WITH PHOTOS: Fayetteville Roots Fest and Gillian Welch (and Dave Rawlings, too) make perfect partners on a night focused on songcraft

Gillian Welch and David Rawlings / All photos by Clayton Taylor

Chalk one up for the awkward, self-deprecating types. They don’t always win, but they did last night on the fourth night (of five) at the Fayetteville Roots Festival.

About halfway through their set, Gillian Welch told the crowd that it looked like her music partner Dave Rawlings was doing her a favor by tuning her banjo. She countered with this quip: “I’m doing him a favor because he doesn’t have to talk.”

Today (Aug. 26) at the Fayetteville Roots Festival

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

Mainstage w/ Turnpike Troubadours, John Fullbright and more
When: Gates at 2 p.m.; music at 2:10 p.m.
Where: Fayetteville Town Center
Tickets: VIP, day passes (sold out)

Randy Newman Tribute show
When: 5 p.m.
Where: Maxine’s Tap Room
Tickets: Free

It’s a half truth, probably. We did hear Rawlings address the crowd, although not often, so maybe it wasn’t his favorite. Welch handled most of the crowd interaction duties.

There was a similar moment that stood out, too. A woman bellowed at the stage. “Can we dance?” she asked Welch.

“Sure. But not to this one,” Welch replied. She and Rawlings proceeded to perform a song called “Six White Horses.” A perfect translation of the lyrics is elusive, but to me it comes across as a metaphor for death coming to get you, or about a funeral procession. Either way, like Welch said, not much of a dance number.

Earlier in the day, Joe Purdy told awkward jokes and told us his mom disliked the part in one of his songs when he talked about getting stoned. And he talked about the crush he had (maybe still has?) on his third-grade girlfriend.

I see some parallels between the three songwriters (and perhaps I recognize it in my own way of going through life). These are folks who care deeply about the cadence of words and the lyrical heft of each new phrase. They want to breathe life into the characters in their songs, and they want us to think and care. They might not always know what to say outside of that context. But they are always honest, and that translates.

Welch, as she told us last night, has music that’s old enough to buy itself a drink. Rawlings has been her companion for much of that time. They’ve never discussed what their offstage partnership might be. But you can’t deny the way they connect via a song. Welch layers her pure, penetrating voice over the top of Rawlings’ vocal underpinnings and his guitar work. Let’s talk about that guitar work for just a second. Rawlings plays exclusively on an old, small archtop. Welch played it for about 45 seconds to show the crowd what it sounded like in someone else’s hands. With Rawlings behind it and working at a frenzied pace, it sang. After the set I ran into a guitarist who plays in several local bands; he’s almost a hired gun because he’s versatile and very good. I asked him what he thought of the set.

Smokey & The Mirror / Photo: Clayton Taylor

“I’ve got to go home and practice,” he said.

David Rawlings isn’t just an exceptional guitarist, and Gillian Welch isn’t just a world-class voice. They are something more. The dry, awkward jokes they told to loosen things up at the beginning of the set gave way to a slow burn that culminated in a rapturous three-song flurry to close out the evening. I saw more than one pair of moistened eyes at the beauty of it. If you’re lucky enough to see Welch and Rawlings together, and they close with “Look at Miss Ohio” and “I’ll Fly Away” in succession (and they often do), please prepare yourself accordingly. It’s that good.

Come to think of it, John Fullbright isn’t much of an extrovert, either. I watched him play the late-night set at George’s, which started about 12:15 a.m. He started slowly, too, but settled in with this traditional four-instrument assault. He plays a mean guitar, piano, harmonica and he sings. He does each of them well enough to make you jealous. Fullbright has assembled the most rock and roll-oriented band I’ve ever seen him use, and I’m curious what he does with his mainstage set this evening (Aug. 26).

Like Purdy and Fullbright, the other major mainstage draw on Saturday was a returning act. Gregory Alan Isakov has performed at the Roots Festival twice previously. He called it an event he loves coming to, and I think that was evident in his song selection and the way he used other festival artists to augment his set. The Shook Twins joined him for two songs, and he closed his portion of the evening with what’s become the defining Roots Festival song, “Drank All the Wine.” It has many incarnations, but it was written by festival staple and songwriters’ workshop leader J Wagner. It was recorded once by 3 Penny Acre, a Fayetteville band that split into a few parts, one of them being the band Smokey & the Mirror. Smokey & the Mirror consists of Bryan and Bernice Hembree, who serve as Roots Fest coordinators alongside chef Jerrmy Gawthrop of Wood Stone Pizza. That’s more history than you probably needed to know, so we can summarize by saying it’s a song that’s been performed at every Roots Fest, and his offering of the song shows Isakov’s love of the festival. He also played a lot of new songs from an album to be released in October. He told us the track “Dark, Dark, Dark” is the happiest song on the album, so if you’re looking for something sad to listen to, check back with Isakov in October.

Joe Purdy / Photo: Clayton Taylor

Despite the new songs, Isakov’s set shared many tracks with the setlist he compiled for his last Roots appearance. Fullbright didn’t have any major surprises, either. But Purdy did. About halfway through his set, he abandoned the solo singer-songwriter approach and asked members of the Honey Dewdrops and Smokey & the Mirror to join him onstage. They backed him for a group of brand-new songs, and while there was a distinct lack of polish, the songs and the group’s obvious joy in trying them out together made up for any hiccups.

It did lead us to a bit of confusion. At the end of his set, Purdy announced that Gregory Alan Isakov was up next. I left and ate dinner, only learning later that Smokey & the Mirror played in the interim. I hope not everyone make the same mistake I did, and that our local contribution to the roster had a good crowd for their set.

Last night’s crowd was quite large to close out the evening. It was far larger than the one assembled for Friday night. We’ll know soon how many people can rally for one more day, for more performances, and to chase another song.

Gillian Welch

Gregory Alan Isakov

Smokey & The Mirror

Joe Purdy

Kaia Kater