Tree Of Life

Tree Of Life

Roots Fest digs deep with legend Del McCoury


If Del McCoury knows he’s a legend, it doesn’t show in an interview. He doesn’t want to talk about how he’s changed roots music, but rather how roots music changed him. And at 79 — more than 50 years into his career — there’s very little point in trying to rein him in.

“My mother could play the piano — and played the pump organ at the church we went to,” he remembers. “My music came from her.”

He started playing guitar at the age of 9, banjo when he was 11 — a decision he credits to the recording of “Roll in My Sweet Baby’s Arms” by Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs.

“I’d never heard a banjo before. I wanted to play that!”

He was 23 — he thinks — when he met Bill Monroe, the man he calls the “father of bluegrass.” That would make the year about 1962.

“When I worked for Monroe, he was traveling in a 1959 Oldsmobile Super 88 station wagon,” McCoury remembers. “Some of the entertainers in Nashville had buses. But Bill Monroe, he used to have a baseball team in the 1940s. So they’d travel and play all these little towns and put their tent up. They’d play baseball in the afternoon, and that night they’d put on a show. He worked those boys hard — they had to put the tent up, too!”

Then McCoury segues into a story about Monroe working alongside the men putting up the tent without ever revealing his identity — a parable of his humility — and explains that when he went to work for Monroe, the fact he could drive a truck got the tour upgraded from a station wagon to a bus — a used bus — illustrating Monroe’s frugal nature.

“One trip, we left Nashville in it, went to Miami, Fla. — this was before interstates — then to Tampa the next day, from Tampa to New York City, then to Wheeling, W.Va., then to Los Angeles. I think we ran Route 66,” McCoury says. “Those were the days!”

At that point in time, bluegrass wasn’t clearly defined, McCoury says — making no assumption it is now.

“They were calling this music bluegrass by that time, but we were playing with the country stars,” he says. “Nobody had ever had a bluegrass festival until I started mine.”

Neither did Bryan Hembree intend to start a five-day event nine years ago. The Fayetteville Roots Festival was a one-off — one day, one year — and Hembree, one of its founders, says it still functions like that in many ways.

“We just plan to make this year as good as possible,” he says. “Every year, we focus on that year. I don’t think we ever set any long-term expectations.”

He can, however, point to successes.

“We had this notion that food would be a big part of the event, and that’s proven true,” he says. “We wanted to keep it as wide open as possible in terms of music, and we have. And we wanted it to feel like a local festival — and it does, except people come back to it from as far away as New Zealand. It’s like friends from 25 states show up for your favorite local party.”

Ask McCoury what makes music “bluegrass,” and he’ll give you some things to consider.

“For the most part, in the really hardcore bluegrass bands — some have integrated steel guitars and pianos and drums, and that’s fine with me; Bill Monroe always had a drum — the main difference is the singing,” he muses. “There are a lot of duets and trios in bluegrass. And when they’re recorded, they’re all at the same volume, so you can hear the harmony. In country, you’ve got your front man, and he’s the main guy.

“Bluegrass is pitched higher, and it’s faster,” he adds. “You don’t have that sustain like you do with a steel guitar. The fiddle is the only one in a bluegrass band that can hold its notes.

“Really, I think it’s a matter of taste. … It’s really hard to identify what bluegrass really is.”

Ask Hembree about “roots” music, and the answer isn’t any more concrete. Beyond that, it’s a question he’s a little tired of hearing.

“It’s American music, in my terms,” he says. “Folk to country to blues to red dirt to subsets of all of those. It’s rooted in American traditions but forging a new path.”

So what isn’t it? British invasion? Metal?

“Oh, no, the British invasion was influenced by early country and rockabilly,” he says. “Led Zeppelin was definitely influenced by Lead Belly.”

So this year’s festival includes performances by McCoury but also by musicians like American Aquarium, Mary Gauthier, Wild Rivers and Turnpike Troubadours, who run the gamut of what Hembree believes roots music is. Along the way, the culinary programming is also expanding, as are the number of venues where it’s all happening.

“We’re elevating some of the signature events, and that’s exciting,” Hembree says. “The Wednesday night show is happening at the Record in Bentonville with Mavis Staples and Booker T. Jones. And we’ve made arrangements for some members of the UA Inspirational Chorale to attend — that’s more of our educational link, just like we partner with the Montessori School for an all-ages stage and, this year, with TheatreSquared for a special performance of ‘Once’ for high school students. And at the same time, we have Brightwater students working with the chefs at the culinary events. The educational part is really important to us.

“We’re pretty passionate about having the chance to bring people together,” he adds. “I know that’s a lofty goal. But we live in a world that’s so much ‘us’ versus ‘them.’ If we can all come together for four or five days to celebrate together through music and food, maybe it bridges some gaps.”

He’s almost certain that the Roots Festival continues to help put Northwest Arkansas on the map, because part of the coming together is musicians and chefs who want to come to the area and see why it’s so popular.

“Our reputation just gets better and better,” he says.

McCoury is just happy to return to the festival, one of about 150 gigs he plays a year now.

“My booking agent and my manager have to put the reins on,” he says. “But I feel good yet. I want to play.”


Also Playing:

Wild Rivers

Described as Toronto’s purveyors of “folk n’ roll & country soul,” Wild Rivers — Khalid Yassein (vocals, guitar), Devan Glover (vocals), Ben Labenski (drums) and Andrew Oliver (guitar, bass) — have, over three years, accrued more than 30 million streams on Spotify, toured consistently across the U.S. and Canada, and earned a reputation as a band that makes a powerful connection with listeners.

Wild Rivers plays during the Farm Jamboree, noon-4 p.m. Aug. 26 at Tri Cycle Farms during this year’s Roots Festival.

In their own words:

Q. How did the band get together?

Devan and Khalid met at university, where they began singing together as a duo, performing at coffeehouses and open mics. Khalid knew Ben from school, and brought him on board to play drums, who in turn brought in Andrew. The first time we all got together and jammed, it felt very natural and there was a definite musical chemistry between the four of us. We were lucky that it all came together so organically and have been playing as a band ever since!

Q. How would you define your music?

A. As we’ve been developing and finding our sound as a band, we have struggled to define our genre, as we like to incorporate elements of many different musical styles. We have always considered ourselves as primarily falling under the folk umbrella, as our songs are crafted on an acoustic guitar, with a heavy focus on lyrics and vocal harmony, a traditional singer/songwriter approach. Additionally, many of our collective influences are classic folk artists such as James Taylor, Neil Young, Joni Mitchell, and Fleetwood Mac. However, we definitely do not have a traditional ‘folk’ sound.

Q. What is the future of roots/folk music?

A. Nothing beats live music. Live performances have the ability to foster an innate interpersonal connection between the artist and their audience, and build a sense of community within the crowd, which is the best part to me!

Q. What excites you about the Roots Festival in Fayetteville?

A. We have never been to Arkansas, so we are very excited to make it out there for the first time. We’ve heard so many amazing things about the festival, and the lineup includes many of our personal heroes, particularly Gillian Welch!

Courtesy Photo
“The first time I formally met Del was backstage at an event in Nashville back around 2013,” says Jenee Fleenor, a Springdale native and a fiddler on tour with Blake Shelton. “He is a giant in bluegrass music, and sometimes I get kind of nervous meeting people I hold in such high regard. Fortunately, most of my musical heroes have been the most down to earth people, and Del most definitely was that! The main reason I wanted to shake his hand was to thank him for cutting a song I co-wrote with well-known bluegrass and country songwriter Larry Cordle that made it onto his ‘Streets of Baltimore’ album. The record ended up winning a Grammy for Best Bluegrass Album in 2014, and the song we wrote is called ‘Big Blue Raindrops.’ It went to #1 on the bluegrass charts, and I was absolutely on cloud nine over the fact that Del cut a song of mine!”

Courtesy Photo
Known for their “near perfect Americana,” Birds of Chicago — husband and wife JT Nero and Allison Russell — return to the Roots Festival in support of their 2017 album, “American Flowers.”

File Photo
Donna and Kelly Mulhollan, local favorites as duo Still on the Hill, return to the Roots Festival in a different role, joining in interviews and a nature walk with naturalist Kent Bonar.

Photo by Alicia Bennett
Bridget Law from Elephant Revival performs at last year’s Roots Festival.

Arkansauce preforms at Georges Majestic Lounge during the Roots Festival Saturday August 26, 2017 at the Town Center in Fayetteville, Arkansas. (Photos by


Mary Gauthier

With her moving live performances and ability to relay difficult narratives in a uniquely personal way, Mary Gauthier has developed a reputation for being one of the most honest and compelling voices in American music today. She’s touring in support of her new album, “Rifles & Rosary Beads,” which was co-written with veterans through SongwritingWith:Soldiers, an organization that facilitates songwriting retreats with professional songwriters and veterans.

Gauthier plays at 6:20 p.m. Aug. 24 on the Festival Mainstage & at midnight Saturday on the Late Night Stage at this year’s Roots Festival.

In her own words:

Q. How and when did you start performing?

A. I started performing when I was 35 years old, after I was arrested and got sober. My influences are all songwriters who made me feel like I was not alone. Hank, Woody, Bob, Loretta, Nanci, Lucinda … all those guys and women.

Q. Bryan Hembree and I just had a long talk about what “roots” is… How would you define your music?

A. Defining a living artist’s music is not really a great idea, because it’s alive. Always changing. I look at my own music as a search for resonance and human connection through songs. I come from the deep south, and story is in my blood.

Q. What is the future of roots/folk music?

A. Great songs will be written. Listeners will find them, embrace them, and make them their own. All else, I have no idea.

Q. Del McCoury is 79, still traveling, still performing. Where do you see yourself down the road?

A. I’ll keep going until I drop. You don’t retire from a job you truly love.



The Del McCoury Band

WHEN — 8:50 p.m. Aug. 23

WHERE — Roots Festival Folk Family Reunion at Pratt Place in Fayetteville

COST — Still available via the culinary pass




Roots Festival

Free Programming

Aug. 23

7 p.m. — Harlem River Noise, Bike Rack Brewing Co. in Bentonville


Aug. 24

10 a.m. — Workshop: Bayard Guitars workshop tour, 9:45 a.m., Chancellor Hotel in Fayetteville

Noon — Live KUAF “Ozarks at Large” broadcast, Fayetteville Public Library

2:30 p.m. — Workshop: Kent Bonar, Arkansas botanist, Fayetteville Public Library

7 p.m. — Harlem River Noise, Bike Rack Brewing Co. in Bentonville

9 p.m. — Fayetteville square dance, May Bell Music


Aug. 25

10 a.m. — All ages family concert with Trout Fishing in America, Fayetteville Public Library

10 a.m. — Workshop: “Know Your Axe” with Jake Herzog, Chancellor Hotel

10 a.m. — Workshop: Crooked Crow songwriting with J Wagner, Chancellor Hotel

11:30 a.m. — Live KUAF broadcast, Fayetteville Public Library

1 p.m. — Workshop: Clawhammer banjo with Nathan McAllister, May Bell Music in Fayetteville

2 p.m. — Workshop: Old Time Guitar with Aviva Steigmeyer, May Bell Music

7 p.m. — Lost John, Bike Rack Brewing Co. in Bentonville


Aug. 26

Noon — Dana Louise & the Glorious Birds, Maxine’s Taproom

1 p.m. — Workshop: Old Time Fiddle with Peter Howard, May Bell Music

1:15 p.m. — Ain’t Dead Yet: Woody Guthrie’s Message in the 21st Century with Deana McCloud, Joe Purdy, Mary Gauthier & Branjae, Fayetteville Public Library

2 p.m. — Workshop: Old Time Singing with Allison Williams, May Bell Music

5:30 p.m. — Randy Newman Tribute, Maxine’s Taproom

— Source:



Sees ‘Roots’

For nigh onto 30 years, Kent Bonar traversed the hills and valleys of Northwest Arkansas carrying a tome the size of an Oxford English Dictionary. It wasn’t even his book, although it did have its roots at the University of Arkansas, but it became a journal of his experiences in the woods and all the flora and many of the fauna the naturalist saw there.

Now, thanks to the University of Arkansas Press, the original “Atlas and Annotated List of the Vascular Plants of Arkansas” by University of Arkansas botanist Edwin B. Smith has been reprinted with some 3,500 of Bonar’s drawings, retitled “An Arkansas Florilegium.”

Bonar will appear at three events at this year’s Fayetteville Roots Festival:

Aug. 24 — Live KUAF “Ozarks at Large” radio show, noon-2 p.m., Fayetteville Public Library. Free.

Aug. 24 — Discussion with Robert Cochran, followed by a book signing, 2 p.m. Fayetteville Public Library. Free.

Aug. 25 — Nature walk with Bonar, hosted by Still on the Hill, 10:30 a.m., Pratt Place at 2231 W Markham Road in Fayetteville. This is a ticketed event.

“I’ve been hearing about ‘this man in the woods’ for years, and we are so excited to have him,” says Jerrmy Gawthrop, co-founder of festival. “Our food and music festival is dedicated to showcasing what makes this region of the Ozarks unique, and this person, the way he lives, the way people feel about him, and the nature he knows so much about, are a wonderful example of this uniqueness.”

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