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America's Greatest Music Festival: Bonnaroo


Photography in this story by Brian Hensley Photography

The Bonnaroo Music and Arts Festival is an American annual four-day music festival developed and produced by C3 Productions and AC Entertainment. Since its first year in 2002, it has been held at what is now Great Stage Park on a 700-acre (up to 1200 with additional camping) farm in Manchester, Tennessee.


The festival typically starts on the second Thursday in June and lasts four days. It has been held every year except 2020 when it was canceled due to the COVID-19 pandemic and 2021 when it was canceled due to excessive rain from Hurricane Ida flooding the campground.


Main attractions of this festival are the multiple stages featuring live music with a diverse array of musical styles including indie rock, classic rock, world music, hip hop, jazz, Americana, bluegrass, country music, folk, gospel, reggae, pop, electronic, and other alternative music. Musical acts begin Wednesday evening for early arrivers, continued throughout the festival with performances starting each day around noon, and some stages entertaining festival goers until sunrise.


The festival was ranked in 2003 by Rolling Stone magazine as one of the "50 Moments That Changed Rock & Roll", "Festival of the Decade" by Consequence of Sound, and among the 10 Best Festivals by GQ Magazine.

History

Ashley Capps, co-founder of AC Entertainment, developed Bonnaroo following the cancellation of the Hot Summer Nights rock music festival in Knoxville, Tennessee in 1999. Hot Summer Nights, which was a mainstay in Knoxville's World's Fair Park would suspend operations permanently following construction by city officials. Capps would state that the cancellation would be the main drive behind the origin of Bonnaroo, "The closing of the World’s Fair Park for concerts precipitated getting creative and trying to find, ‘OK, if we can’t do this anymore, how can we still participate in the summer outdoor concert business,' and it was from that that Bonnaroo was ultimately launched."


The first Bonnaroo Music Festival took place in 2002. The founders chose "bonnaroo" (Creole slang meaning a really good time) for its literal meaning and to honor the rich New Orleans music tradition that they had enjoyed in college. Bonnaroo was popularized by New Orleans R&B singer Dr. John with his 1974 album Desitively Bonnaroo. Bonnaroo is derived from the French "bonne" pronounced [bɔn] the feminine agreement of "bon" pronounced [bɔ̃] meaning "good," and the French "rue" pronounced [ʁy] meaning "street," translating roughly to "the best on the streets".


In 2019, after a record breaking festival sell out, it was announced that Live Nation was buying out Superfly's share of Bonnaroo.


The 2020 event was initially pushed back three months until September 2020, and then ultimately cancelled because of health concerns surrounding the COVID-19 pandemic in the United States. The 2021 event was canceled due to torrential rainfall from Hurricane Ida saturating the stage area, campgrounds, and tollbooth area, and making ground conditions unsuitable for vehicle traffic only a few days before the event was scheduled to take place.

Notable Performances

R&B singer D'Angelo marked his return to American stages for the first time in over 12 years on June 9, 2012 with a surprise performance at the festival's annual Superjam. He was backed by members of the R&B collective The Soulquarians, most notably Questlove, James Poyser and Pino Palladino, with guest guitarist Jesse Johnson. The set was composed almost entirely of covers.


Other performers have been Widespread Panic (2002, 2003, 2005, 2007, 2008, 2011), Phish (2009, 2012, 2019), Dead & Company (2003, 2004, 2016), U2 (2017), Pearl Jam (2008, 2016), Billy Joel (2015), Mumford and Sons (2011, 2015), Elton John (2014), Eminem (2011, 2018), Jack White (2014), Lionel Richie (2014), The Flaming Lips (2003, 2007, 2010, 2014), Paul McCartney (2013), Tom Petty and The Heartbreakers (2006, 2013), Wu-Tang Clan (2013), Red Hot Chili Peppers (2012, 2017), Radiohead (2006, 2012), Neil Young (2003, 2011), Dave Matthews Band (2005, 2010), Stevie Wonder (2010), Bruce Springsteen (2009), Nine Inch Nails (2009), Metallica (2008), The Police (2007), Bob Dylan (2004).

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