Pilgrimage Music Festival Comes Out On Top

Willie Nelson closing out the Pilgrimage Music Festival on Sunday. Photo by Terry Wyatt.

The Pilgrimage Music Festival had many people scratching their heads in its inaugural year. Not only was the Tennessee-based festival taking place in late-September, it was set to end at 7:30 p.m. both nights. The headliners didn’t follow any sort of musical pattern (except that their names all begin with the letter W), and the location was a place most people had never heard of. So how exactly did Pilgrimage Festival end up being one of the best festivals of 2015?

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On its website the fest says it’s inspired by friendship, history, and the desire to create a meaningful experience. So it only makes sense that the lineup and festival grounds would reflect that. In terms of history and meaningful experiences, you can’t go wrong with Wilco, Weezer and Willie Nelson.

All three groups have been the focus of multiple documentaries, and even an attempted TV pilot in Weezer’s case. Their music and fanbases can all attest these were the perfect choices to headline the inaugural Pilgrimage fest.

So that leaves location – enter The Park at Harlinsdale. The century old horse farm was recently purchased by the city of Franklin. Festival organizer (and Better Than Ezra frontman) Kevin Griffin was jogging in the park one morning when he realized (and I’m paraphrasing) – “holy crap, this would be an awesome place to hold a festival.”

And right Griffin was; Pilgrimage absolutely has the best grounds of any Southern festival. Complete with shady trees and cozy farm houses with even cozier porches that were open to festival-goers. I’m not sure if you’re from the South, but being able to hang out on your porch and watch music is a big thing down here.

For their part, the vendors were more interesting and more abundant than expected. A little faux-bazaar was set up running through the middle of the festival and everything from original art to Lanikai ukuleles could be purchased there. It was a nice touch, and something other festivals haven’t been as focused on in recent years.

Pilgrimage does seem to have different priorities from other festivals, and they’ve made that work to their strength. However even Pilgrimage organizers couldn’t predict the rough weather that mired the crowd throughout the day. The worst bout came near the end of Weezer’s set. Across the field Wilco’s road crew frantically squeegeed the main stage as fans packed in, unsure if the show would go on.

It did, and though the rain didn’t let up midway through Wilco’s set, it just served to incite the crowd for what was the most stellar performance of the festival.

Fresh off the heels of their best LP in years, Star Wars, Wilco are seeking to reclaim their position as greatest American rock band. All of their recent sets have opened with the band playing through the album in its entirety, and they seemed poised to do the same at Pilgrimage, opening with the Big Star-esque romps “More” and “Random Name Generator.” Three songs in, the band veered into their back catalogue and pulled out fan favorite “I Am Trying To Break Your Heart,” for a big sing-along.

Wilco (unfortunately) didn’t play the rest of Star Wars, although a few more tracks appeared later in the set. This is likely due to the fact that their set is usually about an hour longer than they were given at Pilgrimage festival. Hearing the songs spread out in the set rather than crammed together at the beginning, especially alongside works from Yankee Hotel Foxtrot (the group’s magnum opus), I’m more confident than ever when I say: Star Wars is one of the better albums of 2015. 

Willie Nelson had an easier time headlining Sunday night, and played a smooth set heavy on hits and cover songs. Country’s greatest living legend always lives up to his name. This was my sixth time seeing Nelson and along with Neil Young he’s the most consistent classic act around, and as exciting of a performer today as he ever was.

Festival goers were in their cars on their way home by no later than 8 p.m. and the Pilgrimage festival grounds began their transition back to The Park at Harlinsdale. Thankfully, Kevin Griffin says the festival will be back next year. And this time it will have something to live up to.


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Phil Cook