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Cornerstone Festival--the Blessing and the Bane
Interview of John Herrin, Executive Director, November, 2000
By Linda LaFianza

"This is our fault. We spread the word too well," my husband glumly observed late on the third day of Cornerstone Festival 2000. Coping with immobilizing crowds in oppressive, heat-stroke-inducing humidity had become debilitating, even for veterans such as ourselves. Our individual love-affairs with this annual gathering pre-date our relationship by many years and each of us has done our best to promote and support it. But we'd both succeeded beyond our wildest dreams and even true love can reel under these conditions. It was too hot to stand in a crowded tent and it didn't seem like there was another place to pitch a tent anywhere, yet the people kept arriving, eager to be a part of the phenomenon.

2000 was the year that popularity and prosperity almost overwhelmed the annual Christian festival where mud gets equal billing with the alternative music artists and seminar speakers. The infamous gathering place of those wishing to keep the spirit of the hippie's Jesus movement alive now attracts over 25,000 expansive campers for almost a week. Can this venerable institution that has successfully, and controversially, managed to stay on the cutting edge of popular culture for so long survive its own success? The Phantom Tollbooth sat down the Cornerstone's executive director, John Herrin, in November to find out.

The first surprise was Herrin's nonchalant take on last summer. "I thought it went well. Probably my biggest opinion is that it was a shame that we had mud, but I know we [always] do. Mud does create problems with traffic and parking, but I have decided that we're always going to have mud, so I think we should just prepare for it. I was a little surprised by the turnout we had. We saw about 3,000 more people there than we had the year before, but it seemed like all three thousand of those people brought two cars! We were probably right at about capacity as far as being able park. No doubt, it created some logistic problems.

"I think this year we're going to be prepared for them. We have opened up two new entrances to the property. There will be three entrances and exits. We're going to register at two of them, the back entrance and the front. I'd like to be able to have at each entrance a good size parking lot so that if you come in there, you can park right here and you can get out without having to go through the grounds."

The available campground area is also being expanded. "We've cleared out five or six acres near the entrance, and another three or four acres behind the Encore tents, all the available flat land. Lord willing, we will have more close camping, which will be fun because people will be right near the center. John also works with surrounding landowners to expand camping and parking, learning from last summer's mistake.  "We leased some land last year from some guys who tried to double dip. They supposedly were going to put it in grass, but they put it in oats. And they harvested the oats. But oats don't spread like grass. You end up with little stubble, 50 or 60% of the field is really dirt, and it really didn't work. I have proposed long-term leases to put certain fields into grass. We're trying hard to pick up twenty to twenty-five acres of camping which would really give us room. "

Sometimes, Cornerstone-goers do the expansion themselves. Several hundred camped in a working cow pasture near the entrance with hilarious results when they met their four-legged neighbors.

The festival's program will also see a number of improvements. Seminar tents will be organized by theme to make topics of interest easier to find. "If you are interested in this seminar, then this is the tent for you to go to." A new track, Social Action, will be added to daytime offerings.

Wycliffe Bible Translators will be well represented. "They want to move over closer to the showers. They want to put a meet and greet tent right along the road by the shower houses, maybe a little less teaching this year, maybe a little more recruiting, I'm not sure, but at least a little more of a chance to get to meet and interact one-on-one. A place to come and hang out, and see more what Wycliffe is doing and meet with them, and they are going to camp right around it."

Another new addition will be the film festival Flickerings. "We're looking for a place to hold our new film festival, Flickers. We're hoping we've gotten in on the ground floor, now that the technology has put little-time film making into the hands of everybody. It may take a year or two for it to take off, but we've already gotten quite a bit of response from people who are really excited about it. We have quite a few here, in our own house (community), who are working with digital cameras and the new Mac editing software that are putting together movies, and having fun, and we thought, what the heck?

"We're looking for a darker place to show films. Last year, we used a darker "black out" tent for the Imaginarium, but if you put all the sides down, you are in an oven. You can't really do it. We're talking about moving the film festival indoors, into the building that housed the Creation Station and Dance "Tent" Lord willing, I'm hoping to actually air condition that big 'ol barn there.

Perhaps the one thing that will always set Cornerstone apart, and help it keep its edge is its tolerant attitude toward the audience:

"It's always been important that people who attended--that we are partnering with them in doing this, and that we are not in an adversarial relationship. We're not your parents telling you what you can and can't do, not that that's a bad situation; I'm a parent! But I think if we get to that, there will be more of a sense of, let's figure out how we can aggravate the adults. There already is a little bit of that that goes on, but I think it could really become more and more, to the point that it kind of takes the fun out of it. I would like to try to continue to foster this idea that there is a lot of freedom here, don't abuse it.

"It's just human nature. Our reaction is to make more and more rules, and think that rules are going to cure the ills. I know that by the end of the festival, I've got a list of about a hundred rules I want to make, and by the first of September, I do away with them all because I realize it really does just not work."

It's mid-winter at a site that only thrives in the heat of high summer, but the groundwork is already laid for the 2001 Cornerstone Festival. The snow covers the newly cleared, freshly seeded campgrounds and the necessary scars newly-built roads breed. New relationships with local officials, a re-vamped web site design and graphics join freshly-inked artist contracts, new seminar tracks, a new film contest, and countless other improvements. The lessons of last year's mistakes and successes are being wisely applied to this 17-year-old event. Will the crowds return? Tom Cameron, another festival executive, has observed that every time attendance reaches a new peak, it may drop a little the following year, but never that much. Things will never be like they used to but this isn't a group that reveres tradition.

What may ultimately keep Cornerstone Festival manageable is its very success. Many Cornerstone entertainers are now booked at traditionally mainstream Christian festivals such as Creation Festival East and West Coast, Kingdom Bound Florida and New York. Smaller efforts like Tom Fest, Purple Door and Sonshine are holding their own, and draw heavily in each of their regions. Most interesting of all may be the new One Festival in Memphis, Tennessee that has hired Henry Huang, former Cornerstone Festival director, to book the bands. Close to Memphis' many restaurants and motels, it may well attract Cornerstone regulars thanks to a smaller, more manageable, yet nearly identical, lineup.

It is doubtful that any of these will replace the large circus tents pitched in the stinking mud and the back slope of a reservoir dam as spots where "cool" is conferred upon all who show up. Art and suffering are natural companions, and no one who seeks either should be denied.


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