(photo at right: Chatham County Line is joined by Sarah Lee Guthrie and 3 Penny Acre on the Fayetteville Roots Festival Mainstage - Meredith Mashburn Photography)
Last year, the 2010 Fayetteville Roots Festival was a one-day, single venue event that was abruptly dislocated by a water main rupture. Despite challenges, the show went on; the audience’s support and enthusiasm for this celebration of regional roots music encouraged the organizers to expand the 2011 festival to a full weekend, multi-venue event. The organizers, musician Bryan Hembree and restaurateur Jerrmy Gawthrop shaped the festival to emphasize regional music and culture, as well as local small farmers and food crafters who provided varied fare during the weekend. But plentiful music was the centerpiece of the event.
One of this country’s songwriting treasures, Guy Clark, headlined the main stage show on Saturday night. Many words come to mind to describe Clark’s performance, but none seem adequate to wrap around the energy between the artist and the crowd on that particular evening. Let’s just say that the audience had the collective mindset that Clark could do no wrong and he accommodated that notion by taking them down the dusty, bumpy and vivid back roads of his life.
In many ways, Clark’s first song of the night, “Cape”, gets to the heart of his storytelling and his character. With spare imagery he paints a scene of the playfulness of a kid trusting in his cape and his nerve as he takes a leap of faith off of a garage roof. In three short verses the story flashes through the kid’s life – each ending with the refrain:
He’s one of those that knows that life is just a leap of faith
Spread your arms, hold your breath, always trust your cape
The uncomplicated themes of love, joy and memory, lace together Clark’s songs like a well-oiled work boot. There are worn cogs and rusty gears in this master songwriter of seventy years, but the occasional forgotten lyric or missed chord did nothing to diminish purity of his songs or the smoke, laughter and poetry that have settled in the deep well of his voice. Long-time sideman Verlon Thompson’s harmonies and tasteful virtuoso guitar embellished Clark’s songs. The crowd bellowed and roared as Guy Clark left the stage after his encores. As he reached the curtain, he smiled and gave he gave his cane a quick Charlie Chaplin triple twirl, never breaking stride… always trust your cape.
Clark’s set was the culmination of a full day of music that featured four stages with local and national touring acts. The young Virginia duo the Honey Dew Drops stood out with a fresh stripped down Appalachian sound in the vein of (but not in imitation of) Gillian Welch and David Rawlings. Their songs traverse a path from deep woods classics to their beautiful original “Stomping Ground” that’s inspired by the photography of Robert Frank.
Walking from stage to stage you might encounter the traditional Ozark sound of Kim and Jim Lansford (featured in the movie Winter’s Bone), the lilting ballads of Grace Pettis (who lives up to both her first name and, as the daughter of Pierce Pettis, her last), and the high energy Da Costa, Rose and Elliot, a Kerrville Folk Festival young songwriters super-group.
The festival also showed Fayetteville is building a prodigious cadre of local musicians. The Ozarks of Northwest Arkansas are home to four-time Grammy nominated Trout Fishing in America. The Trouts’ quirky songs, blazing wit and world-class musicianship showed that thirty years of touring hasn’t diminished their spontaneity and inventiveness. The down-home folkgrass duo Still on the Hill closed out the Heritage stage with their distinct brand of joyful Ozarkia. To paraphrase David Wilcox - they are like a barefoot Cirque d’ Soleil. Fayetteville has a good share of seasoned singer songwriters in Effron White (who’s won every contest from Kerrville to Billboard), the deliciously sharp wit of Emily Kaitz, and Iowa City transplant, folk/Americana songstress Susan Shore, now with Shore and Cockram. One standout was the young, effervescent Fayetteville performing songwriter Shannon Wurst, with her shimmering voice and fresh roots-based songs.
Artists like Shannon Wurst strengthen the blossoming music scene in the Fayetteville, Arkansas area. (www.PhotosByBluebird.com)
At the center of the Festival was Fayetteville’s 3 Penny Acre. The title song from their album Highway 71 hit number one on the folk DJ Radio last summer and the trio is touring hard. The group blends traditional Ozark, bluegrass, Americana, influences into distinct sound that seamlessly blends traditional and contemporary influences. All three are adept players and singers who emphasize tone and clarity over flash. Lead vocalist and bassist Bernice Hembree’s striking and spirited vocals do much to shape the group’s character (at other festivals she often ends up singing harmony with artists such as Eliza Gilkyson). Mandolin player Bayard Blain’s voice and songs add an earthy muscular counterpoint to his bandmates’ fluid approach. Bryan Hembree, the mastermind behind the festival, fills in the middle and anchors the group with his nimble guitar playing and strong vocals. 3 Penny opened the Saturday evening main stage concert that also featured Sarah Lee Guthrie and Johnny Irion, the tasteful bluegrass of North Carolina’s Chatham County Line and the Guy Clark finale.
The Sunday evening closing concert capped a full afternoon of SXSW-style mini sets by songwriters from across the country. There were few holes in this festival. Perhaps missing was a dose of country blues whose birthplace was in the Mississippi Delta, not far to the south. One of the best moves on the part of the organizers was the range of music brought under the roots music umbrella. From the acoustic pop jazzy sound of L.A.-bound Tiffany Christopher to the raw and raucous Cletus Got Shot to straight ahead traditional music and dance of the duo Fork and Knife, there was at times, almost too much to take in at once. Another success was in the feeling of inclusiveness that Hembree artfully cultivated: crowning the festival with the songs of septuagenarian Guy Clark while infusing the mix with the energy of up-and-coming young talent. Festival planners also wisely enveloped the town in music with well-timed events at the farmers market, a restaurant, the public library - and with the focal point being The Walton Arts Center. And finally, by giving part of the profits to a local food bank and fund for a foundation to foster American roots music education, they’ve created something everyone can celebrate.