In the beginning there was the name—a lilting, vowelly roll of the tongue. “Bonnaroo” came from the title of an old Dr. John album; the word is a Creole New Orleans slang term for “good stuff.”
For the past 14 years, this blockbuster event in Manchester, Tennessee, has been good stuff indeed, growing to attract almost 100,000 people annually for four days of camping, art, comedy and the festival season’s most eclectic musical lineup. Genre cohesion be damned; Bonnaroo’s unifying concept is the celebration of the increasingly rare glory of a killer live performance. Headliners for this year’s festival, which runs June 11-14, include Billy Joel, Mumford & Sons, Deadmau5, Kendrick Lamar and Florence +The Machine.
In April it was announced that concert superpromoter Live Nation would acquire a controlling interest in Bonnaroo; the times they are a changin’—but not quite yet. The Red Bulletin talks to the founders of Bonnaroo and the artists who transformed a farm halfway between Nashville and Chattanooga into America’s most authentic and beloved music festival.
THE FIRST YEAR
Ashley Capps, Founder, AC Entertainment; Co-producer, Bonnaroo:
One moment I think of is the last night before the festival started, when I stayed in a hotel room. When I left the site late the night before and went to the hotel, you could tell people were coming into town— you could see the Bonnaroo crowd starting to arrive. It must have been about midnight or 1 a.m. or even later.
I got up really early in the morning to go to the site and get ready for the big opening of the doors, and it seemed like every inch of space between where I was staying and the festival site was occupied by people who had set up tents. They were selling food and jewelry, dancing in the streets, basically like a mile on both sides. All the parking lots in front of gas stations and convenience markets looked like the market at Marrakesh, just full of activity at 5 o’clock in the morning, everybody getting geared up for the festival. I remember simultaneously thinking, “Wow, this is amazing!” and “Could I possibly be arrested for this?”
Rich Goodstone, Co-founder, Superfly Presents; Co-producer, Bonnaroo:
It’s tough to think of anything more powerful than us standing on stage at the end of the first year. There were like 70,000 people out there; it was this incredible energy. They had waited in line 15 hours to get in, and it was still the best experience of their lives. That was really empowering, when you have one of those collective consciousnesses where everybody is there, feeling this magical moment. It really was, on so many different levels, this inflection point. Whether it was the bellwether of change for the industry, or just from the perspective of community and what can happen with these festivals on U.S. soil, it was certainly that moment where you just couldn’t get a smile off of our faces, realizing that we had created something that would have never happened without us.
Capps: It was our first year, traffic was crazy and you’re just wondering, “Oh my gosh, what are the repercussions of this going to be?” I also remember running into one of the police officers with the Highway Patrol who had been instrumental in our traffic planning, and I still remember asking him, “How bad’s the traffic?” and he says, “It’s blocked 20 miles in each direction on the Interstate.” We had proposed a different method for handling traffic, and I remember him saying, “Next year we’re doing it the other way.” I was like, “Wow, next year, huh?”
Jonathan Mayers, Co-founder, Superfly Presents; Co-producer, Bonnaroo:
After the first year, I was just grateful to be able to do this as a career, thinking, “Wow, I can do something I really love and support myself. I can continue to grow and be creative.” That’s something I think about probably every day, how lucky we are, and that comes from the fact that we took some risks, we went after something we believed in, and maybe it wouldn’t have worked out that way. Before Bonnaroo, I remember thinking, “I don’t know if I’m ever going to make money doing this, but I want to do something that I love.”
Capps: My other big memory from that first year was being out there with Jonathan, Rick [Farman, another Superfly co-founder] and Rich on the main stage looking at 70,000 people, and I remember saying, “See you next year, same time, same place.”
Grammy-winning vocalist Mike Farris has played the festival twice with his Roseland Rhythm Revue:
For me, Bonnaroo is definitely special because it takes place right at the doorstep of my hometown…The first time I heard it, I was sitting on the front porch at my mom’s about two miles as the crow flies from the main stage…That makes it surreal, all these megastars playing your hometown. Paul McCartney is playing down the road from R&B Grocery—really?
They treat you well and it’s very social. You can be backstage and be rubbing shoulders with Bruce Springsteen; David Byrne can be in the Converse tent looking at sneakers with you. The artists are all big fans of each other, so to be backstage hanging out and have Al Green’s band running around? That doesn’t happen anywhere but Bonnaroo.
Goodstone: The special sauce of Bonnaroo is the frame of mind you have. People come to Bonnaroo wide open and ready to experience. And everybody feels it: The bands feel it, the audiences, certainly we do, and it’s a special thing. Because if you come in with the wrong frame of mind, or you’re in a different kind of setting, it doesn’t work the same.
Greg Gillis, who performs as Girl Talk: Bonnaroo attracts an open-minded crowd, and it has a very loose vibe. It’s my favorite festival to walk around in the crowd. The last time I played, I spent about four hours hanging out in the campground areas. There’s endless entertainment there. It was great watching the Mavericks beat the Heat in the 2011 NBA Finals in the movie area [Cinema Tent]. People were just going crazy—that’s probably my favorite Bonnaroo memory.
Capps: Having Paul McCartney play our festival, and then the set that he played, that experience, his connection with the audience—it was a pinch-me moment like none other and something I’ll never forget. The audience singing along to all the songs, multiple generations of people together, that was just amazing. It was an unparalleled moment, no question.
Farris: When we heard we were going to be playing the Sunday morning slot it excited us. People who are up and wandering around and crawling out of their tents that early, they’re hungry for music, and they’re trying to cram in as much as they can on that last day. These are people that want to take flight with you, and that’s a good feeling. I don’t think I realized that until we started playing. These people are up early for a reason, because they want to be inspired. They’re looking for some music that’s gonna move them.
Mayers: Radiohead in 2006 was such a defining moment for the festival. You could just tell they were having a great time, and it was just an amazing performance. Following the festival, Thom Yorke was quoted as saying it was one of his favorite gigs of all time— that was like, wow. They’re such highly regarded artists that their stamp of approval really meant something.
Capps: Another one that has always stood out to me was the Friday night show of the second year, in 2003. The headliner was Neil Young & Crazy Horse under the full moon, and that was an unforgettable experience. My Morning Jacket in the rain [in 2008] is another one. I could talk all day about Springsteen, Metallica, Jay-Z, the White Stripes. There have been so many and I always hesitate to pick one or two or three, because there have really been countless incredible music experiences, but there was something special, whether it was the people I was with or the magic of the moment that has burned those experiences into my mind.
Mayers: Metallica [in 2008] was a defining moment, too, because people were sort of puzzled by that booking: “Wow, you’re getting away from what your roots are.” But we were like, “No, they’re one of the great live bands of all time,” and they just killed it. Those people that had a preconceived notion of what Bonnaroo is or was, you could see, in real time, people opening up. That’s a reason for doing this, to discover.
Mayers: I still like to road-trip down, though sometimes it’s impractical. I did it in the beginning to slowly immerse myself, and then driving home it was a decompression, to just take it all in. But also I drive down to feel what it’s like to do it, just like a band.
Goodstone: Every year when we open the gates I go to the front and watch the cars come in. It feels like you’re about to embark on another journey with these people who are about to come on the property and experience something special with you.
Mayers: We do a crawfish boil every year following the Sunday headliner. Our roots are in New Orleans, and it’s just a great thing to celebrate with the team.
Capps: My most consistent tradition is going out every evening before the festival opens at sunset, before the grounds are occupied, and just kind of soaking it all in.
The building of the site, which spans four to six weeks—it’s getting ready to become the sixth-largest city in Tennessee. That transformation from this idyllic field to this incredible communal experience is remarkable.
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