Make the Pilgrimage: Co-Founder Kevin Griffin Talks Pilgrimage Music & Cultural Festival

Second Annual Event Runs Sept. 24-25 in Franklin, Tennessee

The Pilgrimage Music Festival at Harlinsdale Farm in Franklin, Tennessee is Middle Tennessee’s best kept secret. The two-day, all-genre event brings together music’s top headliners and the best local performers for a one-of-a-kind experience that is one part-neighborhood barbecue and one-part fall festival. Year two will feature four stages of live music, local artisans and food vendors, plus plenty of entertainment for the kids at the Little Pilgrims stage. Children ages 10 and under get in for free with ticket-holding adults.

Fans lucky enough to attend the inaugural event in 2015 left with music memories that will last a lifetime. Considered the second coming of B.B. King, Muddy Waters and Jimi Hendrix combined, 17-year-old blues prodigy Christone “Kingfish” Ingram kicked off the two-day event at 10:30 a.m. with a fiery set of classic blues at the Midnight Sun stage. Whenever Ingram took a solo, his jaws would hang open and his brow furrowed like he was exercising some sort of demon from his soul. At one point, he even ate his guitar strings.

No one wanted to miss the Mardi Gras in the rain with Dr. John at the Harpeth River Stage. Everywhere there were kids dancing and jumping in puddles while the adults got down to “Such a Night,” “Iko Iko” and more. At the Fender Gold Record stage, the hands of thousands of Weezer fans helped crowd surfers levitate over the audience like they weighed next to nothing.

Will Hoge rocked out to “Til I Do It Again” and sweated like James Brown in the glow of the afternoon sun at the Harpeth River stage. There were additional legendary performances by Willie Nelson, Wilco, Steven Tyler, St. Paul & the Broken Bones and Chris Stapleton, before he dominated the 49th annual CMA Awards and the 58th annual Grammy Awards. And if fans got worn out from all the fun, the festival offered an oasis of swings and comfy hammocks in a shady grove of trees to recharge.

CMT.com sat down with Pilgrimage co-founder and Better Than Ezra front man Kevin Griffin at the very Frothy Monkey in Franklin where he and his fellow organizers first pitched their idea for a local music festival to philanthropist Aubrey Preston and city officials. Country fans will recognize Griffin’s name as a co-writer of Sugarland’s last No. 1 “Stuck Like Glue.” Last summer, his bro-country single “B.Y.H.B.” with Uncle Kracker and Sugar Ray’s Mark McGrath as the super group Uncle Ezra Ray was a Top 10 single on Sirius XM’s The Highway.

“It stands for ‘bring your hot body,’” Griffin says. “I wrote it with Rodney Clawson and Jamie Moore for Florida Georgia Line. Now they have the current Florida Georgia Line single, ‘May We All’ with Tim McGraw singing it. It didn’t get cut for their last record because it was already closed and the song was just languishing. So I was doing a tour last summer with Sugar Ray and Uncle Kracker and I called up McGrath and Matt Schafer and was like, ‘Hey, let’s form a band and put this single out.’”

Blondie, Train, Christina Perri, James Blunt and Joshua Radin have all recorded his songs, and 2018 marks 30 years fronting the New Orleans band Better Than Ezra. They will make their Pilgrimage debut on day two (Sept. 25) of the festival with performances by Brothers Osborne, Anderson East, Jason Isbell, Kacey Musgraves, Margo Price, the Arcs, City and Colour, Darryl Hall & John Oates, Preservation Hall Jazz Band, the Suffers, Blind Pilot, Langhorne Slim & the Law, Son Little, JD & the Straight Shot, Big Sam’s Funky Nation, the Settles Connection and Anna Graceman.

Day one will feature sets by Beck, Grace Potter, Violent Femmes, Cake, Shakey Graves, the Struts, Kaleo, Wild Belle, the Strumbellas, Lunchmoney Lewis, Lori McKenna, Jonny P, Blackfoot Gypsies, Leo Bud Welch, Nawas, Colin Elmore with Emma Hern, Adam Ezra Group and Electric Western Dance Party.

What acts are you looking forward to seeing most this year?

I’m a big Hall & Oates fan. I can’t wait to see them. I love Beck. I’m a massive Beck fan. I love Jason Isbell. I’ve seen Kacey Musgraves a lot live. I can’t wait to see Cake. I want to see the Struts. I haven’t seen them live, but I’ve seen videos. I love Preservation Hall of Jazz Band. I love Margo Price. There are just a ton of acts. So I’m going to make a point this year to see the bands which I wasn’t able to do last year.

What was your favorite music memory from last year?

I loved being on the side of the stage for Willie Nelson. I thought St. Paul & the Broken Bones and Cage the Elephant were great, too. There were so many. I mean, Dawes is one of my favorite bands. Here’s one memory that I don’t have that I wish I did, I didn’t see any of Neko Case‘s set. I’m a massive Neko Case fan. She was on the festival because of me, and I didn’t get to see her.

Who had the most fun among the acts last year?

That’s a good question. My friends in Saint Motel had a ball. I think Steven Tyler had a pretty great time. I was hanging out with him after the show and he was just going on and on about it. The Dawes guys had a ball.

How did you come up with the idea for Pilgrimage?

I took a run after overindulging on Thanksgiving 2013, and I ran where I normally don’t run through town over to Harlinsdale Farm. I ran out to the main field where our Midnight Sun stage is and the sun came out from behind the clouds. It was really one of those moments. I just saw the setting for what I thought could be a one-of-a-kind festival. Here’s this beautiful 230-acre farm, we’re 18 miles from downtown Nashville, a mile and a half from I-65 and there isn’t a festival that does what me and my buddies wanted to do. We wanted a New Orleans Jazz and Heritage festival that is multi-genre with a refined, curated music experience featuring. the best of rock, pop, country, southern gospel and indie music with the best food, drinks, artisans and merchants. That was the idea, and we shared that vision.

I literally ran home and I told my wife, “We were gonna do a music festival.” She was like, “OK,” and I called up one of my partners Michael Whelan and we talked about it over wine. We brought in our third partner W. Brandt Wood, who’s been a friend since the early ‘90s and we started this crazy idea. We didn’t know just how mad the whole endeavor was, meaning just how huge of an undertaking doing a festival is on every level. Maybe that naivety was acting in our favor ‘cause if we had known, we probably would never have done it. But now we’re great.

How much of it is curated by you and what do you look for in putting together a festival?

We hired a guy named Jay Sweet who does the Newport Folk Festival and Jazz Festival to help us curate. And he’s very well respected in the business. We had our big group of artists and we went through it with him. He said, “If Band of Horses is playing then Dawes is going to want to play. And then Band of Horses were just supporting Willie Nelson. So let’s have them go on,” that kind of stuff. It’s called building your cubes, which is actually the line-up by hour and how much time there is in between each artist for a set change. Those were all things we didn’t know how to do and he brought that to the table.

How much of the New Orleans festivals directly inspired this idea?

We were very transparent about where we got our inspiration. Jazz festival has been around New Orleans for more than forty years. It had modest beginnings, but it’s a fabric of the city. And the reason it is, is because people grow up going to it.

It’s really by design. There’s the Jazz Heritage Foundation that is involved with music in schools and putting money back in the community. So you see the results of the success of the festival. We actually went to the same lawyers who set up Jazz Heritage Foundation and set up our own foundation. Last year, we donated a dollar of every ticket to Friends of Franklin Parks. Also, $.25 cents of every ticket sold went to Music Cares. It’s gone up to $.50 this year.

Then we take pride in the quality of the food, the merchants, the art and the eclecticism of the artists onstage. If you do it right, people will accept an odd bill like Dr. John going into Maroon 5 or Sunnyland Slim going into Fleetwood Mac or Andrew Bird going into Shovels & Rope going into Buckwheat Zydeco. The great thing is that we knew that Middle Tennessee, Nashville, Franklin, Tennessee, has all that culture like New Orleans does. But it’s uniquely Tennessee and no one was doing a festival that was showcasing all of that. We knew it could be done.

I’m sure performing is like breathing to you now. Is there any hesitation of going in and playing a festival that you’re hosting?

Oh no, I love it. I remember going to Lollapalooza and I was a big Perry Ferrell and Jane’s Addiction fan. Their band would show up on the smaller stages unannounced but I knew what Perry Ferrell’s mounted vocal processing rack he messes with onstage looked like. I would go around and spot it. I always liked that tradition. I like wearing both hats and performing. We’ll probably have Big Sam’s Funky Nation get up there with us. The past four years, I’ve just been wanting to do more. For so long I was always just about touring, being in a band, performing and songwriting. It’s really fun. So I’m always like, “What’s next? How do I evolve?” Honestly, Pilgrimage is about wanting to make where I live more fun.

People need to know what it’s like to have a wonderful festival in their town and have everyone share a stake in its success. We’re hiring local from the ground up – from vendors, to artists, to staging. Everything is sourced Franklin, Nashville, which is rare. You can’t do that in any other festival in the country.

What brought you to this area?

My family. My wife and I had twins, and we already have a son, who’s 17 now. We left New Orleans in 2005 after Katrina. We weren’t in the city when the hurricane hit, but we had to evacuate. It’s a once in a lifetime experience. You don’t want to do it twice.

But we were in L.A. and had our three children, while I was having success in Nashville with Sugarland. So we were like, “Let’s go check Tennessee out.” I had heard about Franklin from different artists who had lived here. So we came and saw the house we live in and it was a no-brainer. The music industry is moving here. It’s just a better place to tour out of and live. I couldn’t make a mark or do anything special in L.A. It’s just too big and too wealthy. When I moved here I felt I could do something really cool here and in arguably the coolest city in the country.

What is your secret to longevity in a business that is all peaks and valleys? Better than Ezra has been around for nearly 30 years.

Not quitting. It’s not quitting our band. Nothing has ever come easy for me in this business. Better Than Ezra had been together for seven years before we got signed and Leslie Fram started playing us on the radio when she was at 99X in Atlanta. We started in ’88, it was ’95 before the success of “Good” happened. We had five years of being a big band, and then in 2000 you get dropped from your label. Then you go from label to label, and you just keep playing. Do quality work. Then you think, “What else can I do?” I write songs for other people. I still do that and I love it. But then I question what can I use this skillset for besides what I am already doing? Why don’t I start a music festival? Why don’t I manage an artist? Why don’t I publish people? Then you realize that you’re capable of doing a lot of stuff as long as you put in the time and learn about it. Just don’t quit. The music business is a business of no’s and that can be really hard on people. You can get cynical really easy. I just keep my head up and keep going. If the song doesn’t get cut or isn’t a single, that’s the business. You move on and you keep playing. You keep doing it. If you don’t quit, it’s such a cliché, but given as you’re talented, you get your chance again.

Going on now through Sept. 9, CMT.com is offering a chance to win a flyaway trip to the Pilgrimage Music and Cultural Festival. The grand prize includes hotel accommodations, two VIP tickets, a side stage view for Brothers Osborne’s performance and a meet-and-greet experience with the T.J. and John Osborne. The two-day Pilgrimage Music and Cultural Festival starts Sept. 24 and tickets are available online now.

Lauren Tingle is a Tennessean and storyteller who eats music for breakfast, lunch and dinner. When she’s not writing or rocking out, she enjoys yoga and getting lost in the great outdoors.