Kevin Griffin is “cool as a cucumber” when talking with HollywoodLife. At the time, it was less than three weeks away from the 2022 edition of the Pilgrimage Music & Cultural Festival (Taking place tomorrow, Sept. 24 and 25, at the Harlinsdale Farm in Franklin, Tennessee.) This year’s edition of the long-running festival featured Chris Stapleton, Brandi Carlile, The Avett Brothers, Elle King, Jon Batiste, and a stacked lineup, but the Better than Ezra frontman – and festival co-founder – wasn’t sweating the details. “Honestly, it’s like summer camp. Everybody starts coming in over the next week, and when it winds down, and we’re doing the postmortem, taking things down and cleaning up the park, it’s that ‘sad end of camp’ kind of vibe.”
“Me and my partners, W. Brandt Wood and Michael Whelan, were fortunate to grow up going to the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival,” shares Griffin. “And what Jazz Fest is, it’s a celebration of the best music, food, culture, artisans, and merchants of the Gulf south — New Orleans has been spreading out — and man, you’ve got indie hipsters and scenesters with kids and families. – and there’s a big foundation, he Jazz & Heritage Foundation, that supports music programs and different charitable organizations in the city — all those things. I grew up thinking, ‘Hey, all festivals are like this.’ It’s family-friendly. It’s cool.”
“And, engaging musically and family-friendly are not mutually exclusive. They can exist together, and cause I’ve seen, I grew up with it,” he adds. Such is the case with the Lil’ Pilgrims Family Stage and Mare Barn Theatre, one of the five stages at the Pilgrimage Music Festival. Families can take in the sights and sounds of the festival throughout the day, and be back in time to see Jon Batiste and Brandi Carlile close out Saturday on the Gold Record Road and Midnight Sun stages.
Pilgrimage offers its own unique experience. When Kevin relocated to Franklin, Tennessee, in 2013, he wanted to bring that “Jazz Fest feeling” to his new home. “Even in 2013, there was already Bonnaroo; There were already a ton of festivals. But I was like, this higher-end, smaller festival experience, there’s really a lane for it. Maybe you went to Bonnaroo, partied in your tent, and now you’ve got a family. Or, you’d like some good food, but you still think, ‘Man, I still dig some cool music.’ It’s really cool what we get to do here in the city. It just clicks.”
Helping this year “click” is a focus on Americana music. “If you look at our past lineups,” says Kevin, “it kind of changes. We’ve had some years that have leaned Americana country, like this year. We’ve had some years that have leaned more pop, like Justin Timberlake and Walk The Moon. And then, more rock like Foo Fighters and The Killers. And we just kind of feel what we’re into that year, and what feels like that year.”
Sometimes, “the lineups just fall together,” says Griffin. “Sometimes, it’s by accident, and sometimes, it’s by design. This year, we locked in Chris Stapleton and Brandi, it kind of set the tone. And we’ve always wanted to get Jon Batiste – and we may be one of his few public performances this year. He’s not doing any festivals because he’s dealing with his wife’s ill health. So we’re very grateful to be having him. But, this is a very specific country we’re going for this year, and it feels like we’ve chosen right.”
However, what really makes the Pilgrimage Music & Cultural Festival stand out among the rest is the focus on the latter half of the title: the culture. Griffin tells HollywoodLife that’s not just some “lip service” or branding, but that the festival celebrates the impact the area has had on modern music. “We have this huge tent called the American Music Triangle tent. And the ‘music triangle’ is the triangle that surrounds the Mississippi Delta. If you do a triangle from New Orleans up to Memphis over to Nashville and back down to New Orleans, that region – from Louisiana to Mississippi, Alabama, Tennessee – is arguably where not only American music (rock, blues jazz) has come from, but it’s infiltrated the whole world.”
“So we have this tent where municipalities from all in the triangle — Greenville Cleveland, Tupelo, Muscles Shoals, New Orleans, Memphis — even San Antonio with Tejano music, they all have booths there. And we have Mike Wolfe from American Pickers curating the room with all these antiques from his private warehouse. When you go into this tent, it’s like stepping back in time. You have people speaking about music genres on stage, and then you have an artist exhibiting that. We really bolstered the cultural part this year.”
“We have the The Black Opry, which has just been this amazing force and organization for black artists in the Americana and country space,” he says. “And then on Sunday, we have a Southern gospel service just to kick off the day. It’s a non-denominational just celebration of gospel music.”
And so I think this year already, I’m just excited about it. I know I’ll look back with admiration for making the cultural part of the festival this deep dive into music and culture and history. To be able to bring that to people and then to get to see what’s in their own backyard and take pride in it? And fostering it to a new generation is really, really cool. I dig that part, and I cannot take responsibility for it — it’s one of my partners, Brant Wood, who spearheads the cultural part. And it’s really cool.”
“We’ve been unabashed in our tipping a hat back to Jazz Fest in New Orleans,” concludes Griffin. “They do it so well — the cultural part, that DNA is about their festival. And, and we brought that to middle Tennessee in our own unique way.”
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