knoxville’s contributions were just as important those sister cities. From the 1920s to the present day, Knoxville acted as an incubator for artists who went on to fame and acclaim.
Dolly Parton, who is now one of the most recognizable names on the planet, left East Tennessee for Nashville in 1964. When she returned for a July 17 World’s Fair performance, she had only recently become a superstar, not only topping the country and pop charts, but also conquering Hollywood with her appearance in “9 to 5.”
Chet Atkins left Knoxville in the late 1940s. When he returned in June 1982, he had taught several generations how to fingerpick the guitar, had instrumental hits, and had produced some of the biggest acts in country music.
Tennessee Ernie Ford was born and raised in Bristol but worked as announcer on Knoxville’s WROL in the 1940s. In fact, he’d announced the attack on Pearl Harbor over the station on Dec. 7, 1941. By the time he performed at the World’s Fair he was best known for his hit version of the Merle Travis song “Sixteen Tons” as well as having had his own popular television show.
Knoxville-born Broadway star John Cullum had already won two Tony Awards for Best Actor when he returned to Knoxville to produce and star in the play “Drumwright” at the Tennessee theater.
Ava Barber, star of “The Lawrence Welk Show,” returned to Knoxville for good in 1982 and, later, opened a theater in Pigeon Forge with her husband Dick Dale.
Howard (“Louie Bluie”) Armstrong and Ted Bogan, who had performed on the streets of town in the late 1920s and early ‘30s as The Tennessee Chocolate Drops (along with Carl Martin, who died in 1979), performed at the Folklife Pavilion. Three years after the festival, Armstrong would be the subject of the acclaimed documentary film “Louie Bluie” and would achieve legendary status. LaFollette, Armstrong’s hometown, now hosts the annual Louie Bluie Festival.
Sparky Rucker, a young folk performer who hadn’t moved away, but was rarely in town because of his touring schedule, felt honored to play alongside Bogan and Armstrong, and other pioneering folk and blues performers, including Hammie Nixon, Yank Rachell, Robert Lockwood Jr., John Shines, Nimrod Workman, and Red Rector and Fred Smith. Workman, Rector and Smith all lived in the Knoxville area and were regulars through the Fair.
Dave Loggins, is a native of Mountain City, near Kingsport, and had regularly performed in Knoxville. In 1974 he had a hit with “Please Come to Boston” released the song “Girl from Knoxville” as a single that same year. In July 1982, he performed at the Tennessee Amphitheatre as part of the Fair’s concert series. While Loggins never had another hit on his own (he duetted with Anne Murray on the No. 1 country hit “Nobody Loves Me Like You Do” in 1984), he became one of Nashville’s most successful songwriters, penning hits for Alabama, Wynonna Judd, Don Williams, Sawyer Brown, Reba McEntire, Toby Keith and many others.
Pianist and composer Richard Trythall was a Knoxville prodigy winning a contest that had the Knoxville Symphony Orchestra performing one of his compositions while he was still a teenager. When he returned for his World’s Fair performance, he’d already made waves in the avant garde scene of the 1960s, recorded albums, earned a stack of awards for his classical compositions, and was a fellow at the American University in Rome.
There was also a reunion of musicians who had once performed during the golden age of Knoxville radio (1930s to 1950s) was also held at the World’s Fair.
The only active music venue for the Fair that remains in operation is the Tennessee Amphitheatre. In the 40 years since it was built for the World’s Fair, the venue has been utilized for concerts, festivals, and community events. The World’s Fair Park lawn, which once held various pavilions of different nations, was used for many years a venue for the Hot Summer Nights concert series. It’s since been used for festivals and other events.
“Drumwright” with John Cullum was presented at the Tennessee Theatre, which has since undergone a renovation and hosts regular concerts. Knoxville’s oldest concert hall, the Bijou Theatre, reopened in 1977, after being in danger of being of being demolished, and by 1982 was housing regular concerts. It’s since been renovated and recognized as one of the city’s treasures. The Knoxville Civic Coliseum and Auditorium also hosted several performances tied to the Fair and continues to present music acts.
Over the past 40 years since the World’s Fair closed, Knoxville’s music scene has continued to grow and expand. The number of bars and restaurants that feature live music is always getting larger. Market Square has Preservation Pub, Scruffy City Hall and the Square Room. The Old City features Mill & Mine, The Pilot Light, Barley’s, Boyd’s Jig and Reel, Pretentious Beer Company, Old City Performing Arts Center and many others. The Open Chord in West Knoxville features touring and local artists. Longtime dance hall Cotton Eyed Joe features country music. The Concourse, recently relocated to North Knoxville, presents modern rock and metal. That’s not to mention that radio station WDVX (located in the Visit Knoxville Visitors Center) presents the Blue Plate Special live performances on weekdays.
Knoxville’s Ashely Capps, who founded AC Entertainment and co-founded the Bonnaroo Music and Arts Festival, founded the Big Ears Festival in 2009. Like the World’s Fair, the festival brings people from all over the world to Knoxville for cutting edge music and entertainment. (Taking place March 24-27, 2022)
Anywhere you go in Knoxville you’re a short walk away from someone performing live music. And, in past four decades, Knoxvillians and visitors have truly begun to embrace the city’s music and music history. When you visit Knoxville, you just might feel it embracing you.
Check out a playlist of the artists that performed at the 1982 World's Fair here.
And, here’s a partial list of music artists who performed at the 1982 World’s Fair, take a scroll and see who you’ve heard of, or who you’ve seen in concert!
Tennessee Ernie Ford
Jerry Lee Lewis
Prague Symphony Orchestra
Five Blind Boys
McLain Family Band
The Four Freshmen
Jennifer Muller & The Works
London Symphony Orchestra
Ronnie Milsap & Brenda Lee
Al Hirt and Pete Fountain
Riders In the Sky
Five Blind Boys
Papa John Creach
Vienna Symphony Orchestra
Doyle Lawson & Qucksilver
Dry Branch Fire Squad
Dale Evans and Riverbend
Johnson Mountain Boys
Ralph Stanley and the Clinch Mountain Boys
Roan Mountain Hilltoppers
Shady Mountain Ramblers
Pine River Boys
Dry Hill Draggers
Frazier Moss String Band
Mack Snodderly String Band
Albert Hash and White Top
Lewis and Donna Lamb
Raymond Fairchild and the Crowe Brothers
Lew Waldrop Band
Bill Grant and Delia Bell
Full Gospel Singers
Rev. Leon Pinson
St. Joseph’s House of Prayer
Spiritual Jubilee Singers
Piano Red “Dr. Feelgood”
R.L. Burnside and the Sound Machine,
Harmonica Frank Floyd
The Irish Tradition
Booker T. Laury
Rising Star Fife Band
Albert Macon Robert Thomas
Algia Mae Hinton
Ola Belle Reed
Joe and Janette Carter
Museum of Appalachia String Band