An introduction to the creative side of Knoxville, Tennessee, including galleries, bars, and other venues not mentioned in any tourist guide.
Knoxville, Tennessee is more than a college football town or a stop on the way to Gatlinburg. For a smallish city, Knoxville has a surprisingly thriving art and music community. Sure, Nashville and Memphis are renowned for their music scenes, but Knoxville has its own place on the map of music history. Its contributions to bluegrass, country, and old-time music are plentiful.
Knoxville Music Venues
Local public radio station WDVX, which also streams online, has been awarded the title of Bluegrass Station of the Year for three years, thanks to the Society for the Preservation of Bluegrass Music of America. Visitors can check out the station’s rollicking Blue Plate Special live at the Knoxville Tourism and Sport Corporation weekdays at noon. Or head over to the Laurel Theatre for old harp singing on Sundays and contra dancing on Mondays.
But Knoxville isn’t all banjos and fiddles. Blender named Knoxville one of “20 Most Rock and Roll Towns in the U.S.” The city is home to AC Entertainment, the founders of Bonnaroo, which brings in headliners from all over the world, but the local vibe is rocking, too. The Pilot Light, a dark, PBR-filled bar in the Old City, showcases the best of Knoxville’s underground music scene, paying special attention to local labels Whisk-Hutzel Records and Laboratory Standard Recordings. Local lineups have included Double Muslims, Picks & Lighters, W-S Burn, New Madrid, Bitter Pills, May Gray, and Dixie Dirt.
Just down the street, Blue Cats is a good medium-sized venue for out-of-town acts, as is the Bijou Theatre on Gay Street, where performers as diverse as Tinariwen and Yard Dogs Road Show have recently performed. The Long Branch, the only bar on Knoxville’s notorious strip through UT’s campus that isn’t full of frat boys, is known for its raucous shows, and the grassroots venue The Birdhouse, in the quiet, tree-lined neighborhood of Fourth & Gill, presents both art and music in an old Victorian house. Conveniently located a few doors down, Sassy Ann’s mad DJ dance parties provide the perfect complement to the Birdhouse’s more introspective vibes.
Art Galleries in Knoxville
Speaking of art, Knoxville boasts Yee-Haw Industries, icons of printmaking. Anyone can visit their print shop on Gay Street to check out award-winning letterpress posters and handmade, woodcut prints. Owners, artists-extraordinaire, and roustabouts Julie Belcher and Kevin Bradley sometimes let folks sneak to the back to watch them create history one vintage lead type at a time.
In addition to traditional art galleries and museums, this scruffy little city is home to several fringe art venues. The Art Gallery of Knoxville focuses on the intersection of art and social engagement with exhibits from Copy Shop and screenings through the Pirate Cinema every weekend. Down in the Old City, Host Clothing offers handmade and screen printed items as well as workshops and experimental installations just upstairs from the artist-run Basement Gallery.
A1LabArts is a multidisciplinary nonprofit with regular art shows, and Ironwood Studios and Fluorescent Gallery have made their own marks. For all those Cormac McCarthey scholars out there, Deka Bakari Gallery has just opened in the Cumberland Avenue space that formerly housed the Huddle, Homebase to outsiders of all sorts in McCarthy’s Suttree. Patrons of the Huddle in the 1950s would be happy to see that people outside of the mainstream now have plenty of options in Knoxville.