Tampa Pig Jig: Backyard barbecue turned festival phenomenon

Over the years, the Tampa Pig Jig has brought some big-time music acts to town. Country superstars Chris Young, Darius Rucker and Jake Owen and Americana and southern soul throwbacks Nathaniel Rateliff & the Night Sweats are a few. 

But the true headliners stay the same each year - the lifelong Tampa friends who rallied around a cause when one of their tight-knit group, Will Wellman, was diagnosed with the rare kidney disease focal segmental glomerulosclerosis (FSGS) in 2008.

“It was pretty devastating to have one of our buddies come down with this disease,” Pig Jig co-founder Ryan Reynolds says.

The friends decided to do something about it, organizing a backyard barbecue competition as a fundraiser for NephCure Kidney International, a non-profit group on a mission to support research and the development of treatments for kidney disease.

“We had a couple hundred of our friends and family come over that first year in a backyard, raised like $6,000, and put it into NephCure,” Reynolds recalls. “Everybody had a really good time. We had a lot of good feedback. We said, ‘You know, we might have something bigger here.’ So we banded together and formed our own 501c3 to grow and scale this barbecue competition and festival environment we created.”

Since then, the Pig Jig has exploded in size and impact, moving first to a vacant lot at the Armature Works property, then Curtis Hixon Waterfront Park and, since 2021, Julian B. Lane Riverfront Park. With the 11th Tampa Pig Jig set to hit downtown this Saturday, Reynolds says the event has raised more than $5 million for NephCure International, making it the largest donor to the organization in the country. It’s inspired similar pig jig events in Silicon Valley, the Rocky Mountains of Colorado and New Jersey.

“When we started this event there were no drugs in any stage of clinical trials for this disease,” Reynolds says. “With the money that has been raised and the awareness that has been created, there are now about 60 drugs in trials and they feel very confident there will be a cure for this disease in the not-to-distant future. That is a pretty neat thing, I think, and what I’m most proud of.”

This year, 75 amateur teams will compete in a barbecue contest that started with a handful of friends in a backyard trying to prove who was the best cook. The lineup of national music acts has country star Sam Hunt as headliner and includes singer/songwriter Kip Moore and alternative artists X Ambassadors, Bahamas and Jarrod Morris. 

“Part of our mission obviously is to raise funds for NephCure,” Reynolds says. “The other part of our mission is to create awareness for this disease. Because when you have a rare disease, part of the challenge is finding patients who have that disease so these pharma companies can do clinical research. With that, we felt the best way to raise awareness for this disease was to grow this as big as we possibly can. So that’s where the national music acts have come in and the reason we have decided to make the financial commitment to having them here. That really helps create that awareness and give the Pig Jig more of a national reach and visibility.”

Still, Reynolds says the event has not lost the feeling of family and friendship from that first year in the backyard.

“Why has it been so successful? Why are people drawn to it?” he says. “I think it’s kind of become a Pig Jig family almost. We’re all best friends who started this. Our sponsors are all very close personal friends. Our vendors are all very close personal friends and families, the businesses that support us in the Tampa community. It’s kind of taken this Pig Jig family and expanded it. It’s grown because of that family feeling. And that’s a testament to the kinds of businesses we have here in the Tampa community who support us. And while it’s grown to be a very large event now, we still have all of our friends and family who have been involved with us since the very beginning. They are still very much a part of it. They’ve been a big part of the growth.”

Reynolds says his friend Wellman, who was diagnosed with FSGS in his mid-20s, is another reason so many people turn out each year to support the event and the cause.

“Will is an incredible guy,” Reynolds says. “He is a big part of the reason this event has been so popular, the type of person he is and his positive attitude. He’s an incredible person.”

According to NephCure, FSGS is “a rare disease that attacks the kidney’s filtering units (glomeruli) and causes serious scarring, leading to permanent kidney damage and even kidney failure.”  

After his diagnosis, Wellman received a kidney transplant from his mother but the disease quickly attacked that kidney. He has lived without a kidney for about 13 years and has lengthy dialysis treatments multiple times a week. Wellman talked about the disease and dialysis in a short 2017 documentary made by filmmakers from the University of Notre Dame.

“It’s something that’s become so much a part of my life, there’s very rarely any day where I’m like, ‘Damn it I have to go to dialysis,'’’ he said in the film. “‘Cuz it’s almost like you would just say everyday ‘Damn it I have to go to work.’ or ‘Damn it I have to go take a shower.’ It functions as an organ, and if I don’t have that organ, I don’t live. So I saw it as a gift, a big gift. I could have been 26 and dead.”

For more information go to Tampa Pig Jig and NephCure Kidney International
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Read more articles by Christopher Curry.

Chris Curry has been a writer for the 83 Degrees Media team since 2017. Chris also served as the development editor for a time before assuming the role of managing editor in May 2022. Chris lives in Clearwater. His professional career includes more than 15 years as a newspaper reporter, primarily in Ocala and Gainesville, before moving back home to the Tampa Bay Area. He enjoys the local music scene, the warm winters and Tampa Bay's abundance of outdoor festivals and events. When he's not working or spending time with family, he can frequently be found hoofing the trails at one of Pinellas County's nature parks.