Situated just on the other side of the Appalachians, about a five-hour drive from the Triangle, is the sweet little city of Knoxville, Tennessee. The occasion for my first-ever visit was Big Ears, a small but broadminded festival that convenes some of the greatest minds in contemporary experimental music. But while Big Ears was worth the late-March trip, it's hardly Knoxville's only music festival. There's also the annual roots-rock-focused Rhythm N' Blooms festival in April and the Knoxville Stomp in May, which celebrates the strange historical and current worlds of old-time music.
The city is suffused with country music history, with markers on the Cradle of Country Music Walking Tour noting sites of former radio stations, recording studios, and the like all over the city. Elvis Presley, the Everly Brothers, Dolly Parton, and others make appearances. Even if you don't opt for the mapped-out tour, you'll stumble upon these markers as you navigate Gay Street.
If country music is really your thing, swing your partner (or yourself) over to Pioneer House to get outfitted with its fantastic collection of Western wear. There are plenty of rhinestones to be had, or you can take home letterpress prints, many of which are made in the shop in back. My sense of style is mostly minimal and pragmatic, so attempting to suit myself in multicolored embroidered finery would be a poor choice. But still, Pioneer House's offerings reinvigorated my regret that I hadn't been born properly rich and famous enough to have owned a classic bedazzled Nudie suit.
Smaller than that of Raleigh and Durham, Knoxville's downtown is compact enough to be comfortably walkable; even without a car at my disposal, I found plenty of attractions to enjoy. The city has a beautiful old charm to it, with sturdy prewar brick buildings making up most of the architecture. An enormous sign advertising JFG coffee is gorgeous as it sparkles at night, and the main drag of Gay Street is home to similarly excellent marquees. The Tennessee Theatre, a decadently decorated room that seats about sixteen hundred, boasts the best and brightest, a massive vertical display of white lights that spell out "TENNESSEE." Every state should endorse itself with such enthusiastic signage.
Bijou Theatre, which recalls Durham's Carolina Theatre, seats seven hundred and sits just a couple of blocks away from the Tennessee. Both spaces offer quiet, tuned-in listening experiences, while smaller clubs like The Pilot Light and The Bowery tend toward regular rock-club bills. At Big Ears, the super-new Mill & Mine felt like a combination of Cat's Cradle capacity with Haw River Ballroom's aesthetics for sets from Kamasi Washington and the Sun Ra Arkestra. It was so new and shiny that I worried about getting a contact high from the still-potent fumes of the floor varnish. There's no shortage of spaces to experience live music in Knoxville, no matter your tastes.
But even if music isn't the focus of your trip, there's still plenty to do. The Zoo Knoxville sits just a few minutes outside of downtown and has an education-focused approach to its exhibits. Near the World's Fair Park is the Knoxville Museum of Art, a modest three-story institution. On a Friday morning, the museum was almost completely empty, making for a pleasant retreat. You could spend several hours examining every detail of the museum's collection of large-scale contemporary works in an upstairs gallery or do the same with the exquisite miniatures of the Thorne Rooms collection on the bottom floor. The miniatures were enchanting, while the large works were almost intimidating in their scale—a hyperrealistic rendering of a wrinkly bald head and set of shoulders bordered on gruesome that early in the day. Once you've gotten your fill of visual art, walk up the block and score some artful sweets from Knoxville Chocolate Company, which offers an intoxicating variety of sugary pick-me-ups.
Knoxville's famed Sunsphere, a giant gold structure installed in 1982 to herald the World's Fair, also sits near the edge of World's Fair Park. In the decades since, the Sunsphere has become a symbol for the whole city. You can take an elevator to an observation deck on one of the Sunsphere's lower levels, underneath a restaurant and private businesses that occupy the space—and no, none of these businesses is a wig outlet, as The Simpsons might have you believe. About four stories up, though, the observation deck isn't high enough to offer much of a view.
(If you share Knoxville's appetite for big, quirky architecture, there's also the Women's Basketball Hall of Fame on the other side of town, which boasts a massive ball incorporated into its structure.)
Downtown Knoxville has dozens of shops and restaurants, a large cluster of which you can find around Market Square. The eateries vary from quick, casual service to chains like Tupelo Honey to more lux offerings. At Knox Mason on South Gay Street, I found moderately upscale Southern food that hit the spot. Ham croquettes, a strawberry salad, and oven-baked macaroni and cheese made for an unorthodox dinner, but Knox Mason was skilled at balancing rich and simple food. This was my major meal indulgence, and it was well worth the price—a little over $30—though I wouldn't feel fully decadent until I went for drinks the following night.
Behind the Oliver hotel is the Peter Kern Library, a speakeasy-style bar. You enter through a back alley, and a single red light on the wall serves as the only indication that there might be anything there at all. Depending on how busy the bar is—it only fits about thirty—you might have to wait to enter, but the drinks are well worth your time. So too is the aesthetic. Inside, a dim, cozy oasis awaits, and you feel as though you're tucked away in a posh study. The $10 cocktails, all named for literary figures, appear fussy with their lists of ingredients—lavender liqueur, pimento dram, and watermelon- and strawberry-infused mezcal—but these elaborate beverages pull through. A Primrose, named for a Hunger Games character and featuring the aforementioned fruity mezcal, was deliciously sweet and smoky. My next drink, a fruity Holly Golightly, was mostly just sweet, with a prosecco finish that added a delightful bit of fizz. I wanted to work my way through a Matilda, a Big Brother, a Holden Caulfield, a Rhett Butler, an Artful Dodger, and so many more, but my wallet and liver proved to be limiting factors.
One of Knoxville's fastest-growing areas is Old City, which has seen a steady uptick in new businesses over the past few years. This pocket has plenty of spots to hang out, eat, and sip on coffee or cocktails. Awaken Coffee and Old City Java both provide appropriately strong coffee and respectable light breakfasts; the former hosts worship services in the back of its shop on Sundays. But it was OliBea, on the same block as Old City Java on South Central Street, that served the best breakfast I've ever had. I had balked at paying $8 for pancakes but quickly found them worthwhile—more than that, even. They were like lemony stratus clouds, sweetened with a generous drizzle of syrup. A pair of sage sausage patties offered a salty complement, and a black cup of coffee was the bold finishing touch on my Saturday morning fuel-up.
Later that evening, I was tipped to the Knoxville Public House on West Magnolia Avenue. It's first and foremost a bar, but it also has a solid food menu. You can get pretzels or snazzed-up popcorn for snacks, or turn your pit stop into a meal with one of its several specialty hot dogs.
I was surprised that, in quality and price, Public House's fare beat out another spot on the edge of Old City, Curious Dog, which banks on specialty hot dogs and sandwiches in addition to beers. Knoxville Public House will also serve you an ounce of the lauded (and outrageously expensive) Pappy Van Winkle bourbon for $23, if you're feeling bold but not too bold.
In some ways, Knoxville felt similar to Durham: a smallish, once-bustling Southern industrial hub that's still on the rebound decades after that industry disappeared. It's not the place to go if you need a major change of scenery, but for a tunes-filled, treat-yourself weekend, Knoxville makes for a fine getaway.
This article appeared in print with the headline "Here Comes the Sunsphere"