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The Beat Goes On: Meet the bands at this year's Roots Festival

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For nearly two decades, the Sunday night headliners for this year's Roots Festival have been traveling the world, picking up influences to blend with their own Southern sensibilities. Rising Appalachia released their seventh album, "Leylines" -- and first with a producer, the legendary Joe Henry -- in May and now make a visit to Fayetteville amid their relentless touring schedule.

Atlanta native Chloe Smith (guitar, fiddle, banjo) founded the six-piece band with her sister Leah and answered these questions for What's Up! ahead of the group's Roots performance.

Q. Within roots music, how would you describe the music you play? And what defines it as roots music to you?

A. Contextually, I've always felt that roots music is embedded in a sense of place, of family, of folk, and of purpose larger than oneself. Aurally, it's something with a simplicity and a rough edge that is unpolished and free. We have always had a hard time categorizing our music, but roots and folk have been the two that we come back to with a sense of familiarity. Our music sprouted from the sounds of our parents' community in Georgia -- of old-time music, Cajun/zydeco, contra dance, and gospel. From there we embedded our own experience of hip hop and street music that we were highly seeped in growing up in downtown Atlanta. Once we began playing professionally and traveling the world with our instruments, we studied and picked up sounds from many of the places that made an impression on us. As our band has grown, we have stayed true to wanting to maintain a roots sound by playing all acoustic instruments and not affecting our voices on stage or in the studio. It's all-natural and as is.

Q. Is this your first Roots Fest experience? What makes festivals fun for you as a performer?

A. Yes, this is our first time at Roots Fest. Festivals are always some of the most enjoyable for us because we get to see some of our contemporaries in other touring bands perform, and we all rub elbows and share road stories and tips for staying sane and healthy and uplifted. There's a camaraderie to the backstages of festivals when the musicians are shaking hands and sitting in on each others' sets and generally discovering one another's talents and trades. We look forward to that every time.

Q. Would you call the current state of roots music a revival? And why do you think it's so incredibly popular right now?

A. I definitely think that roots music is having a sort of come back due to the sheer honesty of it. There was a while when most folks were looking to have as big of a sound as they could possibly have, putting a sheen and sparkle over the rawness and magic of music. Now, I believe audiences are craving authenticity and a simpler sound... one where you can really FEEL the person singing or playing, catch a bit of their spirit, so to say. With all the distractions of this world, there's something hopeful in folk music. There's an overlap of the human experience, the commonality of all of us trying to make our way through good and bad times.

Q. What's your latest album or do you have one coming soon?

A. "Leylines." It premiered this May, and we are very excited to share it with you all.

Q. Where is your next stop after Roots Fest? Will we see you back in Northwest Arkansas soon?

A. We don't have a date in Arkansas coming up after Roots Fest, however, we have two large album release tours this fall. One will be up the East Coast, and the other will be up the West Coast. It will be the largest tour we have ever done, with a full crew and six band members, showcasing this new work and letting it go full sail.

But There's More!

The sister-led six-piece will close out Sunday's mainstage. As of publication, less than 100 Sunday mainstage passes remain, and all multi-day music passes are sold out. If you're not able to make it to the big stage, though, happy hour and late-night stages provide more opportunities for the community to get in on the music. Here, four bands performing on the George's Majestic Lounge Roots stage offer a taste of what's to come.

 

Big Smith

Springfield, Mo.

Formed -- 1996; reunited 2016 after four-year hiatus

Members -- Six guys, three pairs of brothers, and if you're not a brother to someone in the band, you're his first cousin! They are Mark and Jody Bilyeu, Bill and Rik Thomas, Jay and Mike Williamson.

Roots Shows -- 10 p.m.-2 a.m. Aug. 23 & 24 at George's Majestic Lounge

Q. Within roots music, how would you describe the music you play? And what defines it as roots music to you?

A. Big Smith self-identifies as an Ozarks band and have been bodacious enough to say they are a "hillbilly" band as a point of pride. As Big Smith is a family band, they draw from the sounds they heard in the music of their extended family, from the gospel music of the rural church to the traditional fiddle music played by their grandfather and his brothers and cousins of that generation. When the group came together, all the players were busy in the downtown music scene of Springfield and brought in their own influences, including blues, bluegrass, and folk. Think of the band as an everything-in-the-cupboard stew of roots musics. What confirms our bona fides as an Ozarks band for us is when native Ozarkians come up after a show and say, "You guys remind me so much of the music I heard growing up!"

Q. Is this your first Roots Fest experience? What makes festivals fun for you as a performer?

A. I've been to Roots Fest a few times with The Creek Rocks -- the band my wife, Cindy Woolf, and I started -- but this will be the first year for Big Smith unless my memory fails me. The Creek Rocks are happy to be playing this year as well, and of course, Big Smith is excited to be back at George's -- and playing with Arkansauce to boot.

Q. Would you call the current state of roots music a revival? And why do you think it's so incredibly popular right now?

A. I'm not going to pretend to know much about the current state of the music biz as it relates to roots music, plus the ergonomics of this keyboard situation has started to become bothersome, so I'll leave it there. I've seen peaks and valleys with this kind of music over the years, and the valleys always pass if you wait long enough. Roots music will always have a role, as it is the common musical language of this country, a diverse patchwork of amazing styles and forms. It's the people's music.

Q. What's your latest album or do you have one coming soon?

A. The latest CD is "Kin," which was our final studio album, released in 2011. We have a professional recording of our first reunion New Year's Eve show in our hometown from 2016. It was an amazing night for everyone, and we'd like to make it available to our fans, we just need to do the work of mixing and mastering. I'd offer up a projected release date, but I've done that before, so it's probably best to not make any more promises until we're satisfied that it's nearly ready to go.

Q. When will you be playing again in Northwest Arkansas?

A. We made it back to NWA with the reunited lineup in the summer of last year. Since then we've been hitting George's Majestic Lounge at regular intervals, every three or four months, and we'll keep coming back as long as people want to come to see us.

 

Arkansauce

Fayetteville

Formed -- Five years ago

Members -- Adams Collins, Ethan Bush, Zac Archuleta, and Tom Andersen

Roots Shows -- 10 p.m.-2 a.m. Aug. 23 & 24 at George's Majestic Lounge

Q. Within roots music, how would you describe the music you play? And what defines it as roots music to you?

A. We have been called bluegrass, jam grass, and new grass, but we usually just stick with string band as we don't exclusively fit within any of those categories. None of us grew up in a bluegrass family, and all discovered this genre of music later in life. We all came from different musical backgrounds, which has helped shape our sound as we are drawing from many different influences. I reckon we fit into roots music because of our instrumentation. We are all acoustic, including guitar, mandolin, banjo, and upright bass. We dabble with some effects at our live show, but mostly stay true to the acoustic tradition. Also, I feel that much of our songwriting is specific to the experience of growing up and living in Arkansas.

Q. Is this your first Roots Fest experience? What makes festivals fun for you as a performer?

A. I feel honored to have been participating in Roots Fest as a musician since 2012, performing with Cutty Rye, Dana Louise and the Glorious Birds, and Arkansauce. Arkansauce played our first Roots Fest set at Maxine's in 2016 and have participated every year since. It is one of my favorite weekends of the year as I get to hang out with all my favorite people in Fayetteville while being surrounded by incredible food and music.

Q. Would you call the current state of roots music a revival? And why do you think it's so incredibly popular right now?

A. I'm not sure if I'm enough in tune with the history of roots popularity to speculate on calling it a revival. I can say that for me, the culture of roots music is often about communities and relationships. What I love about Arkansauce music is that it brings people together to celebrate life and fun. I think we all are looking for a reprieve from the things that are currently dividing us, and what better way to do that than music and food!

Q. What's your latest album or do you have one coming soon?

A. We have three studio albums and are excited to be releasing our fourth this fall. It will be called "Maybe Someday."

Q. When will you be playing again in NWA?

A. Arkansauce's next local performance will be at Crystal Bridges on Sept. 27 for Art Night Out.

 

Jesse Dean & Co.

Northwest Arkansas

Formed -- Three years ago

Roots Show -- 6-9 p.m. Aug. 23 at George's

Q. Within roots music, how would you describe the music you play? And what defines it as roots music to you?

A. It's hard to describe the music I play because it comes from so many different genres of music. I like to play simple and straightforward tunes. Whether covering someone else's or writing my own. My music comes from my heart, soul and from everything and everyone around me. These are my roots.

Q. Is this your first Roots Fest experience? What makes festivals fun for you as a performer?

A. Yes, this is my first year to play during Roots Fest, and I'm excited to see all the different kinds of people who love this kind of music.

Q. Would you call the current state of roots music a revival? And why do you think it's so incredibly popular right now?

A. I'm not sure if revival is the proper word, but I will say, what is good, is good.

Q. What's your latest album or do you have one coming soon?

A. I hope to begin recording on my next one this fall. My most recent collection is titled "Arkansas Amplifier."

Q. When will you be playing again in NWA?

A. Oct. 4 for happy hour at George's Majestic Lounge in Fayetteville.

And your show at George's is what time, what day, how much admission cost (if you know that).

We will be playing at George's Majestic Lounge August 23rd 6 p.m. during their famous happy hour, five bucks gets you in.

 

The Mighty Pines

St. Louis

Formed -- About three and a half years ago

Roots Show -- 8:30 p.m.-12:30 a.m. Aug. 22 at George's

Q. Within roots music, how would you describe the music you play? And what defines it as roots music to you?

A. Our music is a total fusion of roots sounds. We are heavily influenced by bluegrass, country, folk, and blues, but we can't be described by just one of those genres.

Q. Is this your first Roots Fest experience? What makes festivals fun for you as a performer?

A. It is! Festivals are just amazing because there is such an atmosphere of discovery already set in place by the fans. People are open to new music; they know they're going to see something new.

Q. Would you call the current state of roots music a revival? And why do you think it's so incredibly popular right now?

A. I don't know if I'd call it a revival anymore. I think that if you look at the decades, roots music has always been there, and successfully so. Even in the '80s, you had Bruce Springsteen's "Nebraska" and Paul Simon's "Graceland," which are very rootsy albums (although "Graceland" is a roots-fusion sound). In the '70s, The Eagles and The Grateful Dead were putting banjos on their records. What keeps roots music so popular are bands that create a fusion of sounds -- Nickel Creek or The Avett Brothers are some examples from the two decades -- that introduce people to the sounds of banjos, mandolins, and fiddles and end up bringing a lot of people down the roots music rabbit hole.

Q. What's your latest album or do you have one coming soon?

A. We have a new album in the works, and we're working with producer Steve Berlin of Los Lobos. We're really excited.

Q. When will you be playing again in NWA?

A. We'll be back in September for Bikes, Blues & BBQ!

 

-- Jocelyn Murphy at jmurphy@nwadg.com and Becca Martin-Brown at bmartin@nwadg.com


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