Already Looking Forward to 2020

On Thursday morning of last week I had no idea who Beatrice Gibson was, or Rachel Grimes, or Edmar Castañeda, or Kendra DeColo, or Caroline Randall Williams, or Matt Wilson, or Kayhan Kalhor, or Kristín Anna Valtysdóttir, or Mountain Man, or Gabriel Kahane. Richard Thompson I knew about, and Bela Fleck, and Abigail Washburn, and Jack DeJohnette, and Bill Frisell. I had heard of the Carolina Chocolate Drops but didn’t really know who Rhiannon Giddens was.

Big Ears 2019 is over now; I made it through most of the four days, hanging it up around 5:30 Sunday afternoon after 21 different acts and almost 15 miles of walking all over downtown Knoxville. So, no Uncle Earl or Punch Brothers for me. The last act I saw was Gabriel Kahane, a singer I had never heard until his set at the Standard. It was a good way to go out; an artist I didn’t know who made me smile, laugh out loud, and, a couple of times, caught me completely off guard.

It’s hard to pick a favorite moment from so many great ones. I missed the Thursday Blue Plate Special but was listening to it on the way in when they mentioned that Richard Thompson would be at Barley’s at six for an unscheduled drop-in performance. Later that night was the Lucy Negro, Redux ballet at the Tennessee, with music by Rhiannon Giddens and Francesco Turrisi and poetry by Caroline Randall Williams. Ms. Williams invited the duo to her reading the next day at KMA and Rhiannon brought along Rowan Corbett, “the best bones player I know,” to help out. 

Matt Wilson’s “Honey and Salt” at the Bijou was funny and thought-provoking and musically rock solid. A jazz quintet riffing on poems by Carl Sandburg, with a couple of guest readers, made for a great hour. My favorite:

The single clenched fist lifted and ready,

Or the open asking hand held out and waiting.


For we meet by one or the other.  — Carl Sandburg

I can still hear the audience shouting “Choose!” along with the band.

Richard Thompson’s WWI song cycle was haunting, Bela Fleck and Edmar Castañeda provided more than a few jaw-dropping moments, and Rachel Grimes took us on a pastoral trip through an Appalachian family history.

One of the most unusual and magical hours happened Saturday morning. Abigail Washburn led a group of 80 or so into a basement room under the Emporium, where we turned off our cells, took our seats, and sat motionless and completely silent for ten minutes, at which point Bill Frisell, one of the best guitarists around, played a twenty minute improvisational solo set, after which we sat for another ten minutes of silence. It was, as I said, magical.

My thanks to all the performers, to Ashley Capps and his crew for putting together another in the series of what I think is the best thing that Knoxville does, and to the people I met from Portland, Brooklyn, Chicago, Boston, Atlanta, Columbus, and Knoxville who shared this four days with me.

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A career working with teenagers on the fringes of society has made me both sensitive to and appreciative of the complexities of character and the struggles, inner and outer, that we all wrestle with in one form or another. My writing emphasizes character development over action, and, as a lifelong Southerner, the rhythms and cadence of the Southeastern United States influence both my spoken and written voice.

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