Back to the Farm

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



photography by bianca phillips

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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.

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