Bonnaroo Behind the Scenes
It’s been a little over a week since the troves of music lovers packed up their tents and evacuated The Farm in Manchester, Tennessee, sights set on what was likely their first shower in three or four days. As the hangovers subsided and the Sunday scaries inexplicably morphed into fond memories, I began to wonder about the 17th annual Bonnaroo Music and Arts Festival for the year 2018.
A Nashvillian who has shamefully never spent a weekend (or even a day) at Bonnaroo soaking up the incredible sounds and sights, my curiosity has long been piqued as to what really happens down there during what seems to be a long weekend of sun, sweat and sound. I mean, although I have never had a first-hand experience of what I’ve always been told is a magical weekend, I think I get the basic gist of what goes down...
There are lots of people, there is lots of camping, there are not lots of showers, and one must drink lots and lots of water. There are tons of “good vibes,” there are millions of high-fives, and there is also a massive ferris wheel...wheee! Everybody’s feet are clad in tevas and chacos, their backs and hips adorned with packs, and the earth itself is covered by people, upon people, upon people, upon people. Most importantly, however, there is music. Great music. There is music for you, music for me, music for her, and music for him. There is music that will light your world on fire, and there is probably some music that will deflate your balloon, but you can always find something else that’ll fill you right back up.
So with all of that said...can’t the same be said for most music festivals like this one? What makes Bonnaroo special? What makes it different? What’s going to push the needle to convince me, a so-called Nashvillian with zero Bonnaroo notches on her belt, to pack up and pitch a tent in Manchester, Tennessee next summer?
A couple of Bonnaroo junkies who are still high on festival memories almost a week later, that’s what.
Emily Young, the Digital Media and Content Specialist for Lightning 100, has been going to Bonnaroo since she was 17 years old, but attended the festival this year in a different capacity: she was asked to be a DJ for the weekend for Radio Bonnaroo, a festival-specific radio station that keeps fans entertained and informed for duration of the weekend.
Adam Culver, another Lightning 100 DJ who is most commonly known for his role as excessively peppy Morning Show Host, also spent the weekend working on The Farm. Since the radio station essentially relocates to the festival grounds for the weekend, true to form, Adam hosted the morning show from 6 - 11 AM on Thursday and Friday mornings.
I sat down with Emily and Adam to discuss all the highs (heh heh) and lows of what is undoubtedly one of their favorite weekends every June.
“Do you guys drink and, you know, party when you’re working the festival — especially when you have to be up at the crack of dawn?” I ask them right off the bat.
It’s my most pressing question and so I get it off my chest immediately. I remember tuning in to FM 100.1 on Friday morning of Bonnaroo weekend. It was early — probably around 6:45 or 7:00 am — and I was driving home from a yoga class or something of that nature. I heard Adam’s voice streaming through my speakers, saying something to the tune of, “Good morning listeners, Adam here coming atcha live from The Fam in Manchester, Tennessee…” and I just felt for him because I really and truly hoped he hadn’t been boozing the night before and wasn’t feeling like death at that moment.
Quick to respond, Adam said, “I’ve actually been laying off the sauce for about 5 months, so I didn’t have any booze at Bonnaroo this year. This was only my third year going. So year one and two I felt like I had to see everything and do everything, you know...I just tried to absorb as much of it all as possible. But it is just so hot and so dangerous to mix that stuff. And I have a history of heat stroke, so I have to be careful.”
“I had plenty of booze,” said Emily. “I’ve been to Bonnaroo a lot and I’ve done the whole general admission we’re-going-to-sweat-our-asses-off thing. So I know how it goes. You have to strategize. Back then [in my general admission days] I wouldn’t start drinking booze until later, like when the sun is going down.”
But these days, things are a little bit different. As folks who are actually working the festival -- and doing so in broadcast capacity, no less — Emily and Adam were granted access to the “radio compound” where not only are they housed in a tent (ahhh, shade - a hot commodity during festival season) but they also have the *priceless* good fortune of air conditioning.
“There is a whole radio crew and compound where radio people from across the country are in this space converging and broadcasting. It’s of course super nice because it’s temperature-controlled, but it’s also kinda cool because it’s a meeting place,” said Adam.
Emily continued, “Basically, Bonnaroo becomes its own whole little town; its own little community. People that maybe met at Bonnaroo but typically live across the country get to reconnect again [at the festival] every year. It’s like a little family.”
Hold up. I know I’m straying away from my incredibly important question about boozing and working (and how all of that actually works when you’re stuck in the sweltering heat for four straight days) but this whole air conditioned community thing has stopped me in my tracks. I thought this was a festival. I thought we were on a farm. I thought people were roughin’ it at this thing. I guess I thought wrong.
I inquire about their sleeping arrangements. Because an air conditioned compound sure sounds like an ideal spot to rest one’s weary head if you asked me. I’m beginning to think I ought to really work on sustaining these friendships with Emily and Adam if I’m going to dip my toe into the Bonnaroo pond next year.
“Yeahhhh, it’s a pretty fun hang but we don’t actually sleep there...” says Adam. “I did get to sleep on a bus though.”
I can only assume said bus is air conditioned.
“Plus, there’s shade and showers,” he finished.
I am definitely, 100%, without a doubt tagging along with Emily and Adam for Bonnaroo 2019. Showers? That’s a game changer.
According to Emily, shade does not exist in General Admission camping. “You’re lucky if you can find shade that a Port-O-Potty created and you can hunch over in it for five minutes,” she says.
But when you’re a radio professional or you’re camping in what is called Guest Camping, those shade and shower amenities can really make all the difference. That being said, the air conditioning inside the Press Tent was known to be a little faulty, so these two had to take alternative measures to ensure they stayed cool: cooling towels.
“I am big into these cooling towels,” Adam said. As is evidenced by the towel hanging around his neck in this video from the festival. You simply wet them, ring them out, hang them around your neck and bada bing, bada boom - you’re cool. Or, so they say. Adam purchased two of said towels for his weekend at Roo, and like the good friend and colleague he is, gifted one to Emily to use as well.
“I am a very pale person and I don’t do well in the sunlight,” she said, “But it’s less even the sun and heat - I just want my body to be comfortable. So I will say: these towel things are real game changers.”
I’m beginning to understand why Emily and Adam have chosen careers in the field that they did: they’re required to “work” at Bonnaroo, a relaxing weekend-getaway in which they luxuriate in an air conditioned tent that is fully stocked with complimentary booze (oh, I didn’t mention that yet?), broadcast interviews with some of their musical heroes and heroines, and continually wet and ring out their cooling towels. Maybe I should switch fields.
As folks who have actual agendas they are required to stick to during the festival, people like Adam and Emily do get to see some pretty incredible shows…just not all of them.
“There is a part of me that saw the daily lineup and was like, ‘I’d love to see that, and I’d love to see that, and I’d love to see that…’ and I just knew that I wasn’t going to make most of them,” said Adam. “So a little piece of your heart just dies a bit when that happens, but also going out in the sun in the middle of the day is just too much.” Cue the cooling towel.
That said, there were some incredible performances — tons of them — and although they didn’t witness each and every one, it’s likely that nobody in attendance at the festival could accomplish such a feat.
Adam took the lead. “My favorite set was Anderson Paak,” he said. “He’s somebody I saw last year at Mempho [Music Festival] and he just blew my mind. The most talented person I have ever seen on stage is number one, Prince. And second, Anderson Paak.”
Now, that’s saying something. And he says he thinks long and hard about this sort of thing. Adam re-ranks artists and performances in his mind as he witnesses them and says he really cares about this stuff. “Anderson Paak is like an R&B and soul and modern singer. He’s amazing. If you know Miguel and Frank Ocean? He’s like that but more organic musically. He also plays drums, so he’ll play drums [on stage] after you’ve already seen him play three to four songs live. He’ll go to his kit and play and people just lose their minds because he’s so good.”
“Yeah, I didn’t expect that,” Emily agreed. “He was really, really good.”
Others on Adam’s list of favorites included:
Bon Iver - “I’ve never seen him [play live before] but he’s definitely a bucket list dude for me….it was pretty incredible.”
Old Crow Medicine Show - “They’re just like rum-runnin’ redneck shit, but it’s legit and so good. So fun! It’s relentless, like punk rock energy.”
Moses Sumney - “He has a really crazy pure, clear, high voice. Some is falsetto and some is full voice but it’s all just up in the trees. I caught a little bit of his day set and was super impressed, but then I caught him again later with Bon Iver, during his second set, which was like a little superjam...Moses Sumney came out and it was like he had floated in from another realm. He has some sort of grace to him and his voice is just ethereal.”
“You end up just stumbling across some good stuff,” Emily concluded.
As for her picks for the weekend?
“My favorite was Sturgill fuckin’ Simpson,” she said without missing a beat. “I missed the very beginning [of his set because I was DJing], but it was like right when I got off the air I booked it over to go see Sturgill. He was just no fuss, no frill, I don’t need all of these crazy lights and stuff...I’m just incredible. I was blown away. And it also makes you kind of proud because you’re like, Remember when you used to work at the Turnip Truck in Nashville and you used to sell me vegetables? Look at you!”
“Oh yeah,” said Adam, “He was just a super regular Nashville dude for a while.”
And that’s how it is for so many Nashville musicians - one second they’re slinging vegetables at your local neighborhood grocery store, and the next thing you know they’re headliners at Bonnaroo.
“That’s how I felt about Blank Range, too” said Emily. “They’ve been around in Nashville for a while and I’ve seen them play a zillion times but they were incredible and they killed it. [All of the band members can] sing, so the harmonies are beautiful — they’ll even alternate who is fronting each song.”
“Oh yeah,” Adam chimed in. “You see a band hit their stride, where it’s like boom. They’re fully realized. That’s where Blank Range is now.”
Emily also sang the praises of local Nashville group Okey Dokey, who played a set on one of the smaller stages at the festival. "We went and saw Okey Dokey — and Liz Cooper was playing with them, and some of the guys from Cage The Elephant — and it was so exciting because there was something major happening on another stage at the same time, but so many people showed up [for Okey Dokey] and were having a fucking blast. It just warms your heart."
She continued, “A cool thing about being from Nashville and going to Bonnaroo is how much of our city just relocates to the farm. Getting to watch some of [these musicians, who are] our friends get to that high level is a really beautiful thing.”
Beautiful, inspiring, heartwarming, just plain old cool — whatever you want to call it, I agree. Nashville is mainly known as Music City due to its history with country music, but there is a lot more incredible sound being created here than just the country variety. Bonnaroo seems to be a pretty hot ticket example of exactly that.
And maybe that, in and of itself, is what makes Bonnaroo so different, so worthwhile, so widely loved and appreciated by many: it feels like home.
“I want to say about Roo in general, with the whole ‘positive vibes’ motto and stuff — you know, I’m not traditionally a woohoo! kind of guy — but I totally buy into all the magical weird kind of stuff [that happens up there.] Just being there and feeling it, it seems tangible, and actual, and happening,” said Adam.
“Yeah I came to Bonnaroo when I was a teenager and it is the most comfortable I have ever felt with myself,” said Emily.
“I remember being there and looking around and seeing people embrace all of their weirdness and everything about them that’s different and they all feel totally comfortable and don’t give a shit. Their attitude is just ‘I love this band, and I love this music, and I’m going to just let these emotions take over my body, and I don’t care what I look like or what I’m doing.’ It wasn’t all about posting on Instagram back then. It was just people loving being around music and other people that love it, and I just felt like I could unapologetically be myself. Bonnaroo is a beautiful thing and a beautiful place.”
Well folks, one thing's for certain: I'm going to Bonnaroo next year.