In 2018, a new block of programming at Big Ears caught some longtime fans by surprise. Names like master dobro player Jerry Douglas, curious acoustic duo Anna & Elizabeth, and various sets from banjo tandem Abigail Washburn and Béla Fleck peppered the lineup, adding an unexpected folk ballast to what had become one of the country’s premier avant-garde events. In a place where boundaries of sound were tested, where electronic innovators shaped colossal drones and free jazz outfits splintered melodies, how did the presupposed traditionalism of acts with Appalachian origins fit? But for Big Ears cofounder Ashley Capps, the connections—between old roots and new growth, between past and future, between Southern music and what it inspired everywhere else—were not only clear but evolving in real time.
“I see Southern culture as avant-garde itself, in the sense that there is a raw vitality and a ‘hybridity’ that ignores traditional boundaries,” says Capps. “That completely fits within the context of Big Ears. “The intention with Big Ears was always to create a music festival that explored the connections between different types of music, the cross-pollination of influences and the shared inspirations that many artists bring and that cross genre.”
Think about it: “Southern” music—whether you’re talking bluegrass or the blues, jazz or soul—has always been the product of hybridization, kicking-and-screaming unions of ideas and instruments combined in a nascent melting pot. Bluegrass is built on the banjo, as longtime Big Ears partner Rhiannon Giddens has helped remind us, an African import. The sounds, stories, and settings of country and the blues are inextricably bound to one another, and blues or soul and gospel are separated largely by Saturday night and Sunday morning. The entire New Weird America movement builds squarely on Southern folk traditions, and these melodies and tales remain the grist of so many modern singer/songwriters. Big Ears is an extension of that past.
The Punch Brothers, meanwhile, are a quintet of first-call bluegrass players, from mandolin virtuoso (and public radio star) Chris Thile to Noam Pikelny, who is shaping the future of the banjo by recontextualizing it within bluegrass. They incorporate classical structure and pop lyricism into their dynamic, adding bracing modern touches that make their music feel as urgent as it is accessible. (Their Grammy win this week for Best Folk Album certainly reinforces that idea.) The Punch Brothers have a spiritual forebear in Uncle Earl, a pioneering all-female quartet that added country grace and rock oomph to old-time playing and singing on a series of albums at the start of the millennium, including 2007’s John Paul Jones-produced Waterloo, Tennessee. At Big Ears, the band’s classic version—KC Groves, Kristin Andreassen, Rayna Gellert, and the aforementioned Abigail Washburn—reunite for a very rare show, revisiting material that portended current shifts in the roots landscape.
There are the exquisite three-part harmonies of Mountain Man, a trio that formed in the Appalachians of Vermont but now call the Piedmont of North Carolina home; their stunning 2018 album, Magic Ship, reminded us of the ability of folk music to express simple pleasures and profound emotions. That feeling comes, too, from the duo of Kieran Kane and Uncle Earl’s Rayna Gellert, a trans-generational folk duo that finds beauty and meaning in images of domestic quiet and close, warm harmonies. Their two albums share the spirit and delight of candid conversations between new friends, smiling as they relay enthusiasms. And Hawktail, a new addition to the Big Ears 2019 roster, pulls together four young roots stars, including members of the Punch Brothers and David Rawlings’ band, to make springy instrumentals that leave room for improvisational exploration.
And these are just the obvious Appalachian reference points of the Big Ears 2019 lineup. You will hear the sounds of the South reflecting through the harp meditations of Mary Lattimore, raised in the mountains of Western North Carolina, and the guitar instrumentals of Bill Frisell, whose peerless guitar tone is steeped in the traditions of the Great American Songbook. (This is the essence of his “Harmony” quartet with Petra Haden.) Hear it in the gospel thread that runs through serpentwithfeet’s futuristic soul and the abstracted folk of Rob Mazurek and Emmett Kelly’s Alien Flower Sutra. It’s in the work of Lonnie Holley, Gabriel Kahane, and even Spiritualized, led by a self-professed blues acolyte. Really, it’s everywhere—and that’s the point of showcasing it so explicitly in Knoxville, a real roots music chrysalis in Tennessee.
“I’m a strong believer in celebrating a sense of place, and very early on, people from all over the country and world wanted to know about the regional culture. They wanted to learn more about the historic context of the city,” says Capps. “This helps do that.”