Knoxville native Ashley Capps has made the promotion of the arts his life’s work. For over forty years, Ashley has contributed to the performing arts in Tennessee. He launched AC Entertainment in 1991 and built it into one of the country’s largest independent promoters, producing the annual Bonnaroo Music and Arts Festival in Manchester and the Big Ears Festival in Knoxville. Ashley has promoted a wide variety of exceptional music in some of Tennessee’s most influential nonprofit venues including the Tennessee Theatre, the Bijou Theatre, and the Laurel Theater in Knoxville. He has also inspired generations of music fans in Chattanooga, Johnson City, and Nashville.
Ashley’s career began while hosting a jazz show on the University of Tennessee’s WUOT public radio station in 1979. He was approached about setting up a show for an avant-garde cellist named Tristan Honsinger. He booked a small church/performing arts space called the Laurel Theater, made a homemade poster and sold 200 tickets for an artist that few in Knoxville had ever heard of.
In the late 1980s, Ashley opened a club in the Old City of Knoxville called Ella Guru’s. Perhaps Knoxville’s first nightclub to schedule a variety of traveling acts, artists included the Neville Brothers, Bela Fleck, Alison Krauss, Lyle Lovett, and Garth Brooks. Ella Guru’s was the beginning of relationships with artists, managers, and promoters that Ashley continues to this day.
Under Ashley’s leadership, AC Entertainment has primarily been responsible for the continued viability and success of Knoxville’s two historic downtown theaters. The world-class programming and the top quality production that musicians have come to expect from these two venues makes them desirable bookings for a wide range of music performances. As many historic theaters across the country struggle to stay afloat, both Knoxville theaters have flourished. The Tennessee Theatre, just a few blocks down from the Bijou, is home to the Knoxville Symphony and the Knoxville Opera.
Since 2001, Ashley has produced Bonnaroo, the first fan-based, multi-day music festival, which from its inception was marked by a vision for good. Its model, now widely emulated, promotes a community of care and responsibility among festivalgoers, and one that has proven sustainable, allowing the purchase and maintenance of the former farm that stages the annual event. Bonnaroo itself continues to increase in popularity and is an economic boon to Coffee County and Tennessee, bringing a notable increase in tourism dollars and economic impact.
Ashley’s enthusiasm for introducing Knoxville and Tennesseans to artists has defined many of his decisions. The annual Big Ears Festival in Knoxville brings hundreds of musicians and thousands of people to venues across the city to stretch their minds, open their ears, and experience unique musical and artistic events.
In 2009, Ashley helped launch the Bonnaroo Works Fund, the charitable arm of the Bonnaroo Festival, supporting nonprofit organizations with Tennessee based arts education and environmental sustainability initiatives. To date, more than $7 million has been donated to a wide range of causes, including Musicians on Call, Nashville Children’s Theatre to bring shows to low-income areas, and the funding of solar panels for the Manchester Coffee County Conference Center.
Ashley is a supporter of the Joy of Music School and the Community School for the Arts in Knoxville. Having served on the board of the Americana Music Association, Ashley has helped bring this genre of music to the forefront.