Summer's End: The End of Cornerstone, the Festival that Transcended Music
On July 7th, a literal cornerstone of Christian music and culture played its swan song. After 29 years, the venerable Cornerstone Festival tore down its tents and main stages for the last time, closing the book on a summer event that propelled Christian music and art, and prestaged mainstream counterparts such as Bonnaroo, Pitchfork and Coachella by decades.
In the end, Cornerstone Festival (based in rural Bushnell, Illinois) was a victim of the economic decline, rising gas prices and increasing competition from other events. “We didn’t decide until April to have the last festival because we were scrambling to save it,” said former marketing director John Thompson. Founder Tom Cameron doubted the festival could even see a last year, as there was no money to pay bands. However, that did not deter artists and bands that loved the festival and wanted to send it off in style. “We expected all [the bands] to cancel and we wouldn’t have held it against them either. But most of them said, ‘We’re coming anyway.’” After the announcement, additional bands contacted Cameron to play the last festival.
Chicago-based singer/song-writer Rachel McClusky was grateful for the opportunity to perform for the last time: “It was a bittersweet feeling. It’s always been a great experience, but it was definitely sad to know that such a great festival was coming to an end.”
Despite the tearful crowd, Cameron said he felt powerful from Cornerstone’s close-knit community as folks spanning several generations joined to share their favorite memories. “It went off beautifully,” he said. “It was one of those things that did provide some closure for all the people who didn’t want to see it go away.”
More than the Music, Cornerstone was Community
With goals of exploring artistic expression, growing listeners spiritually and actively engaging modern society, Cornerstone formed a unique culture and intimate community. “It was one of those places where people made close friends and maybe the only time they saw those friends was once a year at Cornerstone,” Cameron reflected, adding that it was common for people to come to the festival for five, ten or 20 years. Bands often participated for the entire week, interacting with fans and exploring other acts and events.
Part of Cornerstone’s unique vision was it was never designed to be profitable. Jesus People USA, a cooperative community in northern Chicago, perceived the need for good art that flowed from a biblical worldview. As Cameron recalled, “They saw a need and basically expressed themselves in the form of a festival. I think a lot of the body of Christ didn’t realize how much they needed it until after they had experienced it – like you’re not hungry for a certain type of food until you taste it.” As JPUSA focused on improving the festival, all of Cornerstone’s profits were poured into the next year to build a better festival.
Otto Stuparitz, a first-time attendee, instantly spotted this difference. “I noticed immediately how non-commercial it was. There were no banners for major companies promoting their brand like you find at other festivals. Everyone was there for Cornerstone itself. You could tell that anyone who had a Cornerstone t-shirt on really cared about it and everyone seemed to have a strong personal connection to it.”
With the wealth of alternative music that pervades Christian culture, it can be difficult for this generation to understand Cornerstone’s significance. John Thompson, the only paid Cornerstone worker in the festival’s history, attended each year beginning when he was 13. “When the festival began in 1984, the Christian music industry was prejudicial against anything that wasn’t explicitly Christian or evangelical. When Cornerstone began, it served as a way for talented and obscure metal, rock, punk and pop bands to play a national platform.” As a result, bands built a fan base across the country, propelling their careers and displaying their art.
Thompson distinguished Cornerstone’s goal from the other Christian music festivals at the time, which focused on overtly evangelistic pop. “Cornerstone was more incendiary – it was like ‘Let’s really take the Bible seriously. Let’s get serious about getting past our cultural stereotype that we’ve let speak into our faith and try to get to a biblical worldview that’s trans- political. It’s not about right wing evangelicals nor is it about left wing; it’s about something above all that and it’s something truer than all that.”
The Art of Taking the Cross Over
More uniquely, Cornerstone saw many of their formerly unknown artists transition to mainstream music. According to Thompson, “There were no Christian artists that crossed over into the general market in those years that didn’t have something significant to do with Cornerstone. Artists like P.O.D., Reliant K, Switchfoot, Sixpence None The Richer, Sufjan Stevens, Underoath, all came out of the Cornerstone world because it was a juncture point where if you were a Christian and an artist, you were OK with Cornerstone – even if you weren’t OK with the label ‘Christian Music.’”
Cameron and Thompson shared memories of their favorite performers, which included Steve Taylor, Robert Randolph, Charlie Peacock, P.O.D. and Third Day – acts that all crossed over to enjoy some mainstream popularity. (Taylor today is a filmmaker who just released the acclaimed “Blue Like Jazz”; Peacock had a prominent role in discovering and developing Switchfoot and the Civil Wars.)
Though noted for its music, Cornerstone also spotlighted art collections, independent films, sculpture, carvings, and designs as well as promoting art and dance workshops. Teaching and social action were a priority from the beginning, with members protesting apartheid in South Africa, human trafficking and torture. With such an attractive vision, the festival grew from a few thousand people in 1984 to more than 25,000 at its apex, in the late 1990s and early 2000s.
Fans awoke the last day of the festival to share ways Cornerstone had touched their lives. On Sunday morning, tearful fans shared memories over an open mic, then worshipped together in a last service and took communion. In the evening, 3,000 people joined together to symbolically wish the festival goodbye as a group of fans launched their hand-built replica of a Viking long-ship and set it aflame on the lake.
The Cornerstone Spirit Lives On
Thompson and Cameron are not deterred by the festival’s demise. Along with thousands of fans, they envision new ways Cornerstone may manifest itself in the future. Thompson hopes people will feel the void and become spurred into action. “My message throughout the week was: Where do you live? What’s your neighborhood? What’s your city like? Is there anything you can do in your area that would bring a piece of this there? And what are the essential ingredients of Cornerstone? It’s community, it’s fellowship, it’s challenge, it’s creativity. Focus on those things. The new version of Cornerstone could be that it happens in 100 different places with 100 different people. It could be absorbed into another event. I just don’t know.”
Cameron looks forward to opening Wilson Abbey, a small venue in Uptown Chicago where JPUSA will hold church services, seminars, conferences, and workshops. JPUSA also will focus on a key element of Cornerstone: giving a platform to unknown, talented Christian bands who have something to say musically and spiritually. “This is embedded in our DNA. We won’t stop doing it. We will try to find a way to keep the spirit of Cornerstone alive in other events.”
Copyright 2012, watchgmctv.com. For permission to repost or reprint, click here.
About the Writer
J.L. Greene is a freelance journalist, researcher and writer. One of her recent articles exposing corruption in a Nashville Government Agency led to the restructure of the Metro department and the director's resignation. A former intern at The Huffington Post, J. L recently relocated from her native Nashville to Chicago where she is absorbing the music scene, culture and food. You can follow her at http://thejlgreene.com or twitter: @thejlgreene
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