Postcards from Bonnaroo: The First Missive

The Drive

Decisions you have to make. The easy, but quite possibly cloggeder’n a Waffle House grill cook’s arteries straight shot down I-24, or the “confidential” route for high congestion times.

When you’re dyslexic, that’s a high anxiety proposition. Especially with one turn note being “There’s a big pine tree and a brick house on the corner. The sign is wrapped in plastic tape.”

Then again, I’m on the lam from the country music industry. I’m going to a place where no one can find me. If I get lost along the way, what’s the harm? It’s day-light hours, after all.

And what you forget in the rush to Strip Mall and Mc(mini)Manson middle Tennessee how pretty this part of the country really is. Not long after getting the highay and navigating through a truly small town, the road rises up and away, and you’re slicing through fields of greens, with cows and horses dotted the vastness like freckles on a little kid.

It’s true. The topography alone, rising and falling like a sheet being tossed after coming out of the washer and dryer to rid those final wrinkles before folding, makes you smile at the Earth’s inherent texture.

But then those hills and valleys are covered with old trees with vast branches, already covered with broad, thick leaves. They are deep green clouds hovering over emerald green brush and grass; all of it dotted by the rain of sunshine pouring through clouds that can’t decide whether their want to release the water held within.

As the fields bleed into one and other, suddenly it dawns on you: this isn’t land for rich people wanting privacy and an agricultural tax exemption, these are working farms. As 70 South delves deeper into middle Tennessee, there are tree farms on either side of the blue line, perfect rows of pines, poplars, birches – not full grown, but not mere seedlings either.

One day, those straight students of the arbor shall be scooped up, balled up and delivered to their new home to provide shade, recycle carbon monoxide into oxygen and render the illusion that this place where they’re planted has a history as long as they are old. Tree farms? Who knew? And how beautiful.

Tyson has made their way into the family farms, and their signs stand attention at various driveways. Almost like the mafia, declaring protection or some such… but feeling like the corporate hand either tentacling into the last place of family farming or leaving the illusion that they’re a friend of the family farmer and the family eater.

Absolute auction signs dot the land, too. Reminding me of Neil Young’s “This Old House,” it suggests that honest work on the land may not be enough to make even ragged ends meet.

Two gray-ish haired men in chambray shirts, one a little more weather-beaten than the other sit beside a house on a brick semi-wall. There’s a tractor parked behind them, making you wonder if it’s the weather or the price of corn or what the banks are doing that they’re talking. I hope it’s baseball or fishing, something that’s a relief…
But the car is running near 60 miles an hour, and some more black tar ribbon unspools behind me. I don’t know where I’m going, or how the traffic will be, and I wonder: how different will this be from the big time country music festivals that have populated my life since college?



The A‘Rooval

They couldn’t be nicer. That’s what strikes you first. This notion that Ashley Capps turned into music, dancing, food, film, funny stuff and late night old school jamming… 80,000 strong last year, 85,000 reportedly this year.

That’s a whole lotta on your nerves, and yet, even in the heat and the dirt or mud, everyone’s smiling. They wave you into your spot in a mucky field, say funny things when you throw yourself on the mercy of “I’ve never done this before” like “well (pointing behind me) there’s nothing that way. Don’t go THAT way… and if you head this way (pointing down a road), everything you want is there.”
I nod. The guy in the green shirt and Jesus hairs laughs, “And when you need to get back, just say: Guest Day Parking. There’s only one lot.”


And it is that easy. Walk down a lumpy road, pock-mocked like a hormonally teenage fry chef at any fast food chain, and you can see the lights, feel the energy. Banks of high end winnebagos, double-wides brought in to serve as office space. Lots of golf carts and people on walkie talkies; safety guards directing foot traffic and forklift traffic.

Just keep walking, watch the signs, look for the holes in the fences.

There are bus camps. There are access ways. There are stages and backstages, holding areas and yes, VIP areas. Even the romping zones for the guests is pretty sweet. Very green, plenty of seating, lots of intriguing set-ups: from noted photographer Danny Clinch’s area with an ad hoc band/sound set-up to Garnier/Fructis creating shower stations around the compound.

It’s not a compound, by the way. Borrowing from the good love vibe of Woodstock, perhaps, it’s called “the Farm.” Just as you’re gagging on the idealism, though, look around. Seriously.

Tumbling out onto the green, punctuated by even more thick trunked trees that have boughs spreading out to soak up as much of the moment as the attendees, it’s the world’s coolest gathering of tribes. Tie-dye, dredded, fresh-faced, wildly tattoed, Doc Martin’d and Hunter Boot’d, sun dresses and camo pants, rail thin and notably gutty… and all coming together to laugh and chill, enjoy he moment and the music.

There seems to be no rush, no push, no jam into or onto the next thing. Mostly a lot of hanging around, checking it out, deciding what to see next or just hang out and know something cool’s about to happen.

It’s not the antithesis of CMA Music Fest, but it is way chiller and way less about the end point. Or maybe the end point is being there, just in that moment with your friends, feeling the magic and sinking into the moment.

They also eschew logo-neering. The stages: This, That, Which, What have no corporate tagging like some Mutual of Omaha Wild Kingdom consumer marking program. Instead, the event and the experience drives. Even the Ford Fiesta Garage or IFC-hosted Comedy Theatre are a seamless integration, inviting places that have a hint of who’s paying, but the “big companies” get the loyalty comes from not jamming it down throats of the people attending.

And everywhere bands play. But as the fingernail moon rises and the balmy air finds just a hint of chill, there is all kinds of neon and opportunity. A giant ferris wheel spins, the silent disco churns without the benefit of a blaring sound system, the bodies moving to music synchronized on headphones.

There’s a huge rainbow mushroom, which would implode under the kitsch-ism symbolism – except for the cascading water flowing over the cap’s edges and dousing more dancing people, flopping and splashing like the seals at Sea World.

“Wow,” I say to my friend and fellow journalist Jewly Hight, pointing to a particularly porcine dude rocking a case-size beer gut over bright red and white tropical print baggies.

We giggle a bit, not about his look, but about his joy.

“There is no self-consciousness here,” she says. And it’s true. However you are, it’s fine. No, perfect. Come as you are, bask in the glory. It’s good to be alive.

And over at the Adult Swim Pageant of the Cosmos, there is the Balloonicorn Blow Out. Grown-ups putting on giant unicorn heads, then jumping up at a net filled wit balloons trying to pop them.
Who is having more fun? Those wearing the post-“Godfather” horse’s heads or the people watching them? Does it matter? Perhaps not. And everywhere you go, there is a suspension of the drab in the name of creativity, of vibe, of fellowship.

It’s crazy, and it’s cool. And there’s all kinds of music, too.