Sober at the Bonnaroo Festival

By Heidi Vanderlee 06/11/12

The Fix reports from a druggy music festival where it's entirely possible to be sober.

The Soberoo tent at Bonnaroo.
Heidi Vanderlee

When you think of the Bonnaroo festival—which took place this weekend, on a 700-acre farm in Manchester, Tenn.—the first thing that comes to mind is music, and the second is often drugs or alcohol. It may not seem like the friendliest place for sober folk, so it was a pleasant surprise to find Harold Owens of MusiCares—an organization devoted to helping musicians in need of medical care and addiction recovery—sitting in a tent labeled, “for friends of Bill W.” in the musicians' area. He tells visitors, “Whenever you want to have a meeting, we’ll have a meeting.” A few hours later in the tent, Walt, a kind-eyed man in his 60s, shared about the beauty of being present for his job and for the music, and his gratitude for sober support at Bonnaroo. This was MusiCares' first time at Bonnaroo, but it already holds meetings at Coachella, Sasquatch!, the Warped Tour and elsewhere.

On the other side of the gates, among massed Roo-ers decked out in multicolored feathers and face paint, was Soberoo—which describes itself as “a group of clean and sober music fans who choose to remain drug- and alcohol-free at Bonnaroo and other music festivals.” Volunteers handed out yellow stickers saying “Another Dopeless Hope Fiend” and “One Show at a Time.” Yellow balloons floated above the tent as a welcoming signal, visible from all over the festival. At 4pm on Saturday, raising their voices above the Celtic punk band Flogging Molly, who were playing nearby, about 60 people shared in a crowded tent. They repeatedly expressed gratitude for being able to experience the music they love soberly, with the support of Soberoo. “I truly believe I can do anything and go anywhere as long as I don’t drink or use,” said one shirtless man in his 20s, his face shiny with glitter. “That obviously includes Bonnaroo now. Knowing there’s a meeting here gives me the freedom and confidence to do what I want.” Others said how happy they were that the meeting has grown from just a couple of dozen people in the campgrounds to a large tent in the more accessible main area. Leaving the tent, the Soberoo crowd melted back into the sea of blissed-out festival-goers, swigging water and heading for the next show. To quote Soberoo (which isn't AA-affiliated): “Dude, give me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change...”

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Heidi Vanderlee has a background in journalism and is the senior publicist at Shark Party Media . You can find Heidin on Linkedin or follow her on Twitter.