Pilgrimage Music Festival Balances Intimacy And Big Acts (INTERVIEW)

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These days festivals tend to pop up like weeds from a cracked sidewalk. There are too many and the majority aren’t good. But every so often a flower grows from that old beaten up sidewalk, and one of the flowers amongst the weeds in this year’s festival roster is the first ever Pilgrimage Festival. Taking place in the rolling green hills of rural Tennessee this September, Pilgrimage looks like it aims to capture the intimate, comfortable vibe done so well by smaller festivals like Utopiafest in Texas, Pickathon in Oregon, or Tweed River in Vermont. The difference is that Pilgrimage also happens to boast a lineup of cherry-picked acts ranging from legends like Willie Nelson, Dr. John and Jimmy Cliff, to cult indie acts like Wilco, Neko Case, and The Decemberists. Even without the big acts there are plenty of up-and-coming acts rounding out Pilgrimage, pretty much all of whom fall under the loose umbrella of “roots music”. To get the full picture of what distinguishes Pilgrimage from the endless other festivals out there, we decided to talk to Michael Whelan, who co-founded the event with Kevin Griffin, lead singer of Louisiana rock band Better Than Ezra.

The most striking thing about Pilgrimage is the sheer amount of talent on this lineup. Can you talk about how you managed to lock down so many big respected names for a first year fest? 

We are really excited and proud of our lineup. The festival landscape is really crowded, with all sorts of new entrants, including Pilgrimage, so we really spent a considerable amount of time curating our festival lineup and not just having a bunch of acts that didn’t fit what we are trying to do. 


Can you also talk about your approach to curating the lineup? 

We focused a lot on artists and acts that are really strong musicians and bring a singer-songwriter element to how they perform. We want our festival to provide all different types of music for our patrons to enjoy.

It seems like the presentation of the acts and the layout of the festival is aimed to be intimate and rustic. Can you elaborate on the motivation behind this and what fans can expect? 

Well, the Park at Harlinsdale Farm is an amazing setting for a festival. The landscape of rolling fields and hills provide for natural amphitheaters, which will make the festival experience very enjoyable for those that attend. A lot of how we curated our lineup had to do with the idea that we want each act to play as much as possible acoustically, or in a stripped down way that might be a little different than their normal performance. Obviously, that suits some of the artists more than others, but we think that the lineup as a whole will have a uniqueness that will help separate Pilgrimage from other festivals. We are using a word -“Pilgri-mashups” – which we created to promote artists on our lineup to play with other artists at some point during the weekend. So you might see some of these performers jump onstage with someone else and provide a musical experience that you wouldn’t normally get at a regular show.


Are you able to hint or talk about any of the collaborations that fans can expect? 

Well, I think that is something that you can’t force or schedule, but rather takes on an identity once everyone gets together the day of the show. Or when they look at the lineup and start to get creative with the idea of playing with someone else that day.

This event is benefiting the town and other charities. Who will it benefit and how did you set that up? 

The city of Franklin has really embraced this festival. They have opened their arms and welcomed us into the community. The Park at Harlinsdale is the perfect place for a festival so we wanted to establish a sense of ownership for the community with Pilgrimage. It only makes sense for us to make the Friends of Franklin one of the beneficiaries. We also have a strong relationship with MusicCares and will be donating a portion of our ticket sales to them. We have a strong connection with both groups.

How did the founders of the festival originally connect and how did you all decide to throw this together? 

This was an idea that we have discussed for several years. It started with the 3 of us collectively agreeing that we wanted to do something together and then deciding that that something was going to be a music festival. We started to do some research about other music festivals and tried to find a place where there might be a void, and once we found where we might fit in, we came up with the name Pilgrimage. We like festivals and have spent so many years at the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival that we began to shape Pilgrimage with some of the many things we like about a daytime festival.

What was it like dealing with the town when you were pitching this idea and was it ever an idea to offer camping? 

Well, Franklin is not a town, it is a city and one with a rich heritage of music, culture, and history. The city officials and those that reside there have embraced this festival and have backed us the entire way. Because our festival is a daytime experience we did not consider offering camping – it just isn’t that type of festival. We want those that come out to our festival to enjoy the daytime activities and all that we have to offer and then meander into Franklin for the evening.

How did you connect with Jay Sweet, who booked this festival?

When we were doing our research and building our festival model, we came across Jay and found his work with Newport Folk Festival to be very good. There seemed to be a nice synergy between what he has done and what we are hoping to build. The lineup for our first year festival certainly speaks volumes for Jay and all his hard work.

Pilgrimage Music & Culture Festival takes place September 26-27 in Franklin, TN. For tickets, info and more check out pilgrimagefestival.com.

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