Monday, March 16, 2009

bluegrass capital of the world (?)

pictured: Town Mountain at Friday's Blue Plate Special

A few weeks ago we asked what Knoxville's identity was. The only thing that seems to be clear on this issue/crisis is that nothing is clear. I had a few thoughts on Friday while I was at the Blue Plate Special:

We don't need to import anything new to "snazz-up" our town (i.e. the Women's Basketball Hall of Fame). We have something here that is largely ignored except for aficionados. Most people know we have a "Bluegrass Scene", but couldn't really tell you who what or where this scene entails. WDVX and the BPS have become the most visible indicators of this Scene.

You may not know this, but Knoxville used to be a center of music: rural music, now mainly known as Country with a capital 'C'. Bristol claims to be the birthplace, but the genre came alive here. We had WNOX and the Mid Day Merry Go Round. It was as big as the Opry. Many famous acts got their start here. And it wasn't that long ago- people remember when Knoxville the place to be, enough so that I hear it mentioned all the time by artists passing through. What happened? Well, Country music moved west- stolen, as it were, from us by the "Music City". They crafted an identity around the music and prospered. And our musical heritage became part of our past, celebrated only by small makers at downtown parking lots where palaces of entertainment once stood.

However, as the glamor of mainstream Country Music became entrenched in Nashville, its old deep roots have remained alive here. Much like how it formed in isolated valleys of our mountains, this music remained on our neighborhood porches, in small cinder block bars on alleys. A small radio station played records in a camper. Dolly never left. The music remained.

Call it Old Time, Hillbilly, Appalachian Folk. But "Bluegrass" is the title that most people recognize. In terms of identity, this is important. We've lost 'Country', and given it's current state, I'm not sure we'd want it back. Bluegrass, however, is a decentralized genre. There aren't many major cities in the Appalachians- maybe that's why. Knoxville is about as close as it gets. Consider this-
the Tennessee state quarter is based on music. A guitar (Country/Nashville), a trumpet (Blues/Memphis) and a fiddle (Bluegrass/???). You fill in the blank. These reasons, plus many more, are why we should make ourselves the Bluegrass Capital. It makes sense.

It's here, it's part of what makes Knoxville unique. No one else has claimed/stolen it. We have the music infrastructure (I'm looking at you, AC Entertainment). We need a festival. Not just another little Bluegrass festival, a big national-scale Bonnaroo of Bluegrass. We need a Bluegrass Hall of Fame and Museum. We need more live radio shows. We need an University Institute dedicated to preserving traditional Appalachian music. We need to make our city The Mecca of Bluegrass fans.

It wouldn't take much more effort that we've invested in other abortive attempts to brand Knoxville. It'll take focus, something Knoxville isn't very good at, to hang our hat on one thing and to do it well.


B said...

if you got all the pickers together in knoxville and the surrounding areas, that would be a festival in and of itself. it would be great to see something that really shows knoxville's appreciation for the bluegrass scene here. if you got players from out of town, who knows how big it would be.

but are there not already bluegrass festivals in existence? i'm asking cuz i don't know.

The Modern Gal said...

Great post, CK. I completely agree that bluegrass should be the foundation upon which Knoxville's identity is secured. If the kind of music that Nashville is putting out is what country music has become, I say let them have it. I think Nashville is starting to completely lose sight of its local flavor because it's trying so hard to be Atlanta. I don't want that for Knoxville.

A solid bluegrass festival would help. I'd love to see something in the same style of Big Ears -- spread shows out among our many great venues and then have a couple of huge headliners. Maybe we could stage a coup of the Boxcar festival in Chattanooga (the Forever Bluegrass one)?

I think we've already got many pieces in place but we need better organization to promote it. Someone needs to take the lead, be it AC or the visitors bureau. Or the Wigshop!

Anonymous said...

YES YES YES, Yes to the post and yes to the comments so far. I think what will give this idea a real long-term draw for everyone (along with providing some unique-ness from the other festivals) is providing multiple opportunities for bluegrass musicians to play TOGETHER! The tradition of Appalachian music is to pick up an instrument, learn from each other and start making some music. I think Market Square would be a great venue to invite ALL players, professional and amateur to get together to play, learn from each other, and give us all one hell-of-a show! Of course individual shows at the Tennessee, Bijou, Square Room, on Campus, etc. should be part of the fun too.

max said...


B said...

i can see it now. shows going on in different venues, and in the meantime, players just getting together in market square to play, til the sun comes up. that's how it should be anyway.

i'll run the fried corn on the cob stand.

Max Gambit said...

Don't you know? We're the underwear capital of the world.

I'm really not making this up. I'm backed up historically.

Mickey said...

Both maxs (plain and Gambit) make good points.

Great post, CK. Off the top of my head I can't think of anyplace else that calls itself the Bluegrass capital. Of the places I've lived, some of which have had lively Bluegrass scenes, Knoxville is definitely the liveliest and, as you point out, has the strongest claim to the title.

Screw Nashville. We got the real music here.

Anonymous said...

"The Bonnaroo of Bluegrass."
Wow, "Bonnaroo," "Bluegrass," and "Knoxville" all in the same breath. What a horrifying combination of concepts.

Tennessee Values Authority said...


In general I love the spirit of the post. I won't dive into my 9,385th sermon of why the idea that Nashville stole country music from Knoxville is a fallacy but I will link to it.

I only point that out because the fallacy tends to feed into the genetic pessimism that feeds Knoxvillians on a daily basis. By focusing on what was (not) stolen, it tends to reinforce the idea that we just can't do anything worthwhile because something bad will happen again and some other city will just outdo us. I am far more eager to focus on the future and its possibilities regarding bluegrass/roots/Americana/ music than being directed by a misremembered past.

All that being said, I think you are certainly on the right track. Knoxville is a city with multiple identities and many of those identities are quite marketable. A city of Knoxville's size and reputation (or lack thereof) should try to capitalize on as many of these identities as possible.

The biggest problem to date, in my view, has been the idea that we can only market one idea to one audience. Mention to some folks that you want to promote Knoxville as an Americana-music paradise and they'll sputter and gasp and try to point you toward our "cultural" assets or sports or the outdoor/eco/adventure possibilities. What they don't usually realize is that it's quite possible to successfully build an audience for each of these and that these audiences frequently overlap. What it will take is a willingness to let some folks grab an idea and run with it without feeling the need to protect personal turf.

I've long believed that the best idea for marketing Knoxville is to let the assets and the people who protect, nurture, and preserve them use their built-in networks to build the necessary infrastructure.

For starters, those people have a greater interest in promoting and preserving the arts and artists rather than simply stripmining them for quick tourism dollars (which rarely make it back to the artists themselves). Arts and culture are no different than the environmental resources around us.

The key to success here is likely not to wait for some larger government/quasi-government agency (KTSC for instance) to do something, but to start the work at a grassroots level and build a community of stakeholders.

Such a community should include: the artists themselves, Jubilee Community Arts, AC Entertainment, WDVX, the Knoxville Americana Music Foundation (producer of Tennessee Shines at the Bijou), various club owners, groups such as the Market Square District Association, passionate fans, etc. (It may be apparent that I've thought about this before. I've been trying to nudge people on this idea for more than a decade.)

So, yeah, sign me up. I'll be happy to help.

Tennessee Values Authority said...

Not to nitpick, but I did want to illuminate some information for you.

1. There is already an International Bluegrass Music Museum and Hall of Fame. It is located in Owensboro, Kentucky, which used to be the home of the International Bluegrass Music Association. (The IBMA itself moved to Nashville a few years ago.) Not to say that some sort of museum/exhibit component couldn't be created for Knoxville-- but I don't know if it's the key missing ingredient and worth the initial capital that could be used for other components of your post.

2. There is a university institute dedicated to the preservation and promotion of bluegrass music. It's not at UT, but it is located nearby in Johnson City at ETSU. Again, this doesn't work against the idea, but actually plays in its favor as it helps establish the fact that the music was, is, and will be a product of the region. Holding our breath for UT to create such a specialized institute in these budget days while not taking advantage of the resources available to us at ETSU would be a shame. Connect the "birthplace" to the "cradle" (as I've long advocated) and you've created a regional destination with opportunities for communities between the Tri-Cities and Knoxville (such as Union County-- home to Roy Acuff, Chet Atkins, Carl Smith, and others) to participate.

By focusing on Knoxville as a "mecca" are you looking for a single event draw-- a pilgrimage, if you will-- or are you looking for a sustainable year-round opportunity to build economic opportunity in the region through the music and the artists? Think of the opportunities in developing a network of venues in Knoxville and outlying communities, driving tours through the region, educational opportunities (Steve Kaufmann's flatpicking camp at Maryville College, events at ETSU, etc.), and other possibilities. Many of these programs already exist. They mostly need an organizing link between them to assist them in the marketing as a regional cooperative.

After all, your "Bonnaroo" isn't going to be held in downtown Knoxville, is it? Build a working network amongst the surrounding communities and you'll build toward a festival farm site for holding a large-scale event.

I suggest, however, that focusing on a Big Ears-style event might be a great thing to do especially in the winter months when the artists are looking for gigs as the festival season hibernates.

Anonymous said...

I know you guys may be busy, but are you going to go see the pot smoking play with the Tennessee Stage Company at the Theatre Knoxville Downtown theatre across Gay Street from Regas? It's getting some good buzz from people who smoked a lot of marijuana. I was hoping there would be a review from people who hadn't smoked quite so much in the past. There needs to be some, y'know, levelheaded, unbiased reporting.

Museum of Appalachia said...

Don't forget just up the road from Knoxville right off of I-75is the Museum of Appalachia! We have a large four day festival every 2nd weekend in October(Oct. 8-11, 2009)called the Tennessee Fall Homecoming. We are all about preserving the old time music, bluegrass, country, folk including clogging & buckdancing. We have 5 outdoor stages of music that plays continuously from about 9:00 til dusk. We highlight nationally, regionally & locally known performers and for $25.00 per day, thats a great deal! We not only have music but old time demonstrations and "vittles". During our regular season, the Museum of Appalachia is open for self-guided tours. In our Appalachian Hall of Fame we highlight the famous and not so famous people of Appalachia including the wonderful musicians that have come out of our Appalachian area including Bill Monore, John Hartford, the Carter family, Roy Acuff, Chet Atkins, Red Rector, Carl Bean, Grandpa Jones, Redd Stewart and more. All the ideas on this blog sound great but please don't forget what is just up the road!

Anonymous said...

good comments everyone, I think this proves that the wigshop people don't know everything about knoxville and the surrounding area and that they should be doing more research before they post. There are various bluegrass festivals throughout the year including the Tennessee Fall Homecoming, Old-timer's at the Smokies visitors center (that one is held twice a year), and don't forget the bluegrass jamming that goes on every friday night at the Rocky Branch Community center in Walland. There is a bluegrass scene in the Knoxville area which is very much alive if you're educated on where to find it.

The Modern Gal said...

Now hold on just a minute, Anonymous. I think you're totally missing the point of this post. We're not suggesting making Knoxville the exclusive end-all, be-all of the bluegrass scene. We're just talking about finding ways to harness this great bluegrass scene here in East Tennessee and market it to the outside world. We realize there are lots and lots of wonderful things about the bluegrass scene and I'm totally in agreement that all should be included and promoted.

This is all about finding ways to promote Knoxville and East Tennessee in a positive way.

I'd like to remind everyone that we like to keep the forum here a constructive one. Peace and Wigshop love for everyone!

Anonymous said...

I've learned so much about the Bluegrass scene in East TN just by the replies to this post. Maybe having a complete listing of information about all of these festivals and organizations would be the best "first step" in promoting the assets of our area. Any of you wigshoppers interested in creating an East Tennesse Music Culture website?

Tennessee Values Authority said...

Dear Anonymous,

Hold on indeed. Modern Gal is correct in that you have missed the point. My posts (and I'm assuming the same for many of the others such as the Museum of Appalachia) were not meant to "prove" any such thing. Our information was not provided as a sort of "gotcha" or to say "I know more than you."

Instead, what I think each of us has been actually trying to prove is that the original post by CK was a worthy idea. There are a lot of great natural resources here to take advantage of such as museums, local performance venues, local artists, festivals, community jam sessions, live radio programs, walking and driving tours, local instrument makers, educational workshops, and more.

What CK's idea shows is that there is currently a lack of organization in communicating all of this in a unified way that is useful to locals and visitors alike. Yes, there are individual concert calendars, newspaper listings, etc., but this is about more than a simple listing or directory. There is a great need for a unified marketing plan that would let each of the stakeholders in this idea have opportunities to expand their audiences and finances.

Frankly, the conversation needs more folks like the Wigshop folks jumping into the conversation regardless of their depth or breadth of their current resources locally and nationally. It needs a whole lot less anonymous sniping.

I have worked as a bluegrass radio dj and been a member of the IBMA. I have worked in the field of musical history and preservation and have worked professionally for more than a decade in tourism development. I have long felt there is great potential for such an idea here to develop a central marketing cooperative and work towards developing new audience generating events.

I am happy to hear anyone else and help anyone else who wants to see action taken. I'm not interested in participating in making it a reality, not in more of the same Knox-negativism.

Tennessee Values Authority said...

I've learned so much about the Bluegrass scene in East TN just by the replies to this post. Maybe having a complete listing of information about all of these festivals and organizations would be the best "first step" in promoting the assets of our area. Any of you wigshoppers interested in creating an East Tennesse Music Culture website?

I can't speak for the Wigshoppers, but I'd be interested in the idea. I would happily provide the server space for hosting it and would welcome the opportunity to get some folks together to make plans for it.

Tennessee Values Authority said...

Edit -- the earlier post should obviously say "I'm interested in making it a reality" rather than "I'm not interested..."

Carry on.

B said...

if i knew how to build a website, i'd do it in a heartbeat!

just a friendly reminder to our readers: our blog is for people's enjoyment, yours and ours included. we'd like to do a ton of research, but unfortunately we have to also pay our bills. (by the way i would love to get paid to find out everything there was to know about what we post about. any donors?)

Fortunately, just by throwing an idea out there like a large bluegrass festival, we get a whole slew of information with little effort. With the time we saved, we can fit our real jobs into our schedule :)

ck wrote about knoxville's potential to have a large bluegrass festival because he realizes how much already goes on in that scene. he just wants to see it harnessed into something really wonderful. I do, too.

I actually just checked out the Museum of Appalachia's website last week. I already marked the TN Homecoming Festival on my calendar. Sounds like so much fun!