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Folk & Roots Festival grows quickly in St. Louis

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Sept. 26, 2013 - Fall weekends in the St. Louis area are filled with an array of festivals and events, and this coming weekend is no exception. Taste of St. Louis downtown will draw most of the media coverage, but another major three-day festival will take place Sept. 27 through Sept. 29 at several locations in the Grand Center area – ranging from the Sheldon Concert Hall, the Grandel Theater, and Urban Chestnut, Strauss Park and the KDHX Folk School on Washington Avenue.

It’s called the St. Louis Folk and Roots Festival, and the event will feature a headlining concert at the Sheldon Saturday evening by legendary bluegrass master Ralph Stanley and opening act 3 Penny Acre. It also has Sheldon Ballroom concerts Friday evening and a late set Saturday after Stanley’s appearance, featuring an impressive lineup of national, regional and area bands.

A happy hour kickoff concert gets the event going Friday at Urban Chestnut. Then there's a free afternoon outdoor concert at Strauss Park, square dancing at the Grandel Theatre and mandolin, fiddle and banjo workshops at the Folk School on Saturday.

On Sunday, the festival winds up with a lecture and book signing by acclaimed Missouri fiddler Howard Marshall at the Folk School at KDHX, and a fiddle contest at Strauss Park in the afternoon.

This is only the second year for the Folk and Roots Festival, and the 2013 schedule clearly marks a major step forward.

Last year, the Festival was one day at the Atomic Cowboy in the Grove neighborhood, featuring music by Big Smith, 3 Penny Acre, The Tillers, Stripmall Ballads, the Ryan Spearman Band and the Lulus.

According to Kelly Wells, executive director of the Folk School and co-founder of the festival with her husband, Ryan Spearman, the appearance of 3 Penny Acre on the schedule of both last year’s and this year’s Fest is much more than just a coincidence.

“Ryan and I had been talking about starting a folk festival here in St. Louis for some time,” Wells said during a recent telephone interview. “When 3 Penny Acre started the Fayetteville Roots Festival in 2010, they invited Ryan to play. And he returned to play again the next two years.

“We saw how that festival grew, adding headliners like Guy Clark in 2011 and John Prine the next year. So we were really inspired to actually get something going here in St. Louis.”

After getting the St. Louis Folk & Roots Fest off the ground in 2012, Wells and Spearman decided to follow the blueprint of the growth of the Fayetteville Roots fest with another strategy – working hand in hand with other concert venues to broaden the scope of the event.

“We loved the Sheldon as a performance space because of the great acoustics and feel of the concert hall, so we talked to Sheldon Executive Director Paul Reuter and Tim Albert, the technical director there,” Wells said. “They were very interested in being part of an expanded event and offered to book a headlining national act – and host other concerts in the ballroom at the Sheldon.”

The Sheldon was able to book Ralph Stanley and his band, the Clinch Mountain Boys, in what will likely be his final appearance in the St. Louis area. The legendary bluegrass banjo player and vocalist is now 86 and has announced a farewell tour that will run through 2014.

“Having Ralph Stanley play at the festival is certainly amazing,” Wells said. And we’ve been able to also feature a great mix of national and St. Louis groups at concerts at the Sheldon, Urban Chestnut and Strauss Park both before and after his Saturday night concert.”

Wells is also pleased that the Folk & Roots Fest has been able to include educational elements in its schedule.

“We’ve got workshops at the Folk School on Saturday afternoon,” she says, “and we’re also going to have a lecture and book signing on Sunday by Howard Marshall, who to me is THE old time Missouri fiddler.”


Marshall, former director of the Missouri Cultural Heritage Center, will be signing his latest book, “Play me Something Quick and Devilish: Old Time Fiddlers In Missouri,” and lecturing on the heritage of fiddle music in the state.

The festival will also include the Folk School’s monthly Square Dance at the Grandel Theater on Saturday afternoon and conclude with the Folk School’s Third Annual Fiddle Contest at Strauss Park.

For Wells, coordinating the rapid growth of the Folk & Roots Festival over the course of the past year has been daunting – but very rewarding as well.

“I’m a Southern girl,” Wells said. “I grew up in Tennessee and Mississippi; and folk music has always been part of the cultural fabric there. So one of the things that I’m proud of is the opportunity we have with the Festival to bring together a variety of great musicians here in St. Louis – as well as bands from elsewhere who may have not had the chance to play here before. Anytime you can bring together musicians who are taking the traditions of folk and roots music and making it their own – progressing into new areas – that’s rewarding for them and for audiences too.”

Terry Perkins is a freelance writer based in St. Louis. He has written for the St. Louis Beacon since 2009. Terry's other writing credits in St. Louis include: the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, the St. Louis American, the Riverfront Times, and St. Louis magazine. Nationally, Terry writes for DownBeat magazine, OxfordAmerican.org and RollingStone.com, among others.

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