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Growing up with Bonnaroo | A Hometowner's Perspective

Ed. Note: Matthew Powers is interning with NowPlayingNashville.com this summer. A Manchester, Tenn. native who doesn’t remember a time when Bonnaroo didn’t exist, Matthew is currently a student at the Sewanee: The University of the…

Ed. Note: Matthew Powers is interning with NowPlayingNashville.com this summer. A Manchester, Tenn. native who doesn’t remember a time when Bonnaroo didn’t exist, Matthew is currently a student at the Sewanee: The University of the South. For his second assignment for our blog (his first was a preview of the Frist’s new Italian automotive show) we asked him to give us an insider/small-town/hometown view of  the mega-festival that is Bonnaroo.

If you’re a frequent concert-goer, then by now you know we’re deep into festival season. It’s that magical time of year where music fans from all over take off from work, hop into their RVs and travel across the globe in search for the best festival on the circuit. Of course, festival hopping is a waste of time considering that any true concert veteran knows Bonnaroo is the only music festival that actually matters. But don’t take it from me; I’m pretty biased. While 90,000 people venture to the Middle-of-Nowhere, Tennessee to enjoy four days in paradise, I’ve spent my entire life in that same piece of Middle-of-Nowhere, and there’s much less live music going on during the other 361 days of the year. I’m not saying Manchester is the worst place to grow up. I’m just saying you don’t know Bonnaroo on the intimate level I do. I was born in it. Molded by it. I didn’t see the venue install actual restrooms until I was already a man. So no matter how many times you’ve consecutively been to the festival, or what distance you’ve traveled to get there, there’s an entire other side to Bonnaroo one just can’t experience over the weekend. Luckily, I’m here to tell you all about it.

(Image from trademarkologist.com / Courtesy of Wayback Machine)

If you’re not from Manchester, you probably didn’t utter the phrase, “What’s a Bonnaroo?” until sometime in the early to mid 2000’s. But think back to the 1999. That’s the year we in Manchester first got wind of “some music festival” coming to town. Enter Itchycoo, the area’s first major music spectacle. With a spacious venue right off the interstate, an all-star lineup including Rick Springfield, The Outfield, Sammy Hagar, Iron Butterfly, Styx, and of course the gorgeous and illustrious city of Manchester, Itchycoo was bound to be a success. That is until the festival only managed to sell 19,000 tickets in lieu of an estimated 80,000. It’s true, the first iteration of Bonnaroo was a massive failure. So much so, the festival knew they were going to take a loss even before the weekend was up, and when staff members caught news that they weren’t going to be paid, they bailed too. No, the 20th Century’s final year was not kind to musical festivals (See Woodstock ‘99). Yet, unlike the more established festivals, Itchycoo had a chance to rebrand, and rebrand it did. AC Entertainment took over and rebranded it Bonnaroo.

If you’re not from Manchester, you can’t imagine the shock we had when, three years later in 2002, our small town of 10,000 people dramatically increased to 70,000. No one was prepared for Bonnaroo to be such a runaway success. In fact, many in Manchester struggled to grasp what the festival was as well as its importance. For many years, those four days of the summer signified atrocious traffic, noise pollution and some pretty interesting trips to Wal-Mart.

Two Bonnaroovians Soak Up the Sun at a Local Wal-Mart. (Photo from The Tennessean).

Traffic and security was pretty awful during those early years, too. Manchester was just not ready to be pushed way past max capacity so suddenly.

Traffic. Photo from thelala.com.

Due to an inefficient police department, sneaking into the festival was so simple anyone from a small child to an elderly woman could pull it off, and I’ve seen it done. My first year at Bonnaroo, instead of buying a ticket, my parents had me hide in the van floorboard and covered me with bags so I could sneak past the unexpecting cops. If you knew the right people, you could get into the festival by just walking through someone’s backyard. Even my sweet grandmother and her “Roo-C’Roo” would literally jump the fence without any opposition from security. They now have cops on horseback to stop such fence-hopping grannies. It was a simpler time.  

Police on horseback patrol the perimeter of Bonnaroo. Photo from Pinterest.

If you’re not from Manchester, you don’t know what it’s like to get into the greatest music festival of all time for free. Yep, free. Granted, not everyone gets in for free, just mostly everyone. Now listen up, because here’s the part where I let you in on the real secrets. If you are a city employee, an elected official, or live on a road leading into the festival site, you get a free ticket to Bonnaroo. Make that city employees, elected officials, people who live nearby, and everyone who’s friends with anyone in those categories. With a town this small, it’s really not too difficult to find someone who can float you a ticket. Worst-case scenario, you work a booth for a local arts or sports booster. However, the year I took that route, my booth was directly in front of the mainstage. I’m not sure I would call watching Wiz Khalifa and Radiohead “work,” but that’s just me. Remember what I said about Bonnaroo rubbing some people in Manchester the wrong way? Well, that all suddenly changed once they saw the festival for themselves. I guess the devil’s music isn’t so bad when you get a free ticket.

If you’re not from Manchester, you can’t appreciate how much the festival has given back to our small town. Bonnaroo paid for my high school marching band’s uniforms and allowed us to raise money through having a booth in the festival’s front and center entrance. Bonnaroo bought new computers for every Coffee County school as well as giving our city gym a much-needed paint job. But that’s just the short list off the top of my head. The truth is Manchester’s gratitude for the festival cannot be measured. Without it, we would just be any other small town.

(Ed. Note: For more about Bonnaroo’s philanthropic arm, visit the Bonnaroo Works Fund at the Community Foundation of Middle Tennessee).

Finally, if you’re not from Manchester, you probably haven’t had its signature burger, only available at the local Manchester restaurant, Jiffy Burger!

The Bonnaroo Burger is the signature item at the Jiffy Burger in Manchester, Tenn. Photo from The Times Free Press.

It’s a life-altering burger, and worth a trip to Manchester, massive music festival or not.

Most of the time, Manchester is pretty quiet. It’s hard to believe a town of 10,000 has seen Paul McCartney, Robert Plant, Bruce Springsteen, Metallica, Pearl Jam, Kanye West, and so many more. It seems like no matter what radio station I turn into I hear multiple artists that have graced our stage. Not too shabby for a town in the Middle-of-Nowhere.

Is Bonnaroo the greatest festival of all time? Yes. Do you now wish you too grew up in Manchester? I doubt it. Let us know your favorite Bonnaroo performance in the comments below. See you on The Farm!

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