Late-night sets, SuperJams, and Jim James' Silent Disco dance moves: How a hippie getaway became the best music bonanza in the U.S.
Every summer, music lovers pack festival grounds across America for dancing and day drinking to their favorite bands. But before fashionable #Coachella selfies clogged your Instagram, Bonnaroo—the magical Woodstock-esque fest on a 700-acre Manchester, Tenn., farm—inspired a nation of weirdos to unplug and plan an annual pilgrimage. With the 15th edition kicking off June 9, past performers and key figures trace its wild history.
ASHLEY CAPPS, Festival cofounder, AC Entertainment: I started traveling [to Europe] fairly regularly in the 1980s, and I saw what a vibrant festival culture there was. I was like, “Why doesn’t the States have more of these?” So on a small scale I produced Mountain Oasis in 2000, outside of Asheville, N.C., and it was overwhelmingly successful. I was like, “This is an idea whose time had come.” I started talking with [event production company] Superfly—they had Jazz Fest in New Orleans.
JONATHAN MAYERS, Festival cofounder, Superfly: We connected in 2001, I was very inspired. We’d been to some of the European festivals and always had a dream to do a fest. We started looking at sites in the Southeast.
CAPPS: We poked all over the Southeast, actually. Superfly was in New Orleans—they had just graduated from Tulane University—my office was in Knoxville [Tennessee]…Ultimately, we found the site outside of Nashville. A friend of ours had been involved in a festival [there] two or three years before us, Itchycoo.
After securing the Farm in Manchester, it was time to get teams in place and the town on board.
ANNA BOROFSKY, Founder, Clean Vibes [which oversees waste management]: When we first got the call it didn’t have a name, it was “this festival in Tennessee,” and we were told that they would have 50,000 people. We thought, wow, how are they going to pull that off?
CAPPS: Oh man, we brainstormed thousands of names [for the festival].
MAYERS: I think one was AXIS, but that was when President Bush had come out and said the Axis of Evil. We were looking through old records and we came across a record Dr. John record, Desitively Bonnaroo, and Bonnaroo jumped out at us. We looked it up and it was a Creole slang word for “good stuff.” Everyone rallied around that.
As for the lineup…
CAPPS: I have a long-standing relationship with Widespread Panic, and I remember going out to the land and standing there and their response was, “You’re crazy, but we’ll do it.” Once we had a band of their stature, people started buying into the concept.
DAVID PENNINGTON, Former mayor of Coffee County, where Bonnaroo is held: I’d never heard of some of those bands. I thought, “Good God! This won’t do no better than Itchycoo.”
The fest sold all 70,000 tickets—and quickly.
MAYERS: I remember the day we went on sale and being in my apartment and one of my partners calling me and being like, “Have you seen ticket counts?”
CAPPS: We sold like 12,000 tickets [that day]. We hoped to sell 6,000 or 7,000 in those first two weeks. We were like, “Oh my God. What are we going to do?” After a couple more days we had to raise the price—and then they sold even quicker! It was all because of that network of fans that the bands had established on the Internet. Jam bands pioneered the use of the Internet to communicate directly with their fans.
In the months that followed, organizers worked tirelessly to get the grounds ready. On June 21, 2002, they opened the gates.
CAPPS: I woke up at, like, 4:30 a.m. and started driving to the site, and every square inch of space was occupied. It was like Shakedown Street. I was like, “This is amazing,” and “Oh s—, can we get arrested for this?” Our original traffic plan was rejected, and when it was [we said], “Traffic’s going to be blocked 20 miles in both directions.” The patrolman said, “Not on my watch.” That afternoon, I ran into [him]. He said, “Traffic’s backed up 20 miles. Next year we’re doing it your way.”
PENNINGTON: It flat out stopped our town. The biggest challenge was that we had underestimated what they told us to expect.
BOROFSKY: When everyone gets to Manchester, the first thing they do is go to the big Walmart—even though they had sold out all the tickets, no one had believed it was really going to happen. The cashiers there got a real surprise.
STEVE MOLITZ, Particle: We were stuck with everybody else so we decided to take advantage of the time—we were going up and down this line of cars handing out our CDs for free and trading some beers. [Laughs] I don’t know if we were worried about missing our set, but if we had, we probably would have just played on the side of the road.
Widespread Panic, Trey Anastasio, Ben Harper, and String Cheese Incident headlined, while Jurassic 5, North Mississippi Allstars, Particle, and others played—and partied—that first year.
LUTHER DICKINSON, North Mississippi Allstars: The infrastructure was so good. We came from Europe, where the festival is an art form, and at that point in America it was not such.
CHALI 2NA, Jurassic 5: We were festival veterans as far as Europe is concerned. It felt good to travel to a remote place, see the dopest bands, and party like that.
DICKINSON: I’m not going to say sex, but it was a lot of drugs and rock & roll. Our crew went way off course.
Over the years, Bonnaroo has become famous for all-night sets. Jam band Particle started the trend in 2002, and acts like My Morning Jacket and Skrillex have upheld the tradition. It’s also the only festival where you’ll find Questlove and Ben Harper or MMJ’s Jim James and John Oates collaborating for the fest’s famous SuperJams.
MOLITZ: We played at, like, 3:30 p.m. and partied all day. Then our manager said, “If we can get a PA, would you want to play [late-night]?” We scrambled!
JAMES: One of the fun things about Bonnaroo is that nobody has to worry about any normal-life concerns. You’re on a different plane of existence. So it’s fun to say, “F— it, let’s keep playing.” There’s no reason for any rules.
SKRILLEX: It was the craziest amount of work ever for one show. [But] that first moment, walking out and [U.K. MC] Sgt. Pokes saying, “Bonnaroo! This is the SuperJam!” Lettuce playing the live horns, Big Gigantic on the saxophone, the drums and the f—ing guitars…it was so sick.
The festival has evolved beyond its jam-band roots. Top rock acts like Radiohead and Metallica have headlined. And Kanye West had perhaps the most controversial set, when his 2008 slot was delayed until 4:30 a.m., angering fans.
DANNY CLINCH, Photographer: [The organizers] were trying to get Radiohead to play [at the 2006 festival, when they headlined for the first time], and they weren’t having much success. I was with the band and told them, “It’s the closest to the European festival that you’ll find. You would really enjoy this.” Shortly after, they made the decision to do Bonnaroo.
CAPPS: With Radiohead’s performance, you could see Bonnaroo becoming a festival that has a wide embrace of the musical world. [With Kanye West], that was a particularly complicated situation—there was a breakdown in communication.
WAYNE COYNE, The Flaming Lips [who attended the year West performed]: I thought, “This is what Kanye does; he’s going to get more attention playing at 5 a.m. than if he played at 11 at night.” And you can get caught up in the Kanye hatred and be like, “Who does he think he is?” But I still thought that s—t he was doing was cool.
2NA: I was on around the same time [as West]. And I had like 8,000 people there but because people were leaving his set! So by the time I’m five or six songs in, my tent is spilling out! I gave him a shout out—I said, “Yo! Big up to Kanye West! Whatever you’re doing over there, man, my tent is extremely packed right now! So thank you!” [Laughs]
Recently, Bonnaroo has given EDM acts headlining slots and helped launched artists like My Morning Jacket and Mumford & Sons from tent-size crowds to main stage sets.
SKRILLEX: The first year [I played in 2012] people were going, “What the f— is Skrillex doing here?” [But] if you like something, you’re going to be way less vocal about it. You’re not going to be all over the message boards like, “F—k! I like this!”
CLINCH: The Black Keys, My Morning Jacket, Kings of Leon—those bands were not well-known when they came. I have film of the Black Keys driving up in their own van and Dan Auerbach stringing his own guitar backstage. Fast-forward a few years and [all three are] headlining. To me, that’s like, “How could this festival not have an effect on contemporary music?”
JAMES: Bonnaroo has been special to us. We’ve kind of been on the same trajectory—though I think Bonnaroo has grown more than we have. [Laughs] I go there to lose my mind, whether that’s on stage playing and lost in music or out in the crowd with friends, or in the silent disco tent—or just walking late at night over to the ferris wheel.
CAPPS: When we booked [Mumford & Sons in 2010], they were the opening act in one of the tents, and we weren’t sure it was a good idea. By the time they got to the festival, they had talked us into letting them close the tent.
TED DWANE, Mumford & Sons: I don’t remember that! [Laughs] We were right after Dave Rawlings and Gillian Welch, and they were backed by a bunch of Old Crow [Medicine Show] guys—we were freaking out. Old Crow’s manager was like, “We heard you guys do a version of [Old Crow’s] ‘Wagon Wheel.’ If you want, the guys will get up there with you.” It was one of the most significant musical days we’ve had in America.
By 2013, Mumford & Sons had upgraded to a headlining slot. It was supposed to be their biggest set on American soil, but Dwane had been feeling ill on tour in the weeks prior. Doctors found a clot in his brain and he underwent surgery immediately. Forced to scramble, organizers asked Jack Johnson, who happened to be in attendance but hadn’t performed in four years to sub. He agreed.
DWANE: I thought that was so cool that he did that. If I’m at a party or something and there’s a stage and someone’s like, “Aw, get up there!” I’m not up for it. But he was fine to jump on stage and do Bonnaroo without any rehearsal.
In 2015, the band finally got their set.
DWANE: To get to Bonnaroo and play that show, finally, was just about the joy of doing something that you were so looking forward to doing, and having that taken away for a bit.
CAPPS: That’s one of the most exciting things to have witnessed over the course of the last 15 years.
Whether artists played the first or 14th year, everyone remembers their first ’Roo…
JAMES: It’s what I always imagined the set of Mad Max would be like. It’s like you’re out in the future in this crazy, lawless place. Pulling in felt like, “Here’s this place I always thought existed but I never found….”
COYNE: We were blown away by how much people embraced us. We came from this confrontational punk-rock thing, and Bonnaroo, it changed us. We thought, “That’s how we want to be.” People who saw us that night just loved us. Everybody would say, “We’re all here together and f—k all that.”
GARY CLARK JR.: I didn’t really know what to expect. And I remember pulling up in the van and it was hot and dusty and bigger than I could have imagined. We parked in the woods and walked out and I’ve been to festivals, but I’ve never seen anything like it. You know if someone is coming to Bonnaroo they’re a real music lover, because you have to commit.
DWANE: Our first impression of Bonnaroo was the best you could imagine. Coachella is very smoothies and protein shakes, Bonnaroo is a bit more hippie, a bit more out-there. Not to undermine Coachella, but [Bonnaroo] is our people.
A version of this story originally appeared in the May 27, 2016 issue of Entertainment Weekly.