Some people get their bright ideas in the shower. For others, it happens while they’re stuck in traffic or lying in bed at 3 a.m. staring at the ceiling.
For musician Kevin Griffin, inspiration struck while he was taking a jog.
“In December of 2013, it was a mild day in Middle Tennessee and I took a run. I ran from my house, which is right in historic Franklin, a mile over to Harlinsdale Farm and I was taking a breather because I’m not much of a runner. The sun came out from behind the clouds and I found myself standing in this amazing 230-acre field surrounded by historic buildings,” Griffin said. “I instantly saw the setting for an unbelievable music festival. My brain just started popping. Natural, rolling hills, it’s a natural amphitheater. The venue is a headliner in itself.”
Griffin took his idea to longtime friends Brandt Wood and Michael Whelan, and the concept for the Pilgrimage Music & Cultural Festival was born.
“I thought, amazingly, Music City doesn’t have a festival like New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival,” Griffin said, citing The Big Easy’s long-running event as a strong source of inspiration. “…I was like, ‘Guys, there’s a lane here in Music City USA, Franklin, Tennessee, for a festival like this.’”
The inaugural Pilgrimage Music & Cultural Festival will be held Sept. 26 and 27 in Franklin. The lineup features a mix of big-name artists and up-and-comers that is all the more impressive for a first-year festival. Included on the bill are Willie Nelson, Weezer, Sheryl Crow, Steven Tyler, Cage the Elephant, St. Paul & the Broken Bones, Jimmy Cliff, Preservation Hall Jazz Band, Iron & Wine and many more.
With more than two decades in the music business under his belt as a member of Better Than Ezra as well as performing solo and writing songs for other artists, Griffin has firsthand experience with music festivals and he knows what makes an event work and what doesn’t from the artist’s perspective.
“I know what I like seeing in a festival and how to do things right and what brings artists back,” he said. “One of the biggest things you hope for as a festival is word of mouth from bands to go out and tell their agents and managers. It definitely has informed putting this festival together.”
Where Griffin and his partners needed help, he said, was turning their wish list into a lineup. For that they turned to Jay Sweet, who books acts for Rhode Island’s Newport Folk Festival.
“… that’s a massively successful, cool festival and we had him help us do the talent lineup because that was the one thing the three of us didn’t bring to the table,” Griffin said. “We needed an experienced talent buyer who knows how to navigate the waters of the bands, the agents, the management, and that’s a skill set that none of us had experience with and you can’t afford a learning curve really.
“It’s a saturated field, the festival field; there’s a lot of them out there and there’s a lot of attrition too, so you’ve got to be careful when you start a new festival, like what is my lane and what’s the DNA of this festival,” he added.
Griffin, Wood and Whalen presented Sweet with their wish list and they began narrowing down the field with Sweet’s guidance.
“The three of us have good music taste and when we threw Jay Sweet into the mix it only got better,” Griffin said. “You go after a lot of bands, you get some, you don’t get other ones. The biggest challenge — this is interesting the things you learn doing a first-year festival — the first thing is it’s not about money, it’s ‘Well, who have you booked?’”
Griffin said many of the bands who play festivals know one another, and when a band is considering whether or not to accept a gig, who has already signed up often plays a role in that decision-making process. Luckily for the Pilgrimage Festival founders, they locked up a big name right out of the gate.
“The first person we got because of some connections was Willie Nelson,” Griffin said. “When we got Willie Nelson and Dr. John and as Jay Sweet calls it ‘the meat,’ that’s what’s gonna attract
other bands. Then we got Dawes and Band of Horses and Neko Case, it all started falling together. A lot of these bands know each other, they run in the same circles, they’re friends. I’m a musician too, I have a band. It reminded me you want to know who’s on the bill, of where am I at on the bill.”
Griffin said one aspect of Jazz Fest that the Pilgrimage Festival hopes to emulate in Middle Tennessee is the family-friendly atmosphere. The Franklin festival will open at 10 a.m. and the performances will wrap up at 7:30 p.m., giving festival-goers an opportunity to explore the city itself and check out local restaurants and businesses.
The festival will also feature children’s entertainment, carefully selected by award-winning children’s performer Ralph Covert.
“He’s curating our children’s stage,” Griffin said. “He’s brought in the best children’s performers, storytellers, breakdance performers to come in and really make it a proper children’s area… That’s been part of the DNA of the festival from day one. We didn’t want to just pay lip service to kids’ area, we wanted to go a legit area and that’s where we came up with the Little Pilgrims Stage.”
Although the word pilgrimage can have religious connotations, Griffin said he and his partners were attracted to the name for an entirely different reason.
“First off, it’s just a cool name,” he said, adding he was thrilled to learn the name was still available. “It implies a journey to go see something special and that’s the way it’s used often. Certainly people use it in a religious context but this is far from it. You hear ‘You’ve gotta make a pilgrimage to In-N-Out Burger when you’re in L.A.,’ that kind of thing. We loved the message of a journey to see something special and in this instance it’s the music, it’s Harlinsdale.”
In a crowded market, Griffin and his partners recognize that if their festival is going to succeed, it needed to set itself apart from the others.
“Our thing is, there’s no festival that has a setting like Harlinsdale Farm,” he said. “There’s no festival around that’s going to have the quality of food and merchants that we’ve done. No first-year festival, for sure, has the lineup that we have. And there’s no festival where all the bands are either going to play acoustic or play a portion of their set acoustic… So you’re going to see bands perform in a way you’ve never seen them.
“It was important to us to showcase not only the musicians… but also have local restaurants represented. We want people to see what’s unique about those craftspeople and those merchants. Our hope is that, Middle Tennessee has just a rich a cultural thumbprint as New Orleans, and we’re gonna try in our modest way to showcase that,” he added.
General admission tickets to the festival are available for $172 for both days of the event. Single-day tickets are also available for $92 apiece. Children ages 10 and younger will be admitted free. For more information on the Pilgrimage Music & Cultural Festival, go to www.pilgrimage.com.