ROCKINGHAM—Roots music is like a close-knit family and nothing illustrates it more than the line-up of performers at this year’s 13th annual Roots on the River Festival in Bellows Falls.
Once upon a time, maybe too long ago, there was an irreverent and gifted Canadian songwriter and musician named Fred Eaglesmith who had a knockout band called the Flying Squirrels. A Bellows Falls painter named Charlie Hunter used to manage Eaglesmith, and so he built the festival around him.
That’s how Bellows Falls fell in love with Fred Eaglesmith and the Squirrels, a band which included the Canadian songwriter and musical legend Willie P. Bennett on harmonica, mandolin, rhythm guitar, attitude, and witty banter.
After a while, the Flying Squirrels did what most bands do — they flew. Some of the guys got married and stopped touring; then it was just Fred and Willie with a rotating traveling band.
After the Sunday show, the band traditionally plays street hockey with the natives. I remember one year when Willie played with his underwear pulled over his pants. I don’t remember his explanation, but he was a fierce competitor.
Sadly, Willie died of a heart attack in 2008 at the too-young age of 57 and Fred had to go on without him. But it’s hard to kill a creative spirit, so say hello to the extraordinarily hot Canadian folk-rock supergroup called Blackie and the Rodeo Kings (sometimes called BARK), who are playing the Roots festival on Friday night. They started out as a Willie P. Bennett tribute band.
The Roots festival might have started out as a FredFest, but as it’s grown larger its reach has grown wider. And you may well ask, what kind of music takes five hyphens just to name? (Americana-roots-folk-bluegrass-alternative-country.)
“It’s the genres that show up,” said Ray Massucco, who puts on these festivals now that Hunter has more or less become a full-time artist.
“We’ve never tried to narrow it down. We don’t call it folk or bluegrass or gospel or country. We have one group that calls itself a ‘dirty filthy rotten folk rock’ band. Danielle Miraglia is straight up slide-steel blues. Hayes Carll has been called the greatest country western singer that ever lived. Mary Gauthier is a singer-songwriter. Red Molly is a combination of gospel, bluegrass and folk.
“All of it is original music, for one thing. Somebody may occasionally cover someone else, but these are not bands that are covering something someone else wrote. Also, the music is based on the performers’ life experience, and we have performers from 18-year-olds to folks in their late 60s.”
Then there’s the hard-driving, witty and renowned Eaglesmith himself, who used to wear a cowboy hat but now performs in a top hat and and goes around looking a lot like those guys in “Groundhog Day” who pull Punxsutawney Phil out of a hole. Eaglesmith’s latest album, his 19th, “6 Volts,” is named after a battery.
“Fred’s still doing the hardscrabble songs about growing up dirt poor,” Massucco said. “Every one of his songs is about love lost and redemption. He’s been doing it for 30 years. He’ll try anything once and some things twice.”
Although his fans consider him “alt-country,” Eaglesmith’s music has been covered by people as different as Toby Keith, Alan Jackson, and Miranda Lambert. This year, he’s playing with what he calls “The Traveling Steam Show.”
And BARK will play on Friday night instead of Eaglesmith. Why?
Because last year, when attendance was down (a major downpour on Saturday killed walk-in ticket sales), Eaglesmith told Massucco that honestly, his own audience was getting older and going to bed earlier.
“He said, ‘They used to be able to stay up all night, but now they’re yawning and not even covering their mouths,’” Massucco said. “He said we had to start building on the younger crowd. ‘I’ve got no ego,’ he said. ‘We love coming here. It’s like a vacation for us. But this isn’t about me any more.’
“So Fred’s only playing Saturday and Sunday this year. But we’re trying to reach out to people who love Fred, and that’s why we have Blackie and the Rodeo Kings, who have a strong connection to Willie P. Bennett. And they have brought a lot of feedback. People are excited about them. We get to introduce them to a new set of fans. Ticket sales are up.”
BARK took its name from a line in a Willie P. Bennett song. The band got together for a one-off tribute cover album of Willie’s music in 1996, well before — yes, before — he passed away.
So this Canadian supergroup — internationally known singer-songwriter Stephen Fearing, Colin Linden (a musical child prodigy, a recording artist, and a record producer) and Tom Wilson (who is backed on his other band by the Cowboy Junkies) — all seasoned road warriors, all songwriters as well as musicians, all with deep roots in the folk, rock and blues world, all with other careers, have been burning up the stages together ever since.
“The reason why we’re still together — and I’ve never been in a band that’s stayed together this long — is that we managed to come together without any selfishness to serve Willie’s music,” Wilson told me. “So there’s a lot less ego and showing off.”
Why, with one Juno (Canadian Grammy) already and its seventh CD, the crackling “Kings and Queens,” featuring among other famous queens Lucinda Williams, Roseanne Cash, Patti Scialfa, Emmylou Harris and Serena Ryder, is this blisteringly talented band so unknown in the lower 48?
“We do every we can to be as unsuccessful as we can,” Wilson said, putting his tongue in his cheek. “If we toured more in the U.S., then people might like us and pay attention to us and then we’d have to break up. The downfall is that we consider Blackie and the Rodeo Kings as a side project and it’s been in my life for 17 or 18 years now. I put a lot of energy into it. I make movies, do art, publish books, and yet my creative life revolves around Blackie.”
Wilson and Linden met Willie P. Bennett at a folk festival in the 1970s, and he’s always been a hero to them.
“Willie is more real than anyone I’d ever seen or met or heard,” Wilson said. “Willie is what we all wish we could be. People like myself, Fred Eaglesmith, Stephen and Colin — it will take us years to be as good or as part of our music as he was to his own. Willie was in tune with every note he played. I couldn’t imagine anyone being more in touch with what they were creating than Willie was.”
So the Roots circle is closing. We can’t have Willie any more, but we have Eaglesmith and BARK and the rest of the Roots lineup. And we can still have street hockey after the Sunday show.
All together, about 1,700 people are expected to come for the festival this year.
“We have people coming from four countries and 14 states,” Massucco said. “We’ve sold 15 tickets in Texas. A woman in Barton, Vermont, called me. She read about us in “Vermont Magazine.” She wanted to know if she could bring children and I told her we have special deals for kids and families. She’s coming to see Hayes Carll because ‘He never comes to New England.’ So I’m selling tickets up there at the Canadian border. That’s pretty good for me.”
Wilson said word about the Roots on the River festival has spread far and wide.
“I’ve been reading about your festival for a long time and we’re really looking forward to playing for you,” Wilson said.
“And when you write about us, don’t call it Americana music or anything else,” he said. “It’s not like I try to avoid tags, but I don’t know what any of that means. I write from the heart.
“When I was four years old, I decided that’s what I wanted to do — write music and make music. And if I get hit by a truck tomorrow, I’ll go to my grave feeling that I’ve done the right thing with my life.”