It’s an interesting thing, watching the gradual change of something that started as home-grown and has morphed into a bit of a corporate beast, especially in your own backyard. But such has been the evolution of Bonnaroo, which began in my town right after I went away to college, following on the heels of the (failed) attempt to make Itcyhcoo happen while I was still in high school.
Fast forward to the present; I’ve now been to Bonnaroo 10 out of the 17 years, missing a handful of festivals here and there because I was living in Europe or California or New York, but also having covered it for dozens of major outlets in varying perspectives—among them, Southern Living, Food + Wine, PEOPLE, National Geographic, Marriott Traveler—and I’ll just say this: The best Bonnaroo is one where you have no plans or agenda, which is exactly how we approached it this year.
As you would expect, there have been good Bonnaroos, there have been bad Bonnaroos, and there have been excellent Bonnaroos. The last couple years following the Live Nation acquisition saw a deep plummet in attendance—there was a record low of just 45,537 tickets sold in 2016, a 45 percent dip from Bonnaroo’s heyday, and a media outcry declaring Bonnaroo dead (I disagree)—so it was necessary that the powers-that-be address this by upping the community interaction and offerings and not making it entirely about the music. Because, 1) in an oversaturated festival market, it’s impossible to guarantee Elton John or Paul McCartney-level headliners year after year and 2) at the end of the day, the ethos of Bonnaroo is all about community. The music, to me, is just an added bonus.
A question I heard over and over again from my local pals this time around was this: Have we seen the last days of 100,000-person Bonnaroos? Perhaps. Does it matter? Maybe not. At least, not for me, and I’m pretty certain not for the organizers’ bottom line. Even in a year like this one where I couldn’t have cared less about the actual lineup—Brothers Osborne, Midland and a few other country acts who I can see any old day in Nashville were about the only ones I put on my personal schedule—I had a blast. And the fact that I didn’t really worry about running from stage to stage to cram in all the artists I wanted to see only worked to my favor.
The genesis of Bonnaroo was an interesting thing to witness, particularly having been raised in the area. Why, of all places, Manchester, Tennessee? Why in 2002 was a music and art festival of this scale needed in middle American? Why has it spoken to so many tens thousands of people who continue to make the pilgrimage annually despite rising prices and not always being wild about the lineup? So many whys.
But more than anything, on a year like this year when the headliners were “meh” at best (at least in my opinion), why would you go if not for the music? Plenty of reasons actually.
For the art
Every year, Bonnaroo has artists come and paint temporary pieces, as well as install other interactive art. It’s usually colorful, some of it is offbeat or maybe even suggestive, all of it is interesting. Can’t find any art you like? Become the art. Performance art is all over Bonnaroo, whether some fools doing a little bit of acro in a field or some old-school hackyers playing a pick-up game or maybe even a clown or two doing a little made-up tai-chi.
For the community
It’s funny how, despite there being anywhere from 50,000 to 100,000 attendees at Bonnaroo in any given year, I inevitably run into someone I know within moments of entering beneath the illuminated arch. Bonnaroo, for me, is one big game of catching up with people I didn’t know would be there and friends I hadn’t seen in years. It’s also a great venue for making new friends; it never fails that SVV and I strike up a conversation with a visitor from Detroit or Alaska or even Germany, and Bonnaroo’s vibe only encourages such interactions. “Play as a team” and “radiate positivity” are ingrained in the Bonnaroovian Code, and newcomer or old, everyone seems to abide by it.
For the “camps”
I confess: I’ve been to Bonnaroo 10 times but never camped. In fact, I’ve never even so much as hung out in the camps, at least not in years! But long-time friends of mine have been doing it since the dawn of ‘Roo, and despite me offering many of them a place to lay their head, they claim they prefer the convenience of staying in the camps, particularly those who spring for the VIP experience.
For the food
While I don’t think the food has been as good as years’ past when there were celebrity chef pop-ups and new additions each fest, it’s still pretty darn tasty. A few vendors I never miss: Roti Rolls, Spicy Pie, Humpty’s Dumplings and the always-popular Peachy’s Donuts (formerly Amish Baking Company).
For the beer
Have you gotten the impression by now that SVV and I like our craft beer? Well, lucky for us, we don’t have to stick to the light crap they sell in most of the general booths—there’s a Brooers Tent where we can get our fill of the good stuff, from Wicked Weed and Boulevard to West Sixth and Yee-Haw.
For the nostalgia
No matter if the overall lineup isn’t quite your jam, there’s bound to be an artist who you loved as a kid (and probably still do as an adult). For me, the artist who has transcended generations is Sheryl Crow, who oddly enough I get mistaken for often in Nashville. To see her live on the main What stage was a dream—and girlfriend can still jam just as long and hard as she did during the 90s when I fell in love with her.
For the “experiences”
Bubbles made of smoke? Midday EDM dance party in the daylight? Indie film debuts with a live Q&A with the cast after the viewing? It’s all there at Bonnaroo.
For the people-watching
Think people get all decked out for Coachella? Well, they really let their freak flags show at Bonnaroo. While I usually abide by the motto of wear-as-little-and-as-breathable-clothes-as-possible, some don full-on costumes—or, on the flip side, nothing at all.
For the surprises
Every year, it seems, there’s something new that both surprises and delights veteran Bonnaroovians. For me, this year, that was the Grand Ole Opry—or GOO at Roo as they called it. As a native Tennessean, my love for the Opry is in my blood; we’ve also had the pleasure of working with the company the past couple years, so to see the show performed off-site at a festival for the first time ever was a true treat. And it featured a few of my favorite acts, like Nikki Lane, Old Crow Medicine Show and Maggie Rose, too!
Bonnaroo truly is so much more than the music. And while this year, the music wasn’t the best it’s ever been—at least not for my personal musical tastes—I left in a state of jubilation. In fact, there’s never a Bonnaroo I leave feeling anything but overjoyed and just plain grateful (and it’s not just the beer talking either!).
Bonnaroo’s 2019 dates have already been announced, and for those of you CMA Fest fans, you’ll be pleased to learn that, finally, the festivals are going to be held on separate weekends again.
Soooo … see you on the Farm June 13-16 for Bonnaroo 2019?
Wow, since you write about Bonnaroo every year it’s kind of a reminder for me to see how long I have been reading your posts. I think this is the 3rd or 4th (or maybe even more) post about the festival I have read by you! It still sounds like a fun event to me, especially the people watching sounds like fun 🙂
Ha, yes, I do write about it every year! Every festival is different, though, and there’s soooo much to photograph. Maybe one summer you’ll go with me 😉