Derived from a 1974 phonograph album entitled Desitively Bonnaroo by the colorful and charismatic New Orleans performer Dr. John (Malcolm John Rebennack Jr.), the word Bonnaroo is Creole slang for “having a good time.” It also is short for “The Bonnaroo Music and Arts Festival,” a four-day event that takes place annually on a seven-hundred-acre farm outside of Manchester, Tennessee. The festival began in 2002, and Rolling Stone magazine quickly voted it the number one music festival in the nation and later described the rurally remote wingding as a decisive moment in rock-n-roll history.
While some cosmopolitan critics might scoff at such a lofty ranking and appraisal, few could dispute the festival’s ability to alter conventional production, consumption, and recreational patterns inherent to live shows. Neither could they question its success in creating a countercultural community around a musical event, no matter how simulated or commercial it appeared. Every June since its inception, Bonnaroo has assembled a wide variety of performers and attractions, many of whom routinely crossed musical, generational, and technological borders. The organizers bring together top artists whose genres and styles reflect the best of avant rock, punk, hip hop, jazz, blues, Americana, world music, bluegrass, country, African, folk, gospel, reggae, electronica, Latin, alternative or indie, and rock-n-roll. On its two large stages and in its four big tents (as well as various open and sharing spaces), musicians and performers provide a multicultural medley that seemingly appeals to everyone. Spectators and participants also have access to a virtual cornucopia of amusement and educational venues, such as a classic arcade, an on-site movie house, a silent disco, a children’s playground, a comedy club, a theater, an internet café, a poster art exhibit, workshops, a live cabaret, a beer garden, a technology tent, and a Sonic Village. Salespeople of all sorts, including craftspeople and artisans, and food, drink, and merchandise vendors, present their (often pricey) wares at the “Bonnaroo Market.” Centeroo, a twenty-four-hour gathering place, encourages the notion that the festival represents a modern-day pop commune, albeit one imbued with market concerns and connotations. A twenty-first-century phenomenon that refuses to adhere to existing musical or recreational boundaries, Bonnaroo undoubtedly provides a revolutionary entertainment experience.
On another level, Bonnaroo represents the advances made in late-twentieth- and early twenty-first-century communication technology. It is a product of the internet (there are countless blogs, discussion boards, webcasts, and websites, including an official Bonnaroo web address), an “inforoo” superhighway seemingly established to supply everything a rapidly growing fan base needs to know. The festival started as a grassroots jam-band event meant to support struggling musicians. In its first year, the informal jamboree, utilizing no advertising and depending strictly on word-of-mouth and internet channels of communication, attracted over seventy thousand persons. The years that followed saw attendance numbers fluctuate between eighty and ninety thousand fans (which were accompanied by traffic tie-ups that snarled the roads and highways leading into Manchester). Much of its success in attracting attendees resulted from the decision to intersperse well-known stars throughout the program. As a consequence, the festival has featured outstanding musical lineups. Popular artists, past and present, such as Bob Dylan, Bonnie Raitt, Steve Winwood, the Dead, James Brown, Elvis Costello, Widespread Panic, Emmylou Harris, Lucinda Williams, Ziggy Marley, the Neville Brothers, the Meters, John Prine, Radiohead, Norah Jones, Drive By Truckers, Los Lobos, the Police, Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, Neil Young and Crazy Horse, Mofro, the Allman Brothers Band, Stevie Nicks, Ricky Skaggs and Kentucky Thunder, Bob Weir and Ratdog, Phil Lesh and Friends, the White Stripes, Taj Mahal, the Preservation Hall Jazz Band, Doc Watson, Allen Toussaint, the North Mississippi All-Stars, Ralph Stanley and the Clinch Mountain Boys, Blues Traveler, the Dave Matthews Band, the Flaming Lips, Ween, Ornette Coleman, the Black Crowes, Allison Krauss and Union Station, the Blind Boys of Alabama, Herbie Hancock, the String Cheese Incident, Buddy Guy, Gillian Welch, Beck, Mouse on Mars, Earl Scruggs, and numerous others have graced the Bonnaroo stages.
Despite allusions to it being the spiritual heir to the 1969 Woodstock Music and Art Fair, Bonnaroo’s claim to such a birthright may be overstated. In many ways, it is both more and less than its highly heralded predecessor. There is no question that the festival’s organizers, participants, and patrons have hoped to recapture the aura and vibe of the 1960s-style fusion of idealism, social harmony, and consciousness romantically linked to Max Yasgur’s dairy farm in Bethel, New York. In this vein and to a large degree, Bonnaroo certainly has become a new generation’s Woodstock. It has not shied away from an activist posture; participants witness the use of biodiesel fuel and solar power and eat off of compostable paper plates with biodegradable plastic utensils. Much of what they throw away will be recycled into construction materials that will resurface into something else at the site the following year. As an environmental statement, Bonnaroo undeniably conjures the essence of 1960s radicalism.
For many in the media, however, it is the seemingly superficial that captures their fancy. They frequently have focused on storylines that recall the earlier era’s mystical menagerie combining “peace, love, and music” with “sex, drugs, and rock and roll.” Without question, festival organizers often have fostered this nostalgic and frivolous reading of the four-day party. One can easily discern that the attaching of confusing names to various stages–“Which” and “What”–and tents–“This,” “That,” “the Other,” and “Somethin’ Else”–for instance, is an attempt to fashion an innocent (though innocuous) version of the psychedelic disorientation made famous in the groovy sixties.
Yet from the beginning, those associated with designing the festival did not conceptualize it as a renaissance of pseudo-hippiedom. They viewed it as a long-term profit-making enterprise. Woodstock, too, of course, had started out as a business venture, but it quickly degenerated into chaos, with gatecrashers transforming the event into a free concert for most of the people who attended. Similar circumstances have not occurred at Bonnaroo. The event is well organized and retains over four thousand employees on site, a large contingent being security personnel. Rules governing the comings and goings of participants are strictly enforced, as are stipulations regarding what festival-goers can bring into the compound. A year-round staff (of over twenty persons) toils to tweak the previous year’s approach, constantly working to make the operation more efficient and profitable. In its brief history, the Bonnaroo management style has enjoyed unprecedented success and definitely will serve as a model for future endeavors of this type.
Two entertainment firms are behind the production of Bonnaroo. One is Superfly Presents, a concert promotion outfit with headquarters in New Orleans and New York City. It is headed by Rick Farman, Jonathan Mayers, Rich Goodstone, and Kerry Black. The other company is A.C. Entertainment of Knoxville, Tennessee, an artist advertising agency run by Ashley Capps. As founders of Bonnaroo, they envisioned the project as an entertaining and comfortable camping event, similar to Great Britain’s almost forty-year-old Glastonbury Festival of Contemporary Performing Arts. To that end, they constructed spaces and slots for recreational vehicles, motor homes, and tents. VIP passes permit campers to park their vehicles next to the main stage. Tickets for the event ranged from $184.50 to $214.50 in 2007. There are no individual electricity or water hook-ups, although private companies on site (for a fee) do provide fresh water and shower facilities. Automatic Teller Machines are available, as are pay-telephones, hand-washing stations, and Port-a-Johns. The festival does court corporate sponsors, but organizers regulate the amount and substance of the advertising allowed on the festival grounds.
Such attention to fiscal details has served Bonnaroo well. As of 2007, the event’s producers have contributed over one million dollars to Coffee County’s charitable organizations; in addition, according to a 2005 study, the festival’s impact on the local economy is enormous. Since its inception, it has generated over fourteen million dollars in business revenues and more than four million dollars in personal income.
More than an annual music festival, Bonnaroo swiftly has evolved into a commercial empire. Like the Grand Ole Opry and Graceland, two of Tennessee’s other widely acclaimed tourist destinations, Bonnaroo, which is situated approximately an hour’s drive south of Nashville, is recognized as a brand name and a musical mecca. Its logo and website (not to mention the actual event) stimulate fan excitement and consumer activity, an extremely enjoyable and profitable combination. Apparently for everyone involved and tuned in, Bonnaroo indeed means “having a good time.”
Dean Budnick, Jambands: The Complete Guide to the Players, Music, and Scene (2003); Jon Pruett and Mike McGuirk, The Musical Festival Guide: For Music Lovers and Musicians (2004); http://www.bonnaroo.com/