Many states may stake claims to the title of America’s music capital, but Tennessee certainly deserves consideration as the birthplace of modern American music. From Nashville (“Music City, U.S.A.”) to Bristol (“The Birthplace of Country Music”), from Sun Studios to Stax, the Volunteer State has crossed borders of race, genre, and generation in shaping a national sound.
Up until 2002, it would have been a stretch to suggest that Manchester occupied a privileged position in the state’s rich musical heritage, but over the course of the past eleven years, Bonnaroo’s diverse array of guests has forged a new melting pot—a new space of collaboration, creativity, and cross-generational exchange. Featuring classic acts alongside up-and-comers, Bonnaroo has provided a space for fans not only to cross legendary acts off their bucket lists, but to see those legends alongside tomorrow’s superstars.
From John Prine and Kris Kristofferson appearing with Old Crow Medicine Show to Bruce Springsteen taking the stage with Phish to Kirk Hammett stepping in to back up My Morning Jacket, the festival has developed a tradition of big names paying it forward—of exciting musical and generational boundary crossing.
Ben Harper, a staple of Bonnaroo’s SuperJams and a festival favorite, has described the unique “core” of the festival’s scene as a “musical open-mindedness among the people who come.” While the festival has undoubtedly grown much bigger since Harper’s first appearance at the inaugural Bonnaroo in 2002, he insists that “it still feels a lot the same.” This sense of shared curiosity has made Bonnaroo an ideal space for enthusiastic collaborations among musicians of different generations and different musical backgrounds.
“At Bonnaroo,” Grateful Dead and Ratdog guitarist and vocalist Bob Weir has said, “I look forward to jamming with whoever invites me up and am looking forward to having folks up at our shows as well.” For this jam-band icon, the festival provides an “opportunity. . . to hear other people perform” for “personal edification and amusement.”
Weir has been as good as his word, accepting collaborative invitations and helping to keep the jam band torch alive with memorable guest performances alongside Gov’t Mule, Widespread Panic, and others. This is entirely in keeping with Weir’s identification of his—and his bands’—roots as a sort of “Dixieland rock”—a free-flowing celebration of improvisation and musical interplay.
Weir and the Dead’s legacy of live collaboration and musical improvisation may be responsible for a certain amount of the cross-generational interplay that has shaped the festival. But as Widespread Panic bassist and frequent Bonnaroo performer Dave Schools explains, the Dead’s influence on the festival is about much more than the music. It’s responsible for “the family vibe and the organic nature of the communication on stage.”
It would be hard to find a better example of this warm, collaborative energy than John Paul Jones’s visit to Bonnaroo in 2007. The former Led Zeppelin bassist has only played the festival once, but did he ever make it count. Over the festival’s four days in 2007, Jones sat in with Gov’t Mule for a mini-set of Zeppelin classics, joined both Gillian Welch and Uncle Earl on mandolin, and took part in an epic SuperJam with Ben Harper and ?uestlove.
According to Jones, the true lure of the festival is, in fact, that it provides the opportunity “to play a variety of instruments with a variety of people.” Perhaps Jones sums up the festival experience and the irresistible appeal of the cross generational collaboration best when he says that “this is what music should be like – meet and make.”
We know there are a lot to choose from, but what’s been your favorite Bonnaroo collaboration that crosses musical generations?