I had it all wrong. I thought I’d be navigating my way through cowboy hats and rodeo belt buckles while drinking a Budweiser all weekend. I thought it’d be all biscuits and gravy every day. But a trip to Arkansas for the Fayetteville Roots Festival in late August showed that maybe not all Southern states are cut from the same cloth? More than likely, perception simply does not equal reality.
It took some time in Northwest Arkansas to figure this out, though. My Uber driver from the airport (Cindy) told me she’d only been out of the state once. “It was to Vegas,” she said. “I won the trip from the company I used to work for, so I sorta had to go.”
We spent the drive through the Ozark roads to Fayetteville exchanging stories about Cindy’s new day job at a property management firm and my travels this year across the country. We passed a few Walmart locations on the drive and she told me how Alice Walton, the heiress to the Walmart empire and wealthiest woman in the world, had built bike trails all throughout Fayetteville, linking them to Bentonville, where Walmart is headquartered and “all the way to Missouri,” Cindy said.
In Bentonville, Walton also built the impressive Crystal Bridges Museum, a 200,000-sq.-foot building designed by Moshe Safdie. Architecturally, it’s equal parts a study in Frank Lloyd Wright as it is an homage to Ozarkian natural beauty. Walton’s vision was to provide access to the arts in America’s heartland and the museum’s permanent collection quickly explicates the settlement of America while paying heed to the granular social issues within it. While the aura of Walton money is immediately felt from Bentonville to Fayetteville, at least the family is investing in the arts and one can argue that this is what multi-billionaires should be doing.
At any rate, Cindy’s Chevy Impala zipped past the University of Arkansas’s illustrious Razorback Stadium, along the University’s Greek Row of extravagant plantation style palaces and we arrived at my hotel just off of the festival’s core in Fayetteville’s Downtown Square. “It was really nice talking to you.” Cindy said. “Enjoy Fayetteville!”
The canvas for “An intimate urban music & food festival,” Fayetteville is certainly charming, if not quirky. Hugo’s, a local basement cafe which will soon be among the many Fayetteville locations featured in the third season of True Detective (Mahershala Ali FTW!), has a neon sign along the back wall that simply says “Typewriter.” The town is very proud of it even though nobody seems to know where it came from.
George’s Majestic Lounge, a glorious 700-capacity room adjacent to the train tracks opened in 1927, hosts evening shows for Fayetteville Roots Fest and is cooled by the largest ceiling fan I’ve ever seen in my life; it looks like it came from a WWII-era bomber and is legitimately made by a company called “Big Ass Fans.”
Maxine’s Taproom, a local institution with its 50-foot-long bar, was opened in 1950 by Marjorie Maxine Miller, who was behind the bar for over 50 years before her health deteriorated. One month after she passed in 2006, the building caught fire and was closed for over a year before a full restoration in 2013, which now sees it operating as a cocktail bar with Arkansas craft beer and curiously incredible popcorn. Much of the original decor and signage in the bar remain and it’s always busy with locals listening to indie rock during the week and college kids sipping ’tails over live Roots music in the back. I heard the “Maxine’s story” at damn near every one of my five visits to the bar. It’s just that great of a place that I wanted to keep coming back every night and should be considered nothing less than one of the best bars in America.
The Shook Twins outside of George’s Majestic Lounge
A stone’s throw up Block Ave from Maxine’s, the Fayetteville Town Center on the historic Downtown Square is undoubtedly the festival’s heartbeat. An indoor main stage played host to the festival’s headlining acts including Grammy Winner Gillian Welch, folk troubadours Gregory Alan Isakov, John Fulbright and famed Oklahoma country outfit Turnpike Troubadours. While the sound was immaculate, the seated ballroom could feel a bit sterile at times with its town hall-ish vibe. But the largely seated space brought families and an older populous to the festival for the headliners and exposed them to diverse up-and-coming roots acts like a distinguished performance by Birds of Chicago and the Afro-Appalachian banjo stylings of Kaia Kater.
“The gospel that we have for you, is that most people are good people!” said Birds of Chicago singer/banjo player Allison Russell, before embarking on “American Flowers,” an uplifting ode to cross-country altruism. Ideological expressions subtly underpinning the country’s divided state were commonplace on stage at the festival and a number of artists used the platform to address what was always an open-minded crowd about the condition of the world around them. Kater extolled the virtues of the Prison Strike movement before playing a memorable cover of Nina Simone’s “Trouble In Mind,” a reminder that even in difficult times, “the sun’s gonna shine.”
The fact that these statements were well-received with applause and nods of approval by the crowd, was counterintuitive to what I expected from a Southern red state like Arkansas. And I certainly didn’t expect to hear decorated folk singer Joe Purdy, an Arkansas boy himself, sing the words “I do not care for Mr.Trump/ I do not like his talkin’ much!” at a raucous late-night show at the homely studio/event space Heartbreak House. As Purdy belted the song alongside members of The Honey Dewdrops and Smokey & The Mirror, it was pretty clear that everyone in attendance had a disdain for The Orange One. Roots music was alive and well in Fayetteville, and I was beginning to feel right at home in Arkansas.
“We benefit from the notion that the scale here is just right,” said Roots Fest co-founder Brian Hembree, sitting on the front steps of Heartbreak House, sipping a lemonade cooler on a warm summer evening. Hembree and his wife Bernice (who make music together as Smokey & The Mirror) are both educators and book the festival’s slate along with fellow co-founder chef/restaurateur Jerrmy Gawthrop. “Teaching keeps us anchored here,” Hembree said. “And I’m passionate about the idea of an artist-led festival. They’re trusting another artist and here, we’re between a small town and a burgeoning urban space.”
Kaia Kater at Fayetteville Public Library
Hembree, who seems to know everyone in town, is also conscious of avoiding the pitfalls behind “the gratuitous ticket sale,” as he puts it, so Roots Fest also has a wide slate of free community programming. From free shows at the Public Library broadcast on local NPR affiliate KUAF with The Shook Twins, Kaia Kater and others, to film screenings, workshops, kids programming and yes, even the Fayetteville Square Dance. Inclusivity at festivals is important, and further incorporating the local community with free programming is a testament to the fact that music is indeed the ultimate pastime that brings the community of Fayetteville together, so the intention lasts long after the festival ends.
Another major component of Roots Fest, are food and drink events. “This surely must be where the biscuits and gravy and Budweiser sponsorship kick in?” I thought to myself. Wrong. What might as well be a different festival altogether (or the same if you have a Music + Culinary Festival Pass) centers largely on two major events: Thursday evening’s Folk Family Reunion and Saturday’s all day banger, Roots Food & Spirits. The latter, might’ve been the highlight of the entire festival. Holy shit, what a party!
Just above Razorback Stadium, Pratt Place is a sweeping green space with an extravagant barn that holds a distinct Southern charm fit for elaborate weddings and other celebrations. On this day, it was the canvas for a food, spirits and beer event of the highest order. The first part of the day paired chefs from Arkansas, Oklahoma, Texas and more, with beer from the sneakily prolific NW Arkansas craft beer scene, like Fossil Cove, Ozark and Bike Rack Brewing. The second part of the event was a different crop of chefs pairing food with cocktails.
The possibilities of Southern cooking broadened immensely for me here. Austin Chef Reed Faitak of Austin Daily Press made a luscious oil-poached eggplant with oyster mushroom and arugula salsa verde, with fig BBQ sauce on corn sabayon. Atlanta-based chef Jennifer Hill Booker made a green-onion hoe cake with pimento cheese and brown sugar bacon that I can still taste. And my favorite item of the festival, was from Little Rock’s South on Main chef Matt Bell: Arkansas raised smoked pork belly with a corn, grana padano, onion and celery slaw served with an Old Fashioned. While pork belly was popular among the chefs throughout the week, this was a dream, melding crisp, refreshing textures with melt-in-your-mouth pork and fat.
Chef Matt Bell and his pork belly dish
“They encourage us to use locally sourced products,” Bell said of what he called an “intellectual partnership” with the festival he’s been participating in for the past three years. “They treat us like the musicians.”
And dammit if there wasn’t equally as impressive art being made at Food & Spirits as there would on stage later in the evening. In another area, a cocktail competition was happening where bartenders threw down some incredible recipes for the judges. Runner-up Luiggi Uzcategui of Yellow Rock Concepts in Little Rock mixed a cocktail of sesame-oil-fat-washed plantation “OFTD” rum, Plantation pineapple rum, Italian inspired syrup, sweet potato, lemongrass, thai basil, balsamic vinegar, fresh squeezed lime and pH Sasparilla bitters, all smoked with hickory wood. Every item was perfectly captured in the drink. The competition itself was a thrill to watch as the event’s two emcees kept my attention as if I was watching a mega-hit Food Network show.
“In the Ozarks, access to fruits and vegetables are constant, so it affects everything culinarily and the mixology too,” said judge Emily Lawson of pH Alchemy, who is also the event’s Beverage Director and a partner for the event. “We’re looking for that authentic connection to seasonal change and what it means to imbibe with community.”
I could’ve stayed there all day for the subsequent Chef Throwdown, but there was something special on the horizon…
Luiggi Uzcategui and his cocktail creation
When I got back to the Town Center on Saturday evening, I couldn’t help but feel like I was transported to the summer communities my family and I would steal away to when I was a kid. I ran into so many people I had met that week in town: the woman who owned Farmer’s Table, a restaurant where I had lunch the day before, Chef Matt Bell who made that amazing pork belly, and a man who owns a nearby peony flower farm, who did A/V work for the event in year’s past, but this year, was just having a good time. I looked around happily, ate a scoop of local ice cream and went inside to see Gillian Welch and David Rawlings play their set.
Rawlings is one of the finest guitarists I’ve heard in quite some time and Welch was brilliant. You haven’t lived until you’ve seen Welch tap-dance and body-drum her way through “Six-White Horses,” while Rawlings rips on the banjo and harmonica. Welch sang her heart out through it all and bantered with Rawlings in a way that evoked shades of June Carter and Johnny Cash. They’re dynamite tandem who clearly enjoy playing alongside each other.
There in that Town Center, devoid of the corporate malarkey just down the street on college-crowd-riddled Dickson Street, or worse, a couple miles outside of town, where there’s a Sonic or a Hardee’s at every intersection, Roots Fest artists explored their American identity. Some negotiated their departure from it and some further unfurled their connections to it. Those in attendance were witnesses to these passing moments in these people’s lives and in their own as well.
John Moreland at George’s
There was indeed a certain poetry about Fayetteville that was decidedly American. When the train zipped by George’s during Tulsa singer John Moreland’s set on Thursday evening, the crowd craned their necks in unison towards the sound for a moment, only to hypnotically retract back their attention to the stage as Moreland kept on howling like a wolf in the night. Portland’s The Shook Twins told the crowd to “Keep your eyes open, look around…There’s a lot of great people in this country!” on the same stage the following night. Their free spirits soared with the crowd’s, and you couldn’t help but feel like they were on the cusp of something bigger in their careers. And on Saturday night, it was Raleigh-based American Aquarium’s turn. They drew more energy out of the crowd than any other act at the Festival. People sang along to every word of BJ Barham’s Americana, and I finally saw a cowboy hat or two in the crowd.
I won’t soon forget a place like George’s, or Maxine’s or Heartbreak House, where my last night ended laying in a hammock at 2am, with the warm breeze coursing through the humid air. Crickets chirping, beer in hand, comfortable grin on my face, I kept thinking about the Southern hospitality I was afforded by the good people in this town. I came here thinking I’d probably be defending things like Colin Kaepernick’s reasons for kneeling during the National Anthem at some point, but it never came up once.
Fayetteville Roots Festival and the people in attendance showed the power of festival culture in bringing together not only like-minded people, but also those with differing ideologies. In the end, they all accepted each other by their very nature. And through music, food and culture, a perfect community was formed, if only for a weekend.