When Willie Nelson returns to headline Summer Camp Music Festival over Memorial Day Weekend, things are going to look a little different than when he last played there in 2009. Over the past 14 years, the beloved festival at Three Sisters Park has undergone massive expansions in size and scope, bringing tens of thousands of happy SCampers and hundreds of artists to Chilichothe, IL year after year. In honor of The Red Headed Stranger’s return to Summer Camp Music Festival in 2023, we thought we’d give Willie a tour of what’s new at the Park.

In 2009, over 10,000 people attended Summer Camp Music Festival where over 60 artists performed across four stages. The festival has more than doubled in size since then, drawing upwards of 20,000 attendees annually with 150-plus artists playing simultaneously on eight stages for three days (plus the Thursday Pre-Party). All this could be a bit overwhelming, so let’s take a ride through the 400-acre grounds.

One of Summer Camp’s biggest developments in recent years has been The Illumination Woods. When SCamp returned from the pandemic in 2021, organizers revamped the centrally-located woods to cater to both the steadfast jam crowd as well as the electronic enthusiasts who make up a growing chunk of the festival’s population.

By day, The Illumination Woods remains a relaxed place to grab some afternoon lunch and chill out in the grass while watching some up-and-coming bands including winners of the annual Summer Camp On The Road traveling battles of the bands. At night, however, the woods transform into an immersive artistic environment and a psychedelic wonderland. Under the impressive EDM production elements, the art installations take on new life as midnight ravers rage against the dying of the night.

Journey Into The Illumination Woods At Summer Camp

Moving through the park, we come upon the SOULPATCH Garden. It’s well-known that Willie loves his greens, so he’ll be happy to see the expansion of Summer Camp’s sustainability programs. The actively functioning garden serves as the location for a number of workshops, activities, and speakers all dedicated to softening the event’s ecological impact and sending SCampers home with a head full of knowledge as well as an ear full of music. During the day, the SOULPATCH is as stacked as any of the eight stages with programming including seminars on permaculture, gardening, and more .

On Saturday, Three Sisters Park becomes a battlefield of (mostly) friendly competition for an all-out Field Day. The daylong battle of red versus blue taps into the literal summer camp experience, reigniting youthful innocence with giant dodgeball games, doughnut-eating contests, and other recreational activities. Summer Camp Music Festival’s annual field days have come a long way since Umphrey’s McGee bassist Ryan Stasik‘s legendary sunrise kickball games of old.

Field Day At Summer Camp Music Festival 2022

SUMMER CAMP SESSIONS: Field Day Kickball w/ Stasik featuring Umphrey’s McGee’s “Slacker”

We then arrive at the Soulshine Tent, also called “the heart of Summer Camp”—not just for its centralized location, but also for the philanthropic nature of its expanding existence, referred to as the “Soulshine Experience.” Willie could have passed by the Soulshine in 2009, one year after the program launched as the Make A Difference Tent, but ever since it has grown alongside the festival. In addition to showcasing on-the-rise artists—including Goose at the group’s SCamp debut in 2019—on the Soulshine Stage, the Soulshine Tent brings together most things in the festival that lie beyond music.

Goose – Summer Camp Music Festival – Chillicothe, IL – 5/25/19

The tent is an active art gallery for the many live painters who create at the three main stages throughout the festival, allowing them to display their work for the community as soon as they’re finished. Soulshine also serves as a hub for the workshops and activities like morning yoga, glassblowing, and events with the SOULPATCH Garden across the dirt path. Summer Camp Music Festival’s participation row of volunteer organizations and charitable causes is also found at the Soulshine Tent.

“Overall the Soulshine Experience encompasses all of that, and the main intention is to have people walk away from the festival with an added experience beyond ‘I loved that set,'” Summer Camp marketing director Ian Strasser told Live For Live Music. “We want them to be able to take home knowledge of something new, ways to change their attitude about something in a more positive manner, and even some specific skills from workshops.”

In the end, one of the biggest changes at Summer Camp Music Festival since Willie Nelson last played in 2009 is the community. Throughout the past 14 years, SCampers have returned year after year, adding to the culture of the festival that has grown to unimaginable heights since it debuted in 2001 with 1,000 attendees shuffling between two stages. With each passing year, the loyal base returns with new ideals and attitudes that add to the festival’s growing missions of philanthropy, sustainability, and community, “It’s more than just a party, it’s more than just seeing some of your favorite bands,” Strasser said.

But there is also, of course, the music. Since 2009, Summer Camp has welcomed thousands of artists, many of whom have ascended to new heights along with the festival year after year. At the top of the lineup remain the grateful host bands moe. and Umphrey’s McGee, both of which have solidified their roles as pillars of the modern jam community.

Since 2009, Umphrey’s McGee has released eight studio albums and logged hundreds of concerts. The group has continued to roll out inspired new material at a rate unmatched by most of its peers. From the always-exciting “Stew Art” events that highlight the band’s UM Bowl events (currently at 9 and counting) to the band’s ever-evolving voice in the studio, the prog-jam sextet refuses to let the years slow it down and Summer Camp Music Festival will once again be treated to some of the band’s best performances spread across three nights.

Umphrey’s McGee w/ Dominic Lalli – “Bright Lights, Big City” – 5/24/13

Umphrey’s McGee – “In The Flesh” > “Another Brick In The Wall (Part One)” (Pink Floyd) – 5/26/17

Umphrey’s McGee – umVIP All Request Show – Summer Camp Music Festival – Chillicothe, IL – 5/26/22

[Video: shinepigeon]

moe. comes into the 2023 Summer Camp Music Festival particularly triumphant as the band welcomes back founding guitarist Chuck Garvey. On New Year’s Eve 2022, the guitarist returned to performing after over a year away following a stroke suffered in November 2021. In addition to receiving Chuck back with open arms, moe. has also added some new blood with keyboardist Nate Wilson. The Percy Hill co-founder—along with guitarist Suke Cerulo—was an indelible stand-in for moe. as the band continued to tour during Chuck’s recovery. moe. is slated to perform its traditional three days and this time the famoe.ly will be a bit bigger.

Chuck Garvey – “Where Does The Time Go” – 5/26/12

[Video: foosman1]

moe. w/ Marco Benevento – “Meat” – 5/23/15

moe. – Summer Camp Music Festival – Chillicothe, IL – 5/26/18 – Full Show

moe. – Summer Camp Music Festival – Chillicothe, IL – 8/22/21 – Set Two

[Video: shinepigeon]

…and then, there’s Willie Nelson. The elder statesman of country music has released 18 (!) studio albums since he last played Summer Camp (sorry, Umphrey’s). In his golden years, Nelson has continued to herald the rising generation of songwriters with his traveling summer Outlaw Music Festival. Willie will arrive at Summer Camp with many of the Nelsons in tow for a familial set featuring his sons Lukas and Micah Nelson along with members of his extended musical family.

Check out this playlist of Willie’s full 2009 Summer Camp Music Festival set, as well as a more recent playlist from his set at Farm Aid 2021.

Willie Nelson – Summer Camp Music Festival – Chillicothe, IL – 5/24/09 – Playlist

[Video: Willie Nelson Collection]

Willie Nelson & Family – Farm Aid – Hartford, CT – 9/25/21

And lastly, the final thing Willie needs an introduction to is all of you! Beyond the stages, the tents, the workshops, the mud, the dust, the woods, the bands, the DJs, and everything else: there are the SCampers. There is no Summer Camp Music Festival without Summer Campers, so be sure to give Willie Nelson the full welcome over Memorial Day Weekend.

Various ticket types for Summer Camp Music Festival in Chillicothe, IL on May 25th through 28th are now available via the festival website.