Fayetteville Spreads Its Roots with Annual Festival

Bryan Hembree (left) presents an award to Ronnie Hawkins. Photo by Lynne Margolis

When it comes to music festivals, they may not get much cooler than the Fayetteville Roots Festival, a delightfully intimate gathering in Northwest Arkansas that brings together some of the country’s top performing talents — and top culinary wizards — for a few glorious days and nights in the beautiful Ozarks mountains.

In its 10th year, the late-August festival featured a stellar, wide-ranging lineup of veterans and rising stars including Mavis Staples, Rhiannon Giddens, Hiss Golden Messenger, Amy Helms, Yola, John Fullbright, Darrell Scott, the Milk Carton Kids, Eliza Gilkyson, Los Texmaniacs and St. Paul & the Broken Bones, along with many others who often shared stage time, creating many special moments.

Among them: Staples bringing out her “adopted” Milk Carton Kids; Helms and her son among a gang of audience members dancing joyously in front of the stage as Mavis and her band revved up some righteous funk; Fullbright and Scott raising the roof at the Heartbreak House, a late-night house-concert venue, playing across a crowded room from one another; Scott, Giddens and the Honey Dewdrops guiding an impromptu sing-along during a discussion following a preview screening of Ken Burns’ Country Music documentary; Kids Joey Ryan and Kenneth Pattengale showing up seemingly everywhere, trading barbed jokes and harmonies on the Fayetteville Town Center mainstage and at the Heartbreak House; festival cofounders Bryan and Bernice Hembree also showing up seemingly everywhere, including onstage — or in the front row, digging performances by their friends (Bryan blissed out like a true fanboy during Hiss Golden Messenger’s set); new Bentonville resident Al Bell, the man who saved Stax Records, greeting Yola in the lobby of headquarters hotel the Graduate, where you never knew who might pop out of an elevator — or share a ride; Bell listening in reverie as Isaac Hayes’ 50-year-old Hot Buttered Soul album poured out of speakers at the just-opened, all-analog Cosmic Cowboy Studio during a listening party and discussion … and that’s just the music.

The food component was almost as fun — particularly a Wednesday-night chef dinner at the Hive restaurant in Bentonville’s art-filled 21C Hotel and Saturday’s delightful Roots Food & Spirits afternoon at Pratt Place, a lovely Fayetteville estate-turned-inn and event venue on the National Register of Historic Places where attendees wandered among tasting booths, caught cooking demos or lazed on the lawn while listening to Bonnie Paine, Scott and the Travelin’ McCourys, who performed separately before sharing a tribute to late Yonder Mountain String Band cofounder Jeff Austin.

On Friday night of the four-day festival (counting Thursday’s VIP Grand Tasting & Folk Family Reunion party, which combines food and drink sampling with performances, as did Saturday afternoon’s event), past and present converged in a wonderfully programmed night honoring Arkansas-born, Fayetteville-raised Ronnie Hawkins — yes, that Ronnie Hawkins, the man who fronted the Hawks, who famously became Bob Dylan’s backing band before gaining fame as the Band. Amy Helm, daughter of the late Hawks/Band member Levon Helm, performed a terrific set of earthy soul that included covers of Springsteen’s “Atlantic City,” Sam Cooke’s “Good News,” T Bone Burnett’s “River of Love,” Levon & the Hawks’ “She Don’t Love You” and, with her son playing a cocktail drumkit she brought from Woodstock and her nanny singing backing vocals, Allen Toussaint’s “Yes We Can Can.”

Native sons the Cate Brothers, fronted by twins Earl and Ernie on guitar and keyboards respectively, followed. Early in their career, they played Fayetteville’s Rockwood Club, then owned by Hawkins. Levon Helm helped them snag a recording contract with Asylum Records, where they scored a hit with “Union Man,” from their self-titled, Steve Cropper-produced debut album; they also played in a post-Robbie Robertson incarnation of the Band. Sounding somewhat like a cross between a Muscle Shoals-y Band and the jazzy Allman Brothers offshoot Sea Level, they were a pleasant surprise. As drummer Terry Cagle sang “Ophelia,” one couldn’t help but notice his uncanny vocal and physical resemblance to his uncle, Levon.

As a painter worked on an almost lifesized portrait of Hawkins (aka Mr. Dynamo), Earl Cate’s daughter, Dawn, joined by Amy Helm and the Hembrees (who also perform as Smokey & the Mirror), convened for a great rendition of “The Weight” before Hawkins received the Crazy Chester Award, named for a character in the song — a real person, he claimed in his funny and sweet acceptance speech. Reminding Amy “I was there when you were born,” he said he was thrilled to return home for the honor. Still living in Canada, and still touring “like a geriatric gypsy,” he filled the 1,200 or so fans inside the Fayetteville Town Center with a swell of hometown pride. The whole affair felt like a living definition of roots — and the wonderful branches they grow.

Backstage, Hawkins said he still keeps in touch with Robertson, and holds no bitterness about the Band’s subsequent rise to greater fame.

“I was a bar band, and they were getting all these big-time offers,” he explained. Still effervescent — and wickedly funny — at 84, he seemed happy and content — and eager to hear Staples, while soaking up love from fans like Hiss Golden Messenger’s MC Taylor.

Staples, only four years his junior, rocked the crowd with an energetic mix of fiery, inspiring soul, from funky covers of the Talking Heads’ “Slippery People” and Buffalo Springfield’s “For What It’s Worth,” to cuts from her new Ben Harper-produced album, We Get By. For a while, a toddler danced alone in front of her, clearly delighting the Staple Singers icon.

Earlier that evening, Smokey & the Mirror and the Honey Dewdrops, bedecked in stunning Nudie jackets displayed the next day as part of the Country Music screening, performed with folk raconteur Joe Purdy in a tight-harmony, single-mic bluegrass configuration they’d repeat several times over the weekend.

By Saturday, the wealth of screenings (which also included a Cosmic Cowboy watch party for PBS’ 1970 Woody Guthrie All-Star Tribute), live radio broadcasts, workshops, performances and other related events, began to blur together. The moving Country Music preview and panel at the Fayetteville Public Library was immeasurably enhanced by the artists’ descriptions of how the music entered and informs their lives. Giddens once again eloquently addressed the deliberate nullifying of African-American contributions, noting that Appalachia was 20 percent black before “the great migration” north.

“It was segregated on purpose,” she said of country music, which still embraces mainly white artists marketed to white audiences. Giddens, who is biracial, added, “It’s an erasure of where Americans came together in so many different areas.”

Part of that erasure includes an instrument at the very heart of country and roots music: the banjo, which originated in Africa. Plucking a replica of an 1858 banjo, she noted one could hear the sound of that continent much better in it than in modern banjos.

Giddens, who later performed on the mainstage with Francisco Turrisi, said part of her goal is taking back that erased history. “I have no interest in telling my story,” she explained. “I have more interest in telling [those] untold stories of how America happened through my filter.”

When moderator Kyle Kellams, news director of public radio station KUAF-FM, asked if music can still make a difference, the Dewdrops’ Laura Wortman said the reason festivals have become so popular is that people still hunger for music, especially live music, because they still want to make a personal connection to it and to those who make it.

That night, after transcendent sets by Giddens and the Milk Carton Kids (with a full band), Hiss Golden Messenger’s Taylor, performing in the state for the first time, perfectly illustrated her point.

“I got to meet Ronnie Hawkins last night,” he announced giddily. “That’s not even something that I ever thought would be a possibility in my life.”

“Welcome to Arkansas!” an audience member responded.

Outside, as volunteers sorted used food containers for recycling, the moon rose over the center’s World Peace Prayer Fountain, by Fayetteville sculptor Hank Kaminsky. A child of about 12 easily spun the 8,000-pound, 10-foot diameter orb, which contains the words “May peace prevail on Earth” in over 100 languages.

Connections, indeed. At the Fayetteville Roots Festival, one could feel them everywhere.