Sounds of Summer
How to survive heat, port a potties, dust and more at the South’s slew of summer music festivals.
By Tara Lynne Groth
Summer in the South is hot, but full of good vibrations. Music festivals are a literal hot spot, and a handful are celebrating big anniversaries this summer. Their longevity is a testament to their ability to retain festival goers, offer better lineups and keep the atmosphere comfortable.
According to North Carolina’s MerleFest, which celebrates its 23rd anniversary this year, “one-fifth of American adults now attend festivals while on vacation, with music festivals being the most popular choice.” With tickets selling out way in advance, it’s becoming a feat to claim a spot at one of the South’s notorious music events—and find a spot in the shade once there. Wildflower! Arts and Music Festival in Richardson, Texas, now offers shade shelters, Tennessee’s Bonnaroo boasts air-conditioned tents (one that screens films), and misting tents are popping up at more festivals like Wakarusa, held in Ozark, Arkansas.
When there’s no shade, make your own. At camping music festivals, you can pitch your tent right next to your car. Bring an extra tarp and rope and create a breezeway between tent and vehicle by tying one end to the top of the tent and the other to the car. (If you don’t have a rack on top of your car, extend the rope to your side view mirrors.) This can also be a great space to get some extra sleep if you’re comfortable napping al fresco. It’s common to see attendees at Bonnaroo, which puts on its 10th festival this year, crawling out of their tents at 6 or 7 in the morning because the sun has already heated them up. Having your own breezeway to rest in is simple, cheap and an inviting space to relax with friends.
Some things are out of your control, not just debauchery ensued by the counterculture, but also sudden downpours, dust devils and in some spots in early summer—snow. More on that later. Bringing an umbrella seems to be the logical solution for rain, however, most festivals don’t allow them because they obstruct performance views. The oh-so-affordable poncho is simple to carry and will keep your cell phone, iPod or digital camera safe from the elements.
If you’re an outdoor enthusiast, you can invest in a dry bag; the watertight satchels are easily found at local recreation shops. Same goes for a simple solution for today’s poor hippies: ziptop bags. Seal your cell phone in one and keep it in your pocket. It’s not just your electronics that could get wet and ruined though. One thing that four-time Bonnaroo veteran Robert Morris, an investigator in Washington, D.C., always brings along is an extra pair of shoes. “The key words are comfortable and disposable,” he says.
If, on the other hand, you find yourself at a dusty music festival doing a rain dance, you may want to keep an eye out for dust devils, the tornado’s redheaded stepchild. Pick up a few extra stakes for your tent and anchor them as best you can. Dust devils start under the sunniest of skies and have been known to damage camping gear and even cars.
Festival goers may be surprised if they attend a camping music event at a higher elevation. The LEAF (Lake Eden Arts Festival) in Black Mountain, North Carolina, has temperatures that can hover in the 40s at night. West Virginia’s All Good Festival, celebrating its 15th anniversary this year, has shifted its lineup over the years from a midsummer event to late spring. “I would get sunburnt on Thursday and then it would snow on Friday,” says Public Relations Director Dave Weissman.
The most important thing is to pack for all types of weather. If you think you can just buy a commemorative festival hoodie while you’re there, you may find yourself out of luck. “We completely sold out of hoodies one year because the temperatures dropped into the 40s. No one was expecting that to happen in the middle of the summer,” says Southern Virginia’s Floyd Festival Director Erika Johnson.
The standard sun spiel is: Wear sunscreen. Reapply. Reapply. Reapply. Packing some UPF-rated (ultraviolet protection factor) clothing isn’t a bad idea either. Some festivals have rearranged their schedules so that starting times occur later in the afternoon when the sun is low. Once the sun goes down, it’s not only a good idea to have a flashlight to navigate back to your tent site, but to use the portable toilet facilities as well. Johnson says festival goers asked for better lighting in restroom facilities, and Floyd Fest responded by providing glow sticks to illuminate the spaces.
Not all music festivals in the South are held on farms or picturesque mountaintops. Urban music festivals are the answer for those who don’t want to get dirt under their nails. Launched just last year, Hopscotch Music Festival, held in downtown Raleigh, features an outdoor performance space and hundreds of performances in air-conditioned bars and clubs. Wildflower! Festival is also an urban music event, but heat is still an issue. “This is the first year we’re allowing attendees to bring in a single, sealed water bottle,” says Geoff Fairchild, special events manager of Wildflower! In the past, the festival held allegiance to beverage sponsors, but offering this extra freedom should help music lovers focus more on the music and less on the heat. Floyd Fest, which celebrates its 10-year anniversary this summer, has made a similar inaugural addition. “For the first time ever we’re providing free, unlimited mountain spring water through Klean Kanteen,” says Johnson.
In between refills of the water bottle, some attendees may get a little anxious if they’re racing back and forth to tents to see bits and pieces of their favorite bands, concurrently scheduled. “One thing unique about us is that the bands aren’t competing against each other,” says Weissman of the All Good Festival. All Good sets itself apart by scheduling no overlapping sets, so fans get to see every band in the lineup. That’s a good thing when the schedule includes names like Primus, Dangermuffin and Karl Denson’s Tiny Universe.
Whichever festival you find yourself attending this spring and summer, if you see an area that needs improvement, let organizers know. Don’t think of it as complaining; they want to make their events better so that you keep coming back over and over again.
Tara Lynne Groth lives in Cary, North Carolina, and is the author of the first and only guidebook to the Bonnaroo Music Festival, “How Do You Roo? A Survivor’s Pocket Guide to Bonnaroo,” available at www.howdoyouroo.com and www.taralynnegroth.com.
Summer Music Fest Calendar
Festival International de Louisiane, Lafayette, Louisiana
Celebrating its 25th anniversary, FIL presents 5 days of music in downtown Lafayette, and this year’s lineup includes Keb’ Mo’, The Duhks, Balkan Beat Box, JJ Grey & Mofro and a special closing tribute to Louisiana food and music.
MerleFest, Wilkesboro, North Carolina
Featuring such acts as Robert Plant, Doc Watson and The Wailing Jennys, this music festival offers limited on-site RV camping and relies heavily on hotels and campgrounds in the surrounding area.
Double Decker Arts Festival, Oxford, Mississippi
Taking its name from the town’s authentic double-decker bus imported from England, this music fest features three stages booked with names like Old Crow Medicine Show and Justin Townes Earle this year.
Beale St. Music Festival, Memphis, Tennessee
This urban music fest is held on a riverfront park and celebrates its 35th anniversary this year. Are you a fan of The Flaming Lips, MGMT, Stone Temple Pilots or John Mellencamp? They’ll all be there.
New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival, New Orleans, Louisiana
Held each year during the first two weekends of May, this festival is known for its music and food. Headliners this year include Mumford & Sons, The Avett Brothers, John Legend, Lauryn Hill, The Decemberists, Lucinda Williams and tons of local performers like Allen Toussaint and Irma Thomas.
LEAF Lake Eden Arts Festival, Black Mountain, North Carolina
Held twice per year (again in October), The LEAF is a camping music festival with a heavy art component. Enjoy poetry slams, gourmet culinary delights and drum circles in between performances.
Jubilee CityFest, Montgomery, Alabama
A pyro-music spectacular will take place this year. You don’t see that every day.
Hangout Music Fest, Gulf Shores, Alabama
If you’re more of a beach person, this is for you. Stages are perched on white sandy beaches with ocean views. Kick off your summer early with this big-name lineup: The Black Keys, Widespread Panic, Foo Fighters, My Morning Jacket, Paul Simon and more. VIP passes are already sold out.
Wildflower! Art and Music Festival, Richardson, Texas
Over 70,000 people attend this urban music festival, which features interactive programs like a Songwriter School and a Food Garden.
Mudbug Madness, Shreveport, Louisiana
Over 50,000 people flood the streets of Shreveport for eclectic music and tasty Cajun cuisine.
Spoleto Festival, Charleston, South Carolina
For 17 days and nights each spring, this festival fills Charleston’s historic theaters, churches and outdoor spaces with performances in opera, theater, dance, and chamber, symphonic, choral and jazz music.
Bayou Country Superfest, Baton Rouge, Louisiana
Tiger Stadium on the LSU campus transforms into a concert arena during this music festival, which includes plenty of football-style tailgating and a lineup of who’s who in the country music world. Tim McGraw, Kenny Chesney, Sugarland, Zac Brown Band, Trace Adkins and Billy Currington will all be there.
Wakarusa at Mulberry Mountain, Ozark, Arkansas
This grassroots music festival attracts music lovers from every state in the country. With a killer lineup featuring Michael Franti & Spearhead, Ben Harper, My Morning Jacket and Bassnectar, how is that surprising?
Bonnaroo Music and Arts Festival, Manchester, Tennessee
The Roo celebrates its 10-year anniversary with a dynamite lineup: Eminem, Arcade Fire, Buffalo Springfield, Neil Young, Mumford & Sons and more.
CMA Music Fest, Nashville, Tennessee
Tennessee is the center of the music world this summer, and Nashville is living up to its name of Music City, USA. Taking place on the same days and just an hour from the 700-acre Bonnaroo site, this fest features Jason Aldean, Sheryl Crow, Rascall Flatts, Keith Urban and Reba.
Riverbend Festival, Chattanooga, Tennessee
Riverbend boasts five stages and 9 days of music, with Huey Lewis and the News, The Beach Boys, Alan Jackson and Miranda Lambert in the lineup this year.
Essence Music Festival, New Orleans, Louisiana
Before settling down for some Independence Day fireworks, visit New Orleans for Fantasia, Jill Scott, Mary J. Blige, Boyz II Men and more.
All Good Festival, Masontown, West Virginia
This camping music festival celebrates 15 years this summer. Quietly known as “the South’s secret festival,” All Good has achieved notoriety over the years with its performances. Plus, a mountaintop location keeps festival-goers cooler than any other spot in the South.
WC Handy Music Fest, Florence, Alabama
Thirty years strong, this festival isn’t a 2-day or 4-day event, it’s a weeklong event hosted on the shores of the Tennessee River. Some attendees even coast to performances in their boats.
FloydFest, Floyd, Virginia
Ten-year anniversary surprises will take place this year, as one of the South’s most famous arteries, the Blue Ridge Parkway, pulses with the beats of Old Crow Medicine Show and Grace Potter and the Nocturnals.
311 Pow Wow Music Fest, Suwannee River, Florida
A 500-acre park and campground will host the first-ever Pow Wow Fest, headlined by 311, Sublime and The Dirty Heads. Basic camping, full-service (water and electric), RVs and more.
Hopscotch Music Festival, Raleigh, North Carolina
Featuring bands on outdoor downtown stages and inside restaurants and clubs, this second-year fest captures the Capital City’s connections to top local and national talent with over 150 bands in 12 clubs.
Blackwater Music Festival, Suwannee River, Florida
Balance your love of music with swimming, horse riding, canoeing and hiking at the Suwanee Music Park. Lineup to be announced soon.
Photo Credits From Top: Opening pan shot and tent shot are courtesy of All Good Festival; Workshop Porch and girl with guitar courtesy of FloydFest and taken by Roger Gupta; FloydFest tees taken by Russ Helgren; Bonnaroo crowd shot taken by C. Taylor Crothers; Welcome to Wakarusa photo courtesy of James Allison; Bon Temps Roulez Social Aid & Pleasure Club courtesy of New Orleans Jazz Fest and taken by Zack Smith; Hangout Fest taken by Vann; and final pic of Raekwon courtesy of Hopscotch.