When I tell people that I've gone to Bonnaroo every year since 2007, the first reaction I typically get is, "You sleep in a tent?"
It's usually said with a curled-up nose and a look of wonder. Or horror. They imagine either a lot of mud or a lot of heat with sweaty people crowded shoulder to shoulder for five straight days on a farm in Middle Tennessee.
They are not wrong, but what they don't see is the pretty remarkable community that has grown around this event that started seemingly out of nowhere in 2002. Put it this way, in 2017, me and former local radio personality Brad Steiner started The What Podcast — Which Bands This Year That Matter to talk about some of the bands on that year's lineup. We'd never heard of two-thirds of them, and we fancy ourselves as up-to-speed on such things.
As a point of reference, the stages or tents at Bonnaroo are called the What, Which, This Tent, That Tent and The Other Stage. The What and Which stages are massive, while the tents are actually large cover spaces under a metal roof.
What we found was that thousands of people all over the country shared our passion for the festival. So much so, that what we thought would be a podcast with a shelf life of about three months, is heading into year five. Even more remarkable is that we did one show a week this year about an event that hasn't happened in two years because of COVID-19 and now Hurricane Ida.
This is not about the podcast or whether officials made the right call in canceling two days before Bonnaroo 2021 was to officially start because of heavy rains brought on by Ida. They absolutely made the right call, as disappointing and sad as it was. That place was waterlogged and it would have been dangerous and miserable.
It's the same storm that led to 48 deaths in New York a few days later. It was no joke.
"I felt like I lost a friend, but they made the right call," was a thing I heard often after the cancellation.
What some may not realize is that a half dozen or so pop-up events took place over the Labor Day weekend in Manchester and surrounding cities and even in Chattanooga. They were filled with patrons who had already made the trek and didn't want to head back home. Some drove or flew hundreds of miles.
If fact, we did a live podcast at the Moxy and were joined via Zoom by some Bonnaroo devotees who are familiar to fans from around the country. We even had people drop in live from Indiana and Knoxville just to hang out with fellow Bonnaroovians.
For example, Parker Reed and Jake Dalbey co-host their own podcast called Roo Hamm podcast, and they joined us on the Zoom meeting. It celebrates Bonnaroo and Hamm's beer. They drove down from Des Moines and Minneapolis, respectively. We also had Daniel Horton, who owns the Roo Bus, a converted schoolie that he and wife Sharla bring to the event every year from Huntsville. It's become so iconic, they were set to host one of the experiences in the general camping area. And, the bus has its own beer now thanks to Pontoon Brewing in the Atlanta area.
Several years ago, a guy neither Camp Reddaroo hosts Kevin Barnes nor Mitchell Padgett knew suggested holding a beer exchange in their general camping area. A few people showed up for the leave-one, take-one event and now nearly 1,600 people show up.
It is a completely independent event within Bonnaroo and both are fully sanctioned by the event staff.
These people have all become friends and communicate with each other, as well as new friends they met at past Bonnaroos year round.
Barnes helped organize a weekend mini Roo in Manchester with some of the bands, such as Andy Frasco, and vendors, such as the Spicy Pie guys, that had booked to work the big festival.
"It's all about community and helping out each other," he said. "The music at Bonnaroo is great, but the community is even better."