REVIEW: Roots Fest Day 4 (and final thoughts): Music and plans made on the fly

Roots Fest Allstars / All photos: Clayton Taylor Photography

The Fayetteville Roots Festival, at its very core, is a partnership, a collaborative effort.

The event was founded by a husband-and-wife musical duo (Bryan and Bernice Hembree of Smokey & the Mirror) and a restauranteur (Jerrmy Gawthrop of Greenhouse Grill and Woodstone). They contribute jointly to the festival’s homegrown music meets homegrown food aesthetic.

The kind of roots music that so often graces the festival stages has a certain flexibility. The musicians trade between instruments, and they give credit to the songwriters that have inspired them and come before them. Onstage appearances by guest artists are common.

When the man scheduled to headline Sunday night’s show, Rodney Crowell, canceled about 12 hours prior to the start of his set, the Roots Festival organization hustled for a way to fill in the gap. Here’s the solution they came up with: Elevate Oklahoma wunderkind John Fullbright to the headlining position, and then have a group of festival regulars play a set in the time slot he vacated.

And it helps illustrate a point about my conflicted feelings about Saturday night’s main stage concerts, which I have continued to think about in the hours that have passed. I enjoyed much of it, but had some misgivings, too.

I owe credit to my fiancée and concert partner Katie for this tidy theory, which I think it holds up quite nicely. Nick Offerman and Iron & Wine operated as normal, as if the festival environment didn’t exist around them. The shows they offered were stops on the tour, just another avenue for their solo events. They told jokes that fell out of line with the typical nature of the festival (Offerman), or opted to poke fun at our town, thanking the crowd for coming while saying there couldn’t have been much else to choose from in Fayetteville that evening (Iron & Wine). He was wrong about that, by the way. (More on Saturday night’s shows can be found here.)

Dana Louise & The Glorious Birds / Clayton Taylor Photography

Sunday contrasted that mindset in almost every way. The festival house band consisting of members of Smokey & the Mirror and the Honey Dewdrops pitched in with about a dozen songs, most of them traditionals or songwriter-oriented fare by the likes of Steve Earle, Neil Young and Fred Eaglesmith. The group relied heavily on songs they had performed the evening before at a house concert on Block Avenue. That was meant for a bit of fun, not as a main stage show. But things don’t always work as you plan, and they brought in guests to help add weight to the setup. It had a very raw feel to it all, with Joe Purdy charmingly forgetting the words to Townes Van Zandt’s “Pancho and Lefty” and local songwriter Shannon Wurst using a music stand to hold the lyrics for a version of Crowell’s “Leaving Louisiana in the Broad Daylight.” I suspect Wurst and the players behind her learned the song yesterday after learning they’d be performing. It speaks to their talent, but also the durability and versatility of roots music.

Speaking of versatility … I remember my first John Fullbright show. He was on the main stage at the Roots Festival as a relative unknown, scheduled to take the stage just before the Jerry Douglas Band. Fullbright outplayed him in many ways that evening and left this town with many new fans. Promoting Fullbright to headliner was no stretch at all. Fullbright’s songs are as powerful as his voice, and he covers a wide range of emotions in his work. You might get a somber Fullbright, waxing poetically over his piano. Or you might get a fired up, rock ‘n’ roll version like we did last night. With a full backing band, he ripped through a set of originals, including a few new cuts. He also took the crowd to church on a Sunday night courtesy of the song “Saved,” a gospel rocker made popular by covers from a diverse roster of artists as Elvis Presley and The Band. The song included an interlude featuring The Coasters (and later Ray Charles) hit “Let’s Go Get Stoned.” John Fullbright knows how to command a song, and a room.

Jack Williams with Still on the Hill and Trout Fishing in America / Clayton Taylor Photography

I didn’t see much other music on Sunday. I did pop in to the Gillian Welch tribute show at Maxine’s Tap Room. It was absolutely packed, oppressively warm and the sightlines were bad. It didn’t stop people from enjoying the show, which featured nine female performers taking turns or joining together to perform Gillian Welch songs. It offered the same collaborative spirit found on the main stage.

Fayetteville and Northwest Arkansas helped some this weekend, too, showing off with some delightful (for late August) weather and large, engaged crowds at most events. The partnership this community has with the Roots Festival is a strong one, too. And we’re better off for having them here.

Dana Louise & The Glorious Birds

John Fullbright

Jack Williams & Friends

Roots Fest Allstars