Music, food, and history are among this city’s attractions.
East Tennessee, anchored by Knoxville, has long been a contested battle prize. During the French and Indian War, its British Governor warned, “If ever the French become masters of the Cherokee nation, it would render your Majesty’s cause very precarious.” Chief Dragging Canoe countered, “The [Indians’ forced resettlement] may be all right for those too old to fight. As for me, I have my young warriors”—contrary sentiments eloquently dramatized in Knoxville’s East Tennessee History Center.
Fast-forward to the Civil War, when East Tennessee went pro-Union, while the rest of the state allied with the Confederates. When the state seceded, the East’s mountaineers dug in their heels, resulting in “nasty guerrilla warfare in well-guarded mountain passes,” as our guide recounted with the drama of a CNN reporter. As brother fought brother in the Battle of Knoxville, the city’s strong-hearted women fed the troops, and harbored fugitives.
Meanwhile, one Joseph Mabry, owner of a plantation anchored by the show-offy mansion he built in 1858 (open to tour), couldn’t make up his mind. His new home housed first the Confederate Army, then, when he switched allegiances, Union soldiers. A feisty man himself, he killed his business partner in a gunfight. Bucolic Bethel Cemetery, just down the road, holds the graves of 1,600 Confederate soldiers who perished nearby.
Today’s campaigns have morphed from military to musical, as Knoxville assails Nashville as the True Home of Country Music. Follow the Cradle of Country Music walking tour (register at the Visitor Center), celebrating the heyday of 1921-1924, when the tunes of mountaineers who built their own fiddles (“Little Brown Jug,” “Turkey in the Straw”) went big-time after a wily record salesman came across four blind musicians playing for pennies at the railroad station. He recorded their ditties, and the rest is music history. (Earlier, in Market Square, the election of a future governor was settled by a fiddle contest.)
Roy Acuff got his start here, along with Elvis Presley. Hank Williams played (and died) here. The Everly Brothers headlined a radio show until its local sponsor declared, “They’re no good!” So, they headed to Nashville. So did a young lady named Dolly Parton, who began her career in Knoxville at age 7. At 13, she notes, “I boarded a Greyhound bus to Nashville with my guitar, the songs I’d written, and all my belongings in a set of matched luggage: three paper bags.”
By then, African-Americans had added bluegrass—and the banjo—to the mix. Today, Knoxville boasts more than 50 country-music venues, including daily Blue Plate Special performances at the Visitor Center over Station WDVX. At Noon precisely, the announcer cautions lunching listeners, “Quiet: We’re fixin’ to go lahve.” “A performance here on DVX is a distinct résumé-builder,” a knowing local nods. Next, wander over to Morelock Music, selling guitars with a side of live music.
Shows also erupt in the ubergorgeous Tennessee Theater, a movie-house belle from the 1920s, and the equally glam Bijou. Next door, at the Bijou Bistro, sample some fine Southern cooking.
It’s a favorite stop on the Culinary Walking Tour, also originating at the Visitor Center. We stopped at Shonos for boatloads of sushi, then meandered to Coolato, boasting some of the hemisphere’s best gelato in flavors like salted caramel and Elvis (peanut butter, banana, and jelly, natch).
Next, it was on to Sapphire, a nightclub in a once-elite jewelry store. After caffeine at the Downtown Grind, fill up any remaining crannies with country ham at Mast General Store, a Knoxville original. “If we don’t have it, you don’t need it” is the mantra here, proven by a mélange of rag rugs and rocking chairs, wind chimes and camping gear.
Where else to eat? Ask any local, and chances are, he’ll sally, “Litton’s!” The owner, who watched the hangout burgeon from a grocery store to a burger mecca, relates, “My granddaddy started out running a commissary for the coal mines.” Don’t miss the diet-defying coconut cream pie.
In the heart of the Old City, eat (or, more accurately, lift a pint) at Patrick Sullivan’s, a saloon from the 1880s that once doubled as a bordello; the Crown & Goose, a pub-cum- festive-beer garden; Pilot Light, a dive bar featuring (of course) live music; and The Pearl, whose cereal buffet is particularly popular at 2 AM.
One thing East Tennesseans don’t fight over is the arts. Based in a former department store, The Emporium functions as headquarters for the city’s symphony and opera, but primarily as galleries with open-to-view artists’ studios. Its First Friday events attract up to 3,000 party-goers, eager to sip wine, munch snacks—and, oh yeah, view the art. It’s also the epicenter of April’s Dogwood Arts Festival, with artisans’ tents dominating Market Square, and driving tours to inhale the blossoms that transform the countryside.
To inhale the magic, contact the Knoxville Tourism & Sports Corporation at www.Knoxville.org.
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7211 Kingston Pike