The first edition of Rhythm N’ Blooms, in 2010, was a primer on how not to stage a music festival—thrown together in six weeks with no budget and club-size acts booked in the Bijou and Tennessee theaters. Less than a decade later, Rhythm N’ Blooms is a cornerstone of the Dogwood Arts Festival and the unofficial kickoff to Knoxville’s spring festival season. It’s also the city’s biggest music fest, with more than 20,000 people attending and three days and nights of local and national rock, pop, and Americana on six stages in the Old City.
In late March, Carey Hodges and Matthew Everett met with some of this year’s local performers—Lucy and Roxie Abernathy of the Pinklets, Cruz Contreras, Matt Honkonen of Peak Physique, Daje Morris, Brian “Shimmy” Paddock of Shimmy and the Burns, and Josh Smith of Handsome of the Humbles—and festival organizer Chyna Brackeen for a roundtable discussion about the festival.
Some of you have played the festival before. How has it changed, and what do you expect this year?
Matt Honkonen: The most striking thing has been how quickly it’s grown. It’s always been a fun festival, but the first year I went, I only knew a handful of people who were going. This year, I don’t know anybody who isn’t going, or doesn’t want to go.
Cruz Contreras: Any time you can have a festival in a central downtown location, where people can walk and enjoy the music but also bars and restaurants and retail, I think you really bring together a lot of aspects of the community. To me, that’s an important thing about a festival like this—it does something unique that happens once a year. If you want to experience Knoxville, it’s springtime, you’re going to meet people from all over the country and have a very complete experience.
Chyna Brackeen: The first year, we were going out on Market Square and handing out free tickets and begging people to come to shows. But every year we’ve had a higher percentage of visitors.
It was probably three years ago, the first year we moved to the Old City, there was this group of people and I heard European accents, and I thought, what the hell? “Can I help you find something? You look really confused.” They were like, “We flew over from Germany because one of our favorite bands announced they were playing, and then we saw the rest of the lineup and got really excited.” The next year I saw them again and they had brought friends from Spain.
For the first-timers, have you attended the festival before, and what are you expecting as performers?
Josh Smith: I’m so excited to be a part of it. I’ve been to some of the festivals before, to see friends play and to see some of the national acts play. I’m just excited to see bands play that I haven’t seen before and to play in front of people who have never heard of us. It’s also exciting for me how good Knoxville music is and that we’re so well represented at the festival. I’m excited for all these people coming in who are going to see these Knoxville musicians. I’m pumped.
Matt: I did some solo stuff at the last Rhythm N’ Blooms and I recognized maybe two fans there. [The crowd] was people who had never seen me before, which is pretty rare in Knoxville. It’s hard to get a crowd that’s not the same group of your friends who come out every single time. It’s nice to see fresh faces.
And when you see some national acts or you go see the Black Lillies play, it gets you amped—you know you have to bring your game to this festival, because there are going to be a lot of eyes on you.
Lucy Abernathy: Somehow we’ve never been to Rhythm N’ Blooms. I have no idea what to expect, that’s for sure. But like everybody else, I think it’s awesome.
Roxie Abernathy: I only knew it existed. I didn’t know a whole lot about it. Then I shared it with my friends and they saw Young the Giant and were like, oh my gosh, we have to come to this. And I agree about the fresh faces—it’s usually the same group of friends who come to support us.
Daje Morris: I’m just excited to play, honestly. My expectations are that I’ll get to meet new people. I’m excited to get to see a lot of acts in a lot of different genres that I’m close to but don’t always get to play next to, if that makes sense. I tend to be more of a hybrid genre and tend to play shows with a lot of different people, but this time it’s going to be more eclectic, and not what I’m used to. I’m excited for that—the newness and the energy.
What connects all the different artists at Rhythm N’ Blooms?
Cruz: In a word, she just said it—energy. It’s an intensity, an honesty. Stylistically, it can be anything, but that’s what attracts people to a festival, it’s what attracts artists. It’s why it changes every year and becomes something different.
Chyna: We started as an American roots festival, but my definition of American roots is very broad. To me, if there’s an artist who is writing their own music and playing their own instruments, even if it’s with an electronic component, and they have a kick-ass live performance, then I’m going to find a way to fit that into the American roots box. Even if they’re not from America.
Every year I try to push that a little more. What I really want to happen is, when someone walks into a room, whether it’s an artist they came to see or an artist they’ve never heard of before, that they say, “Holy shit—that’s amazing.”
I want this to be the festival where you find your new favorite artist. The first show that St. Paul and the Broken Bones did outside Alabama was at Rhythm N’ Blooms. They played at the Knoxville Botanical Garden and nobody knew who they were, and then a year later they blew up. Margo Price played here. Chris Stapleton—the very first year, the Jompson Brothers played. They were the first act of the day on the main stage and nobody had a clue who they were and now, it’s Chris Stapleton.
Brian Paddock: The first year, I knew who everybody was when the lineup came out. I was excited because I liked them all. But every year since then, there’s been stuff I haven’t heard before combined with people who are bigger that I want to see.
What’s the ratio of local artists to touring bands?
Chyna: It’s usually about a third local. Part of my goal with the festival is to intersperse those local artists in with the national and international acts so that when you see the headliner that you came to see there might be somebody from Knoxville opening. We’ve got the Pinklets on the main stage this year. The Royal Hounds are on the main stage this year. You’re always going to find those Knoxville acts mixed in with everything else so that our audience can see that we’ve got this kind of quality.
They shouldn’t be sitting there thinking, “Oh, this is from Knoxville.” It should be, “This is kick-ass music.” And then, “Oh, did you know they’re from Knoxville?”
The festival is billed as a celebration of Knoxville’s music history. How does it reflect that?
Cruz: When you talk about the history of this town, it’s a chameleon. It changes so fast. It looks sleepy but
it changes so fast. So that’s a really hard question—I don’t know how you sum it up. …
Daje: I’ve only been in Knoxville for six years. I’m from Memphis. My dad is a musician and producer and engineer in Nashville. So getting to see from West Tennessee all the way to East Tennessee, that spectrum of styles, and getting to find my own creative voice in that does make a difference in the way I see the Knoxville music scene.
How would you describe the current scene? How has it changed over the last few years and what does it have that people might not know about?
Brian: There’s just so much stuff, and everybody’s good at it. Even if it’s not my thing, they’re good at what they do to the point that it’s intimidating.
Cruz: I’m always blown away by the Monday night groups down at Barley’s, the jazz groups. This is world-class jazz a block away from my house—some people would travel to a jazz festival in another country to hear musicians of this caliber, and we have it on a random night.
But we don’t have the type of industry that’s in Nashville or New York or L.A. or even Austin.
Chyna: People ask me all the time why I don’t live in Nashville. If I lived in Nashville, I could focus on the industry part of the music industry. If I live in Knoxville, I can still remember that I love the music part of it.
Ten years ago, no one would have believed you—in fact, they would have laughed in your face—if you told them that you’d have two major music festivals two weeks apart from each other in downtown Knoxville and people coming from all over the world to attend them.
So what’s happening next?
Lucy: We haven’t been here long enough to know what’s already happened! We’ve never lived anywhere but Knoxville.
Roxie: When I was younger, I hated Knoxville. As I’ve gotten older and I’ve been allowed to get out and see more things, I think it’s pretty great, and I think it’s going to get even greater, in terms of music. More fantastic.
Cruz: If you want to make music a profession, can you stay here? Is it a good idea to stay here? I’ve had to ask myself that repeatedly. There’s not a bunch of record companies and there’s not a huge music industry. But the quality of life is pretty good here. It doesn’t cost a lot to live here. It’s beautiful. The people are great.
Chyna: But one thing we lack in Knoxville is the hustle. In Nashville, I think people know you’ve got to work your ass off all the time to get noticed. In Knoxville, everybody’s so supportive and so nice. But if you do start hustling, people hold it against you. I’ve certainly seen it with the Black Lillies. If you’re going to hold it against someone for trying to pursue it as a career and then in the next breath say why don’t we have more people in Knoxville making it—you’re shooting yourself in the foot.
Cruz, has the answer to that question—whether you can make a music career in Knoxville—changed over the last 15 years, as the industry has changed?
Cruz: There’s more opportunities. I’m getting ready to move back into this neighborhood; my entire band and my manager are going to live within walking distance from each other. If there’s somebody I need to hire to make a video or do a photo shoot, they’re here. We can grab a coffee or grab a beer, have a rehearsal—it’s all right here.
Chyna: I’m seeing a lot of artists move here from Austin and Nashville. That’s allowing people who have been here for a while see that it might be cool to stay here instead of moving to one of those other cities. I think we’re about to reach a period where there’s this creative renaissance where everybody’s here at the right time and the right place and things aren’t overpriced yet and we aren’t all getting kicked out of North Knoxville.
Matt: And we have Big Ears and Rhythm N’ Blooms to thank for a lot of these things. There’s a reason these things are happening—it’s because we have artists who are creating good things and we also have people flying from Europe to see those things, and they’re seeing the city.
Chyna: And they’re falling in love with it. We had someone come to Rhythm N’ Blooms last year who stayed an extra week to look for architecture jobs. We’ve had people look for apartments while they’re in town. They come to the festival and think it must be like this all the time, which isn’t too far off. There’s always something going on.
Daje: I think there’s a sweet collaborative spirit in Knoxville. It’s not like combat. My dad checks up on me all the time—he’s like, “Daje, you need to take care of yourself.” He has this Nashville/Memphis mind-set about music where people are going to hurt you, you have to make sure you have all of your armor on and all your walls up before you step into any kind of meeting or collaborative session. But it’s not like that—we’re all here and our heart is to make the best kind of music that we can make and grow. And that’s the spirit that’s growing in Knoxville. People are just so open to the spirit of living as a creative and making things that make the world better.
Cruz: The key is going to be hanging onto that mentality if and when the money shows up. If people are like, I can make a living playing music, sometimes that translates into money and politics and power. And when that stuff gets involved, that’s when it gets nasty.
Who are you looking forward to seeing at Rhythm N’ Blooms?
Matt: Gogol Bordello.
Josh: John Moreland. He makes me cry every time.
Brian: I was actually trying to get him to play here and I talked to his manager and he emailed me back and said he’s coming to a festival in Knoxville in April.
I’m also looking forward to seeing Handsome and the Humbles, and I’m not just saying that because he’s wearing my T-shirt or because he’s here. In fact, I almost didn’t say it because he’s here. But I think if you put those guys up onstage in front of Ryan Adams or Jason Isbell and they’re selling a lot of records that night.
Chyna: I think the best way to experience Rhythm N’ Blooms is to not have a plan, to just wander in anywhere. Obviously everybody’s going to have their must-see artist, but wander in anywhere, catch all kinds of different music, it’s all going to be good.
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