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I’ve been to a lot of music festivals across the South. From huge festivals with a national draw like the Austin City Limits Music Festival and Bonnaroo to more regional festivals like Memphis in May and Riverfest to many local festivals across the state of Arkansas. But for all the festivals I’ve attended over the years, the Fayetteville Roots Festival outshines them all by a country mile.
Joe Purdy with Smokey & The Mirror (festival founded Bryan and Bernice Hembree) and The Honey Dewdrops on the Roots Mainstage
The Roots Fest, which bills itself as a multi-day, intimate, urban music and food festival, takes place in downtown Fayetteville each year. The festival has grown out of the love of Roots organizers Bernice and Bryan Hembree, who also perform each year with their band Smokey & The Mirror, have for the arts and culture scene of the Ozark Mountains in Northwest Arkansas. What began as a small gathering of their friends to play some music turned into a local showcase of performers that brought together a tight-knit community who produce the Roots Festival each year.
That was ten years ago, and since then the Roots Festival has grown into a vibrant four-day festival that hosts thousands of festival attendees, dozens of nationally recognized and regional artists and top-notch chefs in a festival as unique as the Ozarks themselves. Organizers use the word “Roots” intentionally to celebrate this uniqueness that can be seen in the diverse and eclectic food offerings, as well as the music that can range from folk to jazz to bluegrass to rock to country, all on the same mainstage each day.
As someone who doesn’t love fighting festival crowds for a decent view of the stage, one of my favorite things about the Roots Fest is having a dedicated seat all weekend where I can go in, sit down, and comfortably enjoy the music. The audience, while interactive, is very intimate and respectful of the artists on stage. I have never been able to fully immerse myself in music without distractions as I can at Roots Fest. Being able to hear every note of a mandolin solo played to an audience of a couple thousand folks caught me off guard the first year I attended, but it has become one of my favorite aspects of the Roots venue.
Mavis Staples on the Roots Mainstage
Over the years, the Roots Fest mainstage has seen performances from a wide array of artists like John Prine, Lucinda Williams, The Punch Brothers, Gillian Welch and David Rawlings, Iron & Wine, John Fullbright, Old Crow Medicine Show, Rodney Crowell, John Paul White of The Civil Wars, and Mavis Staples (who this year held my hand at the front of the stage while she crooned “Reach out, touch a hand, make a friend if you can!”)
There are also screenings of films and documentaries each year with special appearances by filmmakers and artists, like a couple of years ago when Nick Offerman introduced the documentary Look & See: A Portrait of Wendell Berry. And the night doesn’t end with the last mainstage performance. There are also many late-night performances around downtown by some of the mainstage performers and also local and regional acts. My favorites are the intimate shows at the legendary Heartbreak House with Joe Purdy, Smokey & The Mirror and the Honey Dewdrops. Trust me. You don’t want to miss these, so make sure you get a “Friends of the Festival” pass so you can get in!
Milk Carton Kids at the Heartbreak House
I’ve barely even mentioned that the Roots Fest is also a celebration of southern roots cuisine like you’ve never seen. There’s a whole other side of the festival that is held each year during Roots Fest with world-class (I’m talking James Beard Award-winning level) chefs creating southern flavor scapes fusing traditional Ozark flavors and locally sourced ingredients with modern cuisine. And it can all be enjoyed while concert-goers enjoy intimate performances by artists from the Roots Fest mainstage at the beautiful Pratt Place farm in Bentonville.
Pratt Place Farm photos provided courtesy of @shutterspictures
While festival-goers can come and go enjoying the many great eateries that downtown Fayetteville has to offer, they would be missing out on some incredible dishes by some of the best chefs in Arkansas right at the festival. Each year, Roots has its own food court serving up special menus created just for the festival each year. This year you could get everything from personal specialty pizzas created by Wicked Wood Fired Pizzas to 3 Cents an Acre, who was serving up fresh Maine Lobster Rolls and Buttermilk Piggy Poboy Sandwiches (Chick-Fil-A and Popeye’s have got nothing on this fried chicken sandwich topped with pimento cheese bacon and thick-cut pickles). 3 Cents an Acre also had some of the tastiest hushpuppies I’ve ever had, called Lush Puppies, they were massive and made with jalapeños, cheese curds, honey lemon & scallion.
Wright’s BBQ was also on hand carving up juicy, perfectly cooked brisket that tasted just right! Dog Daze hot dog stand also served up gourmet hot dogs like a Kimchi Dog or a Roots Dog with chili, slaw, bacon and cheddar if you just need a quick bite to soak up some of the local offerings by Arkansas breweries represented in the libation tent (Ozark Beer Co, Lost 40, and Black Apple breweries, just to name a few).
As delicious as the Roots food is, the festival prides itself on supporting local farmers, chefs, and restaurants by using locally grown produce, locally raised meats, and other products sourced right in the Ozarks. Organizers also utilize an army of volunteers, who work each year to make the festival as green and sustainable as possible by sorting, recycling, and composting almost all of the festival’s waste. So you can feel doubly good about your consumption at the Fayetteville Roots Festival.
But the Roots Fest is much more than enjoying some good tunes and good food up in the Ozarks. Roots feels more like a family reunion than a music festival, and every time I attend, I am overwhelmed by the sense of community I experience. The organizers and volunteers pour their whole selves into pulling Roots Fest off each year, and it’s obvious in every thoughtful detail. From each artist intentionally chosen, who speaks loving and affirming words from the stage through their music. Who sits in with other artists, enjoy each other’s performances, and visit with fans between sets to every food vendor and chef who feed your soul as well as your stomach.
When you attend the Fayetteville Roots Festival, you realize that we’re all connected by roots that run much deeper than a particular genre of music. Every folk singalong and delicious bite of food lovingly prepared is a reminder that Roots Fest is a celebration of a community of artists and purveyors of culture that make the Ozarks one of the most beautiful parts of Arkansas.
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