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Listening With Big Ears – Ten Years Of A Vital American Festival

Big Ears
Cora Wagoner for Big Ears

The tenth Big Ears Music Festival would have been a landmark for 21st century music even with a lineup half as large, even without some of its biggest-drawing stars of jazz and indie folk. That an event this radically eclectic and this demanding in its curation could survive and thrive over more than a decade suggests something encouraging about our highly distracted and fractured 2020s culture. There’s a robust and growing music-loving public ready to follow the Big Ears ethos to the relatively out-of-the-way town of Knoxville, TN.

There were reasons to be concerned in the past. After two modestly sized but highly acclaimed opening years in 2009 and ‘10, Big Ears had to take two years off before regrouping and returning in 2014. Then the pandemic threatened every music venue and festival in the country, but Big Ears bounced back from that in 2022, with near capacity crowds. They come for a lineup that obliterates musical categories with an ethos of curiosity, fearlessness and active listening. And while Big Ears has sometimes been perceived as a showcase for the avant-garde and outsider sonic art, it’s no cliche to say that it has something for everyone, from the sweet to the dissonant, from song to noise, from organic to electronic.

This year’s fest brought together some of the contemporary jazz and fusion I pursue in my personal time with a strong showing from the Americana roots artists I follow for WMOT. During its four days, Big Ears attendees could see new folk star Allison Russell, blues modernist Adia Victoria, breakout songwriter Adeem The Artist, western beat fusion band Calexico, the legendary Los Lobos, violinist/singer Andrew Bird, cellist/singer Ben Sollee, folk supergroup Bonny Light Horsemen, Texas giant Terry Allen and mandolinist/songwriter Sierra Hull.

In Episode 241 of The String, I take a field trip to Knoxville to share the story of the Big Ears idea, my impressions of some outstanding performances, and the voices of important creators who span the roots/jazz bridge – bassist and broadcaster Christian McBride, banjo innovator Béla Fleck, throwback country singer Sierra Ferrell, folk song collector and interpreter Jake Xerxes Fussell, and ambient jazz bandleader Rich Ruth.


Rich Ruth
Rich Ruth

Michael Rich Ruth seems to live and work in just the space between genres and expectations I wanted to explore, because he lives in Nashville, records for Jack White’s Third Man Records, plays guitar on the road for Americana star S.G. Goodman, and leads his own five-piece band with an electric guitar and a desk full of synthesizers. An Ohio native, 35 years old, Ruth moved to Nashville from Indiana in 2011 with his college band Kansas Bible Company, a big and ambitious group that toured hard for years before slowing down. Between that shift and the pandemic, Ruth was able to develop his skills on the synthesizer and with it a new musical vision, one that got a boost when Third Man Records put out his 2022 album I Survived, It’s Over. Its seven tracks glide along mingling spacey contemplation with some wild crescendos built on passionate Coltrane-ish improvising by saxophonist Sam Que.

Selected for the 2020 Big Ears before it was canceled, Ruth had a long wait for his coveted performance slot. It was enveloping and uplifting, with sweeps of sound and tightly connected ensemble play. The addition of a pedal steel guitar fleshed out the aura as only it can. I met Ruth later in the weekend and asked how he prepared for the set. His answers got right at what’s special about the Big Ears audience.

“I kind of told everybody in the band to breathe more and give it more space and not feel rushed at all. Because we've been playing opening slots and stuff. And knowing this audience and demographic, I knew that people's attention spans were gonna be a little different…Having been here before and seen really nuanced, subtle performances, whether it's something more in the kind of avant-garde jazz realm or more of a noise show, people are sitting and taking it in. You rarely see anybody with their phones out. People are attentive. I've experienced that year after year at this festival, so I just knew what the feeling was going to be like. It was like, let's take advantage of knowing that ahead of time, versus, you know, playing a club show or opening for a jam band or something, where you just never know what the audience is going to be like. Whereas these are my people.”


Big Ears
Billie Wheeler for Big Ears
Jake Xerxes Fussell

I squeezed into the showroom at the Jig & Reel pub with a pint of Guinness to see - as best I could over the crowd - the Durham, North Carolina based folk singer Jake Xerxes Fussell. Raised in a family of folklorists in Georgia, Fussell has been celebrated as a song finder and interpreter, yet he’s broken through to audiences not known for paying close attention to public domain material. He’s performed on A Prairie Home Companion and opened tour dates for acts such as Wilco and The Decemberists.

Jake’s most recent album Good And Green Again was one of the standout records of 2022, with gracefully textured electro-acoustic arrangements of some venerable songs and ballads. Big Ears offered Fussell a four-night residency, something that seems to have been unique to him at the festival. His guests included multi-instrumentalist and producer Blake Mills, modern guitar player Steve Gunn, and Tamara Lindeman of the Canadian folk rock band the Weather Station.

Jake mines the past for his material, but his approach feels postmodern to me, part of the outer rim of indie Americana music where we find other Big Ears artists like Iron and Wine, Andrew Bird and Bonnie Light Horsemen. I sat down with Jake on the final day of the festival to talk about his place in the continuum of traditional music.

“I grew up around some people who played traditional music. I listened to the old records too, but it wasn't necessarily a bee encased in amber, you know? Traditional music was something that was alive. And so I was around people who were playing electric instruments, because that's what people played. It wasn't necessarily people dressed up and clothing from the 1920s. People were wearing Adidas tracksuits and playing electric guitars. So that's what allowed me to sort of think about it differently. I'm really realizing that now. And people ask me this question a lot, like you have a different approach to folk songs or whatever. And I think it's because I saw them as living and malleable.”


Big Ears
Christian Stewart for Big Ears

Sierra Ferrell is one of the key breakout artists in old school country and roots music of the past five years. Appalachian by birth, she spent years as a street musician who rambled widely before settling in Nashville and becoming a favorite at the American Legion. Rounder Records released her 2021 album Long Time Coming to critical raves.

In Knoxville, I saw her perform to a very full house at the Civic Auditorium, and it was hard to think that it was the same festival crowd who’d cheered the avant-garde Exploding Star Orchestra there a couple of nights before. They clapped along to the bluegrass rhythms like a Grand Ole Opry audience and waved their hands over their heads on command in the chorus of her song “At The End Of The Rainbow.” It was all so innocent and old school. Yet Ferrell embraces a look and vibe that mingles vintage Opry fashion with old European cabaret and New Orleans second line parades. On New Year’s Eve in Nashville, she staged her show like a mix of a Ringling Brother circus and early vaudeville with aerialists and acrobats. I got to visit with her backstage after the show and Sierra, still in her sparkling bright green body suit, told me about where she thought her esthetic comes from.

“I spent a lot of time in New Orleans. It's a magical place. And I feel like that sort of style is the heart of New Orleans in a lot of ways. You have the second lines, which is like a cultural thing with the feathers, and it’s really magical. That's honestly the main draw of New Orleans I think, because they keep such rawness and culture alive in that way. New Orleans makes people feel loose, like they can't really be the weirdest person in the room, because there's always gonna be someone weirder than you, you know what I mean? New Orleans makes people feel like they can be themselves and maybe find things about themselves they didn't know.”


Big Ears
Christian Stewart for Big Ears
Christian McBride (R) with Marcus Strickland

Much of the focus at this year’s Big Ears was on improvised music and contemporary jazz. Besides Bill Frisell, who I got to see in three very different settings, the festival hosted guitar stars Julian Lage and Mary Halvorson. There were multiple chances to see pianist Vijay Iyer, drummer Tyshawn Sorey and saxophone icons Joe Lovano and Charles Lloyd. Nashville sax man Jeff Coffin played a set with bassist Viktor Krauss and drummer Jordan Perlson.

But there was a national jazz star I had a particular interest in, because he’s an advocate and educator for the music with multiple platforms and a wide following. Christian McBride is a bass player and composer who emerged from his hometown of Philadelphia in the early 90s. Now 50 years old, he’s won eight Grammy Awards, played with just about every jazz legend, led bands, and hosted a variety of advocacy programming, including NPR’s Jazz Night In America. McBride came to Big Ears with his band The New Jawn, a quartet with drummer Nasheet Waits, trumpet player Josh Evans and Marcus Strickland on tenor sax and bass clarinet. Their 2023 release Prime reveals a freer side of McBride’s musicality, with some challenging and dissonant material. Meeting McBride for a conversation was a thrill. I’ve admired him and the aura he presents around jazz for years. And I asked him how he thinks about opening up the public mind to music that can sound radical.

“It's always been my M.O. to purposefully bring the audience together in terms of how I communicate with them, you know? Because I understand what the image of a jazz musician is, (that) we're all dogmatic and we all like nothing else but jazz. So there's a certain indignance that I think can come off from a jazz artist on stage, you know? Not, I'm happy to see you, (but) you should be happy to see me. You know? And so I always try to make sure that I'm never like that with my audiences. And I find that if you can bring an audience to meet you halfway, just doing that, they will go with you anywhere you go.”


Big Ears
Christian Stewart for Big Ears
Bela Fleck, center, with the My Bluegrass Heart band.

There was one artist at this year’s Big Ears whom I’ve followed for almost 30 years as a bridge from familiar roots music into jazz-related territory, and that’s banjo player Béla Fleck. While his musicianship and identity emerged out of bluegrass, he quickly became known for molding traditional instrumentation into modern instrumental forms. Then he went farther afield forming his fusion band The Flecktones, a group that’s won six Grammy Awards and played to large crowds around the world. He’s also made two albums with the late piano legend Chick Corea, collaborated with artists from Africa and India, and composed several major works for banjo and symphony orchestra. But his latest project and band - called My Bluegrass Heart- offers his most cerebral and extravagant take on bluegrass jazz.

While a large cast of outstanding acoustic musicians played on the Grammy-winning album, Bela brought the core touring band for the project to Big Ears - Sierra Hull on mandolin, Bryan Sutton on guitar, Michael Cleveland on fiddle, Justin Moses on at least three different instruments, and Mark Schatz on bass. While this was deeply familiar territory for me - I’ve seen the Bluegrass Heart band twice on tour already and reviewed the album for WMOT - it seemed an ideal capper to my Big Ears experience - artists straddling the worlds of composing and improvising, of roots and jazz. When we spoke, he talked about the importance of contrasts within a festival or a set to cultivate a Big Ears mindset among the audience.

“My Bluegrass Heart has gotten a lot of headlining slots on festivals. And the music originally was all instrumental. And I started to feel like it worked better like to have this crack bluegrass band do some traditional bluegrass in the set, so it didn't become a burden to get through the night. Now wouldn't have been a burden for me to listen to. And a lot of my friends, you know, that like modern bluegrass instrumental music. If you want to do that and stick to your guns, maybe you don't need to be playing for thousands of people. Maybe you need to be playing for 600 or 800 people that really want that completely. But if you're going to do a headlining slot for, you know, Telluride with 10,000 people or something like that, then you better make sure you're doing a show that's going to keep their interest or you won't be doing it again. So I try to keep that in mind. And it seems to work a lot better. And even for me, I like it better.”


Big Ears
Cora Wagoner for Big Ears
Bill Frisell

With too many enthralling performances to talk about in this hour of radio, my notebook overflowed, so here are takes on some other sets that made my long weekend so special.

I mentioned seeing Bill Frisell in three (of six) different settings, which was exciting for me because he’s a hero and because the guitar star, so famous for his lyrical, marine kind of sound, has spent his career proving he can adapt to even far-out situations. Opening night it was Frisell with his bass and drum trio plus the Knoxville Symphony Orchestra, playing fully realized charts of some of his classic material. The principal cellist laid out the melody of his Nashville-infused “Monroe” while Frisell played support. The standard “Lush Life” was lush indeed, and “Beautiful Dreamer” made for a charming waltz. Soon after in the same large auditorium arrived another sizable ensemble, Chicago’s Exploding Star Orchestra, a collective assembled by cornetist Rob Mazurek. Mazurek, in dark glasses, prowled the stage nudging the eight musicians in various directions, cueing solos and coaxing out contrasts. The famously free-ranging guitarist Mary Halvorson offered several departures of dirty swarming sound, while two drummers on either side kept things balanced and funky.

On Friday I was lucky to get a seat for a packed house at the Old City Performing Arts Center to see another mini-orchestra led by composer and saxophone playerGregory Tardy - 10 musicians including strings and a wind and horns section backed by piano, bass and drums. While a conductor kept everyone together, Tardy himself sat with the wind musicians, playing tenor saxophone, just one of the band. The music was enthralling and heart-rending - an eight-movement suite inspired by and named for The Pilgrim’s Progress, the influential Christian allegorical novel published in 1678 by John Bunyan. Tardy’s daughter Abigail read spoken word invocations before each instrumental movement describing the journey of the protagonist. And while it could have come from a big city jazz scene, Tardy is a Knoxville-based musician - a professor at the University of Tennessee. He told me he was inspired to set the Bunyan work to music several years ago and got serious about the composing during the pandemic. It was a discovery for me and an insight into how Big Ears thinks globally but draws locally, to borrow a phrase.

I’d known something about drummer Antonio Sánchez because he toured and recorded guitarist Pat Metheny for almost 20 years, but when I chanced into his set at the Standard, I was unprepared for the full-body ecstasy that ensued. His band Bad Hombre consisted of a piano and keys player named BIGYUKI, bass player Lex Sadler and singer Thana Alexa, whose rapturous, microtonally controlled voice soared over a dense and funky global swirl. With its beguiling mix of natural and synthesized textures, including uncanny low frequency bass parts, the set was a revelation and a demo of the exceptional audio systems installed at all the Big Ears venues by Nashville-based Spectrum Sound.

My next Bill Frisell encounter placed him and a fellow icon, saxophonist Joe Lovano, in a trio format led by and named for the much younger Tyshawn Sorey. The 42-year-old drummer is a vital jazz star, a MacArthur Fellow and a creative sound artist who can swing from tasty hip-hop to outer journeys. He decorated the free floating music with gestures and unexpected tonal emanations. Frisell showed his artistry on guitar pedals, lending twiddling flourishes and tasteful backwards-tracked effects. Lovano - a 70-year-old giant whom I’d never seen live - crafted abstract sound sculptures yet kept things grounded with shuffling dance steps and amiable body language. It was the most out music I heard during the festival, yet always warm.

In 2021 the in-demand LA guitarist, producer and artist Blake Mills released a wildly original volume of instrumental compositions with the famous bass player Pino Palladino called Notes With Attachments. I raced to hear this music played live, to bask in its fractured beauty and just to see how it worked, and friends, I’m still not sure. But drummer/percussionist Abe Rounds and electronic sax player Sam Gendel flooded the air with contrasting beats and fluidly melodic flights juxtaposed with metal-heavy slams and punches. I dug this as much as anything else I heard, with its ideal balance between the delicious and the weird.

On Saturday mostly I saw the artists I profiled for the show. Fleck’s bluegrass set was a two-hour blowout and the best of the three times I’ve seen this amazing band. They proved their jazz chops right away, with even sometimes decorous Sierra Hull taking her mandolin up some pretty gnarly trails. Bela’s solo banjo section saw him play a long discourse on Gershwin’s Rhapsody In Blue, something I’d think impossible, and yet. And on Sunday I made my last stop, a final, bookend performance with Frisell. This group - the Gnostic Trio featuring harpist Carol Emanuel and vibraphones by Kenny Wolleson - plays John Zorn works. Zorn, one of this year’s Big Ears featured artists, is among the most famous avant-garde composers of the past 50 years, somebody who touches all ends of the order-disorder spectrum. Fittingly for Sunday afternoon, the Gnostic Trio plays some of Zorn’s most consonant and serene music. Almost childlike in its harmonies and melodies, the zen came from the contrasting timbres of the instruments and a wind-chime meditation. I’d want this music at my next massage. It was a reminder that with a brave Big Ears mindset, you can still wind up in the safest imaginable space.

Craig Havighurst is WMOT's editorial director and host of <i>The String, a weekly interview show airing Mondays at 8 pm, repeating Sundays at 7 am. He also co-hosts The Old Fashioned on Saturdays at 9 am and Tuesdays at 8 pm. Threads and Instagram: @chavighurst. Email: craig@wmot.org</i>