Kevin Griffin, hit songwriter, frontman for pop rock band Better Than Ezra (BTE) and co-founder and promoter of the new Pilgrimage Music and Cultural Festival, is a fan a big fan of the acts playing the festival at the Park at Harlinsdale Farm in Franklin, September 26-27. And with a bill that includes Wilco, Willie Nelson, Sheryl Crow, Weezer, Dawes and St. Paul and the Broken Bones, to name a few, who wouldn’t be? But that doesn’t mean the guitarist will be throwing his weight around and jumping onstage to play every chance he gets.
Except maybe the kids stage.
“One thing I’m definitely going to do is get on the Little Pilgrim stage with Ralph Covert of Ralph’s World,” says Griffin from a stop on BTE’s recent tour with Uncle Kracker, Eve 6 and Sugar Ray. “He did a cover of KC and the Sunshine Band ‘Get Down Tonight’ that’s tweaked for kids and I’ve always loved it. I asked if I could get up and sing with him and he said ‘Sure, could you do a couple Better Than Ezra (16:00) songs with us?’ Other than that, right now I’m wearing a promoter’s hat and I’m a fan of these bands. I’m getting my performance fix being out on the road.”
Louisiana native Griffin, who in addition to writing hits for BTE, has written or co-written songs for dozens of other artists, including ‘Collide” for Howie Day and “Stuck Like Glue” for Sugarland. He has been a Franklin resident for almost five years now. He, along with fellow New Orleanians W. Brandy Wood and Michael Whelan, conceived of the Pilgrimage Music and Cultural Festival as a daytime Franklin, Tennessee equivalent of New Orleans Jazz Festival. The two-day festival features performances by dozens of big-name rock and Americana artists. In addition to the aforementioned artists, all of whom will be playing scaled-down, partly-acoustic sets, there will be performances by Willie Nelson, Dr. John, The Decemberists, Punch Brothers, Band of Horses, Steven Tyler, Cage the Elephant, Trampled by Turtles, Holly Williams, NAWAS, Kingfish, Chris Stapleton, Jimmy Cliff, Neko Case, Nikki Lane, Iron & Wine, Charles Bradley & His Extraordinaires, The Lone Bellow, Lucius, Preservation Hall Jazz Band, Will Hoge, Saint Motel, John & Jacob, Madisen Ward & The Mama Bear, Big Sam’s Funky Nation and Rainey Qualley.
“It’s an A-level bill for a festival that’s been around for 15 or 20 years,” says Griffin. “I think it’s without a doubt the best first-year festival lineup in the country.”
How the lineup came to be was a multi-year process. Once they had set their sights on a festival, Griffin, Wood and Whelan all made individual wish lists of their favorite festivals and the bands. With a master list, they approached Jay Sweet, Newport Folk Festival producer. Sweet made suggestions of his own and got to work.
“It was a combination of Sweet’s relationships, what he saw working best in Middle Tennessee and Franklin and Nashville and then navigating the landscape,” says Griffin. “It’s a careful balance of bands who have played with each other in the past, who their agents are, the relationships with those agents, and more.”
After figuring out who their artists might be, the next challenge for Griffin and his team was figuring out a way for the festival to stand out. Middle Tennessee and the Southeast region are practically overwhelmed with music festivals at this point. In addition to the tent poles, Bonnaroo and CMA Music Festival, there’s Forecastle in nearby Louisville, The Beale Street Music Festival as part of Memphis in May, Hangout Music Festival in Alabama and Shakey Knees Music Festival in Atlanta. Southern California’s Ink-N-Iron Festival gave Middle Tennessee a shot in August, and SoundHarvest launches in Centennial Park in October. The Americana Music Festival takes place in Nashville and its environs (including the Factory in Franklin) and ends the weekend prior to Pilgrimage.
“We realized that festivals are the trend,” says Griffin. “They’re huge and there is a lot of fallout for festivals that don’t make it. It’s getting saturated. So our goal was what we could do differently. Being New Orleans guys, and having grown up with the Jazz Festival and seeing how unique that, that was our thing. Let’s have a multi-genre music festival where Nikko Case can be on the same stage where Weezer is going to be later, or Dr. John is going to share a stage with Saint Motel. We know how that can work because we’ve seen it work at a day festival that ends at 7:30, a festival with amazing food and drink that’s family friendly and kids get a treat. We love Bonnaroo and CMA Fest. Those are amazing festivals. But we wanted to be smaller, more family friendly, and an alternative to those mega-fests.”
Children age 10-and-under with a ticket-holding adult will be allowed in for free. There will be plenty of entertainment geared to them. In addition to performing as Ralph’s World, Covert has also curated the Hohner’s Little Pilgrim Family Stage with a number of local and national acts. Scheduled to appear are Grammy-nominated Secret Agent 23 Skidoo, Jazzy Ash & The Leaping Lizards, Nashville’s own Emmy Award-winning Farmer Jason, Music City’s Casey Campbell, Laura Doherty & The Heartbeats, Nashville’s Tom Mason and the Blue Bucccaneers, and East Tennessee child prodigy EmiSunshine.
In addition to music stages, there will also be a market on site with local and handcrafted items, as well as plenty of food trucks and vendor dining options. All of it, Griffin likes to emphasize, taking place in “an unbeatable seating” in a town “embracing Americana music and roots music.”
The Americana Music Association and Music City Roots already call Franklin home, and the AMA has previously held a smaller single-day festival at Harlinsdale — the Cross County Lines Festival in 2013 and 2014. The Americana Music Triangle, heralded by Franklin businessman and preservationist Aubrey Preston, includes Franklin. In fact, the Americana Music Triangle’s Gold Record Road, from Nashville to Muscle Shoals, cuts right through Franklin along Franklin Road, the same road many attendees will travel to get to the Pilgrimage Music and Cultural Festival. In a nod to the Triangle and Park at Harlinsdale Farm’s location, one of the Festival stages is called The Gold Record Road Stage.
“There’s a lot of pride in Franklin,” adds Griffin. “We’re part of the greater Nashville community, but just like any community, we want to stand out on our own. You don’t want to be a little brother all the time. I think the Americana push is part of that. That Pilgrimage is happening in Franklin and all the things that have conspired to make it happen is crazy. If we were down in New Orleans, I could say Jazz Fest has already done what we want to do. But amazingly, in Music City, it didn’t exist until now.”
Pilgrimage Music and Cultural Festival takes places September 26-27 at the Park at Harlinsdale Farm. Gates open at 10 a.m. each day with music scheduled to start by 10:30 a.m. Performances are scheduled to wrap by 8 p.m. Single-day and two-day GA and VIP passes are available now at http://pilgrimagefestival.com/.