For more than a century, Tennessee has been a state known for its music. From the hardscrabble old-time country of the Appalachians to the rockabilly and soul of Memphis to the melting pot of Nashville, Tennessee probably has more musicians per capita, and more music per acre, than any state in America. And from June 7-10, tens of thousands of people from other states will be in Tennessee to drink in the music they can’t hear anywhere else, or certainly at least not hear in one place.
The 11th annual Bonnaroo Music Festival near Manchester, Tenn., just over an hour southeast of Nashville, has been named by Rolling Stone, Spin and other notable media outlets as one of the world’s top festival events, bringing welcome revenue, as well as major inconvenience, to the citizens of Coffee County. When the first Bonnaroo was held in 2002, about 50 acts appeared on four stages. This year, more than 150 acts will appear on at least a dozen stages.
Mandolin player Sam Bush, a Bowling Green native and Nashville resident who is nicknamed “The Father of Newgrass,” will be playing with his Sam Bush Band at Bonnaroo this year, marking his fourth appearance at the festival. In 2004 he played there with his own band; in 2007 with country star Dierks Bentley; and in 2008 with the Bluegrass Allstars, a lineup that featured a group of living newgrass legends that included Bush, bassist Edgar Meyer, banjo player Bela Fleck and Dobro master Jerry Douglas. Bush said he’s eager to play at the festival again this year.
“The first time I played Bonnaroo was with my own band, and the next time Buddy Miller and I were brought on board to augment Dierks’ band,” he recalled. “In 2008 I was in an ensemble that had played in Telluride (Colorado, at the Telluride Bluegrass Festival) where we were just called ‘The House Band’ (but were called the Bluegrass Allstars at Bonnaroo 2008). I really enjoy playing Bonnaroo and I’m happy to be going back there again.”
In addition to Bush, the lineup this year also includes bluegrass multi-instrumentalist Sarah Jarosz and newcomers Alabama Shakes, whose latest albums were recorded in Music City. Nashville mainstays Chuck Mead, Caitlin Rose and, surprisingly but maybe not surprisingly, country/pop legend Kenny Rogers will also appear.
Performers who have taken the stage at Bonnaroo over the years have included many artists who are Nashville residents, or who have significant ties to Music City. That list includes Punch Brothers, Gillian Welch, Kings of Leon, The Black Keys, Dave Barnes, the late Charlie Louvin, Alison Krauss and Union Station, Bela Fleck and the Flecktones, My Morning Jacket, Emmylou Harris, the now-defunct Nickel Creek, Jim Lauderdale, Will Hoge, Trent Dabbs, the late Earl Scruggs, Ricky Skaggs and Kentucky Thunder, Bobby Bare Jr., the now-defunct Be Your Own Pet, Shooter Jennings, Steve Earle, Abigail Washburn, Karen Elson, JEFF the Brotherhood, Loretta Lynn, Robert Plant’s Band of Joy, Elizabeth Cook, Dave Rawlings Machine, John Prine, Jamey Johnson, Kris Kristofferson, Miranda Lambert, Jedd Hughes, Those Darlins, Steeldrivers, Cherryholmes, The Raconteurs, Willie Nelson, The Greencards and others.
The name “Bonnaroo” comes from a term popularized by New Orleans R&B drawler Dr. John with his 1974 album Desitively Bonnaroo, which, in French N’awlins slang, means “a really good time.” An estimated 90,000 people attended Bonnaroo in 2011. While the initial emphasis of the festival was on jam bands like Phish and Widespread Panic, other types of music were booked once it was obvious how successful the festival would be, and comedy acts were even added.
“Not only is it fun to go there and perform,” Bush said, “but it’s fun to be an audience member, too. There’s such incredible variety there, and I’m really looking forward to hearing groups I haven’t been able to hear before. We’re playing in Louisville the next night, but I still love to hear new acts, and I definitely plan to stick around and listen to some music before we leave.”