The festival market has gotten so saturated that, once the unofficial kickoff to festival season begins with Indio, California’s Coachella, you can count on at least one festival every weekend throughout the Summer. While there are plenty of genre-specific festivals for roots music fans, such as the Americana Music Festival, Freshgrass, and Telluride, what about fans who want to check out one of America’s biggest festivals? These genre sprawls are like fishing nets, pulling in practically every style of music. But how do they rank up for roots content? Here we’ll take a look at the 2016 lineups of the Big Three music festivals in America (Coachella, Bonnaroo, and Lollapalooza) and add in two more massive festivals, the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival and Gulf Shores’ Hangout Festival. We’ll rate the festivals not just on total number of roots artists performing but also for exclusivity, as all five festivals have quite a bit of crossover.
Dates and Location: July 28-31 at Grant Park in Chicago, IL
It probably won’t surprise anyone that Lollapalooza, founded by Jane’s Addiction frontman Perry Farrell, is at the bottom of the roots barrel among the five festivals ranked here. One look at the top of their lineup, which includes Radiohead, Red Hot Chili Peppers, and the everywhere headliner of 2016 LCD Soundsystem, tells you that Lollapalooza is focused on the alt and indie rock with some rap and EDM mixed in. That said, there is a bit of roots music lurking in the Lollapalooza lineup. Artist of the moment Chris Stapleton will be performing, as will Nathaniel Rateliff & the Night Sweats, two artists whose names are going to show up a lot in this list. From there, the pickings get slim, although father down the lineup you will find the rootsy soul of Leon Bridges and the folk-pop of a recently Katie Toupin-less Houndmouth.
Roots Ranking: 1 banjo out of 5.
Dates and Location: April 15-17 and April 22-24 at Empire Polo Grounds in Indio, CA
Like Lollapalooza, Coachella doesn’t really sell itself as a destination for roots music fans, particularly since its sister festival, Stagecoach features a weird blend of bro-country and Americana. Still, Coachella beats out Lollapalooza for the 4 spot because it has just a bit more going in the roots department. The two festivals (along with Bonnaroo) share Chris Stapleton and Nathaniel Rateliff. Coachella distances itself a bit by adding in just a few more. The biggest get of the rest of their roots lineup is Mavis Staples, who they initially shared with Bonnaroo but who has dropped off their lineup for a Summer tour with Bob Dylan. Other notable roots-influenced acts at Coachella include Australian songstress Courtney Barnett and bluesman Gary Clark, Jr.
Roots Ranking: 2 banjos out of 5.
Dates and Location: May 20-22, Gulf Shores, AL
Hangout Festival is the new kid on the block among the five festival listed here, and its lineup is an interesting mix of its Gulf Shores location and an attempt to out-cool its big brothers. While headliners The Weeknd, Calvin Harris, and Florence + the Machine don’t offer much roots content (although many roots fans I know love Florence, because who doesn’t?), there’s some greatness farther down the lineup. That goodness starts in the fourth position on the lineup, just one away from headliner status with home state favorites Alabama Shakes. While Hangout is a year late on The Shakes, as most of the other festivals got them last year, that means they’re getting them all to themselves in 2016. Other notable roots artists on the Hangout lineup include AMA Artist of the Year Jason Isbell, Leon Bridges, Courtney Barnett, and Judah & the Lion. While all of these other acts can be found at other festivals, Alabama Shakes earns them an extra half-banjo. The early bird may get the worm, but the late riser gets The Shakes in 2016.
Roots Ranking- 3.5 banjos out of 5.
Dates and Location: June 9-12, Great Stage Park, Manchester, TN
The Top 2 is where the separation gets tough. Both Bonnaroo and Jazz Fest have long showed a dedication to roots music not seen in other major festivals. Bonnaroo even has one day with an entire tent curated by Ed Helms and the Bluegrass Situation. One of Bonnaroo’s three headliners, Dead & Company, are going to show up on most roots music fans’ playlists (or at least The Grateful Dead, three-fifths of which make up Dead & Company with John Mayer) and another, Pearl Jam, is best known for grunge but has skewed a lot closer to Neil Young than Nirvana in the last decade. Deeper on the lineup, you get the omnipresent Chris Stapleton and Nathaniel Rateliff & the Night Sweats, as well as a Bonnaroo return of Jason Isbell. For exclusives, Bonnaroo nails it on the undercard. The recent additions of soul man Charles Bradley and Americana songstress Amanda Shires, as well as sets by Band of Horses, Anderson East, and Henry Wagons just seal it. And that’s not even counting the Bluegrass Situation stage which hosts the annual Bluegrass Superjam as well as this year featuring Sam Bush, Sara Watkins, Steep Canyon Rangers, John Moreland, and The Wood Brothers. You can’t quite do an all-roots Bonnaroo, but you could come close.
Roots Ranking- 4.99 banjos out of 5
Dates and Location: April 22-May 1, New Orleans, LA
The only thing that could knock Bonnaroo off the top of the major festival perch for roots music is the granddaddy of them all, the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival. Sprawling across two weekends, Jazzfest can book more headlining acts than the other festivals (of them, only Coachella has two weekends and they are carbon copies of each other), so their 2016 “top of the poster” acts are a roots music fan’s dream. Stevie Wonder, Neil Young + the Promise of the Real, Paul Simon, Steely Dan, and Van Morrison all factor in the poster’s top two lines. Farther down the lineup, you get gems like Arlo Guthrie celebrating the 50th Anniversary of Alice’s Restaurant, Bonnie Raitt, Tedeschi Trucks Band with Jimmie Vaughan and ZZ Top’s Billy Gibbons, Brandi Carlile, Los Lobos performing La Pistola Y El Corazon, Taj Mahal, The Lone Bellow, Punch Brothers, and more than can be reasonably listed here. And that doesn’t even get into New Orleans’ own unique style of roots music, including Dr. John, Kermit Ruffins, Trombone Shorty, and all-star tributes to both B.B. King and Allen Toussaint. You can’t go wrong from a roots standpoint with either Bonnaroo or Jazz Fest, but from an exclusives standpoint, Jazz Fest wins.
Roots Ranking- 5 banjos out of 5 and one of Charlie Daniels’ golden fiddles for good measure