From the mountains to Memphis, music is everywhere. Tennessee’s musical history is legendary, of course.
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Country music came out of the East Tennessee hills, and early recordings in Bristol led to the world-wide phenomenon of Nashville. The western part of the state was a fertile ground for the blues, then Memphis’s rhythm and blues and rock and roll and soul music.
Today, however, there’s another side of Tennessee’s sounds that produces another experience: its great music festivals.
Taking care to showcase its homegrown talent, Tennessee has mixed it up with internationally known artists to provide some of the best festivals of the season. Here you can touch both ends of the popular music spectrum: people who perform before tens of thousands and people who play for the sheer joy of making music. It’s all in Tennessee.
The newcomer—but already the champ—is the three-day Bonnaroo Music & Arts Festival in June outside of Manchester. The New York Times, noting that the festival is just a few years old, said it "has already revolutionized the modern rock festival." Reminiscent of Woodstock, the rural Bonnaroo festival is a gathering of almost 100,000 fans who camp out on the grounds (though some offsite accommodations are not too far away), enjoying days and nights of music and assorted bazaars. There’s 20-foot-high fountain to cool off in, and a tent cinema to watch some cult classics. The playground’s swings and slides are an attraction to youngsters and adults. Unlike Woodstock, Bonnaroo offers an eclectic selection of artists, not just today’s rock. Past lineups have included Dave Matthews Band, Bob Dylan, String Cheese Incident, Wilco and the Grateful Dead.
The Country Music Association Music Festival (Nashville)
The CMA Music Festival began as Fan Fair back in the early 1970s. It serves as the country music industry’s way of strengthening the bonds between artist and fan. The get-together gave fans a chance to hear, greet and usually hug their favorite artist. Concerts are held outdoors in the Coliseum (home of the NFL’s Titans); autograph sessions and exhibitions are held in the Convention Center (more than 500 celebrities turn up for this); and down on the banks of the Cumberland River are even more live music shows.
The self-described "Country Music’s Biggest Party" is also surrounded by hundreds of booths and vendors and bazaars—there’s even a carnival. A month earlier, over on the banks of Ol’ Man River, the Memphis in May International Festival includes its three-day Beale Street Music Festival.
Memphis in May (Memphis)
This famous festival salutes a foreign nation each year, and this year the honoree is Spain. You’re going to hear four big stages full of Memphis music and some of the world’s biggest acts. Like Bonnaroo, the Beale Street showcase draws about 100,000 people over its three days, though there is no on-site camping. Past performers have included Widespread Panic, ZZ Top, Dave Matthews and Ray Charles, as well as home-grown talents like Saliva, B.B. King, Jerry Lee Lewis and Al Green.
In terms of attendance, Tennessee’s biggest festival is Riverbend, the 26-year-old party held in June in Chattanooga. The nine days of performances recently drew more than 500,000 attendees to see local musicians and stars such as Nickel Creek, Gloria Estefan, Alabama and George Clinton. The main concerts are held along the storied Tennessee River, but other stages are spread nearby, as are a variety of arts and crafts and food vendors.
Smaller Music Festivals
In Memphis, the Center for Southern Folklore in September presents the Memphis Music & Heritage Festival, focusing on the black and white music of the Delta and folkways (from cooking to storytelling to art made from empty bottles, for example) of the mid-South.