Ukulele and smoke filled the heavy air of the Tennessee hotel room. For $58, the members of the Applebutter Express had themselves two beds with cigarette burns in the comforters and a chair dotted with brown stains.
"You don't come here to mess around," said fiddle player Joe Trivette, 25. "You come here to smoke meth in a cheap hotel room."
Or you come here because you've landed the impossible gig — the one that puts you in front of not tens or hundreds of fans, but some 80,000 music lovers. You come here because in two days, this remote town in Tennessee will become, for the duration of the Bonnaroo festival, the seventh most populated city in the state. You come to the burned beds and the stained chairs so you never have to again.
But for now the room offered what the four members of the Tampa band needed: a hot shower to wash off last night's grime and a mini fridge to keep the beer cold. At the main festival hotel, there were rock stars. Musicians with roadies and record labels. Hot tubs and tour buses. A tour bus — or even a van — is a luxury this band can't afford.
For four days, the music gods and the band on the brink will come together at the biggest festival of the summer. And for a short, tantalizing moment, the distance between stardom and obscurity will shrink.
The band never would have dreamed of playing Bonnaroo two months ago. There are countless bands with more experience and more fame, and probably more talent, but somehow, Applebutter is the name on the bill.
"We're sneaking in the back door," ukulele player and singer Kyle Biss, 26, said. "It's unbelievable that we're getting these slots after only being together less than six months."
Bonnaroo Music and Arts Festival is the behemoth of the summer music scene. It's the biggest festival, in Kyle's mind, that an independent band like Applebutter could hope to play. It has the potential to not just open but kick down doors. Doors to record deals and European tours and no more day jobs. Or, it could be just another show before the long car ride back to low-paying gigs in smoke-filled bars.
• • •
Eight years ago, Kyle stumbled into a job at an F.Y.E. store and met a music-loving girl with long blond hair who used laughter as punctuation. Seven years later, they'd be married and living in Seminole Heights. But before that, after Shannon turned 21 and with the help of a little liquid courage, she'd finally agree to sing onstage.
With a $25 eBay gift card and a whim, Kyle bought a ukulele. From there, it was open mike nights and late-night campfires, gradually building to longer sets and bigger crowds. A couple years later, they found Trivette working at a beer garden where they played. After a trip to Nashville with an upright bass player who just couldn't commit, Matt DeSear, 25, joined the gang.
The band played its first public gig together on a rainy February night outside Skipper's Smokehouse. They made their name by rocking after-hours sets they affectionately referred to as jambushes, and catching the right people's attention with their funk-infused, ukulele-driven, feel-good music.
Skye Losey, 45, the events coordinator at the Roosevelt 2.0 in Ybor, signed on as manager a few months ago after keeping his eye on the band for a year.
"I watched them continuously move forward and perpetually get better," Losey said. "I remember hearing my grandfather's voice in my head saying, 'You'll know the winners when you find them.' "
His business partner, Nick Algee, was the nonprofit facilitator for Bonnaroo who oversaw one of the festival's stages. He said he might be able to nudge the band forward. Submitting names of several Florida bands, Algee put Applebutter in the mix for an open slot. Two weeks before the festival, they found their name on the bill, below Alabama Shakes and above Ben Folds Five.
"We saw our name online and were just beyond excited," Kyle said.
That left little time to arrange travel, press a thousand CDs, print another hundred T-shirts and try to line up some gigs along the way.
Now in the dank hotel room, on their second day in town, the pressures and expectations of Bonnaroo — and beyond — were mounting.
Just a couple days after Bonnaroo, they'd be sitting in one of the most historic recording studios in Nashville. From Johnny Cash and Kenny Rogers to the soundtracks for O Brother, Where Art Thou? and Walk the Line, the records made in the Sound Emporium Studios are iconic.
But first, they needed new songs. Trivette was working on one. Channeling a gospel feeling, he strummed a ukulele and sang about lost souls and musket balls. The mystic sound had Losey fascinated.
On their last visit to Nashville, Kyle and Shannon had written three songs in the hotel room the night before their recording session. One would go on to be slated as their next single. This time around, Shannon had no doubt they'd have the music in time.
"That urgency, it forces the creativity a little bit," she said. "It makes you dig a little deeper."
In the early afternoon, their producer, Nikki Chavez, strode in sporting an Applebutter T-shirt and a grin. He talked of European tours and stadium performances. His presence reassured them.
"I'm really excited about capturing the energy you guys have after this week," Chavez said. "Everyone's just blown away by how fast it happened and that you're independent artists. You're sitting in a place people dream about."
Chavez, a well-known Nashville piano tuner, took Applebutter under his wing last fall. He'd be tuning pianos for some of the big acts at Bonnaroo, such as Ben Folds Five, Radiohead and Feist. But he was most excited about seeing Applebutter. Their talent is indisputable, he said. The instrumentation is impressive. And, most importantly, their music makes people happy.
Having the support of people like Chavez helped, but it couldn't completely silence the fear of falling short that lived in the back of their heads.
"I'm generally an optimistic person," Trivette said, taking a sip of moonshine on ice from a plastic cup, "but still, it crosses my mind every day."
Late at night, nestled in the scuzzy hotel room, they sang Chavez's favorite song as he helped them write a news release for the festival. A lightness filled the room that was missing before.
I don't mean to cause you undue stress
But your attention is what I need
So baby let your hair down
And lay your troubles on me
Don't you worry about tomorrow
Whatever's gonna be, gonna be
• • •
Three days later, the Tennessee sun baked the tents in the Bonnaroo dustbowl. The farmland filled with campsites and RVs, towering stages and a pair of Ferris wheels. A few vendors opened early, serving breakfast burritos and pancakes to those who stumbled past the lines of port-a-johns. Deer ticks and grasshoppers crawled over crushed cans of PBR and Miller Lite, relics of parties that stretched into the early hours of the morning when the scent of marijuana permeated the air.
After two nights playing jambushes that drew crowds of 50 to 100 to their campsite, the band woke up early on the day that felt like it would never come. The goal, Kyle said, was to leave enough time before the 2 p.m. set to freak out, melt down and recover.
Cars and campsites stretched out on the 700-acre farm in seemingly endless rows. "Festies" snored in their tents. Slowly, people peeled back the tent doors. They squinted into the light before collapsing into polyester camping chairs or shuffling to the showers that smelled of sulphur.
The next few hours dragged by in a haze of heat and apprehension. The excitement of the show was palpable, but so was the frustration of being so unknown. With only gray vendor passes, the band was stuck in volunteer camping, a long hike from any sign of music. If they were on a record label, they'd be camping in the shade, their merchandise on the official table, yellow artist passes around their wrists. At registration, it had taken nearly an hour and a half to convince people that they were a band and that Shannon, who was listed under her married name, was, in fact, the singer.
"Everything I expected didn't happen," Losey said. "We're artists with vendor passes in volunteer camping a mile away from our stage."
Which meant that now, a couple of hours before the show, Shannon was delicately applying eyeliner with only a compact mirror and desperately trying to add volume to her hair. Kyle shaved the edges of his beard in the reflection of the VW window.
"I'm feeling too good, that's my problem," DeSear said as he plucked away on the bass.
"Too good? Really?" Trivette asked. "Because you look like you're sweaty and terrified like me."
Ninety minutes before the set, a golf cart came to pick them up. Sort of. It stopped several hundred yards down the road, which left the band to shoulder their own instruments, merchandise and bass amp. Only rock stars get roadies.
"Let's get over to where we're supposed to be," Trivette said. "I need to have a quick puke."
• • •
In a dressing room tent backstage, the band clumped together in a knot of nerves and sweat.
"There's a bunch of people sitting out there," Kyle told the band, his voice full of relief. They wouldn't be playing to a sound guy in an empty field.
"Time to stand around and try not to have a heart attack," Shannon said. "Remember, I'm giving out punches in the nose for missed notes."
The crew called them onstage for a sound check. Maybe one day, somebody would do this for them. But for now, they were exposed before the crowd.
A pair of girls walked up to the stage, one sporting an Applebutter tank top and a sailor hat.
"Applebutter, we are here for you!" she yelled. And then Kyle spotted two of their Tampa fans in the crowd. For the first time that day, he breathed easy.
"Now, I'm nothing but excited," he told the band backstage. "I'm not nervous or nothing. We have our people."
The next five minutes were a blur. A sound guy nodded, they walked up the wooden steps, pushed aside the curtain, listened as Chavez introduced them, and suddenly, they were playing.
The Florida crowd danced in front as another 100 or so fans pressed in on the stage. Hundreds more fanned out through the grass, lying in shade and tapping their toes to a bluegrass sound most had never heard before.
Handguns and hammocks on the Myakka River,
Good time for me, not so much for my liver.
Fishing for gators with peppermint schnapps.
S--- ain't illegal if we don't get caught.
At the end of the first song, Kyle yelled out the words he'd played over in his head for weeks.
"How you doing, Bonnaroo?"
Trivette, who had focused on his fiddle for the first couple of songs, finally let himself look out at the crowd.
How many people were out there? 800? 1,000? 1,500? Most of their shows drew 130 at a time. And was that a dance line over to the side? The air buzzed with energy.
Sweat stains appeared on Kyle's shirt as he wailed on his ukulele, producing that aggressive funk sound the band is known for. By the time Shannon unleashed her vocals on their cover of the Allman Brothers' Whipping Post, the crowd was a swaying mass, singing along and nodding their heads, bare feet stomping the grass.
Kyle looked out over a sea of summer dresses and hemp backpacks, American flag sunglasses and sweat-stained bandannas. Hands raised toward the sky as bodies swayed and toes tapped. Girls in bikinis and tie-dye shirts called out their name.
It was the crowd he had dreamed of. So this was what rock stars felt like.
• • •
The high carried them through the night as they reveled in a medley of Fat Tire beer, moonshine and cheap vodka. They drifted into conversations about Anchorman 2 and Kyle's 7-year-old nephew back home, but they always came back to the set. The fans they saw, the chords they missed, how it all moved fast and slow at the same time. They rode the wave into the groggy morning and lazy day that followed, as girls with flowered hats and painted bodies poked their heads into the camp, sprinkling seeds of praise and fandom.
By Saturday night, that energy had fizzled.
The battle plan for the festival had been to tap as many new fans as possible, which meant playing late-night sets and hoping the right people would walk by and hear their sound. The night before, they had performed on top of a bus that felt like a trampoline, threatening to throw them off at any point.
After midnight Sunday morning, their stage was at least on the ground, but it was missing a crucial component: a working sound board. DeSear toyed with cables. As minutes ticked by, their chance of catching the swarm of fans leaving the Red Hot Chili Peppers set turned slimmer and slimmer.
Trivette sat crumpled and cross-legged on the stage, head in hands. He was exhausted. He naturally woke up at 7 each morning and the week on the road had destroyed him.
Behind him, DeSear fiddled with knobs. "It's just totally jacked up with dust," he said.
They managed to eke out a few songs. Trivette was too tired to pretend to have energy. DeSear was missing notes because he was focused more on the sound board than the music. And Kyle and Shannon were staring out at a nonexistent crowd.
After a half dozen songs, Kyle turned to the group.
"Is it worth it?" he asked. "We already did our set. This is all icing on the cake."
Finding it better to not play at all than expose new listeners to anything short of their best sound, Chavez drove Trivette back to the campsite. But Shannon and Kyle weren't ready to call it quits. The band wasn't going to be squashed by a bad sound system. They had another "jambush" in them. So DeSear attached a wheel to his bulky standup bass and the three stepped out into the dust.
Over the next few days, they would recover in a home outside Nashville, watching their "likes" on Facebook rise. Trivette and Kyle would finish the songs they started to craft in the hotel room. They would spend two days recording eight songs in a legendary studio in Music City. And the band would look to the future — through the summer festival circuit to gigs they'd like to play in Charlotte, Athens and New Orleans. The road was calling.
But at that moment they were a band of tired and dusty musicians, lugging their gear through the dirt and gravel of a massive festival, searching for an audience. Like traveling minstrels, they passed anonymously through a crowd that was unaware that they had blown people away just two days before.
They walked past the abandoned campsites and the fans still singing Chili Peppers songs. With ukulele in hand, Kyle's voice twined with Shannon's as DeSear's bass kept the beat. With each note, they moved further away from the main stages and deeper into the dark expanse, their music leading the way.
Caitlin Johnston can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (813) 225-3111.