BELLOWS FALLS -- With a cellphone glued to his ear, fielding calls from edgy folk diva Melissa Ferrick and gritty southern songsters The Steel Wheels, and clad in a "Fred X" T-shirt and baseball cap, handing out Roots on the River temporary tattoos like a politician hands out promises, Producer Ray Massucco, it is safe to say, is in full-on festival mode.
And that was a week ago.
Facebook fans of Roots on the River, the annual four-day gathering in Bellows Falls of a very friendly tribe, have been marking the countdown ever since, tossing exclamation points like confetti -- "Five days to go!!" ... "Four days to go!!" ... "Three days to go!!!" ... "48 hours to go!!!"
By the time you read this, they’ll be counting in minutes, barely able to contain themselves.
The 13th annual Roots on the River Festival begins Thursday night and continues through Sunday evening with four days of roots and Americana music of all stripes and styles.
Thirteen is apparently a lucky number for Roots on the River, which continues to grow in all directions -- fan base, financial support, events and musical diversity.
"I think in terms of the musical spectrum, this is the best lineup we’ve ever had," said Massucco. "The interest is as high as it’s ever been. ... People are stealing the posters off the kiosks."
Fred Eaglesmith, headliner since the festival’s founding and music Pied Piper of the Fredheads who
"He’s never sounded better, or more authentic," wrote the Billings Gazette.
"He’s had the most incredible year of his own after a tough year in 2010," said Massucco.
But this year, Eaglesmith is playing a slightly smaller role in the festival, a sign of certain kind of maturity, both for the festival and for Eaglesmith.
"Fred said to me, ‘You’ve got to start pulling in the next generation here,’" recounted Massucco, who has, indeed committed to expanding the festival’s appeal, while still holding on to its rootsy core.
Eaglesmith and his Traveling Steam Show have given up the Friday night show, opening the door for a powerhouse slate (more on that later). They will still headline on Saturday night and play the cherished acoustic Rockingham Meetinghouse Show on Sunday, in addition to dominating the street hockey tournament.
The rest of the fest features a mix of other old friends -- and along with some new faces. Returning favorites include Hayes Carll, Mary Gauthier, Red Molly and Roger Marin, the only other musician besides Eaglesmith to be on stage every year of the fest.
Music kicks off Thursday night at 7:30 p.m., at 33 bridge St., with the New and Regional Artist Showcase. The fun continues with free music during the day on Friday in downtown Bellows Falls, capped by the music under the big tent at the Everyday Inn starting at 7:30 p.m. A star-studded lineup rocks the tent from noon to late at night on Saturday, and the festival concludes on Sunday with the Rockingham Meetinghouse Show at noon, street hockey at 3 p.m., and a new feature, the Farmer’s Rock Farewell Ball at Cafe Loco at 6 p.m.
Getting things under way at 33 Bridge St., on Thursday at 7:30 p.m., are Mark Mandeville & Raianne Richards, a Massachusetts duo who play old country-flavored Americana. Following them are Vermont’s own Bow Thayer and Perfect Trainwreck, rapidly building a following with their balance of traditional and innovative sounds. Wrapping things up is Waylon Speed, armed with a new CD and music described as "filthy, rotten, underground, outlaw dirt rock."
On Friday, there’s free music on The Square in Bellows Falls, starting with Brattleboro-based fingerpicker Michael Hertz at noon, Boston folk duo Tall Heights at 1 p.m., the Chester-based Break Maids, bringing their melange of blues, glam rock, folk-punk and more to the Popolo deck at 2 p.m., and Oregon singer-songwriter Dan Weber at 3 p.m.
Free music continues at the Bellows Falls Farmers’ Market, which is the festival’s valued non-profit partner.
"We’re excited to support our farmers’ market," Massucco said. "It’s a natural and logical extension of our focus. ... This year in particular, our emphasis is on the environment and ‘green’ living, so having our non-profit provide not only our environmental component, but our musical roots as well, is a double bonus."
Farmers’ Market music starts at 4:15 p.m., with Phil Bosley, who is no stranger to the festival, having played in Roger Marin’s Band for years. Now a solo act, Bosley’s music is described as Cobain-country, nestled somewhere between Texas and Seattle. It’s Americana with louder guitar and Grunge with better lyrics. At 5:30 p.m., the New Hampshire-based Crunchy Western Boys plays bluegrass with rock seasoning.
Now the action moves for the first time to the tent at the Everyday Inn for a Fred-less Friday night that includes some names you haven’t heard of -- but you’ll be glad when you hear their music.
Brock Zeman starts things at 7:30 p.m. A Canadian star, he’s a pal of Roger Marin’s and Phil Bosley’s and has been ranked with Hayes Carll, Adam Carroll and Slaid Cleaves.
"Everyone’s been telling me for years, ‘You need to get Brock,’" said Massucco.
At 8:25 p.m., Danielle Miraglia, a native of Revere, Mass., blues slide guitarist, whose voice has a bit of Janis Joplin in it, takes the stage.
"She could be the sleeper of the whole festival," said Massucco. "I talk about her being the rose between the two thorns."
The other thorns in question happen to be Blackie & the Rodeo Kings, a Canadian supergroup whose name comes from a Willie P. Bennett song. They follow Miraglia at 9:40 p.m. The group features Tom Wilson, who played with Cowboy Junkies back-up band, Stephen Fearing, who has collaborated with Shawn Colvin, Richard Thompson and many others, and Colin Linden, a solo artist and producer whose songs have been covered by a who’s who of stars.
They have a new CD out, "Kings & Queens," a killer collection of duets between the band and singers like Rosanne Cash, Cassandra Wilson and Emmylou Harris.
"This album is just unbelievable. I think when people hear them, they’re going to be absolutely blown away," said Massucco.
The music pauses for some sleep (or not) and starts up again on Saturday at noon with a lineup of nothing but headliners.
Starting things off are the local bluegrass masters of Hot Mustard, featuring two banjos -- Bill Jubett and 2005 Merlefest banjo champ Bruce Stockwell, and their wives April Jubett on guitar and Kelly Stockwell on double bass.
At 12:55 p.m., festival favorite Roger Marin takes over with his band.
Following them at 2:05 p.m. is Barnstar! Don’t know about them? They’re an all-star team featuring Mark Erelli (guitar, vocals), Zack Hickman (upright bass), Charlie Rose (banjo), Jake Amerding (fiddle) and his father Taylor Amerding (mandolin). They bill their music at "bluegrass for people who don’t like bluegrass."
Next up at 3:15 p.m., comes Melissa Ferrick, a bold and skillful singer-songwriter celebrating the release of her 17th CD, "Still Right Here."
"You talk about a different sound for Roots on the River. She’s Ani DiFranco, but with an edge," said Massucco.
Following her, the Virginia-based Steel Wheels roar onto the stage at 4:35 p.m., with a sound that mixes blues, bluegrass, fiddle tunes and gospel. They’re celebrating the March release of their CD "Lay Down, Lay Low."
At 5:30 p.m., fan favorite Red Molly returns, but with a twist. Molly Venter replaced founding member Carolann Solebello. She joins Laurie MacAllister (guitar, banjo, bass) and Abbie Gardner (dobro, guitar) in a trio that has picked up right where it left off.
"We put 140 people in Boccelli’s when they played a couple of years ago," noted Massucco, who said a woman from out of state called and bought tickets both for her 86-year-old father and her daughter. Red Molly has three generation appeal.
Next up at 7:05 p.m. is another fan favorite, Hayes Carll, a Texas troubadour who scored success with his 2011 album, "Kmag Yoyo," which eventually made its way onto the country, pop and rock charts. The Americana Music Association nominated Hayes for Artist of the Year and Song of the Year. Now add to that performances on the Tonight Show, Austin City Limits and Imus in the Morning.
He also performed at the ginormous Bonnaroo Festival, where, in an interview with PopCultureMatters.com, he touted Roots on the River for helping him to get his start and give him confidence as a performer.
"It’s just an amazing community of people," he said.
Fred Eaglesmith makes his first festival appearance on Saturday at 8:35 p.m., with his Traveling Steam Show.
On Sunday, the festival mood shifts to the sublime for the traditional Rockingham Meetinghouse show. Tailor-made for that venue is the music of Mary Gauthier, who begins the show at noon.
"She owns the Rockingham Meetinghouse," said Massucco. "It’s a perfect symbiosis, synchronicity on Sunday."
Eaglesmith wraps up the show at 1:15 p.m.
For years, the festival had wound down a closing soiree at Dot and Stewart Read’s house in Bellows Falls. This year, the festival has partnered with Michael Lennox and Ezra Veitch, who have been running the Farmer’s Rock music series at Cafe Loco, to present the Farewell Ball, featuring two sets by the Roger Marin Band. The concert is included in the Deluxe Ticket package, but open to all for $10 at the door; kids are free.
"That’s a lot of music for $10," said Massucco.
There is free parking at all venues and lots of great food and other vendors. The concert is always family- and pet-friendly, and smoke-free. A Saturday feature is a Kids’ Tent with organized activities, games and healthy refreshments provided throughout the day. Bring a lawn chair or blanket for Every Day Inn concerts.
Deluxe ticketholders get preferred seating under the big tent and at the Rockingham Meeting House and early admission to events. They are treated to an opening reception on Thursday, receive a "goody bag" filled with gifts, primarily Vermont products and coupons, merchant bingo prizes, and free admission to the parting event.