How An Extremely Helpful And Toothless Tennessee Drunk Saved Our Bonnaroo

bonnaroo bruceIsland Packet — I attended and covered last weekend’s Bonnaroo festival in Manchester, Tenn. — for those who don’t know or think I just said “Bali Hai,” it’s a sprawling four-day music fiesta jammed with bands, sweat, camping and things you can hold marijuana in — with one goal and one goal only: to meet Bruce Springsteen and, with any luck, have him adopt me as his full-time tambourine player, or, failing that, his son. This is, incidentally, how I attend everything. Every time I go to Publix I secretly hope the trip will end with my being adopted by Bruce Springsteen. Usually it just ends with milk.

Bonnaroo is, of course, held on a former hog farm in Manchester, which is in the middle of Tennessee, which has a great many back roads, all of which look like the middle of Tennessee and none of which actually connected to anything other than more back roads in the middle of Tennessee. In addition, we had a set of helpful official directions that literally included a line that said, “Turn right at the red brick house and pine tree.” There are satellites in space that know what brand of laundry detergent I prefer, and here I was driving around Tennessee looking for a pine tree. You can literally go about 20 minutes and not see another structure that looks like it might contain a human being. I came extremely close to asking directions from a cow.

Anyway, after wandering the hill country looking either for directions or John Denver, I gave up and pulled into a gas station/restaurant/tackle shop/bar, one of those ramshackle, low-roof joints that appeared to have just teleported in from 1974. Manchester does an inhumanly fantastic job of welcoming the 75,000 drinky music kids who can drop a couple hundred clams to see grown men calling themselves “Phish” and “Nine Inch Nails,” but still, if you are me, walking into a gas station/diner pretty much screams, PLEASE ROB ME BLIND AND DRIVE MY CAR AWAY.

But since my need for directions at that time trumped my need to not die, I went in anyway, asked for help and was immediately — and I say this fondly — pounced on by six locals who formed a “McLaughin Group” roundtable on the best way to get me to Old Hillsboro Road, though in a dialect that I am not programmed to process. So I stood there like I imagine kids do when adults are talking about grown-up things, my eyes fliting from one person to the next hoping one of them would eventually bring me back into the conversation or offer me candy.

Eventually, I came to realize that the ringleader of this gaggle of talking road maps was a penguin-shaped man with days-old stubble, greasy hair, several immediate dental needs and a 40-oz. bottle of malt liquor.  At first he would speak to me in the language of the Ewoks, but eventually my ears became attuned to the dialect and I figured out he was delivering a set of directions that ended with, and I am so not kidding about this, “turn at the red brick house and pine tree.”

And he must have sensed my dumbfoundedness, because eventually just gave up and said “Well, hell, you can just follow me there.” and went to his car. I was not entirely sure he’d just made the offer I thought he did, so I did what I usually do in odd uncomfortable situations: sit motionless until the problem accidentally remedies itself. But in the interest of being adopted by a major American rock ‘n’ roll singer, I thought, what’s the worst that could happen?

And wouldn’t you know it, the guy drove us 10 miles down the road, over hills and through valleys, to where the red brick house sits by the pine tree and our road turned left. He stopped the car, waved us by and went on.

The moral of the story is pretty much just this: People in Tennessee, even if you are a nerd music writer type, are kind of wonderful. And as for Springsteen, I, obviously, didn’t get myself adopted, because I’d have totally changed the byline already.

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About Jeff Vrabel

My writing has appeared in GQ, Men’s Health, Success, the Washington Post, the official BruceSpringsteen.net, Indianapolis Monthly, Billboard, Modern Bride and more. View all posts by Jeff Vrabel

2 responses to “How An Extremely Helpful And Toothless Tennessee Drunk Saved Our Bonnaroo

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