Let the Music Move You

Let the Music Move You

Standout Music Festivals in the South 

Words by Marianne Leek

Sometimes a music festival is all about the lineup, sometimes it’s about location, while other times it’s about music legacy and history. These festivals provide some of the most diverse and comprehensive fan experiences while remaining authentic to the music. 

Pilgrimage Music and Cultural Festival 

The Pilgrimage Music and Cultural Festival was conceptualized and co-founded by Franklin, Tennessee resident Kevin Griffin, the lead singer of the band Better Than Ezra. Following a Thanksgiving lunch over 10 years ago, he went for a run, and as he passed The Park at Harlinsdale Farm around sunset, he realized it would be a beautiful place for a festival. Inspired by his hometown New Orleans Jazz Fest, Pilgrimage was born and includes a mix of stages, food, culture, makers, and more. The 200-acre Harlinsdale Farm is just 20 miles south of Nashville and about a 15-minute drive from the historic village of Leipers Fork. Listed on the National Register of Historic Places, this pastoral setting nestled in the Tennessee hills provides a scenic backdrop for one of the most anticipated premiere festivals in the South. 

With heralded lineups spanning country, rock, pop, gospel, and Americana genres, Pilgrimage boasts more than 50 artists across three stages over two days in late September. And with an eclectic mix of past artists, including Willie Nelson, Justin Timberlake, Chris Stapleton, the Foo Fighters, Dave Matthews Band, The Killers, Brandi Carlile, The Avett Brothers, Hozier, Kacey Musgraves, Elle King, and countless other talented performers, Pilgrimage has established itself as a can’t miss event. But the 2023 talent tier was next level, including headliners The Lumineers and Zach Bryan, as well as The Black Crowes, The Head and The Heart, Nathaniel Rateliff & the Night Sweats, Ashley McBryde, and Margo Price. Joined on stage by The Lumineers, The War and Treaty, and surprise guest Noah Kahan, Zach Bryan brought the house down with a Sunday night barn burner of a performance. Among the most popular stages is the Americana Music Triangle Tent, featuring live music and special exhibits from the music attractions along the Triangle. American rock 'n' roll band Hippies & Cowboys played the tent this year, after being discovered at Fox & Locke's Open Mic Night in Leiper's Fork.

While Pilgrimage is a music lover’s dream, it’s an artistic and culinary experience as well, a celebration of Southern storytelling, culture, craft, and cuisine. There’s a Makers Village, a market featuring work from regional artisans. Pilgrimage Cuisine includes culinary delights from over 40 local and regional restaurants, and kids of all ages will enjoy the Franklin Fun Farm, which includes a book nook and craft corner. Pilgrimage has something for every member of the family. 

Ticket and lineup information: pilgrimagefestival.com         

Instagram:  @pilgrimagefestival

Bristol Rhythm & Roots Reunion

If you want a festival experience like no other and the most bang for your buck, then the Bristol Rhythm & Roots Reunion—which hosts over 100 acts in three days—is the music experience you’re seeking. Since 2001, Bristol Rhythm & Roots Reunion has been serving up some of the most talented music artists in bluegrass, Americana, roots music, and beyond, and has a knack for identifying and booking stars on the rise. Acts including The Avett Brothers, the Carolina Chocolate Drops, Old Crow Medicine Show, Sturgill Simpson, Tyler Childers, Amythyst Kiah, and St. Paul & the Broken Bones, gained early career momentum at Bristol Rhythm, while established acts such as Emmylou Harris, Lucinda Williams, Dr. Ralph Stanley, Doc Watson, City and Colour, and Blackberry Smoke, have been featured headliners. Located in Bristol, Tennessee-Virginia, the festival takes over several blocks on and around State Street and the downtown area. 

Officially designated the “Birthplace of Country Music” by the U.S. Congress in 1998 because of its connection to the 1927 Bristol Sessions, Bristol is steeped in music history. No visit to Bristol is complete without a visit to the Birthplace of Country Music Museum, which is an affiliate of the Smithsonian Institution and is located just a block away from the festival’s epicenter. In 2023 the museum displayed a stunning exhibit “I’ve Endured: Women in Old-Time Music” that honored “hidden heroines, activists, and commercial success stories of women that have impacted the roots and branches of old-time music, past and present.” That exhibit will now become the museum’s first traveling exhibit.

Bristol Rhythm & Roots Reunion has “a long tradition of female inclusivity within its lineup,” and almost half of the acts in 2023 were women or featured a band that included at least one female. There’s a certain musical nostalgia to Bristol that you won’t find anywhere else. With two boutique hotels, The Bristol Hotel and The Sessions Hotel, and plenty of dining options, Bristol is an ideal location. Nickel Creek, Margo Price, Bruce Hornsby & the Noisemakers, 49 Winchester, Watchhouse, Allison Russell, Larkin Poe, and Marty Stuart & His Fabulous Superlatives, are just a few of the artists who played in 2023, but with over 20 years of festival history, this musical reunion just keeps growing. 

Ticket and lineup information: bristolrhythm.com

Instagram: @bristolrhythm

Earl Scruggs Music Festival

The Earl Scruggs Music Festival honors the legacy of Earl Scruggs while “bringing the best of bluegrass, Americana, and roots music” to the foothills of the beautiful Blue Ridge Mountains, and to the Tryon International Equestrian Center, located just a short distance away from where the festival’s namesake grew up in Cleveland County, North Carolina. Widely recognized for his three-finger banjo picking style that became known as “Scruggs style,” and the Flatt and Scruggs iconic Foggy Mountain Breakdown, Scruggs collaborated across musical genres during his storied career while making groundbreaking contributions and greatly influencing the trajectory of bluegrass and country music. The inaugural Scruggs Fest took place in 2022, and in the two years since its inception it’s included the likes of Molly Tuttle & Golden Highway, Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, Greensky Bluegrass, The Infamous Stringdusters, The Del McCoury Band, as well as 13-time GRAMMY-winning artist Emmylou Harris. The Tryon International Equestrian Center is a premiere festival venue with on-site camping, lodging, and restaurant options, as well as stadium seating, indoor restrooms, and free parking. If you make it to Scruggs Fest, be sure to visit its festival partner, the Earl Scruggs Center, located in nearby Shelby, which features an interactive, state-of-the-art museum dedicated to preserving and sharing the legacy of Earl Scruggs.

Ticket and lineup information: earlscruggsmusicfest.com

Instagram: @earlscruggsfest

High Water Festival

Imagine listening to Noah Kahan and Hozier at North Charleston’s Riverfront Park as the sun dips below the horizon along the Cooper River, turning the spring sky a cotton-candy pink.  Curated by Shovels and Rope, High Water Festival is  “a celebration of music, food, and libations” and the perfect excuse for a weekend trip to the Low Country after a long, cold winter. Established in 2017, High Water has hosted an impressive mix of artists including Black Pumas, Old Crow Medicine Show, Caamp, Jason Isbell & the 400 Unit, Brandi Carlile, Drew Holcomb & the Neighbors, Margo Price, and The Avett Brothers. Less than 15 minutes from the historic district of downtown Charleston, festival-goers can easily spend their morning doing a little shopping on King Street, grabbing brunch, walking along Rainbow Row, or going for a jog across the iconic Arthur Ravenel Jr. Bridge before the festivities begin. 

While the Charleston temperatures are cooler during spring, High Water’s lineup is hot, and general admission tickets to the two-day event in late April sold out as quickly as they went on sale back in October. With his wildly successful album Stick Season and his most recent song Dial Drunk, featuring Post Malone getting constant airplay, Vermont crooner Noah Kahan is one of the hottest artists of 2024. As is Hozier. His third studio album, Unreal Unearth, released in 2023, was inspired by Dante’s poem The Inferno and soulfully conceptualizes his pandemic experience. With Shovels and Rope, and other artists including Houndmouth, Briston Maroney, and The Wallflowers as part of the 2024 lineup, from top to bottom High Water Festival is an exceptional listening experience. And while you may have missed High Water this year, be sure to set your alarm and grab tickets for 2025! 

Ticket and lineup information: highwaterfest.com

Instagram: @highwaterfest

Bear Shadow Festival

Tucked in the far western corner of North Carolina, there are few places more gorgeous when the mountains come back to life than the Plateau. Bear Shadow Festival takes place each spring and is the sister festival of the esteemed Highlands Food and Wine, which frequently sells out in minutes and takes place in the fall. With Smoky Mountains National Park and the Blue Ridge Parkway just a short drive, the charming town of Highlands is the perfect destination for this micro-festival that promises a “weekend of music, mountains, and revelry.” The inaugural festival in the spring of 2021 became the first festival to happen following the pandemic, with a lineup that featured Drew Holcomb and the Neighbors, St. Paul and the Broken Bones, Watchhouse, The War and Treaty, Jamestown Revival, and others. In the two years since, the festival has hosted 49 Winchester, Trampled by Turtles, Wild Rivers, The Head and the Heart, Jason Isbell, and Amythyst Kiah. Make plans to attend this year’s festival May 11th and 12th to catch JJ Grey and Mofro, Black Pumas, American Aquarium, Grace Bowers, and more. A general admission ticket includes beer, wine, and non-alcoholic beverages, access to food trucks, vendors, and local artisans, and a complimentary shuttle to and from downtown Highlands to the Bear Shadow Base Camp located at Winfield Farm. Limited parking passes are available, but the shuttle is easy to access from two locations in Highlands. Bear Shadow is a destination micro-festival experience that will inevitably turn into the perfect mountain vacation with family and friends. 

Ticket and lineup information: bearshadownc.com

Instagram: @bearshadownc

Shaky Knees Music Festival

Started in 2013 by Tim Sweetwood, the Atlanta-based indie rock festival Shaky Knees has been rocking spring in style with one of the most extensive and diverse lineups around. Shaky Knees was derived from My Morning Jacket’s “Steam Engine,” and was originally a 2-day festival before Sweetwood expanded to 3-days, curating a live music extravaganza that includes over 60 bands playing across 4 stages in Atlanta’s Central Park. Shaky Knees has always been the “Who’s Who” of indie music, but what makes this music experience unique is that each year the lineup includes artists who appeal to all ages, and with headliners Noah Kahan, Weezer, Foo Fighters, and seasoned rocker, Billy Idol, 2024 is no exception. Over the past decade, Shaky Knees has hosted musicians such as The Lumineers, Band of Horses, Drive-By Truckers, Modest Mouse, The National, Jack White, Florence + The Machine, Tears for Fears, Tyler Childers, The Strokes, Jane’s Addiction, Killer Mike, The XX, LCD Soundsystem, Alice Cooper, Suki Waterhouse, Phoebe Bridgers, Green Day, Nine Inch Nails, Hozier, Tenacious D, Muse, Greta Van Fleet, My Morning Jacket, and so many more. Proving this festival is the one your entire friend group or family can attend together. It’s a festival focused purely on providing attendees with an exceptional music experience, and the location makes it ideal for both Atlanta locals and travelers from out of town. 

Ticket and lineup information: shakykneesfestival.com

Instagram: @shakykneesfest

Rock the South Music Festival

Originally intended as a celebration of recovery following the devastating tornadoes that ripped across Alabama in the spring of 2011, Rock the South has grown into one of the most revered country music festivals in the region. Since 2012, for a weekend in July, Cullman, Alabama has been hot! Curated by Shane Quick, the always-popular Rock the South has consistently taken the festival circuit by storm.  Previous acts have included such chart-toppers as Kid Rock, Miranda Lambert, Eric Church, Luke Bryan, Sara Evans, and Maren Morris. But in the past two years alone, Rock the South has booked the hottest artists in country music. In 2022 the “Biggest Party in the South” hosted Morgan Wallen, Alabama, and HARDY, and in 2023 the lineup featured Chris Stapleton, Zach Bryan, Cody Johnson, Riley Green, Travis Tritt, Jo Dee Messina, Madeline Edwards, and others. Located at York Farms, festival-goers can purchase an on-site camping or RV option or choose lodging nearby. In 2023,  theme nights added another layer of fun, encouraging festival-goers to dress in their best white fits, cowboy garb, and star-spangled attire. With Eric Church, Jelly Roll, and Nelly leading the lineup, 2024 promises to deliver. Rock the South is pure music joy!

Ticket and lineup information: rockthesouth.com

Instagram: @rockthesouth