Pilgrimage Festival Producers Balance Growing Event With Boutique Feel

Pilgrimage Festival co-producer Kevin Griffin.

When Kevin Griffin decided to go for a run down Franklin Road four years ago, he didn’t know he was setting out on a Pilgrimage. But as he looked at beautiful Harlinsdale Farm in his adopted hometown of Franklin, Tenn., the longtime Better Than Ezra frontman envisioned his next journey: a music festival.

Fast forward to 2017, where Griffin and co-producers Brandt Wood and Michael Whelan are a week away from the third annual Pilgrimage Music & Cultural Festival, set for Sept. 23 and 24 at Harlinsdale Farm. Next week’s forecast is sunny—for both the weather and the experience.

The event has grown tremendously since it debuted in 2015, and now operates as a full-time enterprise with an office in Franklin. Griffin says it has “exceeded our wildest dreams.” Daily attendance doubled from the first to second years, and is growing again this year, when about 30,000 fans will be grooving to the sounds of Justin Timberlake, Eddie Vedder, Ryan Adams, Fitz and The Tantrums, The Avett Brothers and more. Griffin says the property can easily handle attendance of 60,000.

He attributes excellent word-of-mouth to the growing numbers, noting that the musical line-up for the first year was arguably stronger than the second year, and attendance doubled anyway. That is because so much attention is given to the ease of getting in and out of the festival grounds, convenience of purchasing food and drinks, creating a cool artisan marketplace and unique vibe.

Whelan says, “The guest experience is very important to us, as well as the overall brand and what it represents to the community. We are proud of that and it’s something we work very hard at. It’s not just about the music. It’s about the experience for everybody, from the time they decide to come to Pilgrimage to the time they leave. We spend a lot of time curating the line-up and have a healthy debate internally about the music and food programming and everything that goes with the brand. Our goal long-term is that the festival always have a boutique feel to it.”

Griffin agrees, “We want people this year to have as good of a time as the first two years. With this festival, we’ve wanted to walk before we run, and grow at a pace that we can handle.”

This year the grounds will include a new Americana Music Triangle Experience, featuring musical storytelling and décor curated by American Pickers. Also new is the Farm to Turntable area, offering food trucks in a horse paddock. “With the larger crowd this year, we wanted to expand the footprint because there is so much space out there,” says Griffin.

After that healthy debate about the musical line-up, Pilgrimage organizers turn their wish list of performers over to longtime talent booker Jay Sweet.

This year the festival has its biggest artist to-date—Timberlake, a Franklin-area resident who is co-producing the event as well as headlining on Saturday night.

“Justin’s been a great partner since he signed on over a year ago,” continues Whelan. “Obviously with him performing this year he’s very engaged with what Pilgrimage looks like, the line up, what his set will look like. The exposure he’s brought (has been amazing) and his involvement is not just about this year, it’s about the growth of Pilgrimage moving forward. He’s a global superstar who appeals to high school kids, grandparents and everybody in between.”

By design, Pilgrimage attracts all ages. Griffin says, “It’s the kind of festival the Nashville area was missing—a multi-genre festival that represents all the great music and food from the area, merchants and artisans. A Middle Tennessee cultural experience for the whole family.”

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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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