If You Book It They Will Come—Kevin Griffin Talks Pilgrimage Festival

Pilgrimage Fest logoIf you build it they will come.

Or in the case of music festivals, if you book it they will come.

When launching the inaugural Pilgrimage Music & Cultural Festival in Franklin, Tenn., hit songwriter/artist Kevin Griffin and his two business partners knew that a stellar line-up was the key to success.

The three men have their own areas of expertise—Griffin leads longtime band Better Than Ezra and is co-writer of big hits by Sugarland and Howie Day, Michael Whelan is an established businessman, and Brandt Wood owns notable Dallas clubs and music venues—but none had experience recruiting a slate of top artists for a two-day festival.

“We couldn’t afford a learning curve,” says Griffin. “Booking a festival is an artform. So we looked at some of our favorite festivals and who booked them. One that stuck out was the Newport Folk Festival. So we reached out to its booker, Jay Sweet. He loved the idea and helped us curate this festival. For talent bookers, it’s really based on his relationships with the bands and knowing what bands like playing onstage with other bands, and what bands attract other artists. There’s a big challenge with a new festival. Everybody wants to know who is playing and when you don’t have anybody committed yet, that’s hard. One of the first to commit was Willie Nelson. That was by design, because we knew once we got Willie on board, other bands [would follow]. Then we got Dawes, Band of Horses, The Decemberists. Slowly we started building a story.”

What a story. The line up also includes Wilco, Weezer, Sheryl Crow, Steven Tyler, Cage The Elephant, Dr. John, Holly Williams, Will Hoge, St. Paul & The Broken Bones, Chris Stapleton, The Lone Bellow, Nikki Lane, John & Jacob and too many others to list.

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Griffin, who moved to Franklin with his family almost five years ago, was inspired to start the festival while running in his adopted hometown. “In December 2013 I took a run out to Harlinsdale Farm across from The Factory in Franklin, and I was struck by the beauty of the surroundings and rolling hills and natural amphitheaters. I ran back home and told my wife, ‘I’m going to do a music festival.’”

In between work with Better Than Ezra, which closed its recent tour at Nashville’s Ascend Amphitheater, Griffin found time to launch the Pilgrimage Festival.

“What was exciting was that there was a lane for us that wasn’t already tapped,” he says. “Bonnaroo is amazing and so is CMA Fest, but the three of us grew up in New Orleans with Jazz Fest, a multi-genre day-festival, family friendly, with amazing food and drinks and an eclectic list of artists. You may see Dr. John on the same stage with Maroon 5 and people have learned to expect that. We started putting it together, and we were like ‘this doesn’t exist in Nashville.’ That got us excited and it excited the city of Franklin and the music community.” Like Jazz Fest, Griffin promises plenty of onstage musical collaborations, or “Pilgri-mashups,” at his event.

While Griffin estimates Harlinsdale Farm can hold 70,000-80,000 people per day, the goal for Pilgrimage is 10,000-15,000 per day. “We want it to be manageable on all fronts. We want people to get in and out easily. We’ve got a great traffic plan by working with the city of Franklin. Word of mouth is critical for a festival. We want people to want to come back next year and bring their friends, and part of that is we can’t bite off more than we can chew. Let’s have modest goals and make it really feel good, have plenty of room. We set out saying this is a boutique music festival, and that’s the path we followed.”

The event will have wood-clad stages to reflect the area’s history. There will be a Kitchen Stage and Sippin’ Stage designed to offer the region’s best food and drink. Griffin is proud to offer free admission for children 10 and under. Plus, Little Pilgrim’s Landing for kids will likely be the only place to see him perform, because he will be wearing a “promoter’s hat” instead.

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Continuing with the inspiration from Jazz Fest, Pilgrimage will end both nights at about 7:30 p.m., giving attendees time to patronize local restaurants after the festival, creating a boon for the economy. There will also be nighttime performances, which are yet-to-be-announced.

“This is all about being a community partner,” sums Griffin. “When you do that, you end up being around for 40-plus years like Jazz Fest, and it’s part of the fabric of the city. That’s a lofty goal we had. To see it work is a magical thing.”

Portions of each ticket sale will benefit the City of Franklin and Franklin Parks, and MusiCares®.

Tickets range fro $499 (2-day VIP package) to $92 (single general admission tickets). Details at pilgrimagefestival.com.

Kevin Griffin

Kevin Griffin


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Sarah Skates has worked in the music business for more than a decade and is a longtime contributor to MusicRow.

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