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Let's Get This Party Started

  Let's Get This Party Started

How (and why) the Knoxville Music and Heritage Festival came to be

by Jesse Fox Mayshark

Nobody said no.

That, more than anything else, was the most rewarding thing about helping to organize what has become the Knoxville Music and Heritage Festival. I should say, the first Knoxville Music and Heritage Festival, because there will be more to come. After almost a year of talking and brainstorming with at least a couple dozen local arts organizations, non-profit groups and governmental bodies, I'm convinced this city has both the means and the enthusiasm to celebrate itself in the way it deserves. I think over time we can reach a point where we stop talking about all the cool things they do in Asheville or Nashville or Chattanooga or wherever, and get them talking about us.

And I don't mean just this festival. But before I get too far into all that, let me say this: the Festival is happening from Sept. 30—Oct. 6, and it includes a bunch of different events in a bunch of different places. Whether your own interest is in classical music and opera, jazz, blues, bluegrass, literature, historic homes and neighborhoods, art, or just hanging out and having fun with your friends, there's something going on this week that you will like. There's a full calendar of events in the center-spread of this issue, and I encourage you to give it a look, circle the things that strike your fancy, and come on out to enjoy your city (yes, you county people and outliers, that means you too—Knoxville belongs to all of East Tennessee).

When we first started kicking around the idea of a new festival, I don't really know what we expected. Our thinking started small, got bigger and eventually mushroomed into grandiosity before settling back down into the real world possibilities of what a small group of well-intentioned but very busy people could actually accomplish in a short time. What we've ended up with may only be a beginning, a first step toward the kind of festival a lot of people would like to see in Knoxville, but I think it's a good foothold. It's well past time for the city to start thinking of itself as a place worthy of celebration—not just for our football team, or our proximity to the mountains, or our low taxes, but for who we are and who we've been, where we are and what we've done.

As Jack Neely has pointed out here and elsewhere, there are festivals in the region heralding rural Appalachian culture, local agriculture, horticulture, African-American culture, Greek culture, and many more besides. But there's nothing that ties all those together, that recognizes Knoxville as a specific city made up of many specific histories. Knoxville is a place, but, like all places, it is also an idea. And it was in hopes of illuminating that idea, dragging it off of whatever closet shelf it's been consigned to by decades of embarrassment or incomprehension or simple neglect, that this enterprise got under way.

Sometime last year, as some of us in the not-so-ivory towers of Metro Pulse were sitting around having one of our periodic gripe sessions about the quality of public events here relative to a lot of other places, it occurred to us that we might actually be in a position to do something about it. We may be short on other kinds of resources, but one thing we have in abundance is contacts. We know a lot of people in the arts community and elsewhere. They don't all like us—in any given week, I'd estimate half of them are mad at us (sometimes with good reason).

But what would happen, we wondered, if we got some of those people in a room and started talking about a festival?

So we did, back around Thanksgiving of 2000. And to our surprise, people were excited. That included not only representatives of arts and non-profit groups, but also a couple of people from the City of Knoxville's Special Events Office—Mickey Foley and Dan Meyers—for whom I have developed great appreciation. We continued meeting, sometimes more regularly than others, with new people showing up almost every time. At one point we had 30 or 40 people in the room (with space usually donated by the festival's gracious sponsor, the East Tennessee Historical Society).

Now, Knoxville is a city where it's hard to get people to do things. Just ask anyone, they'll tell you: "Nope, Knoxvillians are just against pretty much anything." Riven with self-doubt, turf protection, in-fighting, cattinesss, pettiness, NIMBYism...that's us, right? Well, maybe. And maybe sometimes that's a good thing. Keeps us from doing anything too stupid too quickly.

But this festival is the first major civic effort I've been involved in here (as opposed to the many I've written about), and I have to say that all that negativism talk seems overblown. Maybe it's just because there is a widespread sense that it is time for Knoxville to really showcase and celebrate its history and diversity, but I haven't heard anything but enthusiasm.

Not that there weren't bumps and bruises. Organizing a festival, it turns out, is hard work. Especially when nobody's really in charge of it and there's no money to pay for anything. In some cases, groups who were interested in participating said they'd have to wait until next year. In other cases, the complexities of proposed events created insurmountable obstacles. But we got lucky, too. First of all, some of our major local institutions were willing to give us much-needed financial support despite our start-up status and some uncertainty about what exactly we'd be able to do this year. The Tennessee Valley Authority was generous, which was especially gratifying and fitting given their prominence in Knoxville's heritage. So too were the Central Business Improvement District and the Scripps Network corporation. Even Community Shares, with its limited resources, helped sponsor our website (

And on the leadership side, former Metro Pulse general manager Nora Jones was amazingly driven and focused on the festival until her recent departure for California. Fortunately, she left someone to take her place in the chaotic last month of festival organizing—a displaced opera singer named Kevin Anderson, who showed up ready to roll up his sleeves and get to work.

Kevin's presence is important for another reason. This is not a Metro Pulse festival, nor do we want it to be. We have enough trouble just putting out a paper every week. It is the Knoxville Music and Heritage Festival, and we want it to live up to that name. The goal of the people who first sat down to talk about it was always to establish an independent entity. As soon as the first one is over, we'll sit down and start talking about how to reach that goal for next year. (Want to get involved? Email me at [email protected] or Kevin Anderson at [email protected].)

Of course, there was no way to anticipate the incredible events of the past weeks when we first picked out the dates on the calendar. There may be some who question the appropriateness of a weeklong festival in the aftermath of tragedy, with war of some sort on the horizon. In fact, the first event of the week—the city's 210th birthday party, which I should point out was in the works before our Festival and the city has allowed us to piggyback on—has been somewhat reconfigured. It's now called "Knoxville Remembers" and will serve as both a celebration of the city's history and a memorial service for the victims of terrorism.

But it also seems to me that this is an important time to remember and learn more about who we are. Some of that discovery has already happened in the last few weeks. Suddenly we know more about the diversity of people and religions here in our own community. One eventual goal of the Music and Heritage Festival is to spotlight all the different cultural and ethnic roots that have tangled themselves together here in one small city. More than that, the attacks have forced many people to consider again what it is about their country, their cities and their communities that is most valuable, what there is to protect and preserve. Understanding and appreciating our history is an important part of that consideration.

Even beyond that, there is something affirming about simply having a good time with friends and strangers in a place that belongs to all of us. Whether it's at an organ concert (Oct. 2), a presentation by an expert urban planner at the Bijou Theater (Oct. 3), an all-star Knoxville jazz show (Oct. 4), a blues and barbecue throwdown (Oct. 5), a stunning performance of Samuel Barber's adaptation of "Knoxville: Summer 1915" (also Oct. 5), a neighborhood tournament on Market Square or a literary walking tour and pub crawl (both Oct. 6), there's plenty of chances to have fun this week. And that's not even mentioning the football games...

So anyway, thanks to everyone who put their time, talent, ideas and (not least) money into making all this happen. Let's do it again.

September 27, 2001 * Vol. 11, No. 39
© 2001 Metro Pulse