This week, Billboard has previewed this year's Bonfire Jam Festival, which starts today in Chumuckla, Florida. With the "World's Largest Redneck Christmas Parade" and performances from Clay Walker, Jana Kramer and Gretchen Wilson, there's a little something for everyone. Event founder / organizer Joe Lewis thinks the festival is one of the most unique in country music, and shared with Billboard the story of how it came about.
"It started because there is a local phenomenon called the Redneck Christmas Parade in my hometown in Santa Rosa County near Pensacola, FL," he told Billboard. "I live in Los Angeles now, but I was home about six years ago for hunting season, and my buddies told me I needed to check the parade out. So, I went, and there was about eight to fifteen thousand people sitting around, hooping and hollering, waiting on this parade about two and a half miles long to come by. I saw CNN there, and my company produces the CNN Heroes show, so I called my client and asked them to put me in touch with the news department. I wanted to find out why they were there. They said the event had been going on for about ten or eleven years, so the lights went off," he said.
Lewis realized the event could become much bigger by involving music. "With that many people going home at 4 in the afternoon, I needed to do something. I ended up scrambling, and worked with Greg Hill and Brent Lane at William Morris to get me Rodney Atkins and Little Big Town there for a show, and it was a success. Then, we did another one last year with Jamey Johnson, Josh Turner, and Lee Brice. Now, we're in year three," he said.
Financially, the event has grown, but he says it's about a lot more than sheer numbers. "I don't measure success by money. I measure success by the people we have and the value we provide. So, if we do it right, the people will come," he said.
Kramer will kick things off tonight, while Walker (who replaced Clint Black following the death of his father) and Wilson will appear tomorrow. "We're excited," said Lewis. "The event is so unique. We've got the parade, then we have a big bonfire that reminds me of the old Texas A&M bonfires they used to do. We've got bull riding and championship calf roping. This is the first year we've done two days, so we're easing into it, and next year, we hope to be bigger and better."
Lewis says the parade is as much a visual treat as the music is from an audio standpoint. "There is such a creativity and a flair of some of the floats, made out of some of the most common and simple things you can imagine. These folks are really creative and, I guess, a little silly in the way they do their designs. It's the largest parade in the Florida panhandle -- well over 100 floats. There's floats on top of trucks, and trucks on top of boats, campers and tractors, and it's almost like a big Redneck Yacht Club."