Big Ears

Big Ears 2023 Preview

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Photo: The father of electronic music, Morton Subotnick, is a featured performer at the 10th annual Big Ears Festival on Knoxville, Tennessee on March 30 – April 2, 2023.

Big Ears 2023 Preview and
2022’s Song of the Year

Back before Thanksgiving, I wrote a piece about Tommy Prine, son of the legendary singer / songwriter John Prine. Interview: Tommy Prine on New Album. John, who had battled throat and lung cancer for years, passed away in April 2020 from COVID-19, and the world was poorer as a result. Poorer, a bit lost, and less inclined to be amused. We didn’t know at the time that COVID was just getting warmed up.

My article focused on Tommy Prine’s first commercially released recording, a single called “Ships on the Water,” a song so original I said it would have made Tommy’s dad say “Whoa, didn’t see that coming.”

I wrote, “In true Prine fashion, it’s just a voice, a guitar and a thought, wandering down a path that’s as inevitable and perfect as a walk at sunrise along an empty bridle path. Simple, plaintive, and aching.”

And then, three-fourths of the way through the song, the rookie songwriter pays homage to his towering father with a line so direct, pained and honest, it simply stops your heart for a beat or two.

“When I’m by peaceful waters / it gets harder and harder / and I’d do anything / just to talk to my father… / But I guess he was leaving soon / …as we do.”

Well, I’m glad to report “Ships on the Water” has just been named Song of the Year for 2022 by Saving Country Music.

SCM said “With one song, Tommy Prine has accomplished what many musicians and songwriters work their entire careers to accomplish, which is to make an indelible emotional connection with an audience.”

Saving Country Music is a remarkably independent “country news and reviews” website now beginning its 15th year of standing up for what’s right about American roots culture, and what’s wrong about its profiteers. The editor, Kyle Coroneos, is known far and wide as “Trigger,” which coincidentally is also the name of Willie Nelson’s guitar.

SCM is the go-to resource for a response whenever something happens like Tom Petty labeling modern country music “bad rock with a fiddle” ten years ago.

Trigger, wouldn’t you know, is from Austin, and unlike nearly everyone else still living there, he embodies a lot of what made “the retirement capital for young people” so attractive 50 years ago… which is to say he’s a refreshing anachronism. I’m not sure how he’s surviving the Austin of today. I mean, when Amazon bought Whole Foods Market, it must’ve felt like Russia invading Ukraine. Bezos? How do hippies and cowboys abide someone named Bezos? Have you seen that clown in a goat roper’s hat? It’s embarrassing.

All I know is, I see eye to eye with Saving Country Music on Tommy Prine. I told him I hope he wins Song of the Year awards for another 15 to 20 years. Maybe he’ll get lucky and win a Grammy for “Ships on the Water.” That’d make his dad smile.

In other news, here at the start of this oddball year 2023, it’s only twelve weeks until the Big Ears Festival turns Knoxville into the hippest little city in the Solar System for four days.

The weekend of March 30th to April 2nd will be the Big Ears Festival’s 10th Anniversary, although the first one was 13 years ago. (COVID has been a time warp in more ways than we yet realize.) For these four Spring Break days and nights, Knoxville will be the most rarified music and arts scene anywhere, and it can be experienced by anyone with an adventurous heart.

Big Ears in 2022 was a triumphant statement of perseverance in the fading months of the Pandemic’s iron grip. I had to take a $200 fast-results COVID test before I could pick up my press pass last year, so someone thought the Grim Reaper still lurked in the alleys downtown. (I’m sorry, but Big Ears and mandates don’t mix.)

This year should be a lot more relaxed, but still… There is loss everywhere you look. People are still so skittish. Watching the Kronos Quartet perform at World’s Fair Park last year with masks on was a bad dream. And a lot of performers are still rolling out their “written during lock-down” schlock. How often have you heard “I suddenly found myself unable to tour, quarantined with my family for 15 months, so I wrote a new album”?

Here’s a quote from a new book by Nick Cave and Irish journalist Seán O’Hagan that somehow goes right to the heart of Big Ears in 2023. In fact, this quote could be the keynote address to kick off the Big Ears festivities in three months. The book is called Faith, Hope and Carnage.

Cave, or course, is the Australian punk rocker (Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds) slash filmmaker slash incisive essayist slash pithy epigrammarian. He’s an occasionally brilliant songwriter who wrote “The Mercy Seat,” the most Biblically loaded song ever, covered by Johnny Cash on his way to Heaven, released 22 years ago on the album “Solitary Man.”

Nick Cave is the sort of artist Big Ears redeems. Maybe he’ll perform here some time soon.

Seán O’Hagan, who coaxed this quote from Nick Cave, won the British Press Award for “Interviewer of the Year” in 2002 and is a regular critic for The Guardian in the area of Art & Design. His strong suit, oddly enough in the age of smart phones, is writing about photography, which, in the words of Martin Mull, is like dancing about architecture. (Sorry… can’t help a dash of humor here, because Nick Cave’s about to go deep to left field.)

Bear in mind: we may think we are out from under the crushing weight of the COVID pandemic and its effects on our cultural life, but we are all still dazed and staggering. It may be another 50 years before we understand what happened to us in the last three and a half years.

Herewith, the quote from Nick Cave. Thanks to The Marginalian for tipping me off to it.

“I have no time for cynicism. It feels hugely misplaced at this time. I remain cautiously optimistic. I think if we can move beyond the anxiety and dread and despair, there is a promise of something shifting, not just culturally, but spiritually too. I feel that potential in the air, or maybe a sort of subterranean undertow of concern and connectivity, a radical and collective move towards a more empathetic and enhanced existence.

“It does seem possible, even against the criminal incompetence of our governments, the planet’s ailing health, the divisiveness that exists everywhere, the shocking lack of mercy and forgiveness, where so many people seem to harbor such an irreparable animosity towards the world and each other. Even still, I have hope.

“Collective grief can bring extraordinary change, a kind of conversion of the spirit, and with it a great opportunity. We can seize this opportunity, or we can squander it and let it pass by. I hope it is the former. I feel there is a readiness for that, despite what we are led to believe.

“…Life is too damn short, in my opinion, not to be awed.”

Amen. Like Nina Simone said, “I tell you what freedom is to me: no fear!”

If you check-out Google’s “Top 50” List of American music festivals, you won’t find Big Ears. It’s not because the Festival can’t make the List. It’s because the List can’t make the Festival. The List can’t wrap its head around a happening as intellectually rigorous, as creatively infinite, and as completely unpretentious as Knoxville’s #1 claim to fame.

This reminds me of something Hanif Abdurraqib has said. Hanif was the highlight of Big Ears last year for me, not so much as a “performer,” because that’s not what he does. He’s not a musician, even though he understands musicians more intimately than they understand themselves.

He’s a writer, an extraordinarily insightful, original and skillful writer. It’s what he puts on paper and into your mind that “performs.” Here’s one of his most virtuosic performances: “There is no moment in America when I do not feel like I’m fighting… when I do not feel like I’m pushing back against a machine that asks me to prove that I belong here.”

Abdurraqib, music critic, author, illuminator, poet… He might have added one exception to the statement above. “There’s no moment in America when I don’t feel like I’m pushing back against a machine that asks me to prove that I belong here… except when I’m at Big Ears. There I know I belong. There I know I am free.”

I read an article in Sean O’Hagan’s The Guardian a few weeks ago by someone named Marc Davenant about the disappearance of musicians, writers and artists with “working class origins.” Their percentage among what are now euphemistically known as “creative workers” has shrunk by half since the 1970’s. “Creative workers” whose parents wore hard hats and mucking boots were 16% of the artsy crowd during the Gerald Ford era. Of those born during Bill Clinton’s tenure, less than 8% had blue collar Carhartt wearin’ Red Man chewin’ Jack Daniels sippin’ blue streak cussin’ parents.

Except in Knoxville. Here you’d be hard pressed to find native “creative workers” who come from pampered people. “Creative workers”…? That’s like calling pimps and prostitutes “sex workers,” which, of course, is a thing now.

In London, Paris and Munich, the performing and visual arts are now known as “the cultural and creative industries.” Not in Knoxville. Here, the “cultural and creative industries” are called pickin’ and singin’, makin’ things that matter, and writin’ like you mean it.

And that’s why Big Ears works. It’s Knoxville through and through. No BS. Big Ears would never fly in Brooklyn, or Santa Monica, or Buckhead, or Seattle. It wouldn’t work in Les Halles, Roppongi, the South Bank, or Sixth Street. Sorry y’all, it’s a Gay Street thing. I got news for you… jazz cats don’t go to Austin. But they flock to Knoxville. It’s more fun than New Orleans, the food’s nearly as good, and it’s a heck of a lot safer. That’s real talk right there.

The line-up of artists expected to arrive in Knoxville at the end of March is simply mind-boggling. From the most important barrio rock band in the USA, Los Lobos, to jazz giants like Christian McBride and Bill Frisell, from Nigerian street partiers Etran de L’Air to the Lubbock legends Terry Allen and Jo Harvey Allen, and from “The Gospel According to Nikki Giovanni” to Bela Fleck’s “My Bluegrass Heart,” the Big Ears Festival 2023 edition brings more sheer talent to the many stages of the Scruffy City than the first nine editions put together. James “Blood” Ulmer. David Murray. The Sun Ra Arkestra. Morton Subotnick. Antonio Sanchez & Bad Hombre. These are riches beyond measure. No other nation on Earth comes close to this wealth, and it’s the mission of Ashley Capps and Big Ears to make sure the millions of Americans under 20 years old right now inherit every precious bit of it.

I’m going to try to interview at least half a dozen featured Big Ears performers between now and the Festival’s big weekend, so keep checking in. Stay tuned, because the lifeblood of Americana is jazz. And bluegrass. And electronic music. And it’s heavy. Enough of this whiny emo neutered grade school chewing gum nonsense. Give me Bad Hombre, Lucius, Michael Cleveland and Nikki Giovanni.

Like Nick Cave said, “Life is too damn short not to be awed.”

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