Midnight In Manchester/Welcome to the Farm
The day had gone on too long. Tooooo toooooo long. Up early for a massive blood draw, deadlines, deadlines, phone calls, errands, racing around, events. Events. No, EVENTS. Things to be taken entirely too seriously, like Don Henley allowing select tracks from his album to be played. And more writing, more talking on the phone, more throwing things in bags and then throwing them in the car.
It isn’t quite humid as the last trip from stoop to car begins, alaram bleep bleep bleep-ing in my wake. It isn’t hot, but the heat is present. It penetrates my skin as I slide into the car, adjust the rearview mirror, wonder if I need the air conditioning. After a long day, the artificial cool creates a suspended state of not real.
A drop of sweat rolls between my breasts. I smile. I’m glad to be alive, feeling the warm collected moistness passing over my flesh. I am leaving, changing the energy, doing something perpendicular to my life.
Even the tires grab the night pavement with a little more stick to it, rolling smooth, but taking the road. The wheels turn and turn, the blinker blinks, the night lays velvet before me.
I am on Harding Road, passing by modest rectangle boxes and sweeping trees, street lights raining gold cones down onto the dark blue sedan boring into the night. Only a few sets of headlights approach, moving with the same purpose I am. Night drivers have places to be – or else they’re out-running something that plagues their mind.
Me? I’m going to Bonnaroo. Manchester, Tennssee. The gathering of tribes... tribes of music lovers, of kindred spirits, young people merging in their youth, old people celebrating all the life they’ve lived, hippies, comedy junkies, Yuppies trying to remember when they still had idealism (or not), ravers, film-types, partiers, food truckers, ecology-minded types... All headed to the Farm, all looking for three solid days of wandering from stage-to-stage of rap, rock, soul, alt-anything, bluegrass, hybrids, silent discos, Christmas Lounges, Unicorn Ring Toss, giant mushroom fountains to frolic under – and so much more.
Bonnaroo. Strangest place I’ve every been. With the mud and the dirt and the dust. The heat and the cool of night. The blazing sun, the fluffy clouds, the burning turquoise of the sky on a clear day. I go alone, I am never a stranger.
Everyone is happy to talk, to share their thoughts on bands they love, things they think are important. Whatever you want – except a five star hotel – it’s there. Open your mind, your eyes, your heart. Look around.
I-24 takes you east, past where the Nashville boom trickles to nothing – and the night is black save more rectangles, splashed with light. These boxes are two-dimensional, versus the 3-D ranch houses I left behind. They promote off-brand motels, cheap gas, lower-tier syndicated food.
The night is silent, save Jason Isbell’s Something More Than Free. Austere, acoustic, but strong. Dignity flows from his character sketches of less thans and not quites, all proud sorts in threadbare places. He knows just how I feel.
The night before I’d been watching the country music glitterati and D Listers like Hulk Hogan’s daughter and some “Dancers with the Stars” stand around being fabulous for the sake of an awards show that forgot music should be the point. It’s more about gags and ruffles of culture wow. My head was numb and the white noise of gossip being made more important than it was because the talkers needed to believe it mattered turned to white noise six inches from my face.
Now I am slicing through the night, watching my directions, looking for exit 114. To make the Left, then another Left at the O’Charley’s, seeking the Coffee County Convention Center, tucked behind a Holiday Inn Express.
In spite of specificity, I miss the turn. A quarter mile later, down a road blacker than a coal mine, I find a place to turn around. A sun-burned 70s van, like something from “Scooby Doo” sits in the yard, otherwise, no sign of motion exists anywhere.
Retracing, laughing, moon roof open, stars watching my every move, I turn where it seems unlikely. I am right, and veering away from the Starbucks, the road swings a little wide, and there – like an oasis in the desert – it is.
Check-in is 24/7. Convince the parking attendants you belong, they let you park – and you can go inside. I don’t need much scamming. Someone who looks like me, here at this hour, I must be where I belong.
Slide into a parking spot in the first row. Hands on the wheel, I exhale. Tell Isbell I’ll be right back. Turn the car off, check to make sure I’m truly all here. All right in one spot, in Manchester, Tennessee, in the light heat and heavily quiet night.
A two-story brick building, bathed in fluorescent light, it has that blue/green unworldly glow as you approach. Almost like the underside of a fish’s belly inside rusty red angles that hold every minor league trade show and event that matters ‘round here.
But walking in, past the three sleepy-eyed volunteers finishing their shift, hoping to catch some EDM before the music shuts down for the night, the light turns back to yellow in the big rooms. Signs say “Artist Check In,” “Roll Like A Rock Star,” “Media,” “Guests” and “Guests with an Artist.”
I find the line for Media, and there is no line. Emily, kohl-rimmed eyes and dark bangs swinging across her brow like a willow bows in a breeze, looks up and smiles. “ID.”
Handing over my license, I say, “You guys are still here. Amazing...”
“We’re the all night crew,” she cheers.
“Good thing. It let me get away late...”
“Yeah, me, too.”
We start talking about escape from Music Fest, from the incoming hoard, from the big corporate reality that co-opted the sweetness of Fan Fair at the Fairgrounds, with the concerts on the Speedway where stock cars race at deafening sound levels otherwise.
“I normally work the awards,” she tells me. “Co-ordinate the co-ordinators, but CMT had a blood bath, so they can’t pay anyone any more.”
I smile. I feel no need to get into. She looks far happier to be here. I understand. She’s 20-something, knows more than she should and has perhaps learned too much about corporate reality to buy into the conventional wisdom of what must be done. She just knows she’d worked hard for them, but it didn’t matter.
We laugh about how there’s always something going on at the ‘Roo. She checks the schedule, gives me four options. She says, “Or you can just go to bed.” I must look as tired as I feel.
“Yeah, maybe,” I say, not wanting to seem old.
But she’s right. And I know it. There are three full days ahead. Days of magic, days of music, days of fun and memories to be made.
Lee Ann Womack’s brought her family, lured by this other world she’s never seen. She’s been darting in and out of festivals for the day over the last few years, immersing in the International Bluegrass Music Association’s World of Bluegrass the last two. She is as curious as they come.
Crossing back over 24, I see the Waffle House and Krystal, knowing my hotel is somewhere behind. I miss the mildew-smelling hotel of two years ago with the giant Buddha head fountain, but that was not where I was assigned. No, instead, it’s some truckers bit of faux-cozy, with rockers on the porch and a picket fence around the flowers.
It is another box of boxes for the tired and the traveling. The lady at the desk has my keys and a smile, tells me where breakfast is – and the fastest route to my room. For Manchester, this is a big few days for their economy; if the work is long and intense, they’re glad for the money coming in and they welcome you.
Grabbing a cart, I go out and unload the car. Roll it across the tar-patched lot and through the sliding doors, down a hall and around a corner. The room is basic blond wood Colonial, a Ritz Carlton compared to last time.
Humming to myself, the world has turned again. I am somewhere else not my own, ready to see, to touch, to taste, to hear it all – and nothing feels more hopeful or quite so alive. And so Bonnaroo begins again.