For the sake of the song
Charlie Hunter somewhat accidentally created the Roots on the River festival 20 years ago.

For the sake of the song

Roots on the River pulls off a showstopper: growing and evolving for 20 years — while staying true to the music

BELLOWS FALLS — Roots on The River Music Festival is kicking off its 20th edition this weekend in Bellows Falls and Rockingham with a total of 23 musical acts from across America.

Volunteers, fans, and musicians will mingle for three days in blocks of five shows with nationally-known musicians such as Mary Gauthier, James McMurtry, and Hayes Carll, playing alongside locally-known artists.

And all this is happening because, two decades ago, Charlie Hunter had an idea.

Before he became known as a landscape painter, Hunter was a concert promoter and well-connected in the New England singer-songwriter circuit. In the spring of 1999 at Nick's Bar (now Donovan's) in Bellows Falls, a singer-songwriter from Ontario named Fred Eaglesmith was holding court with a couple dozen of his fans, known as “Fred Heads” who followed him around North America.

Hunter tapped into Eaglesmith's devoted following and created what became known as the “Fred Fest,” a weekend of plugged-in and acoustic shows in and around Bellows Falls performed by Eaglesmith and his band.

Together with Eaglesmith, Hunter officially christened the weekend as Roots on The River and, like an accidental planting gone perennial, it has grown into a June tradition lasting more than two decades.

The first seven weekends were organized by Eaglesmith and Hunter. The last 13 ROTR's have been run by Ray Massucco, who is in his final year as the festival's chief organizer.

“Eaglesmith had his own hardcore following, and the more nationally known bands with large common roots-based fan attraction began showing up to play,” Massucco said. “What started with an innocent party turned into an annual festival.”

A feeling of respect

Nationally known songwriter Carolann Solebello hails from the Bronx, New York. Her music is described as roots Americana with a New York accent, and she has 11 awards, two bands, and five solo albums out. She says Roots on The River is one of the most unique places she has performed.

“I was privileged to play at Roots on the River in 2007 and 2009 as part of the Americana trio Red Molly, then again in 2015 as part of modern folk quartet No Fuss and Feathers,” she said. “All three experiences were uniquely memorable, but what unites them all is a profound sense of art over commerce, the idea that music has the capacity to unite people and allow us to transcend our physical bodies and tap into the eternal.

“For that, all credit belongs to organizer Ray Massucco and his fine festival staff. Ray's beautiful energy infuses all who surround him, and I am grateful to have been part of that a few times in my life.”

While Massucco hopes that 2019 is his last year as chief organizer of ROTR, he said “that means we need someone to take over my role and if we can't find someone this will be the last one. I want to be able to do other things. I hope someone will step up for next year's festival. We'll see what happens.”

Solebello calls Roots on the River “the biggest little festival I've played in my two decades as a professional musician. Ray Massucco always manages to put together a bill that feels well-curated and balanced, and the comfortable vibe he fosters makes the large festival tent feel like an intimate living room show.”

And she knows why this is so.

“[It's] a mix of top-tier national acts playing right alongside promising newcomers, and all are treated with equal respect and jovial good humor. No one is a star or an underling at ROTR. All are kindred artists, and the camaraderie is contagious.”

“I've attended for 11 years, flying up from Florida each year. The quality and variety of the musicians is extraordinary every year,” said James Weatherbee. “I love the fact that it's so low key, respectful of the music, and varied. The sound guy is the best I've ever heard - heat, rain, doesn't matter - he dials it in perfectly.”

Weatherbee said there's “lots of picking and singing in the parking lot of the inn at night. I think the small scale of Roots is what makes it so special, no big crowds, lines, or hassles. The meeting house shows are always a special, beautiful vibe after all the rocking and rolling.”

The fans speak

Jim Carroll has been so moved by ROTR as a gathering that he not only attends yearly but is also a sponsor and this year chose to donate to help cover the cost of The Rockingham Meetinghouse Sunday acoustic concert.

“I first went to Roots on the River in 2012,” Carroll said. “I'd been a Fred Eaglesmith fan for years and heard about Roots via the Port Putley news group - before everyone moved over to Facebook. My ex had moved to Portland, Maine, so I dropped the offspring off to visit her and drove to Bellows Falls.

“I didn't know a soul when I arrived for the festival on Thursday. By the time I left on Sunday, I had a dozen new friends I still keep up with today. I brought my significant other the next year and also became an 'angel' contributor to the festival. Roots usually has Austin [Texas] artists participate, and I also send suggestions of new artists to check out,” he said.

Some of his favorites are here again this year.

“Over the years it's been great to see Roots audiences get a chance to hear Austin artists like James McMurtry, Curtis McMurtry, Bill Kirchen, Sam Baker, Carrie Elkin, Shelley King, Carolyn Wonderland, Hayes Carll, and Betty Soo,” Carroll said. “So, I'm looking forward to a great weekend this year once again.”

“It's unbelievable to me that we have an intimate festival offering this high caliber of music right here in Bellows Falls,” said longtime fan and on-site masseuse Karin Mallory.

She said likes the intimacy and low-key atmosphere of ROTR.

“You can easily get close to the stage if you'd like to. The grounds are small and have a real friendly feel. Friends, local music fans, as well as folks from far away reunite every year. Artists not only meet and greet at the merch tent, but mingle; get food from the vendors; talk with attendees; sit and listen to each other's music.”

And she has plenty of good memories.

“My favorite is when Cruz Contreras from The Black Lillies and I traded chair massages. So good! Or perhaps the year The Steel Wheels played and I enticed my whole family to come. Or perhaps when Ray spontaneously asked me onstage to introduce The Ballroom Thieves and The Maine Youth Rock Orchestra. Or years back listening to Hayes Carll sing a solo set outside at Harlow's. Or each and every performance at The Rockingham Meetinghouse. Too many to pick just one.”

The Roots on The River Festival begins with a low-cost soft opening Thursday, June 6, featuring Punk Americana from Ninja Monkey, the folk and jazz of Jesse Peters, and a young busker named Izzy Serebrov.

“I hope we have as many as we can because these three artists are incredible,” Massucco said.

The weekend's lineup

Friday features a seven-band show under “The Big Tent” at the Roadway Inn in Rockingham, beginning with Hayley Reardon at 2:30.

The Reverend Peyton's Big Damn Band and James McMurtry play among five other bands one night only. The box office opens at 1:45 p.m. and there will be on-site vending.

On Saturday, June 8, the box office opens at 11:15 a.m. with onsite vendors, and the eight-band concert begins with the Meadows Brothers at noon and Nobody's Girl at 1:10 p.m. and ends with 20-year veteran ROTR musician Roger Marin at 7:10 p.m. and Hayes Carll at 8:30 p.m.

Sunday, June 9, is a doubleheader, beginning at the meetinghouse with box office open at 10:15 a.m., reserved brunch on the lawn and three concerts including Mary Gauthier and The Full Throttle Gospel Hour.

The ROTR farewell concert of punkabilly begins at 4:30 p.m. at The Moose Lodge and includes The Milkhouse Heaters, The Cold River Ranters, and Matt Seiple.

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