It should come as no surprise that my favorite four-day stretch in Tennessee each year is when Bonnaroo rolls into town. I grew up in the county the festival calls home, and let me just say, it’s pretty much the only exciting thing that ever happens around these parts (sorry but true, Coffee County; you know I’ve got mad love for ya).
I’ve been attending Bonnaroo since the inaugural music festival 15 years ago, having gone to eight in that time, and each one has a very different feel; every June, I walk away from the dusty Farm having had a divergent experience from the last. If I were to summarize 2016 in one word, it would be: mellow. (SVV’s was “sweaty.”)
We mulled this over a bit and couldn’t decide if this is because we had no friends staying with us this time around—Bonnaroo 2015 was one for the books with some of our favorite people as house guests—or because it was an election year or people were feeling the weight of the Orlando shootings or just because the world right now is in a general state of disrepair.
Or maybe it’s a little of all of that rolled into one.
Regardless, this was the calmest, tamest Bonnaroo to date—not that I’m ever one to go there and get drunk, let alone do anything stronger than alcohol (sorry I’m not sorry that I’m lame)—but we walked away from the weekend feeling oddly sedated. Nonetheless, there were highlights, as always, and here’s what we loved and, conversely, what we could have done without.
Best Big Stage Set: Grace Potter
Lord, this woman can sing. I was forever bummed that I had to sell my third-row tickets to see her outdoors at Nashville’s amphitheater last fall once I landed a conflicting assignment, but so happy that she was a midday headline on the What Stage for Bonnaroo. I used my artist pass to get side stage for this one and nearly wept as she belted out “Stars” and wanted to bop along with her as she danced barefooted across the stage.
Most Moving Performance: Chris Stapleton
I’ve seen him play a couple songs at two different Ryman compilation shows, and I’ll be honest: While there’s no denying Stapleton has one of the best voices of any artist at present, I wondered how he’d fare in an open field in the middle of the day. Welllll, I had no need to be concerned, as he and Morgane blew the socks off of everyone at the What Stage and nearly left me weeping with “Tennessee Whiskey” as the closing number (no JT cameo, sadly!).
Best Roo Debut: Maren Morris
I met this pint-sized starlet two years ago in Franklin when she and now-boyfriend Ryan Hurd had a cut on Tim McGraw’s Sundown Heaven Town and they were playing his album launch party. To say, she has grown leaps and bounds—and become a recognizable name thanks to her debut album, Hero, already landing the top spot on the Billboard Country chart just a week after its release—is an understatement. To say her album is one of my favorite in years is completely accurate. To say she wowed me once more with her Who Stage set is spot on. You guys, if you’re not already a Maren fan, I urge you to be. Go download Hero right this second—I’ll wait—won’t you?
Grooviest Set: Leon Bridges
I’m not super familiar with this bluesy singer’s tunes, but after watching him jam, I now want to be.
Act I Was Sad to Miss: Jason Isbell
This guy sold out three nights at the Ryman quicker than anyone in history, and I’m so glad I got to see his show in St. Augustine this spring. That made the decision to support Maren when they played at the exact same time marginally easier, but c’mon Bonnaroo, do you have to put all the artists from the same genre in competing time slots? These two were the only reasons I wanted to go on Sunday, and I had to choose (I did, however, catch the last few songs of Jason’s big-stage set as soon as Maren had strummed the final chords to “My Church”).
Best Small Stage Act: Grace Mitchell
I know nothing about this curly-haired songbird, but SVV and I found our feet needing a break around the time she took the stage, and immediately we were knew fans. Off to buy everything I can find of hers on iTunes today.
Best New-to-Me Experience: Broo’ers Fest
In the past, I’d always either gotten liquor from the artist camp or bought crappy $7 beers from the booth to support the local businesses, but now that I’m a microbrew connoisseur (ha), I made quite a number of trips to the Broo’ers Fest tent where I sipped on Good People, Terrapin, Bell’s Brewery, Green Flash, High Wire and more.
Best Old Favorite: Roti Rolls
We went there for both dinners, and y’all, I could eat that Therman Merman every night for the rest of my life.
Best Food Discovery: Humpty’s Dumplings
Bacon jalapeno mac and cheese? Peach cobbler? Chipotle chicken BBQ? Each one stuffed inside a dumpling? This is my idea of heaven.
Never Gets Old: Amish Baking Co.
The great thing about having a lower-than-normal attendance was that the line to the Amish donuts was never long. The result? We visited the booth three times (oops).
Other Things I Ate: More Donuts, Pizza, Reuben Burgers
Basically, we ate well and we ate often, but who’s surprised? Highlights include Pie for the People, Dave’s Mini-Donuts and Grassfed Beef.
Best Addition in 2016: Real Showers and Toilets
Or so I hear! I actually didn’t go to the bathroom a single time (just a couple stops at the porta-potties in Artist Hospitality) nor did I need a shower (see: I live nearby). But I know long-time campers were thrilled by the addition of this permanent infrastructure.
It’s Not All About That Bass, Man: X Ambassadors
There weren’t a whole lot of pop or rock acts I wanted to see this year, but X Ambassadors was one of them. So I was super disappointed that their sound engineer cranked up the bass so loud, you could barely hear the melody—or the words, for that matter.
Most Underwhelming Show: Haim
I saw this trio of sisters open for Taylor Swift’s 1989 tour, and they slayed it. However, on Bonnaroo’s second biggest stage? They seemed to just phone it in. SVV and I weren’t too impressed.
We’re With the Band: Wailing Loons
My pal Emilie and her awesome bluegrass band, Wailing Loons, played the BonnaROOTS dinner for Oxfam for the second straight year and spent the night prior to the fest camping out at our house. We loved knowing someone playing on one of the stages and LOVED getting to see this quintet of talented musicians do their thang.
Best Singalong: Macklemore & Ryan Lewis
We didn’t stay for much of this set at all due to conflicting times with other acts we wanted to see, so I was thrilled that Mac (can I call you that, sir?) busted out some “Thrift Shop” early on in his set as opposed to the closer. Who doesn’t love that song? (How he was cloaked in a fur coat when it was the hottest Bonnaroo to date, with the temp hovering around 97 and 10000% humidity most of the weekend, is beyond me.)
You Want Me to What?: The Lightning Delays
I’ve been to plenty of Roos where we encountered rainstorms—it’s June in the Deep South, after all—but none where they forced all however-many-thousand festival goers to vacate the grounds and make for their vehicles. Because walking 20 minutes across an open field and then through the woods to locate your car definitely sounds safer than seeking shelter beneath a permanent structure. Whoever made that call should be fired (or at least heavily reprimanded). I’m all for safety first, but this sounded like the opposite of that.
Biggest Letdown: Missing Sam Hunt
He’s one of my favorite artists across genres, and after seeing a secret midnight show at the Ryman recently, he’s also one of my favorite live performers. Due to the aforementioned delay and the fact that we were sent to our car, SVV and I went home instead and opted not to come back, having no idea how long the delays would last (it wound up being nearly two hours, so I’m glad we stuck to our guns). Still, missing Sam and also Ellie Goulding, two of what were meant to be my highlights of the weekend, gave me the sads.
Our Million Dollar Idea: Renting a Long Lens
When my Canon DSLR broke on Martha’s Vineyard and required a trip to Canon HQ to get the shutter replaced, I rented a temporary replacement from Borrow Lenses. Since I was already paying to have equipment shipped to me, SVV figured what’s another $60 (for a week) to add in a long lens? Brilliant idea. People watching (some may call it creeping) at its finest!
Christmas in June: Snake & Jake’s
Who doesn’t love a bit of “ho ho ho” in the blazing heat of summer? The Christmas Barn (now defunct, womp womp) always offers one rowdy dance party, no matter the hour of day. (I just went for the foam party, duh.)
In a nutshell, it was quite a strange, albeit still fun, festival this year. There are so many things I hope that Live Nation, who bought a majority stake in the festival just last year, learns from this first experience, like: Don’t be like the airlines who up-charge for everything (in addition to the price of passes spiking this year, parking and camping were charged a la carte). Brief your staff on what to do in an actual storm. Get back to the “live local” and community mentality that the festival was founded upon (there were hardly any Tennessee vendors, food or beer, like in years’ past). Offer a stronger list of headliners and don’t put them all on a single night (I didn’t even care to go to LCD Soundsystem, who headlined on Friday, or the Dead & Company who did not one, but two sets on Sunday).
Let A/C Entertainment and Superfly, who have pulled off this festival verrrry smoothly in the past, continue to lead the show. Stop stripping away residents’ perks (in past years, many of the organizations in the area received free passes; that was all but gone this year, including the hometown booth I’d worked in the past). If you truly are here to stay—and as a Coffee County native, I’m hopeful that you are—then it would behoove everyone if you integrated the local community more. With just 10,000 people living in Manchester, that doesn’t seem like it would be overly hard to do.
I’m not going to say it was the best festival I’ve been to—that honor goes to Bonnaroos 2012, 2014 and 2015—and Live Nation definitely has some learning to do if it wants to get its numbers back up (word on the street is that just 44,000 tickets were sold vs. the normal 80,000 in past years).
But no matter the case, I’ll be back next year. And I hope you’ll come, too. I also hope some things get ironed out before then.