WITH PHOTOS: A trio of storytellers try hard to outshine each other in the opening mainstage performances of Fayetteville Roots Festival

Birds of Chicago / All photos by Clayton Taylor

This is what we must call an embarrassment of riches. It’s the kind of thing that can happen at a music festival. I remember when a fresh-faced kid from Oklahoma had the stage before the world-famous Dobro player Jerry Douglas in 2013 at the Fayetteville Roots Festival. Douglas was great, and he’s a master at his instrument. But that kid, John Fullbright, nearly burned the former home of the Roots Festival, the Walton Arts Center, to the ground that night. Douglas didn’t stand a chance.

Today (Aug. 25) at the Fayetteville Roots Festival

Highlights of today’s events. For a full list, visit therootsfest.org.

Mainstage w/ Gillian Welch, Gregory Alan Isakov and more
When: Gates open at 3:45 p.m.; music begins at 4:10 p.m.
Where: Fayetteville Public Library
Tickets: VIP, day passes (sold out)

John Fullbright, American Aquarium and Charley Crockett
When: 9:45 p.m.
Where: George’s Majestic Lounge
Tickets: $20-$22 at stubs.net

Jamie Lou & The Hullaballoo
When: 10 p.m.
Where: Maxine’s Tap Room
Tickets: Free

Open mic
When: 11 p.m.
Where: Chancellor Hotel
Tickets: Free

Considering the whistles and hollers for the mainstage acts during last night’s edition of the Fayetteville Roots Festival, I might hold the minority opinion here. But my reading of the three sets I saw last night were influenced most by the middle artist, Mary Gauthier (read more about her from an earlier Flyer article) Gauthier, from Baton Rouge, occupies territory somewhere in the middle of Lucinda Williams and Robert Earl Keen. She recently released an album of story songs constructed through a volunteer project called Songwriting with Soldiers. Each of the individual tracks tell a soldier’s story, or perhaps that of a soldier’s wife dealing with the trauma that revisits their husband from time to time. She played several of these songs, and she ripped out the crowd’s collective heart in the process.

She told us about Joe, who couldn’t shake images of children in the street running around after their parents left (and were presumably dead). The song she and Joe created together provides the title to her soldier song album, “Rifles and Rosary Beads,” and it focuses on the things we clutch when times are tough. Joe’s better now, Gauthier told us. He’s working on a doctorate so he can focus on using art as a therapeutic tool.

I didn’t take many notes. It was thrilling, emotive stuff, and I got lost and forgot what I was doing. She plays again tonight/tomorrow when she performs a free show at Stage 18 that starts at midnight. If you’re willing to stay up late, that’s going to be worth it. She told the audience she’s been closing all of her sets since the 2016 election with the song “This Land is Your Land.” If she plays it the same way she did last night, she’ll turn it into a singalong and also include a new verse of her own making.

Saying she was the most compelling artist on the mainstage last night means that she outdid several other great acts. It means, for instance, that she bested Allison Russell, one of the two leaders of Birds of Chicago. She offered a truly moving song called “Barley” that she dedicated to her grandmother (and all those who have passed on ahead of us). She played banjo, ukulele and clarinet, and she claps more forcefully and musically than almost anyone I’ve watched. And she sang in French when she wanted, too. That’s tough to beat, and she’s just one part of the full band (but clearly the focal point).

Mary Gauthier / Photo by Clayton Taylor

Josh Ritter also received a lot of attention, and rightfully so. He had top billing last night and I suspect the biggest number of fans present just to watch him. He thundered through nearly 20 songs, most of them backed by a group called the Royal City Band. He did a handful of songs solo with only his acoustic guitar. Among those was a new track we didn’t get the name of, but new enough to include a reference to the separation of immigrant families. It was the most confrontational of any of this works, which for the most part talk about high school days/daze and what it’s like to grow up. He’s a fine bandleader and very enthusiastic about what he does.

But his polished niceness contrasted mightily with the frayed edges of Gauthier’s set just before his. That’s the embarrassment of riches of a festival, and all had their place on the stage. I suspect all three of the post-dinner bands had support for “best band of the night” if you conducted an exit poll.

You’ve heard my vote.

And you should hear some of the music that takes place today (Aug. 25), including some from that Oklahoma kid, John Fullbright. He performs at George’s Majestic Lounge with fellow roots rockers American Aquarium. But that’s a problem too – American Aquarium is onstage nearly at the same time as Gillian Welch, and you may have to make a hard choice. If Welch plays past her scheduled finish time, you’ll miss the beginning of American Aquarium’s set. Although, if you don’t have tickets already, the choice has been made for you. Welch’s headlining gig is sold out.

That’s the trouble with and joy of festivals.

Josh Ritter

Mary Gauthier

Birds of Chicago

Charley Crockett

Raina Rose