“Staying True to the Roo”: A Q&A with Bonnaroo’s Festival Director

Raffaela Kenny-Cincotta on April 1, 2021
“Staying True to the Roo”: A Q&A with Bonnaroo’s Festival Director

Jeff Cuellar didn’t sleep on Wednesday night.

As Bonnaroo’s festival director, he eyed online chatter until the early morning hours watching rumors swirl as the 2021 lineup eventually made its way across phones, computers and tablets on Wednesday morning.

“Through my 20 year festival journey at Bonnaroo, I’ve learned about a lot of things,” he laughs, noting he’s been working for Bonnaroo since its earliest days, first joining the crew–or CRoo–in 2002.

Of course, this year is particularly challenging.

After Bonnaroo 2020 was scrapped entirely due to COVID-19, organizers went big for their 20th year, retaining previously-booked talent like Tame Impala, Lizzo and Lana Del Rey, while simultaneously tapping new recruits like chart-topper Megan Thee Stallion and jam favorites Goose.

“Safety is our top priority,” Cueller notes. “We’ve got to have a safe fest before we start having fun. So we’re in regular communication with the local health department, public safety officials, and intend to abide by all relevant recommendations to ensure safety. We’re really excited that we’re taking the steps towards reuniting and we’re committed to stay up to date and be able to inform our fans prior to getting to the farm, how we’re going to have a safe and fun Bonnaroo.”

Below, Cuellar talks more about what Bonnaroo 2021 has in store:

This is a huge year for Bonnaroo, considering that you are celebrating 20 years as well as bouncing back from 2020’s COVID cancellation. Why is it important for you guys to make this one really special?

I couldn’t be more excited about the ideas and stuff that came together for this year. We had obviously a lot of plans for 2020 and a sellout festival before COVID hit. So you know, I think this allowed us to kind of take a step back for a second and do some additional evaluation on exactly how we want to bring 20 years of magic back on the farm.

So you’re right, this is a culmination of a lot, and to be able to come back and deliver this lineup for 20 years is spectacular. As you can imagine, I could not sleep last night knowing what we were about to drop. More than anything, it just fills your heart with joy, because we finally get to share the news.

You brought back 2020 headliners Tame Impala and Lizzo for 2021, but it seems like you guys also wanted to keep it fresh for 2021.

We had a special formula and for 2020. And it worked, you know? We sold out the festival. I think a lot of our goal was to retain everything that we could, but things happen in terms of just plans for artists change, things get moved around, there’s new tours, new projects, things going on from that standpoint. We knew we would have holes, it was upon us to trust to get what would be the best fit for that. And I can’t give enough kudos to our booking team. The vision that they have as they put everything together and how they kind of collaborate to really set up a lineup that really separates us. We joke internally about staying true to Roo. And we’ll push boundaries everywhere that we can, but there’s still some of that core out there that are true to the Bonnaroo spirit and know how to put on a great frickin show.

To that point about “Staying true to the Roo,” you’ve got bands like the Disco Biscuits and Goose, and even My Morning Jacket, who are certainly a long-term Bonnaroo band.

I want to say their tenure at the festival—if they haven’t played more than any other band, they are definitely in the top five, with the number of times they played the festival. And for the true OG Bonnaroo-vians, I think everybody remembers “One Big Holiday” [in 2008] and Jim James, putting up the guitar in the rain. I mean, there are so many iconic moments coming from that band and what they bring to the stage. Having them back is really exciting, especially with their new album. Getting to hear some of that stuff live it’s going to be great. I’m just totally waiting to see what Jim’s gonna do.

I also wanted to touch on the weather. Will a September Bonnaroo defy the June heat?

Those who are familiar with Tennessee in September, it can still be hot. I think the nights will be a little cooler, or have that potential to be. But during the day, I’m expecting our typical Tennessee sunshine and warm weather. It’s usually a great weekend, in terms of weather when it comes to Middle Tennessee. Honestly, I’d probably liken it to what was experienced in 2019. And for those that attended in 2019, that arguably was some of the best weather I think that the festival ever had.

There’s also a lot of infrastructure improvements this year, including a new JamTrak service that will transport people from the campgrounds to Centeroo. Can you go into detail about that?

It’s kind of funny, JamTrak has been one of those things that we’ve been working on for I can’t even tell you how long. The idea of adding this kind of mass transit effect to the festival was something that we’ve been really wanting to do and but needing to do it in the right way that allows for us to be able to move the most number of people. We’ve got thousands of people on the farm and let’s be honest, you’re camping, in some instances,far distances. So this was something that has been in motion, and we finally found a solution that would work for our needs.

Things like this don’t necessarily sell tickets by any means, but they make your experience that much better. And I think when you’re looking at the overall experience of being on the farm and being in the festival, little things like that really go a long way. When we planted new grass in Centeroo—is that gonna sell a ticket? No. But when you’re walking around barefoot and the plushness and the softness of the grass seeps through your toes and tickles the bottom of your feet, it does something. I think it touches you and gives you the feels in a different way. And JamTrak is gonna be one of those things.

This is also gonna be the first year of camping on what we call “front to back.” So those fans that actually get there early will be closer to Centeroo. We’ve revised our traffic program and instituted daily entrance which is something brand new to the event. We know that traffic and waiting in line is typically not a fun thing to do, and with this daily entry camping front and back, we feel like we got a solution that is going to significantly impact traffic getting on the farm and the people’s wait times this year.

Bonnaroo is also jumping on the NFT wave this year with some exclusive collaborations. How did that come about?

I think like a lot of people, we saw it coming. I think with Bonnaroo we’ve always kind of been on the forefront of emerging trends. We saw an opportunity and luckily we had a group that kind of knew a little bit about what’s going on. I’m really excited to kind of dip our toe in the water and see what we can do there. The NFTs that we got out there are fantastic, we’ve got a bigger one, that has some bigger prospects, but then even some stuff with [festival mascot] Rufus, that I think offers a low barrier of entry for some folks that want to participate.

The Grand Ole Opry is kicking off the festivities once again on Thursday. The festival takes pride in giving that Nashville sound some spotlight, right?

It’s even more than just a taste of Nashville. I mean, you look back to just the history of music period, and what the Grand Ole Opry has meant to everybody, and how it’s influenced artists… I think having the Grand Ole Opry as a part of Bonnaroo really sets us apart from that standpoint. We’re paying homage to the heritage, and the history that it brings to the table. And really giving the fans something that they may not recognize. Some of your older Foo Fighter fans may know more about the Grand Ole Opry than maybe a Megan thee Stallion fan, so it really gives the opportunity to not only have fun but to kind of educate. I always say that we have the best fans out there because they’re adventurous. They really get out there and dig into the lineup and want to see what the Grand Ole Opry is able to bring to the table. And the fact that Nashville is just down the road is what I think really helps to make it special. I hope it’s one of those pieces that we continue to integrate into the festival every year because it truly is something special.

Now, as a fan, who are you most excited to see at Bonnaroo 2021?

I’m really excited to see what Lizzo’s gonna do–her personality and her showmanship–I’m excited to see how she’s gonna take the main stage. I truly believe she’s gonna bring something special out there. Gosh, who else? My Morning Jacket of course, that’s definitely gonna be a hot one. Run The Jewels–where we are with society and politics, and stuff like that, I’m really excited to see you know, their return back to the farm. Brittany Howard, I haven’t seen her live since her solo project dropped, Primus, Omar Apollo, Foo Fighters, of course. Tyler the Creator–seeing his performance at the Grammys got me even more excited than before. There’s just so many, I think I’m even more excited about the things I’m not thinking of, the things you just kind of stumble upon because someone says ‘Hey, we should go check this out.’ And now I have a new band that I probably wouldn’t have known about for whatever reason, and I’ve got something to enjoy.