To celebrate 10 years of Big Ears, the art and music festival in Knoxville, Tennessee, AC Entertainment, Rock Fish Stew Institute of Literature and Materials, Southern Documentary Fund, and Hat & Beard Press worked closely with artist Kate Joyce—who photographed the festival, the people and surrounds of Knoxville over the last five years—to create a captivating time capsule, both of the last five years of performances at Big Ears and of the lyrical and visual language of Knoxville. Cormac McCarthy’s semi-autobiographical novel, Suttree, is set in his hometown in the 1950s and the city is also immortalized in fellow Knoxvillian James Agee’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, A Death in the Family, both of which get at what Joyce so perfectly captures in her book, Big Ears Knoxville.
The book consists of 69 color and black and white photographs, a preface by music critic Ben Ratliff, essays by musicians Rachel Grimes and Joe Henry, and exclusive streaming access to a selection of audio recordings from performances at Big Ears between 2014-2018. The photographs were made under the influence of the music being performed in intimate venues throughout the city.
As Joyce says: “The location of the festival—and hearing some of the most challenging music in the world—in downtown Knoxville, a city perhaps not expected to be the home of a festival of this quality and caliber, reverberated through all of my senses.”
Between 2014-2018 more than 200 artists and bands performed at Big Ears. During the five years that Joyce traveled to Knoxville for the festival, she photographed some of them, but not nearly all of them—for good reason, as you’ll soon read. Of those she did photograph, a number found their way into the book. Among them are the bands Algiers, Eighth Blackbird and Kronos Quartet, musicians John Luther Adams and his wife Cynthia, Bryce Dessner, Wu Fei, Rachel Grimes, Levon Henry, Julia Holter, Little Annie, Wu Man, Grey McMurray, Guy Picciotto, Terry Riley, Omar Souleyman, Susanna and Abigail Washburn, composer Jóhann Jóhannsson, and conductor Steven Schick with the Knoxville Symphony Orchestra.
“I photographed during some of these performances,” she says, “but most of them were un-photographable (better heard than seen). Sometimes I only photographed a sound check or rehearsal.” Joyce witnessed most of the performances, many were memorable and a few were life changing.
During her time at Big Ears, she explored Knoxville on foot as well, leaving the theaters and clubs to make pictures on the streets. As she wandered, her mind remained tethered to the musical events strewn around downtown Knoxville at various venues. Photographing back and forth between city and festival—and subsequently during the editing process—the experience was an exercise and challenge for Joyce to see and document what was happening as openly and as freely as the music had taught her to listen.