Get into Big Ears with FREE EVENTS!

Amythyst Kiah, Bijou Theatre, Knoxville, May 2023
Amythyst Kiah, Bijou Theatre, Knoxville, May 2023

It’s that time of the year. Big Ears officially starts tomorrow and our city becomes something entirely different as thousands of music lovers, musicians, and press descend into our downtown for four days of transcendent music. The star of the show is our amazing downtown with all its wonderful venues.

I can’t stay away from the paid musical events and we’ll have lots of coverage of that, but the best show may be on the street where you’ll hear dozens of languages, have a chance to meet and mingle with people from all over the world and maybe even have chance encounters with major musical figures. Imagine bumping into André 3000 at supper – you could tell your friends about your dinner with André. Maybe even sell the rights to the story.

The festival is essentially sold out. All four-day passes, Sunday passes, and Saturday passes are sold out. A few tickets for Thursday only and Friday only remain. A few tickets for the special performances of André 3000 remain available — and those do not require a festival pass. If you have not heard his latest album, kick back and relish in the sonic soundscape of New Blue Sun. The world never anticipated this from André. It’s as unimaginable as say, Beyoncé doing a country album . . . oh, wait.

So, what to do if you are locked out of a ticket? Enjoy the street is my first answer, but it turns out there is a stunning amount of free programming featuring many of the artists performing the festival. You just have to know where to look. And that’s where this handy guide comes in!

The Knoxville Museum of Art features free programming starting tonight and running Friday through Sunday! At 7:00 pm tonight the always stunning vocals of Amythyst Kiah will be on display as the UT Libraries presents “Boundless: Artists in the Archives.” I’ve heard Amythyst perform several times going back nearly a decade and she always amazes. Most recently, a performance at the Bijou showed why she simply will be a star. And don’t miss Fred Frith (you thought Pink Floyd was trippy!)!

As the festival moves into Thursday, the KMA offers readings, sonic massage (see an  example here), a comedy playshop and more. A number of conversations with the artists happen at the venue and that, for me, was one of the highlights of last year’s festival. Here’s the full (free!) KMA schedule for the festival:



  • 7:00 PM Boundless: Artists in the Archives with Amythyst Kiah, hosted by UT Libraries


  • 10:00-11:00 AM Kenny Wollesen’s Wolle-Sonic Massage
  • 11:45-12:45 PM Laughter: The Best Medicine Playshop with Laraaji & Arji
  • 2:00-3:00 PM Helen Gillet
  • 4:00-5:00 PM Third Coast Percussion


  • 9:00-10:00 AM Laughter: The Best Medicine Playshop with Laraaji & Arji
  • 11:00-12:00 PM Conversation: Hanif Abdurraqib & Chocolate Genius
  • 12:30-1:30 PM Conversation: Henry Threadgill, Brent Hayes Edwards
    with Larry Blumenfeld
  • 2:00-3:00 PM Hanif Abdurraqib Reading
  • 4:00-5:00 PM Fred Frith (Solo)


  • 10:30-11:30 AM Kenny Wollesen’s Wolle-Sonic Massage
  • 12:30-1:30 PM Ross Gay Reading
  • 2:00-3:00 PM Artist Conversation with Marcus J. Moore

The Visit Knoxville Visitors Center (home of the Blue Plate Special) features free programing throughout the festival and it starts with the Thursday Blue Plate featuring Amythyst Kiah (see above, she rocks bigly) and Chocolate Genius. Lots of panels and artist interviews with such luminaries as Ann Powers (NPR) and the podcasters from Essential Tremors (also an NPR program) get to the heart of the matter. Saturday’s Blue Plate features Joe Henry and the amazing Eric Mingus. Anyone who attended the Our Common Nature concert last spring will remember Eric’s bone-chilling voice. Here’s the complete (FREE!) lineup at the Visitors Center:

Eric Mingus, Our Common Nature, World’s Fair Park, Knoxville, May 2023



  • 12:00-1:00 PM WDVX Blue Plate Special with Amythyst Kiah and Chocolate Genius
  • 2:30-3:30 PM Essential Tremors with JLin
  • 4:00-5:00 PM Critics Picks Panel with Ann Powers, Nate Chinen, Ashley Kahn


  • 10:00-11:00 AM Conversation: Kristin Hersh with Ann Powers
  • 11:30-12:30 PM Essential Tremors with Fred Frith


  • 10:00-11:00 AM Conversation (Songwriters): Alynda Segarra, Robin Holcomb, Sam Amidon with Ann Powers
  • 12:00-1:00 PM WDVX Blue Plate Special with Joe Henry & Eric Mingus
  • 2:00-3:00 PM Conversation: Ross Gay & Same Stephenson


  • 1:00–2:00 PM Essential Tremors: Billy Woods with guest host Claire Rousay
  • 3:15-4:15 PM Conversation (Voices & Vision): Rhiannon Giddens & Davóne Tines with Nate Chinen

Barley’s Taproom and Pizzzeria (home of the Friday Big Plate every week) features Mr. Sun and Son Rompe Pera (Miramba meets Punk via Mexico City), while art takes center stage at the UT Downtown Gallery and the RED Gallery. The UT Downtown Gallery features Knoxville’s own Nikki Giovanni and a Gallery talk with the currator. The RED features a live art performance that will continue for hours. Here are the details for these performances and exhibitions:



  • 12:00-1:00 PM The WDVX Big Plate with Mr. Sun & Son Rompe Pera


  • Y’all Don’t Hear Me: The Black Appalachia, An Ode to Nikki – a collaboration with the Big Ears Music Festival and Dogwood Arts curated by Kreneshia Whiteside-McGee (Thursday and Friday, 11:00 am to 6:00 pm, Saturday, 10:00 am to 3:00 pm, Gallery Talk with Kren the Curator, Thursday, 6:00 pm)\


  • Steve Keene Live Art Performance (Thursday through Sunday, 11:00 am to 6:00 pm)

I hope to see you out and about. Step up and say “hello,” if you like. I’ll be the guy dressed in black, carrying two cameras, muttering to himself, and questioning his basic sanity. But speak quickly — I’ll be in a hurry, scurrying to the next show. If I don’t see you there, I’ll see you on the other side.