“Home again, home again…” A man in a Johny Cash t-shirt drawls the old nursery rhyme as we enter the white stable gates of the Harlinsdale farm. Forty minutes outside the blue haze of downtown Nashville, Franklin is part of the Tennessee countryside that framed the childhoods of Miley Cyrus, Taylor Swift and Carrie Underwood. (In fact, ask any native and you can dig up a good high school story about one of them winning homecoming queen or getting caught bullying underclassman). Only in its fourth year, the Pilgrimage Festival acts as an homage to the true roots of Southern music in an era where country is really pop and Nashville is the new Hollywood. The Harlinsdale field has acres of rolling hills with the kind of fine, wilted farm grass just as good for walking through as it is for grazing. That and the short white fences that surround the perimeter remind us that it’s occupied by actual horses for most of the year. Above us is the wide blue sky, the last weekend of summer in Tennessee.
First thing’s first: Pilgrimage is no Coachella, or even Bonnaroo for that matter. Aside from a few painted faces and flower crowns from out-of-towners, nearly every patron waiting to go through the baggage check is prepared to get down and dirty through the next 48 hours of heat, rain and Jack Daniels. Rainboots and sundresses were the most popular outfits of the day, and families packed their kids into wagons among chairs, umbrellas and tarps.
Despite the location, the culture is not red-solo-cup pick-up truck country. Instead, the Pilgrimage Festival and its lineup attract a refreshing side of the South—a bohemian farm-family vibe akin to an old-fashioned folk festival. This is especially true for the vendor villages, where you can find priceless gems like homemade wooden bluetooth stereos and hand printed “Keep Nashville Strange” and “Hug a Farmer” t-shirts. There’s even an Art Barn, which is an actual barn (sans animals) decorated with work from local painters, jewelers and photographers. The system of crowd control in there consists of passing coffee stirrers to each other as crowds come and go. It’s amazing to see how much it lacks the usual stuffy, theme-park vibe of a festival despite the thousands of people in attendance. Instead, it feels like a modern county fair with short lines, great food (from classic BBQ to vegetarian gravy fries) and beer vendors that call you “honey” as they pop your cans. Everyone is having a great time in the company of strangers, and the sense of ease and community is something that would be sorely missed anywhere else. The people remain the highlight of the festival. Their adaptability, breezy attitudes and quirky optimism hold up even when the anticipated storm rolls through and cancels the weekend entirely.
The versatile and star-studded lineup is what draws music fans from all over the world to the Pilgrimage. The days open with mostly local Americana, Bluegrass and alt-country sets, and the nights commence with big-name acts from all genres like Justin Timberlake (who was a notably huge hit last year), Weezer and Sheryl Crowe. This year on the bill, Hozier, Jack White, Lionel Richie and Brandi Carlile are the most anticipated headliners. Unfortunately, the night comes to an end before any of them take the stage.
Not to be outdone, the audio professionals of Nashville clearly had a strong hand in the design and setup of the festival. There are five stages playing in close proximity throughout the morning, and virtually no sound bleeds from one area to the next. The farm is small for this kind of event, but it has been designed with such a professional ear that you almost forget it’s live music you’re hearing. It’s rare to see a live performance, especially outdoor, where vocals aren’t deeply buried under the drums and distortion from the mics and speakers. Here, every artist can be heard clearly even from afar, and the instruments are folded into the mix with studio-quality precision. To experience this alone is fascinating and proves that the tradition of raw talent of Nashville musicians and its music professionals lives on amid the rapid changes to the city.
It’s hotter than expected as the sun peaks out from the clouds, and the crowd gathers at the “Gold Record Road” stage fanning themselves from the humidity. Above the stage hangs an authentic vintage venue sign reading “Live Music Tonight” and Courtney Marie Andrews emerges from the back. At first glance, she is a country act at its most painfully stereotypical. She’s wearing an all-sequin-and-denim fringe getup with a hot pink cactus patch running up her leg. As she sings, she peeks up from under her long bangs and unleashes a wailing voice. She loosens up the crowd with “Near You,” a country ballad that gets the crowd’s heads bobbing. Next is “Kindness of Strangers,” another ode to young heartache and saloon singing. With “Border,” a more political song about stepping in another man’s shoes, Andrews completely turns the tied from Parton to Joplin. Suddenly, the backing band is groovy and dark, and her act becomes an exciting mix between country and psychedelia. She screeches and dances, overcome by the music the band is playing, and yet the lyrics are still easily picked up and fun to sing along. From there she turns to soul, now that she’s opened up, and she lets her skilled guitar playing have pointed moments in the spotlight. It’s clear now that she’s no average country act—or a country act at all. She wraps up the set with Aretha Franklin’s “(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman,” stomping and letting her voice reverberate with a mind of its own. In all, her set is a stunning surprise and an exciting start to the morning, leaving festival goers with a better understanding of what The Pilgrimage Festival has to offer: a quirky underground twist on the traditional Americana genre.
Over at the Fender Premium Audio mainstage, The Record Company takes the floor met with cheers from an already-drunk crowd. Their matching tight black v-neck shirts and baseball hats immediately out them as a Los Angeles band, though this and their slight discomfort aren’t the only clues that they’re city folk. Without the home-field confidence of the local artists, it’s noticeable that the country bands from out of town seem more humbled and intimidated here than they would be anywhere else. It’s almost charming to watch a big-name performer like Chris Vos struggle to relate his childhood in Wisconsin to a farm full of Southerners, and his shyness takes a few songs to fall away before he gets comfortable. Though billed as a rock band, The Record Company’s set is mostly pop-country. Featuring slide guitar and blues harmonica, they incorporate country and bluegrass 101 into an upbeat pop-rock vibe, not unlike something you would hear in a Jim Beam commercial. Their lyrics portray a macho persona, mostly telling stories of cars, cruel women or chasing “babes.” Their song “Feels So Good” gets the crowd going, but perhaps goes on for a few verses longer than it should. At one point, a distorted mic makes an appearance, giving a twist on the expected as they take a page from Jack White’s book. Towards the end of their set, Vos asks us to reminisce about a favorite summer memory from our childhood and closes out with “The Movie Song,” a slower piece about driving down country roads. Definitely appealing to the college football tent side of the festival goers, The Record Company finds its place among the acts, offering a decent afternoon set to eat your hot dog and drink a beer to.
Back on the other side of the field, The Infamous Stringdusters bust out their stringed instruments for a rollicking set of old-school bluegrass. All five members look like high school English teachers on their day off, wearing plaid button-ups and cheerful smiles. That is until you notice their quick fingers, plucking their instruments with intense control and speed. The band features an upright bass, slide guitar, banjo and fiddle, creating foot-tapping jams with the precision of smooth jazz. “I Get it While I Can” offers a fun beat and goofy lyrics (“I like your biscuits in my gravy ma’am”), and the band is clearly having as much fun as anyone else. At one point, they cover Daft Punk’s crowd-pleasing “Get Lucky,” and a woman with a small girl on her shoulders leads the way in a collective sing-along. The set is less of a series of songs and more a display of musicianship, each instrument getting its proper spotlight. The members of ISD are obviously not just music fans but readers, historians and students of classical music. The result is a joyful and striking ode to Bluegrass tradition.
Next up was the warm and captivating Memphis singer-songwriter, Valerie June. June begins her set just as gigantic grey clouds set over the stage. Her cat-eye glasses and large pink earrings match perfectly with her eccentric personality. She has a preacher-like way of speaking, soft and dramatic, and uses her vibrant hand motions to help her tell stories. Her movement commands attention, and she certainly has the crowd’s as she burst into a of soulful “hmmms’ and “la da da deees” to open her first song. “The Hour” is bouncy and beautiful, her high, tight raspy voice carrying along the lyrics as if each word demanded to be heard. Between songs, she speaks slowly and dreamily about watching the sunsets in Arizona and a melody coming to her in a vision of swirling magical clouds as she cooked carrots in a skillet in her kitchen. She giggles and says she’s happy to be home before jumping into her song “Tennessee Time,” a song about being a slow-paced Southerner in New York City. As it begins to sprinkle, she addresses the crowd saying, “We’re just so lucky to be on Earth. When things are going right, you just don’t ask any questions.” This opens “Slip Slide on By,” a wildly infectious ballad she burns through using at times only her voice and a tambourine. She conducts the lyrics with her hands, swims to the rhythm, dancing and grooving, overcome by the music itself. Her loud, colorful voice is just as unique and charming as her personality. Valerie June is a true star on the stage, another shining gem from the Americana underground and a perfect example of Pilgrimage Festival magic.
The biggest crowd so far gathers back at the Gold Record Road stage for Amos Lee. The popular country heartthrob has everyone standing and inching closer to the stage, lit up with his confidence and showmanship. He greets the crowd adoringly in his jeans and tight t-shirt, drinks from a solo cup and dives into his first song, aptly titled “Jesus.” Next up is a similar heartfelt cry, “All You Got Is A Song,” a ballad about “prayin'” and “singin’ away the pain.” Like Courtney Andrews, he then ditches the cliche for a more soulful style. With “Bottom of the Barrel,” the crowd sings along as his backing band gets a chance to flaunt their talents (saxophone included). Though his music is mainly upbeat, stomping party-country tunes, his set has a distinctive R&B flare that gave it a youthful and refreshing twist. Just as the sun comes out again, he tells his fans, “we fight vibrations from all sides, but we can handle it right?”
Much like Chris Vos, Taylor Goldsmith walks to the front of the stage with a humbled shyness for his first song. “Living in the Future,” off their latest album Passwords, warms up the band with an uplifting, athletic alt-rock vibe. What sets Dawes apart is Taylor’s lyrics—he’s an earnest poet with his music, truly wanting his fans to understand him and putting an extra layer of bluesy vulnerability into his words that’s uncommon in popular rock. Folk-inspired “A Little Bit Of Everything” slows the pace down to tell the story of a man ready to commit suicide off the Golden Gate Bridge, and the feeling is surprisingly genuine. After this, he admits to being a little nervous at first but that he felt a connection with the audience during that song, saying, “I’m warming up now. Nashville has always been the nicest city to us.” With a new confidence, the band jumps into “From A Window Seat,” where Taylor mimes a flight attendant acting as Jesus on the cross. Their set is the first of the day that shows a band that can handle stadium-level performance, and it gets the anticipation rolling for the night ahead. They close up with “All Your Favorite Bands,” and the chorus “and may all your favorite bands stay together!” is met with wild cheers from the crowd.
Just around 4:45, as Hozier is about to take the Fender Midnight Sun mainstage, dark clouds hang in the sky and a lightning warning appears on the screens telling festival goers that there will be a delay. Since rain has been in the forecast for the ten days prior, and local Tennesseans are more than ready to face the weather (most are looking forward to it after weeks of nearly 100 degree sun), people lazily walk towards tented areas or throw on their ponchos and go about their drinking and laughing, assuming we’ll rough it out. There is much confusion then when security personnel in bright yellow jackets begin telling people to evacuate the field entirely, to walk miles down the road to the Elementary school or get back to their cars to seek shelter, some even threatening law enforcement if patrons don’t move. The result is hundreds of people trudging in long lines through the farm, down the road and into downtown Franklin. The irony of the Pilgrimage fest this year is this—the visual of the long prairie-style march off the field before any drops of rain even touched the ground.
People run and dance alongside the line in bare feet, small groups cheering or laughing at inside jokes or quips made to the crowd. As it turns out, nobody has good service in the area, and the only way to get updates is by word-of-mouth. Many people choose to hang close by instead of going to their cars in order to know when the delay is lifted. About 300 people end up under a Mapco across the street where an impromptu tailgate ensues. The gas station market is ransacked, and people emerge passing out Michelob Ultra tall boys and sit back in their folding chairs. A bubbly group of girls sits on the edge of the gas pumps, their bare feet ankles-deep in the brown puddles that flood in as the rain finally begins to pour over us. Teenagers splash by in their now-drenched outfits. They, and many others, seem completely unfazed by the water. As loud banter and Lionel Richie puns ramble through the mostly buzzed crowd, it’s nearly impossible to tell who actually knows each other and who are strangers. At one point a paramedic ambulance shows up to treat a nervous-looking woman, and immediately after, a group picture is taken by a cheering girl standing on a trashcan. Nearby, a hundred more people stand huddled under an old wooden car wash structure, having what looks like a similar type of party. A man wearing a trashbag raises his Modelo and cries, “this is still better than Counting Crows!” The crowds remains this way for two hours with no word from the festival management.
Around 6:30, the rain lets up and the lingering parties gravitate toward the field wondering if they’ll be let back in. Hozier is definitely out, but many hope to catch Jack White’s headlining set, which is scheduled for 7:00. The town of Franklin has a noise ordinance that caps off at 8:30pm—this is the South after all, and anywhere outside the city limits you’ll run into those kind of archaic laws—and word spreads that it might be too late for them to reopen. Still, a soaked crowd of hopefuls tentatively walks along the fences searching for news. As some climb over, they’re scolded by security and told that everyone will need to go through the bag check again. This is a good sign, meaning they’re letting people in after all. Crowds wait in front of the security gates for about thirty minutes as the traffic of those fleeing the farm circles around us. At one point, two tour busses beep at the crowd on their way out—not such a good sign.
The sky is bleak, and the colorful tents that had seemed so bright in the sun that morning now dip and wilt under the weight of water. Never to be dismayed, the crowd cheers as an exhausted college-aged pedicab driver trudges by in the mud, trying desperately to move the weight of the three person family seated in his car. Greater cheers erupt as the whole crowd’s attention turns to this kid, and eventually, a large group rushes over and pushes the pedicab quickly up the trail in stumbling laughter. “It’s the little things” one woman laughs as she turns back to the gates. Finally, after a lot more standing, festival goers hear through the grapevine starting somewhere in the front that the night is officially cancelled. Everyone turns to the darkened streets and makes the pilgrimage back to cars, muddy, soaked and tired. Despite the poor management (people who paid for the VIP parking lots were trapped in their cars past 9 o’clock, some having to push their cars out of the mud) there is no visible anger directed towards staff. Spirits remain high, and people return home that night happy at least with the afternoon they were able to catch before the storm.
Whether or not Sunday was cancelled was not communicated until the morning of, with vague posts from the festival’s page twenty minutes before the parking lots were set to open. The post confirmed there would not be a Day Two and explained that the safety concerns were not for the rain but for lightning strikes reported in the area. Those who had come from all over the country took to Facebook sharing stories of thousands of dollars spent on travel and lodging to see the headliners. A refund plan has yet to be shared, though 75% of the acts scheduled this weekend never played. Despite this, most attendees were forgiving and entertained themselves with jokes about getting Dave Mathews to play at Margaritaville. While the fate of the Pilgrimage Festival 2019 seems questionable after such a huge loss, there’s no denying that its community truly does capture very best of Tennessee culture, and it would not be surprising if this alone will draw Jack White and thousands of ticket holders back next September for another go.