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Just about every year since it began seven years ago, we’ve found ourselves at the Fayetteville Roots Festival asking ‘Man, how are those guys going to top this?’ And then a year later, they manage to do it again.
In fact, at this point saying “This year’s installment of the Fayetteville Roots Festival is going to be the best yet” is less of a cliche, and more of a given based on the track record of organizers Bryan and Bernice Hembree and Jerrmy Gawthrop.
The event has become one of the most highly anticipated weekends of the year for not only folks from the home state of Arkansas, but for people all over the world as the event continues to draw music fans from all corners of the the US (and several international countries) each year.
The festival has grown into a multi-day, multi venue event, and despite the massive amount of music organizers cram into that last weekend in August each year, nearly all the ticketed events for this year’s festival were sold out again.
Headliners for the festival included Old Crow Medicine Show, Peter Rowan, Amy Helm, Gregory Alan Isakov, The Milk Carton Kids, Shovels & Rope, Hayes Carll, and so many more artists.
We were at most of this year’s performances, and here are our recaps from each night on the main stage.
Old Crow Medicine Show / Photo Kevin Kinder
If you attempted to define “roots” music, you’d no doubt come up short, limited somehow. It contains elements of blues, folk, jazz and many other typically American genres of music. It is Americana, but also not. It’s Peter Rowan’s jammy bluegrass, Amy Helm’s boogie blues and Old Crow Medicine Show’s convention-bending take on traditionalism.
We could debate about a definition for this music for hours, but we’d be missing the larger point. Like our growing local food and craft beer scenes of Northwest Arkansas, the Fayetteville Roots Festival is growing, too. And growing under the same ideas – to create hand-crafted, meaningful, purposeful things. It take more money, time and labor to produce a can of craft beer here than it does for AB InBev (the former Anheuser-Busch) to mass produce a can of Budweiser. Similarly, it takes a bit more effort to make the kind of music on display at Friday night’s festival-opening events. There is work and sweat and tears and the songwriting factories that crank out hits in Nashville and Los Angeles and wherever else get replaced by a man or woman with a guitar, and, if they are lucky, a circle of close friends to make suggestions for the near-finished product.
Illustrative of this idea is one of the biggest songs associated with the idea of roots music. The Old Crow Medicine Show song “Wagon Wheel,” has lived about 40 lives all more interesting than anyone I know. The original tune “Rock Me Mama” was a victim of the cutting room for the soundtrack Bob Dylan wrote for “Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid.” Left unfinished, Old Crow picked up the pieces and re-engineered the tune to fit their approach. It was a minor hit for them. But it had staying power, becoming the kind of song you heard covered by every bar band. Then Darius Rucker picked it up, covered it for his country album and turned it into a No. 1 hit. More than a decade after it was first recorded by the OCMS, the song remains a singable, shining example of the Americana/roots idea.
Except it barely scratches the surface of what’s out there, and what’s just as great, too.
A man in front of me seemed fixated on the notion of “Wagon Wheel.” He asked a stranger next to him if she’d ever heard the song. She had. He excused himself and returned after six or seven more songs had been offered. He asked his neighbor if they’d played “Wagon Wheel” yet. They hadn’t. When the song’s familiar first chords rang out, he lunged up from his seat and went toward the front of the stage. I can’t blame a person for freaking out about one of their favorite songs. I know the overwhelming wave of emotion that struck me when Radiohead played the first note of “Paranoid Android,” when Wilco asked me (well, the whole audience, but definitely me) to sing “California Stars” along with them, when Paul McCartney strummed a ukulele and sang “Something” earlier this year in Little Rock.
Peter Rowan Band / Photo: Kevin Kinder
Milk Carton Kids / Photo: Kevin Kinder
The Fayetteville Roots Fest has a problem. Well, maybe problem isn’t the right word. It’s more of an embarrassment of riches, too much goodness to contain in a confined area. In my review of the first day of the festival, I made note of how crowded the hallways at the main stage location at the Fayetteville Town Center can be. Yesterday, as I strained to get a good viewing angle through the crowd surrounding the chefs’ competition at the Fayetteville Farmers’ Market, I heard Jerrmy Gawthrop, one of the festival’s founders, mutter something to a friend. We need more room for this competition, he said. He just didn’t know where that would be.
The Town Center and surrounding plaza area isn’t the wrong place to have the festival. Its footprint has expanded to include as much of the real estate in the area that it can. And in the sake of having major roots music artists in small rooms to provide intimate events, Roots Fest needs to use a venue of its size. I don’t know where it goes, either.
So the festival has to expand in different ways, creative ways, to give patrons great shows and great music events. I saw a few of those on Saturday night, and I’ll likely see a few more tonight, too.
The evening’s headliner, Gregory Alan Isakov, works as a strong example of that idea. Long after tickets went on sale, and long after those tickets were claimed by patrons, we learned that Isakov was to be joined by an orchestral ensemble from the Symphony of Northwest Arkansas. This was not some kind of a marketing ploy, a last-minute attempt to drum up a crowd. The crowd was in place. There was no financial incentive for festival organizers. In fact, I’m certain this one cost them money, because eight musicians showed up at the last minute. Which leaves us at giving the crowd something more than they paid for as the only motivation.
Isakov has an interest in playing with a symphony. He recently did so in Colorado for a recording, so this idea wasn’t completely out of left field. It was, however, something more than we expected. Which is exactly how the Roots Fest hopes to work.
And this set worked, by the way. Isakov and his band are charmers, and he doled out some frenetic folk. There’s a sadness-tinged sweetness to his work, if that can be a thing.
Gregory Alan Isakov Band / Photo: Kevin Kinder
Hayes Carll / Photo: Kevin Kinder
As a resident of downtown Fayetteville, and as someone who likes to support local business, and as someone who enjoys a craft beer, I spend a fair amount of time at West Mountain Brewing Company. It’s the closest thing I have to a neighborhood pub. Imagine my joy when, while sitting there yesterday enjoying a pint, one of my favorite musicians walked through the doors there.
He didn’t stay. He didn’t stop, didn’t order anything and I’m not entirely sure what he was doing. The entire transaction should have been easy enough to predict, however. He was performing at the Fayetteville Roots Festival, and West Mountain is the closest eatery to the Fayetteville Town Center, where the main stage activities took place during the festival, which concluded last night.
The dinnertime crowd at West Mountain were not all festival-goers. Food is a major element of the festival, so much so that VIP passholders get a debit card of sorts loaded with $20 to spend on the chef-crafted food served there. Maybe a third of those people in the restaurant would have recognized Hayes Carll on sight like I did. A friend of mine invited him to join our table. He declined, telling her he was too full from his dinner, and he was going to struggle on stage as it was. Hayes Carll is not much of a rock star.
Nor is John Moreland. Moreland, an Oklahoma native, found himself the center of some much-deserved attention after the release of his excellent 2015 album “High on Tulsa Heat.” He does not look the part of frontman. In the four times I’ve seen him live, he’s only worn one outfit – black pants, a grey t-shirt and some mesh ball cap, often from a feed store. He’s not svelte, and if you saw him on the street, you’d come up with a million professions before you guessed him as an acclaimed vocalist and songwriter. His approach is unfussy and uncomplicated. He requested that he not get a pre-concert introduction from the emcees, something all the other main stage acts received. He exited the stage slowly after a simple thank you, perhaps buried in the weight of his songs, which are heavy, depressing things.
And Fayetteville loves him. This town has been supporting Moreland since he started as a solo act a few years ago. This is his second consecutive year at the festival. I don’t know the kind or size of crowd he draws elsewhere – he’s been opening for acts such as Jason Isbell and Lucero in recent months – but he certainly was among the big draws yesterday.
John Moreland / Photo: Kevin Kinder
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