“This is the kind of stuff that shows folk music still has a vibrant future.” — Chris Spector, Midwest Record
By Terrah Baker
The goal of Roots Festival — founded in Fayetteville by 3 Penny Acre band members Bayard Blain, and Bryan and Bernice Hembree — has always been to create an intimate musical environment where the art can remain center stage. It’s not easy to uphold that standard as the crowds grow each year — from 3,400 in 2011 to 5,000 in 2012 — along with the number of musical guests and expectations.
With over 45 musical artists and nine venues and stages, Bryan, Bernice, Blain and all of their local organizers work hard to keep things in perspective and on-track.
“Our goal still is to create a really intimate, urban festival. It’s not about over the top numbers, and the music is center stage with the food as a big part of that,” Bryan said. “We feel like we’re building something that is good for the festival patron and good for the artist. When you get people leaving with smiles they want to leave and tell people about it.”
Which may explain why the festival continues to gain traction in states outside of Arkansas. Last year attendees represented 16 states, this year that number is up to 27. Bryan even tells a story of being in Toronto and talking with the sound engineer for John Prine — one of last year’s headlining artists — who told him he heard Roots Fest was “a great time.” The national press they received from magazines like Garden and Gun, who named them number one on their “Arkansas Southern Agenda” also helped.
Instead of losing their identity, organizers have used the growth to add more of what everyone loved — more art, exhibits, food and, of course, music. To the programming, they’ve added a Thursday George’s Late Night show to what was just Friday and Saturday last year.
“Late nights were popular and brought in a more diverse and all-ages crowd,” Bryan said.
They’ve grown the arts and culture component with events like a second screening of the documentary of Levon Helm “Ain’t In It For My Health,” and a multi-media exhibit of folk instrument maker At The Edge, curated by local folk band Still On The Hill. They’ve even partnered with Crystal Bridges to be a part of their exhibit “This Land,” accompanying the gallery’s artwork with Roots-style music.
“We want to be more than just music on stage,” Bryan said.
One of this year’s priorities for festival organizers was bringing back, and providing more, free events for the community. Last year, the first-ever live taping of Ozarks At Large was conducted at one of their stages, free to the public. Ozarks will be back this year, along with another National Public Radio syndicated show, Tales From the South — who puts music to southern storytelling — will host a live show on Sunday.
“The thing that we want to continue to do is to offer as much free community programming as possible,” Bryan said. “Both those are free stages that the community can engage in and be a part of.”
Organizers didn’t want to forget about fostering creativity for artists so they’ve also brought back the free artist workshops. Thursday at the library an industry professional will show songwriters how to license their songs, along with a song writing workshop on Friday.
And the music line-up promises another great year of talent, both old and new. As of Thursday, Aug. 22, The Chancellor Hotel will be filled with folk, rock, and other musicians from around the country, all of which were hand-picked by Roots organizers.
“The things that I hear from folks over and over is they’ve started to get to a place where they trust us musically; that they can get exited to come hear new music,” Bryan said.
The festival touts musicians like Del McCoury Band, Arkansas native Iris Dement, Jerry Douglas, John Fulbright, Elephant Revival and many more. Bryan explained how most of the artists are unsigned and independent artists they’ve run into in their travels. Someone they heard and couldn’t get out of their head.
“We meet other songwriters and collaborate and think ‘we really like what this person is doing.’ All throughout the year we travel and tour and see music we might not have otherwise seen,” Bryan explained.
While the music is the purpose behind Roots, food is the substance that Bryan said brings it home for many people. He said at many festivals food is an afterthought. Not at Roots Fest.
“It’s also about creating a festival that has a food spread of local food from local farmers,” he said.
To pull this off organizers have 11 NWA food producers, called “Farmers of the Festival,” provide meat, produce, food products and even flowers for the main food events that over 15 food and beverage shops in NWA will cook and prepare.
Bryan said this year organizing got more refined, and to a place where they feel comfortable hitting just the right notes. Like the musicians they have chosen in the past, and the one’s sure to shine this year, they’re most likely right on key to put on another great festival.
For a full schedule, download the new Fayetteville Roots Festival schedule app to your Smart Phone or visit www.fayettevilleroots.com.
Win Your Tickets To Roots Festival 2013: As a sponsor of Roots Festival, The Free Weekly is offering one lucky reader two festival passes to enjoy the festival in its entirety, and another winner two tickets to George’s Late night on Thursday and Friday. To win, email (firstname.lastname@example.org) or text (479-387-8794) what you’re most excited about for this year’s festival. Winner will be announced Tuesday, Aug. 20.