Staying True To The Roo: In Praise Of Bonnaroo

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– Bonnaroo
Roo Tested: Nashville-based music reporter Holly Gleason talks about her Bonnaroo sojourns, from magical music moments to less than pristine water and projectile vomit to the now-legendary BonnaGrannies.

Every year, Big Hassle’s Ken Weinstein told me, “When you’re ready to not do that country music, come to the Farm.” The Farm – the Manchester, Tenn., venue officially named Great Stage Park – hosts Bonnaroo, which typically overlaps with CMA Fest in nearby Nashville. I’d laugh. He’d laugh. We wouldn’t think anything of it – until the year I emailed asking, “Are you serious about letting me come to Bonnaroo?”

Ten minutes later, the publicist’s response landed in my inbox: “Absolutely.”
Armed with that email, somebody’s room they couldn’t use and two soft bags of clothes, food, books, candles and linens, I drove south toward Murfreesboro, the town about halfway between Nashville and Manchester. My hotel faintly smelled of Clorox and mildew; a giant slightly mossy Buddha head fountain sat out front. It was the kind of place a trucker would have to be really tired to stop at.
“What have I done?” I whispered to myself. One of the very best and smartest things of my life, it turns out. Bonnaroo: Rite of passage, hippie-dippie discovery fest, days of dust, heat or rain, food trucks, silent disco, raining mushrooms, the Snake N’ Jake’s Christmas Club lovingly recreated in a field far-flung from the stages, a giant tent with cutting-edge comics, Ferris wheel, water slides, an onslaught of bands, legends, stars, breakouts, discoveries. Bonnaroo is transcendent in a way most festivals aren’t.
Start with the code, a written treatise that amounts to a more environmentally sound “no man left behind.”

Prepare Thyself * Play As A Team * Radiate Positivity 
Respect The Farm * Don’t Be That Guy/Gal * Stay True To Roo
Six simple tenets. Good for Bonnaroo’s four days, but not bad for the rest of the year.
Ticket sales may have fallen in 2016 after Superfly and AC Entertaiment sold to Live Nation and the “big concert business,” but even if the numbers were down, the event’s Roovy spirit remained.
After a life of CMA Music Fest – known as Fan Fair until 2004 – my first year at Bonnaroo was the antithesis of the branded, product-driven experience that the country music gathering had become. From artists including Robert Plant, Nine Inch Nails, Paul McCartney and Tom Petty to all-night jams curated by Questlove to Sunday afternoon tents curated by The Bluegrass Situation’s Ed Helms, Bonnaroo revolved around the music, and the kids were all there as a community that moved from chasing favorites to discovering artists they’d either heard of – or stumbled upon.
And so it was. Out in a field, moving from What Stage to Which Stage, This Tent to That Tent. But those are the mechanics. The reality is standing in line to get roasted corn and talking to a young man with a unicorn horn and fairy wings about what you’re going to see and comparing notes on who has played.
Beyond pure “discovery,” I saw myriad artists I’d streamed, read about or heard discussed. While I loved Childish Gambino’s music, would I have made a dedicated trip to see him? Once I saw Daniel Glover’s live presentation, I was in. The same could be said for Shakey Graves, Wu-Tang Clan, Tame Impala, The War on Drugs, Foster The People and LCD Soundsystem. And seeing My Morning Jacket at Bonnaroo changed the way I saw the always-adventurous, boundary-pushing band: They swept me up in their own musical exchange and became a living breathing thing. 

(Photo by Morgan Harris)

Doing the Roo
Bonnaroo’s cultural merging is just as important. I can thrill to acts such as Janelle Monáe, Solange, Santigold, D’Angelo and Kendrick Lamar in the same open-air expanse I can marvel at Mumford & Sons, Jason Isbell, The Avett Brothers, Alabama Shakes, Sturgill Simpson and Florence + the Machine.
Plenty of other obvious candidates for the festival exist. Phish is perennially booked – including for three sets over two different nights this year – and Dead & Company have appeared. Tedeschi Trucks Band is a regular, as is Grace Potter & the Nocturnals. So are the Nashville leaners: John Prine, Dwight Yoakam, Sam Bush Band, Chris Stapleton. And there are the obvious headliners. Tom Petty headlined in 2006 and 2013 and was resplendent, with the Heartbreakers sweeping down and over the crowd. (In 2018, Bonnaroo’s annual SuperJam honored the late rocker.) Red Hot Chili Peppers funked their rock in 2012 and 2017 and Paul McCartney brought his legendary and glorious pop and rock in 2013. Indeed, whether it’s a “now” legend like Radiohead or Springsteen, or Alice Cooper or Kenny Rogers, Bonnaroo crowd’s voraciously consume heritage acts.
Standing out in the field with Lee Ann Womack the year she parked her little yellow Airstream trailer, we danced to Earth, Wind & Fire, absorbed Rhiannon Giddens’ historic folk and wandered up in time to see Elle King topple her song “Ex’s & Oh’s” with punk zeal. The alt-country queen was so swept up that she disappeared during the famous Red Light Barbeque to go watch Irish soulman Hozier.
Bonnaroo can be hard going. My first year, I was in the back area when Ali Harnell and her friends were preparing for a late set. Knitting her brows, she put her hand on my fontanelle, stared into my eyes, and pronounced, “You don’t look so good…” Wanting to be in shape for the next day, I sadly went back to my room. Not 10 minutes later, I began projectile vomiting – I likely had heat stroke from too much sun and not enough water.
The nightly water frisking isn’t nearly as scary. Whenever no more can be absorbed, muscles aching from walking the six, seven, nine miles around the site, I enjoy a long, hot shower with my arms against the tiles. How long? No idea. Just a matter of staying the 15, 20 minutes until the water finally runs clear.
But what’s a little crusty, dusty, dirty build-up when you’re foraging from the best of every kind of music there is? Even better when you’re surrounded by anywhere from 65,000 to 80,000 like-minded types who’re taking in the sunshine, music and other people – especially the other people, who are all seemingly friendly.
Even the now-legendary BonnaGrannies can be found out and about. The septuagenarians can be seen en masse, moving through the crowds, parking in front of stages.
Perhaps, though, Bonnaroo is just about the vibe. Four days, four nights. All music and fellowship. Talking to an art director who was going to be unavailable for five days, it turned out he was going to Bonnaroo. For the award-winning creative, the festival isn’t about a list of who to see, but a sense of unplugging and communing with people who want to have the experience.
“Checking out Cardi B would be cool,” he said, “and something I’d just never do. And that’s the beauty of Bonnaroo. All the things you might not do if it was on its own, but get to experience because it’s part of the experience.”