Back to the Farm

Four days of live music (and magic) attract droves to the Bonnaroo Music & Arts Festival.

photography by bianca phillips

All year, I find myself daydreaming about a place that has become somewhat of a home away from home for me. Better yet, we’ll call it my summer vacation home. Though it better resembles a sprawling campground, sparsely shaded by fledgling trees, a place where I pitch a tent for a few days to soak up some sun and tunes and to escape the pull of daily routine. In Manchester, Tennessee, just a four-hour drive from Memphis, a 700-acre plot of farmland awaits me each June — a magical place where one can experience four days of live music across several stages, a slew of stand-up comedy acts, a food truck “oasis,” and so much more.

All this, among 80,000 familiar strangers from all walks of life, trudging through the heat under unforgiving summer sun, all there to be a part of this larger-than-life event. It’s the Bonnaroo Music & Arts Festival, and this year it will be held June 12-15.

Anyplace else, and this might seem weird, but at Bonnaroo, giant bobbleheads fashioned after the event’s founders hardly draw a glance from the thousands of festivalgoersThe festival is known for the diversity of its annual billing of acts — from Tom Petty to Radiohead to Paul McCartney to Macklemore — and this year’s lineup is as eclectic as ever. Headliners include Elton John, Kanye West, Jack White, and Lionel Richie, and dozens of other acts are slated to take the stage. Nearly every conceivable musical genre is covered — rock, punk, soul, indie, electronic, hip-hop, rap, bluegrass, and more. The music is, of course, the big draw, but there is something bigger that Bonnaroo is known for — something intangible, a magic that you can only tap into among tens of thousands of music lovers, hippies, and fortunate freaks while the sounds of blaring music and clamoring crowds waft in the wind.

As much as it is about music, Bonnaroo is a camping festival, which means that most attendees pitch a tent or park an RV, and spend a long, crazy weekend with a bunch of strangers. There’s a strong sense of community, though, among the hordes at Bonnaroo. I’ve attended the festival annually since 2009, and every person I’ve crossed paths with has been friendly, engaging, and gracious. There’s never been a need to worry about gear and supplies left at camp while away enjoying a band in Centeroo (the fest’s main event grounds), never a hint of a fight or an ill encounter. It’s a modern-day embodiment of the peace and love vibe that its 1960s festival predecessors envisioned.

Created and produced by Superfly Presents and AC Entertainment, the first Bonnaroo was held in 2002 with a focus on folk and jam bands; it’s now the largest outdoor festival in North America. In its first year, the event — which included performances by Widespread Panic, Trey Anastasio, and the North Mississippi Allstars — sold out within two weeks and hosted 70,000 attendees at Great Stage Park.

Formerly a privately owned farm, this space has served as an event space since 1999, and since the festival’s inception was leased by Bonnaroo annually until the production company purchased 530 acres of the property in 2007. Great Stage Park space can now be rented for festivals, private events, and competitions throughout the year, and is equipped with permanent power, 12 water wells, an on-site compost area, and fuel-tank access.


Of course, none of the events held there have affected the small town of Manchester as greatly as has Bonnaroo. As measured by a recent study conducted by Greyhill Advisors, the economic impact on Coffee County — which becomes the 7th largest city in the state during the festival — was more than $37 million in 2012. Bonnaroo was also responsible for $2.9 million in Tennessee tax revenue that same year. More than $2 million of that was generated by sales tax on festival tickets and $900,000 by the activity of attendees during their time in Coffee County and their travels to and from the festival.

The stretch of farmland in Manchester that is home to Bonnaroo transforms into a city all its own for the duration of the event, complete with its own post office and general store. The grounds become a temporary home to a population that could fill FedExForum four times over. It’s hard to conceive of the scope until you’re immersed in it, but imagine the Beale Street Music Festival on steroids.

And then factor in the fact that the party doesn’t stop after midnight, because no one’s going home until the festival is over. And it isn’t over until four days of around-the-clock activities wind down. From early-morning yoga classes, to afternoon waterslide fun and hands-on art activities, to late-night movies in the on-site theater, to back-to-back musical performances that sometimes go on until sunrise — the fun is seemingly never-ending.

Those who purchase a general admission ticket camp outside of Centeroo — a place known to (the aptly named) Bonnaroovians as Tent City — in a field of tents as far as the eye can see. General admission ticket cost varies depending on time of purchase (from $234.50 plus fees during pre-sale to $284.50 plus fees as the event draws near). And if you don’t have your own camping gear, the festival offers on-site tent rental (starting at $750 plus deposit for a 2-person unit, festival ticket must be purchased separately), but I suggest saving that dough and getting your own gear. You’ll need it later. Camping is fun.

If roughing it really isn’t your thing, and you want to nix the tent camping altogether, a limited number of RV parking passes are available for an additional fee ($225-$250), and there are designated RV-only parking areas in both the GA and VIP campgrounds.

A weekend of walking around in the hot sun can be quite grueling, and the VIP tickets include some attractive perks that make the trek a little easier. VIP passes are $1,499.50 per pair (plus fees, only available in pairs) and allow exclusive easy access to and from Centeroo and its main stages, exclusive viewing areas for the What and Which stages (standing or bleacher seating at the two main stages), preferred parking and camping near Centeroo, special shower and restroom facilities (GA campers have to pay for showers!), access to VIP lounges throughout the site, and more. When I hear the words “shower” and “exclusive viewing areas” in regards to Bonnaroo, my heart sings right along with the music. Needless to say, they are hot commodities at the festival. 

Though it may seem like the event — with its huge crowds, hot days, and late nights — would appeal exclusively to a younger following, that isn’t necessarily the case with Bonnaroo. Its allure has drawn an audience as diverse as its lineup over the years.  According to event organizers, although 31 percent of attendees are between the ages of 21 and 24, the largest demographic segment (40 percent) is in the 25-34 age group. Eight percent are over 35, and nearly one in four earn more than $75,000 annually.

In 2013, AARP Magazine featured the Bonnaroo Music & Arts Festival as a “Fest For All Generations,” and it has received accolades from many major media outlets. The festival was named one of the “50 Moments That Changed Rock & Roll” by Rolling Stone, “Festival of the Decade” by Consequence of Sound, and among the “10 Best Festivals” by GQ. But don’t just take their word for it. Experience the magic for yourself.

Yes, you may be standing in a port-o-potty line and run into a masked man in a cape who calls himself “Canada Man” or a woman whose outfit is constructed entirely of glow-sticks (I’ve seen both). You may have trouble falling asleep at your campsite because of the humming of generators and the thumping bass and cheering roars from a distant stage and its up-’til-dawn audience. Afternoon naps may be impossible due to the scorching sun, and your tired feet may give out on you. But when it’s all over, you’ll be glad you did it. You’ll feel like you’ve survived something epic, something you won’t be able to shake off for a while.

As a die-hard Bonnaroovian, one who has crept into her 30s since her first ’roo experience, I still haven’t been able to fully shake it. As exhausting as it is, the magic is still there, and the energy I feel on the farm resonates with me year-round. It takes a certain kind of person to appreciate the experience of a music festival, but if you’re a music lover, a former flower child, or just a kid at heart, this is a bucket list item — a rite of passage, if you will.

The word “Bonnaroo” was originally popularized by New Orleans R&B singer Dr. John — who incidentally performed at the festival in 2011 — with his 1974 album, Desitively Bonnaroo, and means “a really good time.” And that is something you’re guaranteed to have on the farm. Hope to see you there!

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