Many Stories, One Avenue: Roots Festival is back for June 17-19 weekend

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After hosting 16 socially distanced concerts from April to August 2020 on South East Avenue right outside the Roots HQ, husband-and-wife founders of the Fayetteville Roots Festival Bryan and Bernice Hembree made a discovery.

“We were like, ‘Wow, what if we could make the street into an amphitheater,” Bryan Hembree says. “We did that out of caution. … We realized sometimes you make lemonade out of lemons. And this is kind of our lemonade festival.”

The weekend of June 17-19, the Hembrees will host Roots on the Avenue on that same street — which does function almost naturally as an amphitheater.

“Friday night, Iris Dement is headlining,” Hembree enthuses. “Iris has played the festival before — she played in 2013. She’s a legend on the folk scene.” He adds that in 2013, Dement was so pleased with the work that Fayetteville Roots was doing — fostering roots music and using proceeds to address food insecurity — that she donated her pay for the show back to the nonprofit.

“We made really good friends. And we’ve been trying to bring her back for a number of years,” Hembree adds. Opening for Dement on June 17 is Canadian/American folk musician, Ana Egge. “Ana also sits in with [Dement] and plays with her band.”

June 18 will feature Joy Clark and Lauren Napier of Black Opry Revue of Nashville. Audiences will have seen Clark on stage most recently with Allison Russell, but the New Orleans-based guitarist and singer has a presence of her own. She’ll share her smooth country blues sound on June 18 and then come back on June 19 with Jett Holden. (Be on the lookout for his song, “Taxidermy.” And his cover of Brandi Carlisle’s “The Joke,” will give you goosebumps.)

“Black Opry as an organization is trying to change people’s attitudes and opinions on Black artists that are making country and roots music that you just might not have heard about,” Hembree explains. The organization began as a website as a “[h]ome for Black artists and Black fans of country, blues, folk, and Americana music,” but it also has a group that performs as Black Opry Revue.

Also on June 18 is Leyla McCalla. She is Haitian-American folk singer who is a solo musician also know for her work with The Chocolate Drops and Our Native Daughters, with fellow banjo players Amythyst Kiah, Allison Russell and Rhiannon Giddens. McCalla is featured on the next page for her recent critically acclaimed album, “Breaking the Thermometer,” written based on the archives from Radio Haiti. The Guardian recently named it one of the best albums of the year.

“You have to listen to Leyla. Leyla is not background music,” Hembree says. “It’s a history and culture lesson. And Fayetteville audiences do that. One of our tag lines is ‘Listen Here.’ That means to listen, but also you’re going to hear something, you’re going to learn something … And Leyla embodies that. She is there to play her music, but also she’s there as an ambassador of this Haitian diaspora. That is so powerful.”

Folk supergroup Bonny Light Horseman will close out the festival on June 19. The group is made up of Eric D. Johnson of Fruit Bats and the Shins, Josh Kaufman of The National and Josh Ritter and Anais Mitchell — the writer of the award-winning “Hadestown” and another friend of the Hembrees.

“One thing that’s cool about that is ‘Hadestown’ is coming to Walton Art Center in May,” Hembree enthuses. “How cool is it that we get to see and hear and experience the writer and creator in advance of that?”

Shows like this one align with the mission of Roots HQ. Hembree says that they aim to help listeners find “multiple pathways to music” regardless of genres. That’s why they chose the “Roots” moniker over folk, country, blues, etc. This way the historic doors of the Guisinger Music House remain open to all sorts of storytellers and melody makers.

“We view what we do musically like a wide palette — we want it to be inclusive, and people feel like, hey, there’s a little bit of something that I’m into, but there’s also something I’m discovering here,” Hembree says. And that offering extends beyond their festivals. They host shows and open jam sessions year-round at their venue and throughout Northwest Arkansas. Plus, they provide resources to local musicians from their history-filled HQ on the corner of South East Avenue and Mountain Street. Their mission also includes a culinary angle that will be showcased again during Roots on the Avenue. Inside of Roots HQ will be a bar and some food areas during the June 17-19 weekend.

“You can come in here and grab a drink and then go out to the show or cool off in here if you need to,” Hembree says. Providing food will be WoodStone Pizza by the slice and chef-curated snacks will be available all three days.

  photo  Bonny Light Horseman will play Roots on the Avenue on June 19 in downtown Fayetteville. From left are Anais Mitchell (“Hadestown”), Eric D. Johnson (The Shins) and Josh Kaufman (The National). (Courtesy Photo/D. James Goodwin)
 
 
  photo  Leyla McCalla will headline Fayetteville Roots on the Avenue on June 18 on East Avenue in downtown Fayetteville. McCalla’s critically acclaimed album, “Breaking the Thermometer,” is based on the archives of Radio Haiti and includes folk songs, interviews, found sounds and covers of songs that McCalla felt embodied the spirit of what she found in the Haitian Kreyol radio station’s history. (Courtesy Photo/Noe Cugny)
 
 
  photo  Merle Haggard called Iris Dement “the best singer I’ve ever heard.” A longtime staple of the folk scene, Dement will bring her gospel and country inspired folk songs to Roots on the Avenue on June 17. She will also share the stage with opener Ana Egge. (File Photo)
 
 

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