Shaky Knees: How Tim Sweetwood Brought Atlanta the Music Festival It Deserves

Music Features Shaky Knees

This weekend, Shaky Knees Music Festival will descend upon Atlanta’s Central Park, bringing a combination of big gets like The Strokes, Ryan Adams and Wilco alongside a formidable roster of indie acts and up-and-comers. It’s a lineup that rivals some of the nation’s most established—an impressive feat for any festival in its third year, let alone an independent one. The man behind the festival, Tim Sweetwood, has long had a hand in the Atlanta music scene, first as a manager for local bands and later as a growing force in booking and promotions. When the timing was right to start the Atlanta festival he’d had in the back of his mind for a while, he seized the opportunity.

“It’s such a ballsy move to start a festival, and it immediately,immediately worked,” said Dr. Dog’s Toby Leiman, who played the inaugural fest in 2013. A two-day affair that featured The Lumineers, Jim James and Band of Horses, Shaky Knees’ first installment capped out at around 9,000 attendees each day and was held at Old Fourth Ward Park, right by The Masquerade in Atlanta where Sweetwood worked at the time. Despite torrential downpours on Saturday, by Sunday afternoon the weather was right, the fans were happy and the festival was sold out.

“You see it all the time: these people pop up with festivals because they just think it’s easy and people are just going to come, but that’s not the case,” Sweetwood says. “The goal was not to have it be 40,000 people year one. The goal was 7,500 people per day.”

The festival moved to the city’s Atlantic Station for its second year, opting for more room and more asphalt as it expanded into three days. The experience Sweetwood has built is a comprehensive one that includes a tasteful approach to sponsorship, an eye on convenience for the audience, and—perhaps most importantly—an environment that makes everyone, including artists, want to come back.

“Year one, people are just skeptical of a festival,” Sweetwood says. “From an artist’s perspective, is it going to match what they’re trying to do with their music and what they’re trying to do with their performance? There were so many of those artists—anybody from Dr. Dog to Delta Spirit to Lucero to all those bands—where I had promoted them for the last seven-plus years, so there was a relationship there and they knew that if I was behind making the push for the festival that it would get the right vibe of what they would want to achieve in their shows.“

This year the festival will expand its capacity to around 40,000, boasting big-draw headliners while bringing back previous Shaky Knees artists like Dr. Dog and Heartless Bastards.

“That’s what’s fun about it: getting to go around and play all these festivals around and kind of watch them grow from where they start out,” says Zach Carothers of Portugal. The Man, who performed in 2014 and will return this year for a late-night set on Friday. He says that the festival stood out for its old-school, easygoing nature backstage. “Sometimes it’s very separated and bands just kind of keep to themselves in their own room. That’s definitely not the vibe at Shaky Knees.”

Sweetwood comes off as a refreshingly no-bullshit kind of guy, and Shaky Knees as a festival is largely the same. The stages are always close enough to one another that trekking between them isn’t too much of a hassle, and frequent festival-goers will notice an ample number of bars and restrooms, minimizing the insufferable lines that can make or break an experience at any large event. Even the lineups are no-bullshit: In years past he’s banked on the live prowess of artists on the front end of their headlining careers, like Alabama Shakes. Meanwhile, the lower half of the bill consistently holds some of indie’s most acclaimed names, ranging this year from Steve Gunn to Mitski to Matthew E. White. In fact, the only part that starts to feel like bullshit is the idea of trying to cram so much quality music into three days.

“There’s always conflicts, right? So it’s [about] trying to decrease those conflicts to where you’re not missing half a set,” Sweetwood says of the spacing and layout design for Shaky Knees. “You don’t want to hear something else going on, but you also want to make it easy for someone to access the music as quickly as possible because you’re trying to fit so much in a defined space. This year, the two main stages won’t be quite as close as they were last year, [when they were] literally connected, but they’re pretty darn close where you can turn around and get to that next stage literally in a 60-second walk.”

As the festival settles into Central Park in Old Fourth Ward—its third venue in three years—Sweetwood says that while growth has been behind the choice to move, it’s consistently been a priority to keep the fest within Atlanta’s city limits.

“There’s so many pockets in this city. For lack of a better phrase, Atlanta’s pretty cliquey with its neighborhoods,” he says, reiterating how important an accessible location is to the festival’s success. “Even though we have a very strong percentage of [out-of-town] ticket buyers, you want to appeal to the people down the street. That’s where you and I live, right down the street. We don’t want to alienate that.”

Sweetwood has expanded outside of the city, though, with his new addition to the Shaky Knees family in Shaky Boots, a country festival that takes place the following weekend. While the headliners on Shaky Boots appeal to mainstream fans a bit more than those of its sister festival—headliners include Blake Shelton, Brad Paisley and Dierks Bentley—the overarching theme continues to champion musicianship regardless of genre. Knees ‘14 artist Jason Isbell graces the lineup alongside genre trailblazer Dwight Yoakam, and there are a couple of bands who are playing both festivals: critically acclaimed acts like Old Crow Medicine Show and Devil Makes Three, who manage to appeal to non-country fans while maintaining the old-school twang that still makes them a fit for Shaky Boots. Attendees of both festivals will also see Atlanta band Whiskey Gentry making an appearance at both, furthering the local identity that Sweetwood has worked to maintain despite the fact that the events are so clearly geared towards a national audience.

“They’re such a gregarious thing, these festivals,” says Old Crow Medicine Show’s Ketch Secor, who has seen his fair share of festivals across the country. “It’s got more to do about who you go with than who you go to see. That’s why it kind of doesn’t even really matter who’s standing up there on the stage, it’s really more about who you’re standing next to.”

The importance of establishing both festivals as meeting place for friends and yearly gathering beyond its lineup isn’t lost on Sweetwood, who frequently refers to the future of each festival when discussing the current lineup and setup.

“I’d like to see [Shaky Knees and Shaky Boots] get to a place where they’re a staple in people’s spring calendar: whether they’re doing both, whether they’re doing one of the festivals,” he says. “Something that they can count on each year.”

He says that he hopes each year it gets easier and easier for fans to decide to buy a ticket, even without an announced lineup, while simultaneously challenging the folks behind the fest to stay innovative with who they book. So far, it seems Sweetwood’s done well on that aim: every year, he’s taken a lineup as solid as the one before it and added a line to the top of the bill. We’ll be there this weekend and, hopefully, every year for decades to come.

Dacey Orr is Paste’s multimedia editor. You can follow her on Twitter.

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