Festival delayed, but Big Ears still bringing it home

Suzanne CadaOur Town Arts, South Knox, West Knoxville

Thursday, July 8, at 8 p.m.

Cormac McCarthy’s iconic novel, “Suttree,” set in Knoxville in the 1950s, chronicles four years in the life of Cornelius Suttree, who has abandoned a life of privilege, lives in a dilapidated houseboat on the Tennessee River, and spends his days navigating the gritty underside of the city amidst its outcasts and eccentrics.

On Thursday, July 8, the Big Ears Festival will present “Suttree’s Knoxville: A Hymn to the Past in Film & Music,” an outdoor multimedia experience offered free-to-the-public at west Knoxville’s beautiful Lakeshore Park, where the Tennessee River and the Smoky Mountains serve as a stunning stage set for the evening.

Tennessee Archive of Moving Image and Sound (TAMIS) archivist Eric Dawson has drawn from TAMIS’ extensive collection of film footage and photographs from Knoxville in the 1950s to create a riveting 70-minute silent film that mirrors the scenes, places and character of McCarthy’s landmark book.

“Knoxville is fortunate to have McCarthy’s Suttree as one of its defining works of literature,” Dawson said. “The novel serves as a map of mid-century Knoxville. Real people and places are recognizable throughout the book, some bearing their authentic names, some slightly disguised. TAMIS holds a remarkable collection of films and photographs that capture the city around the time Suttree takes place. The film compiled from those images for this project is not meant to replicate the narrative of the book, but instead give a semblance of what Knoxville might have looked like through Suttree’s, and by extension McCarthy’s, eyes at the time.”

The film will be projected onto a 40-foot-wide screen and scored live by an all-star ensemble of musicians, including Knoxville’s inaugural poet laureate RB Morris with guitarist Greg Horne and bassist Daniel Kimbro; jazz singer and ukulele player Kelle Jolly with saxophonist Will Boyd; balladeer, guitarist and folklorist Jake Xerxes Fussell; and guitarist and composer Bill MacKay with banjo player and old-time music expert Nathan Bowles. RB Morris will read key passages from the novel during the performance.

The performance takes place on the main lawn at Lakeshore Park and is free and open to the public. Music will start at 8 p.m. and the film with live score will begin at 9 p.m., just as the sun is setting. There will be ample free parking on-site. Sweet P’s Barbecue will offer food and beverages, along with Captain Muchacho’s and Fai Thai food trucks.


Big Ears also has announced that composer Ellen Reid, 2019 Pulitzer Prize for Music winner and Oak Ridge native — will create a version of her signature work “Soundwalk” at Ijams Nature Center in Knoxville. The work consists of music composed by Reid specifically for the project — recorded by her own all-star ensemble, as well as the renowned Kronos Quartet. Accessible on your smart phone by downloading a free app, the work uses GPS to unfold and transform as a listener wearing headphones walks through Ijams’ network of trails.

Conceived to be installed in multiple cities simultaneously, Reid launched her initial “Soundwalk” in September 2020, in conjunction with the New York Philharmonic Orchestra, mapping the entirety of New York’s Central Park. Other presentations have now been offered in Los Angeles at Griffith Park and in San Francisco at Golden Gate Park, among other locations.

Now, Reid is excited to bring it to her native East Tennessee, saying it’s “an intimate project. It’s about introspection and taking time alone with your thoughts while connecting with nature. This special installation for Big Ears features one of my favorite ensembles, the Kronos Quartet — I’ve been inspired by them since I was a teenager, so this is truly a homecoming on many levels, and a celebration of the natural beauty of East Tennessee that was the backdrop of my childhood.”

“Soundwalk” at Ijams Nature Center will launch in September in conjunction with the announcement of the lineup for Big Ears when the festival returns in 2022, scheduled for March 24-27. The project will remain at Ijams for one year.

For more info on both events, go here.

For info on other local events, contact the Arts & Culture Alliance.

Suzanne Cada is deputy director of the Arts & Culture Alliance

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