Feature — 11 May 2012
The Birth of Bonnaroo

By Wayne Bledsoe

It was a long road to Tennessee music festival for UT alumnus Ashley Capps

Photographer's ParadiseIt’s a day in late May 2004, and promoter Ashley Capps and I are tooling around 700 acres of farmland in Manchester, Tenn., in a golf cart. Around us are stages being assembled, parade floats, a fountain being painted and campsites being roped off. In a week, the site will be filled with approximately 90,000 music fans and 2,000 workers at the third Bonnaroo Music and Arts Festival.

There’s more than a little pride when Capps (Knoxville ’79) drives from place to place pointing Share Your Storiesout what the scene will look like in just a few days when some of the most popular music acts in the world stand in front of huge, happy, sweating audiences.

That may have been the year that Bonnaroo became an institution rather than just an unexpected success. It was the year that Rolling Stone magazine recognized the first Bonnaroo as one of the “50 Moments That Changed the History of Rock ’n’ Roll.”

Nearly eight years later, over lunch in a restaurant in downtown Knoxville’s Market Square, Capps is no less proud as he talks about the 2012 Bonnaroo and his 30 years as a music promoter.

“People thought we were crazy,” says Capps, of the first Bonnaroo. “For me, it was a logical idea.”

Born and raised in Knoxville, Capps began promoting shows in the late 1970s as a hobby. He has since become one of the most respected promoters in the music business and, as head of AC Entertainment, helped transform his hometown into a musical hub. In addition, he founded Moogfest, a three-day music festival in Asheville, N.C.; the Big Ears festival in Knoxville; recently began booking the Forecastle festival in Louisville, Ky.; and, of course, co-founded Bonnaroo.

A Life in Music

As a teenager, Capps worked at a record store near the University of Tennessee campus and, while still a high school senior, landed a job hosting and programming the show “Unhinged” on UT’s WUOT-FM. He continued to host shows on the station until 2004.

Longtime friend and fellow UT graduate Candance Reaves says Capps loved talking music until the wee hours of the morning. and while still in high school, the two would take trips to Atlanta to see 10cc, Iggy Pop, Genesis and other music acts that never booked shows in Knoxville.

“I never worked for anyone else who could say, ‘This is how you do or don’t do this.’ The music business seemed like an exotic, almost magical world.”“We’d drive to Atlanta, see the show and drive back and go to school,” she says. “He introduced me to music I never even thought about.”

While Reaves was certain Capps would pursue something in music, Capps was not so sure.

“I never really seriously considered the music business as an option,” says Capps. “There were no mentors in Knoxville. I never worked for anyone else who could say, ‘This is how you do or don’t do this.’ It seemed like an exotic, almost magical world.”

The first artist he booked was avant garde cellist Tristan Honsinger, who needed a gig while passing through Knoxville on the way to Birmingham. Capps rented Knoxville’s Laurel Theater, a small converted church, for $10 and charged $3 a ticket. The show sold out.

“I made something like $250 that night, and I was hooked,” he says. “I was able to present this incredible, wonderful, insane music. Then people realized I was here, and calls kept coming.”

The Lessons of Ella Guru’s

At the same time that Capps was presenting shows by critically acclaimed but popularly unknown musicians at local venues, he also was earning a degree in philosophy and religious studies at UT. After earning his bachelor’s degree, he enrolled in graduate school but quit when he realized he couldn’t do his homework while promoting increasingly larger concerts.

In 1988, Capps took the opportunity to open a music club and restaurant in an area of downtown Knoxville called the Old City, which was undergoing revitalization. He named the club Ella Guru’s after a Captain Beefheart song and began booking a wide variety of artists, many of whom had never performed in Knoxville and some of whom rarely even ventured to the South at all. Capps says he committed himself fully to the club’s success.

“I look at that like graduate school,” he says. “I met a lot of artists, agents and managers who are still important to me.”

Yet, while many shows were packed to capacity, others were almost empty. Ella Guru’s sometimes seemed to be bringing in more music than the town could support. That was combined with Capps’ inexperience at operating a restaurant.

“I didn’t know what I was doing,” he says. “I also learned how naïve I was about human nature. I still don’t think I’m a very good people manager.”

In 1990, Ella Guru’s went under, and Capps had to declare personal bankruptcy.

“I wasn’t smart enough to quit sooner,” he says. “But part of that drive is what ultimately led me to be successful.”

From Knoxville to Manchester (by Way of New Orleans)

It was less than five weeks after Ella Guru’s closed that Capps presented the first AC Entertainment concert. Wynton Marsalis’ booking agent insisted that the jazz great had to have a Knoxville date and Capps, who had presented Marsalis shows previously, had to book it. Capps presented Marsalis at the UT Music Hall, and it sold out. AC Entertainment shows by rock acts Widespread Panic and Drivin’ ‘N’ Cryin’ followed suit.

Over the next decade, Capps created concert events that drew thousands to downtown Knoxville, from the Hot Summer Nights concert series on World’s Fair Park to the free Sundown in the City series, and his company took over management of the Tennessee Theatre and, later, the Bijou Theatre.

“Bonnaroo” is a Cajun word for a party or celebration, as well as being part of the title of a Dr. John album, Desitively Bonnaroo.In 2002, Capps’ AC Entertainment and promotion company Superfly Presents (then located in New Orleans) combined forces to create Bonnaroo.

European events, including England’s Glastonbury Festival, acted as an inspiration, along with American weekend events centered on the band Phish. It wouldn’t just feature popular acts, but acts the promoters wanted to showcase. And it wouldn’t be just about music but would include art and other elements that would make the weekend a unique experience.

After looking at several different locations, the group decided on Manchester, Tenn., because of its proximity to several large cities, including Nashville, Chattanooga and Knoxville. Capps and his Superfly partners decided to call it “Bonnaroo,” a Cajun word for a party or celebration (as well as being part of the title of a Dr. John album Desitively Bonnaroo).

Capps said he kept his expectations conservative. However, the first Bonnaroo, with acts that ranged from jammy rock groups Widespread Panic, Trey Anastasio and Gov’t Mule to bluegrass greats the Del McCoury Band and soon-to-be star Norah Jones, sold out 70,000 tickets with no traditional advertising.

“I knew we had a tiger by the tail,” says Capps. “The audience response was far beyond what I thought it would be. It gave us the energy and resources to create the most exciting festival concept we could. We didn’t want just a bunch of bands on stages. We wanted everyone to walk away with one big ‘Wow!’”

The “wow” has never stopped. Bonnaroo expanded from a three-day festival to four days and has presented Radiohead, Tool, Bruce Springsteen, James Brown, Willie Nelson, The Police, Tom Petty and scores of other headliners and lesser-known acts. Most years, the event sells out well before the gates open.

This year’s event is June 7-10 and features The Beach Boys, Red Hot Chili Peppers and Phish, among 150 performers.

Getting Away with It

Capps says he hopes the latter part of his career is focused more on artist development and helping performers achieve their vision. He’s currently working with the critically acclaimed banjoist Abigail Washburn, Internet phenomenon singer/songwriter Julia Nunes and upcoming singer Trixie Whitley.

“I’m still a music fan. I get lots of music given to me, but I still buy music. I love when music clerks have Top 10 lists. I make mix discs for friends. I get a tremendous amount of satisfaction turning people on to music.”

Ted Heinig, vice president of concerts with AC Entertainment, says Capps’ work has helped create an environment where young professionals want to stay. Heinig, who graduated from UT with a degree in finance in 1990, says at that time graduates were excited to move to bigger cities.

“Because of what Ashley is doing in Knoxville and the concert scene in general, there’s been a big shift. He was one of the visionaries who could see things like the Tennessee Theatre becoming a world class arts center,” he said.

Pollstar now lists the Tennessee as one of the top-100 attended theaters in the world.

Grammy-winning banjo virtuoso Bela Fleck appeared with New Grass Revival at Ella Guru’s, and Capps booked some of the first Bela and the Flecktones concerts as well as Fleck’s jazz and classical shows.

“Ashley Capps has always been about sharing his love of diverse music with his community,” says Fleck. “One guy can make a huge difference in a region’s musical IQ. Ashley has been that guy for a lot of people, and his reach and influence has been growing exponentially. He always has given me a chance to make my case to the people, and I appreciate that deeply.”

“Ashley has been there for me from the beginning of my career,” says Lyle Lovett. “Whatever it took to make everything right, you knew Ashley was going to be there for us.”Singer/songwriter Lyle Lovett, whom Capps has booked for regular appearances in Knoxville since the late 1980s, agrees:

“Ashley has been there for me from the beginning of my career,” says Lovett. “Whatever it took to make everything right, you knew Ashley was going to be there for us. And what’s great is he’s the same person now that he was then … 25 years later to be able to still work with somebody and feel that good about them really says something.”

Capps can be known as a hard-nosed businessman, but he’s survived the corporate wave that wiped out the bulk of local promoters in the late 1990s and early 2000s and thrived when the concert business was supposed to be on the wane.

“I feel so lucky. I wake up in the morning, and I’m excited to go to work. The danger of turning a passion into a vocation is you’re working all the time, and it is work, and it’s a tough business. It’s not a 9-to-5 job. It’s immersive. I feel sorry for anyone in this business who doesn’t love it. People do become cynical, but I’m not. I love it. I’m 30 years in, and I still want to do more.”

Capps, who recently turned 57, doesn’t foresee retiring, but he does see himself reaching a goal:

“Over the holidays, I told my wife, ‘In just a few more years I’ll be able to look at myself in the mirror and say, “Wow. You got away with this!”’

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Wayne Bledsoe is a music writer for the Knoxville News Sentinel and has written about hundreds of concerts promoted by Capps and AC Entertainment. He also is the host of the WDVX-FM radio show “All Over the Road.”

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