For the past four years, Vanderbilt alumnae Alice Ann Barge, BA’48, and Mary Niederhauser, BS’64—along with their friends Laddie Neil (widow of alumnus Albert B. Neil Jr., JD’50) and Nancy Lee Pitts—have been honored guests at Bonnaroo, the giant outdoor music and arts festival held each June on a 700-acre farm in Manchester, Tennessee, about 65 miles southeast of Nashville.
“We didn’t know what we were getting into at first,” Barge recalls, “but we lucked into a good experience.”
Decked out in matching red “#BonnaGrannies” T-shirts and sparkly red and blue cowboy hats, the women, all in their late 80s and early 90s, pose for photos and take selfies with many of the 80,000 tattooed festival-goers one-fourth their ages.
“All these precious young children want to take our picture to send home to their parents,” Barge says. “One girl sent our photo to her grandmother in China.”
The ladies, who have an international reputation on social media, say they enjoy people watching as much as listening to the music during the four-day event. They use cellphones to keep up with each other, but rely on their adult grandchildren for their Twitter feed (#BonnaGrannies). This year they were even filmed by Red Bull, the energy drink company, for a video promoting Bonnaroo 2017.
They beat the heat by arriving at the festival grounds in late afternoon and staying until the wee hours. Then they retire to Niederhauser’s nearby Manchester home—their idea of camping—and enjoy a full breakfast each morning. Their favorite festival snacks are funnel cakes.
Although some festival-goers are arrested each year for illegal drug use, “We’ve never seen anything bad going on,” Barge says. “The biggest problem we’ve ever had was finding our car when it was over.”
The BonnaGrannies receive VIP treatment in air-conditioned tents. Golf carts carry them from stage to stage so they can take in the headliners, which included Pearl Jam and Dead and Company this year. Their favorite performers from past years were Elton John and Paul McCartney, says Niederhauser, who studied classical music at Peabody College while also majoring in economics.
“The music has a beat that you can really get into,” she notes.
Nashville country music star Chris Stapleton was this year’s favorite. “He invited us to sit on stage, gave us copies of his albums, and treated us to a barbecue dinner,” Barge says. “He was fabulous.”
The women have been friends ever since their children attended the same Nashville elementary school. Their Bonnaroo adventures began four years ago when Niederhauser received free tickets because of her civic work. Those tickets eventually dried up, but their grandchildren took to social media, scoring complementary tickets from the festival organization and eventual sponsorship by Red Bull.
While younger fans marvel at the grannies’ stamina and adventurous spirit, Bonnaroo is a walk in the park compared to what these ladies have lived through: the Great Depression, World
War II, and the deaths of husbands, children and even grandchildren. Through it all, their joie de vive remains.
Barge is already making plans for Bonnaroo 2017. “Next year,” she says, “I want to ride the Kalliope [a type of Ferris wheel]. And if I were younger, I think it would be fun to camp in a tent.”
—JOANNE LAMPHERE BECKHAM, BA’62