By DAVE PAULSON
MANCHESTER, Tenn. — As Chris Taylor puts it, he doesn’t go to Bonnaroo; Bonnaroo comes to him.
Taylor lives less than a mile from the grounds of the world-renowned annual music festival, which will return here Thursday through Sunday. He has attended every year and has watched the festival grow along with his two kids, who turn 17 and 18 this year.
“Kids that are graduating high school and becoming adults — they were 6 and 7 when Bonnaroo started,” he said. “They don’t really know a Manchester without a Bonnaroo.”
In its 11th year, Bonnaroo finds itself firmly established in the live music landscape and pop culture, and — if this year’s artist lineup is any indication — seems more secure in its identity than ever before.
Two of this year’s top-billed performers, Radiohead and Phish, have headlined the festival previously. And Saturday night’s headlining slot — usually reserved for boundary-pushing performers, including rappers Jay-Z and Eminem, heavy metal giants Metallica and baby-boomer-friendly acts Bruce Springsteen and the Police — is taken up this year by modern rock mainstays Red Hot Chili Peppers.
If this year’s bill is raising fewer eyebrows, Rick Farman of Superfly Productions, which produces the event with co-creators AC Entertainment, said it’s just a sign of how far the festival has come.
“I think even a band like the Chili Peppers could have been a bigger deal had we not done an act like Metallica, Jay-Z or Eminem. We’ve checked so many boxes and shown that the Bonnaroo audience is the Bonnaroo audience.”
As usual, that audience — which, should the event sell out, will peak at 80,000 — is in for an eclectic weekend, with performers veering from classic pop (the Beach Boys) to country (Kenny Rogers) to hip-hop (Ludacris) and heavy metal (Danzig). Nashville bluegrass star Sam Bush — who first performed at the festival in 2004 and returns this year — said Bonnaroo attendees “haven’t just come to hear one type of music.”
“It’s all positive. I’ve never seen anyone not be received well. The audience comes to boogie, and they get to. What it helps us accomplish is getting to play for a younger audience that can then tell other people around America — because they’re coming from a long ways out.”
New festival boom
Billboard’s senior editor for touring, Ray Waddell, said Bonnaroo was at the front of a new boom of annual music festivals, including Lollapalooza in Chicago and Coachella in Indio. In April, Coachella doubled in size, selling out two festivals with identical lineups over two consecutive weekends. Last year, Bonnaroo enjoyed its first sellout crowd of 80,000 since 2007 — and the years in between came close.
“It’s had its cycles, but right now, it’s very robust, and probably the healthiest part of the live music scene,” Waddell said of music festivals. “The public has embraced it, in a way, more than ever before.”
“I think that it’s really breeded this (sense of) ‘This is what you do during the summer,’ ” Farman said. “I think the pool of people that have been inspired to come to an event like this, and fully immerse themselves in the festival culture, is much greater because of these events impacting one another.”
But unlike Coachella and Lollapalooza, which get much of their audience in from L.A. and Chicago, coming to Middle Tennessee is a longer journey for many Bonnaroo attendees. Bonnaroo reports that this year, only 11.75 percent of current ticket-holders come from within Tennessee.
Before last year’s Bonnaroo, Cindy Dupree of Nashville, Tenn., hosted her friend’s son and five of his companions, who had driven from New York to attend the festival. This year — as director of public relations for the Tennessee Department of Tourist Development — she’s hosting a “familiarization tour” for visiting journalists, who’ll get to see local landmarks such as Ryman Auditorium and the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum before being shuttled the 65 miles to Manchester.
“In asking people why they come to Tennessee, it’s music and scenic beauty — those kind of run neck-and-neck,” Dupree said. “When you think about a festival like Bonnaroo that comes to this small town in Middle Tennessee, â(euro) (1/8) in terms of elevating Tennessee to the next level for music lovers, it’s a major opportunity to position us that way.”
The rise of Bonnaroo coincides with Nashville’s growing reputation as a hub for musicians of all stripes, and that has shown up on the stage with Nashville rock acts including Kings of Leon, The Black Keys and Jack White as frequent performers. Americana phenoms The Civil Wars and piano-pop mainstay Ben Folds are among Music City’s representatives this year, along with a wide array of local indie acts on the festival’s “cafe” stages.
Perhaps the biggest feather in Bonnaroo’s cap came from Rolling Stone, which called the festival’s founding “one of the 50 moments that changed the history of rock and roll.”
And the festival’s offbeat name (taken from a 1970’s Dr. John album title) is a definitive piece of the pop culture lexicon — for better or worse.
Late-night TV hosts Jon Stewart, Conan O’Brien and Jimmy Fallon have all used the “Bonnaroo” name as a punchline — shorthand for music festival, youth and hippie culture, in particular.
Farman said he doesn’t mind that hippie connection as much as he used to.
“We spent the first 10 years, I think, trying to run away from that image, because we didn’t want to be pigeonholed as that. But I think that what we’ll see over the next 10 years, in a way, is an embracing of that sort of peaceful and loving attitude. Bonnaroo is a place where that ethos really lives.”