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In Northwest Arkansas, the Fayetteville Roots Festival Draws a Crowd

August 15, 2018
Bryan and Bernice Hembree have built a summer showcase celebrating musical, culinary creativity

When Bryan and Bernice organized the first Fayetteville Roots Festival in 2010, they had modest ambitions: To perform with local bands and traveling musicians before an intimate audience of friends and fans.

The inaugural festival, a one-day event featuring 10 acts, got off to a bumpy start when a water main broke at the original venue, a Fayetteville restaurant owned by friend and chef Jerrmy Gawthrup. That misfortune forced Bryan and Bernice to relocate to a neighboring bar in the Northwest Arkansas city.

Bernice and Bryan Hembree jamming
Fayetteville Roots: A summer showcase celebrating musical, culinary creativity
The five-day festival has become an annual favorite for music fans and foodies from Northwest Arkansas and beyond.

“It was a little bit of chaos,” Bryan recalls. Despite the disruption, the bands successfully completed their sets before an appreciative crowd.

“We had one fan who bought every CD of every artist that was there, and said, ‘Please do this again next year,’” says Bernice.

That first festival whetted the region’s appetite for something bigger – a signature summer showcase for music fans from Northwest Arkansas and beyond.

Over its nine years, the Fayetteville Roots Festival has grown into a five-day event featuring dozens of renowned and undiscovered artists performing on 10 stages, including 2018 artists like Mavis Staples, Flaco Jimenez, and the Del McCoury Band.

And it has become far more than just a music concert. Bernice and Bryan’s original collaboration with Jerrmy Gawthrop has blossomed. The Fayetteville chef leads festival planning for a wide range of culinary events hosted by locally, nationally and internationally acclaimed restauranteurs.

The festival partners with Brightwater: A Center for the Study of Food on chef master classes and an outreach program that provides service learning opportunities to culinary students. Proceeds from a chef-curated pop-up bistro at the festival’s main stage go to a scholarship for Brightwater students.

And at least 40% of festival programs are free and open to the public, part of Bernice and Bryan’s commitment to making the festival accessible to all.

We talked with Bernice and Bryan, who perform together under the name Smokey & The Mirror, about the festival’s growing popularity, their lives as musicians, the vibrant cultural scene in Northwest Arkansas and how the Ozarks inspire their art.

Why do you think the roots festival has become such an integral part of summer in Fayetteville and Northwest Arkansas?

Bernice: Northwest Arkansas, more and more, is becoming an ‘art forward’ place. Artists are drawn to the festival, and the community is supporting it. There are so many musicians that live in this community, that call it home. These are people who tour all over, but then come home to the Ozarks because it's a special place. The festival has just snowballed. Every year it's gotten bigger and bigger, and we've pulled in different aspects to make it a more diverse event, expanding the food side of the festival, because we want the food to be as important as the music.

Bryan: We do a lot of free community programming as well. We do these live radio broadcasts, for example, and we have people who come just for that. We want this to be accessible to everyone, whether you can get a ticket or not. We've had people say, ‘This is one of our favorite events of the year’ and ‘This is what makes us love living here.’ That kind of support is rare. It makes you realize the festival is actually not something that is ours. It’s become a part of the community. It feels like a real privilege to get to work on it and to be a part of it and to deliver it.

How does Northwest Arkansas support or enrich you as musicians?

Bryan: When I first moved here (from Tulsa, Oklahoma) as a freshman in college, I started playing in this eight-piece funk band. And we had a lot of opportunities to play in the community. There was enough going on to keep my musical mind interested, and there was always a fan base for music in Northwest Arkansas to keep it rolling. But the scene is not just about going out to a club and seeing a show. You have classical music via the Symphony of Northwest Arkansas at the Walton Arts Center. You have ensemble music via the University of Arkansas. You have a lot of different options.

Bernice: We travel around a lot and we see these vibrant communities where we play music: Asheville, Portland, San Francisco and all the little unheard of places all across the country. There’s just something about Fayetteville that always pulls us back. It’s the community of people here who really support what we do. It's a special place.

What’s it like playing together as a married couple in Smokey & The Mirror?

Bryan: Playing music with Bernice is fabulous. It's what we did from the very beginning, literally. The night we met, we got together to play music. It’s inseparable from our life together, our love together. You have the music that works. You have the love and the marriage that works. You have the friendship and compassion for each other that works. I honestly don't know that I could do it any other way. When we're driving 24 hours across the country, to go to a gig, I can't imagine doing that without her. It feels like the way it should be.

What impact does the broader arts and culture scene in Northwest Arkansas have on your own music?

Bryan: Northwest Arkansas has been an amazing place to live as an artist. When you're exerting all of this artistic energy on a regular basis, you have to be refilled. You need to have that place where you can go and say, ‘Okay I'm not doing my art tonight, I'm experiencing art tonight.’ We’re enriched by places like Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art. There’s also the Walton Art Center, Dickson Street in Fayetteville. Those experiences refill the artist and it's massively important for that to happen in a community. It leads you to branch out of your own discipline.

So the richness of the region’s arts and culture help you refuel creatively?

Bryan: Absolutely. I had an opportunity, in partnership between the Fayetteville Roots Festival and Crystal Bridges, to curate a musical playlist for one of their exhibits. Never in a hundred years did I think I would get the chance to work with a curator at a major art museum on a project like that. It took me outside my normal comfort zone, which is sitting down with a guitar and writing a song. You look at your own art form in a different way.

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