ROCKINGHAM -- There is life after Fred.
That's the main message from Producer Ray Massucco as he talks up the 15th annual Roots on the River Festival, which runs June 5-8 at several venues in and around Bellows Falls.
For the first time, the festival will be without its perennial headliner and Pied Piper Fred Eaglesmith, who stepped away amicably after last year's event in large part because he felt it needed some new blood.
Judging from the lineup and the early ticket sales, this year's festival will be a lot like the others -- packed with fine Americana-roots music played by a mix of old favorites and newcomers. That's a good thing.
"We consciously stayed away from being ‘Post-Fred,'" said Massucco.
Nonetheless with Eaglesmith absent, there would inevitably have to be changes. Massucco hit upon the idea of having a big-name artist not only headline but host the festival and help pick some of the acts. The first person he thought of was festival favorite James McMurtry. He pitched the idea to McMurtry's management, and the answer came back one day later.
"They said, ‘Oh, yes, James is all over this!'" Massucco recalled.
McMurtry will headline the festival's powerhouse shows on Friday and Saturday night (June 6 and 7) at the Rodeway Inn off Exit 6 of I-91 in Rockingham.
In addition, he suggested some acts for the festival, and Massucco took him up on it.
First off, he suggested the Bottle Rockets, a veteran band with a large following that wowed ROTR audiences in 2007 and 2008 -- and had a good time doing it. The Bottle Rockets have been touring with McMurtry, and the two acts will play back-to-back at 8 p.m. and 9:10 p.m. on Saturday night, capping a day Massucco calls "the highest-energy lineup I've ever had, and I think the most artistically diverse."
More on that later.
McMurtry also suggested Carolyn Wonderland, a Texas blues guitarist, who will precede McMurtry on June 6.
"Carolyn Wonderland is just fantastic," said Massucco. "They are going to rip it up on Friday night."
Friday night is shaping up as a sleeping giant of a show. Although more people have bought tickets for Saturday, Massucco said Friday is going to knock people's socks off.
Opening things at 7 p.m. is Sean Rowe, a young, Albany, N.Y.-based artist who played the festival's Thursday night show last year and proved he deserved a bigger stage.
"He absolutely stunned the crowd last year. Charlie Hunter put him on his train tour," said Massucco.
Following Rowe on Friday night is Wonderland at 8:10 p.m., and McMurtry at 9:20 p.m.
"It's a really strong lineup," said Massucco.
And the festival gets stronger from there.
Saturday under the Big Tent opens at noon with another McMurtry, James' son Curtis, a young talent carefully blazing his own path in the music biz. It's a rare chance to see father and son in the same festival, and McMurtry fans are all abuzz about this.
Next up on Saturday is Heather Maloney, a Signature Sounds artist who's played the festival before and comes armed with a new CD; followed by Poor Old Shine, a group of four scraggly-looking musicians who blew crowds away at a gig earlier this year at Popolo in Bellows Falls. Don't let their appearance fool you -- they have a polished Americana-folk sound highlighted by Hammond organ.
"They're a wild-looking bunch," said Massucco. "They're what ZZ Top would look like if they didn't use conditioner in their beards."
Saturday continues with Rev. Peyton's Big Damn Band, a honky-tonk danceable band Massucco's been after for years, followed, if you can believe it, by JD McPherson, a rising star who was scheduled to play last year but had to withdraw. Now he's coming -- and watch out.
"This kid is going to be so much fun," said Massucco, who pointed out that McPherson's next stop after ROTR is the big-time Bonnaroo festival.
After McPherson come the Black Lillies of Knoxville, Tenn., who are excited to bring their Americana, folk, southern folk sound to the festival, both because it's right up their alley and because Vermont is the only state in the U.S. they haven't played in.
At 6:50 p.m., festival favorite Roger Marin takes the stage. With Eaglesmith moving on, Marin is now the only musician to play every year, and this year he moves up closer to the headliners.
"It's his birthday weekend every year, so we always give him a hard time," said Massucco.
The night concludes with the Bottle Rockets and James McMurtry.
Sunday is highlighted by the popular noontime acoustic show at the Rockingham Meetinghouse, and Massucco tapped Mary Gauthier to be the headliner for that show as long as she wants the job.
"Mary said to me that when she comes to the Meethinghouse, she feels like she's coming home," said Massucco. "She's got a voice that is very suited for that venue."
She also has a new CD.
Massucco gave Gauthier the option of picking someone to open for her at the Meetinghouse, but Gauthier kicked it back to him. He selected Caitlin Canty, a sweet voiced native of Poultney who should be a good fit for the venue. Canty will also play Friday for free at the Bellows Falls Farmers' Market at 5:15 p.m.
The festival opens on a youthful note on Thursday, June 5, with Haley Reardon, a sensational 18-year-old who is already turning heads in the music business. "She won a singer-songwriter's contest in Boston when she was 12 years old. She's got the presence of someone in her late-20s," said Massucco.
Reardon will play at 7 p.m., on June 5, at 33 Bridge St., in Bellows Falls. She will be followed at 8:15 p.m. by the Second Hands, a husband-and-wife duo with a uniquely pleasing sound, and then at 9:30 p.m., by the Tarbox Ramblers, a high-energy band that rocked Popolo last winter.
Friday begins with free music in downtown Bellows Falls by The Meadows Brothers, a teen duo from Connecticut, and Rebecca Holtz, a chanteuse from Walpole, N.H., and her band, The Once Hollow. Free music continues at the Farmers Market at 4 p.m. with Joinery, an old-timey quartet of carpenters from Southern Vermont. Then the action moves to the big tent.
The festival concludes on Sunday, June 8, at 6 p.m., at Pleasant Valley Brewing in Saxtons River with The Meadows Brothers and Holly Brewer.
Massucco is proud of his first post-Fred lineup, and expects the festival to stay strong after this year of transition.
"I lost 30 percent of the hard-core Fredheads. ... On the other hand, 42 percent of my advanced sales this year are first-time festival-goers," he said.
The festival is smoke-free and family- and dog-friendly, with a special, staffed, children's tent on Saturday, June 7. There is limited seating under the Big Tent, so plan to come early or bring a lawn chair or blanket. Vendors will be on site to provide food and beverages. For more information and to purchase tickets, visit www.vermontfestivalsllc.com.