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Pilgrimage Music and Culture Festival

A first-year boutique festival celebrates Franklin with music and more. (Sept 2015)

Written By:  Katy Lindenmuth

Photographers:  The Tennessean

“So many times in life you have an idea and you don’t follow through on it,” muses musician Kevin Griffin. “And then you see it done by someone else.”

Two decades into his music career, the Better Than Ezra frontman has broken through the business side of the industry and will finally see his grand idea—this month’s Pilgrimage Music and Culture Festival (September 26 and 27)—come to fruition in his figurative backyard in Franklin.

The New Orleans native was inspired during a run he took on a fluke warm day in December 2013. As he neared the sprawling Park at Harlinsdale Farm, Griffin recalls, “the sun came out—I swear to God—the clouds parted, blue skies, the whole thing.” His vision: a family-friendly two-day festival with acoustic-leaning sets and a flurry of local vendors. But the majestic setting’s rolling hills, rustic barns, and white fences simply aren’t suited for another Bonnaroo or CMA Fest—two annual local events that rake in loads of revenue but take a physical toll on their respective cities.

“Franklin is a beautiful place with tons of history,” Griffin says. “The people around the city hold that dear and protect it, so [my business partners and I] had to let them know that our motives were good and that we wanted to leave the park better than we found it. And every step of the way, we’ve done that.”

To curate Pilgrimage’s lineup, Griffin recruited veteran booker Jay Sweet, who quickly found the first act: Willie Nelson. Using the country icon as leverage, Sweet secured other popular bands like Dawes, Iron & Wine, Lucius, Cage the Elephant, and Band of Horses. Wilco, Weezer, and Franklin resident Sheryl Crow eventually joined Nelson as headliners, resulting in a lineup that’s multi-genre—yet not schizophrenic, Griffin notes. Performer Holly Williams considers it more a collection of kindred spirits.

“Many of the bands have not only shared a bill together before,” she says, “but they also share a Southern family vibe and are actually friends.”

To rise above the noise of other new festivals—quietly—all fest artists are encouraged to make at least a portion of their set acoustic. Another unique aspect is the so-called Pilgrimashups: unannounced pairings of artists on stage. Some are planned, and others will be impromptu; Williams hints that she could team up with her former tourmate (and good pal) Crow.

Complementing the music is a bazaar with local artisans, antique dealers, and what Griffin describes as a full-on epicurean experience—think craft beer, high-end wine, and nary a corn dog or turkey leg. The ultimate goal, he adds, is to activate and incorporate all the merchants of the area. Just like his vision on that run a mile from his house nearly two years ago, Griffin has a crystal-clear image of what Pilgrimage Festival looks like decades from today.

“You grow up going to it,” he says. “It’s just part of your life on the calendar. You know everyone’s going to come stay at your house, maybe you parked cars on your lawn for the festival as a kid. Then you worked for tips in one of the meat tents as you grew up. A festival, done right, can be a legacy.”

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