Bonnaroo and my attempt to avoid becoming a curmudgeon

Bonnaroo and my attempt to avoid becoming a curmudgeon

Bonnaroo and my attempt to avoid becoming a curmudgeon

One of the biggest hits to the music industry last year was canceling live shows, particularly the massive outdoor festivals that tend to rake in millions each summer.

Bonnaroo has always been a Tennessee staple among the biggest and most-attended summer festival, drawing close to 80,000 people to The Farm in Manchester for four days of camping, music and an experience unlike any other. There is also a strong sense of community togetherness you only get at Bonnaroo, a place where you can truly be yourself around so many different kinds of people, bands and genres.

For many, it’s the biggest highlight of the year, some traveling all the way from Europe or Asia to see their favorite bands, but most of all to experience the magic that can be had on a farm in rural Tennessee.

It’s why I’ve been going back each year since 2007. I was lucky to land a job that allowed me the privilege of covering it. There have been many great artists, who have graced those stages, some I’ve been lucky to meet and interview as part of the media team, which is part of the job I try not to take for granted.

Bonnaroo experience is complicated

This past week, Bonnaroo announced its 2021 lineup, which will take place over four days in September, rather than at the peak of the June summer scorch. This should be incentive enough to go, especially if you’ve ever endured those hot days, the sunburns, the blisters and how, at some point, the weekend becomes less about relaxation and more like something out of “Lord of The Flies.” It can be a test in survival and endurance that, quite frankly, isn’t for everybody.

You have to just accept the discomfort and filth of camping for four days in the middle of summer, and that isn’t easy. You adapt and realize that’s just part of the experience, and in return you just might get the best weekend of your life, at least until you come back next year.

That’s always been the fascinating dynamic of Bonnaroo to me, how on one hand, you’re always tired, hot, dirty and just want to go home and take multiple showers. At least, that’s how it is during the day.

Once the sun goes down and the temperatures cool, when all the glow lights and festivities really pick up around the farm, that’s when you remember why you came, and why you’re staying until the end.

When Bonnaroo announced it would be canceling its 2020 run, honestly part of me breathed a sigh of relief. Not that I didn’t want it to happen, but after 13 years of going to Bonnaroo, it was nice to know I’d have a year off to rest and regroup.

Bonnaroo bliss or bust?

At least, that was the theory. Now I’m wondering if the only thing taking a year off did was destroy my enthusiasm for going back. That or I’ve become the one thing I’d always feared, the old curmudgeon who’s simply out of touch with today’s popular culture, someone who’d rather enjoy leisure time at home than go on a weekend adventure camping, seeing music and staying up all night.

It’s also natural to compare this year’s lineup with lineups of the past, not just with the different bands, but the overall spirit of what Bonnaroo used to be. Nobody ever likes the person who goes, “Back in my day, this thing was actually cool,” or “Kids these days don’t know what good music is,” but sometimes you just can’t help it.

True, some of the ways Bonnaroo has evolved over the years hasn’t been easy, such as how there isn’t much emphasis on hard rock and heavy metal anymore, although the Foo Fighters are one of this year’s top headliners, as well as the Deftones.

Getting rid of the air-conditioned comedy tent just to have another EDM stage, I believe, was also a huge mistake. Revamping the iconic “Bonnaroo arch” into an LED screen in 2019 was also a little tough to swallow, although it did look really cool.

More diverse genres in times past 

The lineup is now almost exclusively geared toward to the 15-25 age demographic, whereas in years past the festival was known for truly having diversity, combining the classic with the current, the obscure with the popular and everything in between. There was something for everybody.

You could watch artists like Willie Nelson, Jay-Z, Trombone Shorty and Slayer all in the same weekend, not to mention the all-star Saturday night Superjam show that would feature a plethora of collaborations and artist mashups you’d only get at Bonnaroo.

For many years, it truly was a prime example of diversity among music fans, but also a way for them to all come together with a common purpose, and maybe learn a few things along the way.

Then, one year things took a big shift, and it became more EDM and modern pop-centric, which turned a lot of people off, while at the same time opened up Bonnaroo to a whole new audience.

This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, since part of the Bonnaroo ethos is to always think of ways to evolve with the pop culture landscape. Even if the lineup is nothing close to what we saw in years past, the “experience” of being there has improved ten-fold, and is something its organizers have put their main focus on ever since the festival experienced an attendance slump in the early 2010s.

Every year’s lineup, even going back to 2007, has always had its share of naysayers, but one thing I would always say is, “Even if you don’t like the lineup, go anyway. Just being there is enough to have a great time.”

The last Bonnaroo in 2019 had more things to see and do than I’d ever witnessed before, from multiple side stages throughout the campgrounds to a “neon forest” full of funky art, as well as hundreds of vendors and artisans spread all about. Honestly, the most fun thing I came across wasn’t any band or show, but a massive Pride Parade that traveled through the festival like something straight out of New Orleans.

And for anyone who still thinks Bonnaroo is just one big hippie drug haven full of degenerates, there is even a Sunday church service you can attend, several charity outreach groups and many dedicated volunteers that make sure trash and recyclables are picked up every day.

There’s also the giant water slide and a sand bar, which is the best way to beat the heat.

Times and life a-changing 

For me, at 34, it’s sometimes hard to find where I fit into Bonnaroo these days. Sure, those early years were some of the best summers of my life and still rank as some of the greatest shows I’ve seen. But I’ve definitely aged out of much of the music featured nowadays.

However, that’s also why I love going all these years later, because it’s a chance to learn about new artists and see what the kids are listening to. And you never know, you just might end up liking it.

But there’s also the camping, the heat and the physical toll four days on The Farm can take on a person, compared to my early 20s, and doesn’t get any easier.

Having the festival in late September might be the best incentive for going back, with cooler temperatures and a much more comfortable setting.

There is also the anticipation in knowing Bonnaroo is coming back, which makes me wonder what fun new things the organizers have planned for its return after a year’s hiatus.

I suppose we’ll have to see once we all load up our cars, head to Manchester and wait for hours in that long line. I predict there will be unmistakable excitement in the air — the feeling we’ve come back “home” to The Farm, and that the wait will have been well worth it.

Jay Powell is a reporter for The Daily Herald. Contact him at or follow him on Twitter @JayPowellCDH.