Jody Hendrix had wanted to organize a roots festival since 2003, the year he returned to Kansas City after completing his military duty. In 2013, a series of events occurred that presented the opportunity.
In October 2013, the Westport Saloon opened, and Hendrix was hired to book its bands. He’d already started his record label, Little Class Records, and one of his label partners, Travis Fields, is the general manager of the saloon.
“Once the label and Westport Saloon got intertwined, it seemed like the right time for the festival,” Hendrix said. One of his inspirations was Ink’s Middle of the Map Fest.
“I wanted to cultivate the same thing for the large umbrella that encompasses roots music,” he said, “from the harder cowpunk-psychobilly bands to traditional bluegrass and honky-tonk.”
The inaugural Westport Roots Festival was last year on a Saturday in late May. It comprised 25 bands on two stages: the saloon and a larger outdoor stage in the parking lot outside the saloon’s back door. Billy Joe Shaver was the big stage’s headliner. The night before the festival, however, Shaver canceled his performance. And rain fell for much of the next day.
Nonetheless, Hendrix said, the festival was a success. “We had about 1,000 on the ground, including bands, volunteers and ticket sales. And I had a blast.”
This year’s festival, which starts at 3 p.m. Saturday, will be different. The parking lot is no longer available; it is being turned into a retail space. Hendrix said he’d anticipated that.
“We kind of knew for a while the outdoor stage might not be a possibility so we were planning to do what we did: pick venues in Westport close enough so everyone can walk,” he said. “On the bright side, it took away the expense and logistics of an outdoor stage.”
Those venues are Westport Saloon, the Riot Room (two stages), Mills Record Co., the Firefly Lounge and Harling’s Upstairs, which is on Main Street at the east end of Westport Road. Two free shuttles will be available to ferry fans between Harling’s and Westport.
Forty-five bands will perform on those six stages. More than half are from Kansas City, Lawrence and St. Joseph.
“There’s no real big-name headliner,” Hendrix said. “But the lineup encompasses what we wanted: a community. What we have going on here is more about relationships and a community of bands and musicians rather than riders and contracts.”
The venues have been organized by music styles so that anyone who doesn’t want to peruse the entire festival can pick one style and one venue and stay there. A full-festival ticket is $20 in advance, $25 at the door. A single-venue ticket is $10.
“Last year, because of the way we were set up, you could see every band if you caught half a set,” Hendrix said. “This year you can’t do that, so we went out of the way to put styles together.”
“Harling’s will be all bluegrass. The Riot Room patio will be honky-tonk. The Riot Room indoor stage will be bluesy rock ’n’ roll. The Westport Saloon will be Farmageddon/Muddy Roots music. Firefly is the ‘eclectics’ with keyboards and horns. And Mills will be the Horton Records showcase. They’re from Oklahoma City. I told them, ‘You’ve got a stage. I don’t even need to know what bands you’re bringing.’ They’re all great.”
In addition to the Horton Records showcase, Hendrix cited several must-see performances, starting with Luke Bell, a songwriter from Nashville. He plays the Riot Room patio at 6:15 p.m.
“He has done some one-off openers with Willie Nelson and Dwight Yoakam,” Hendrix said. “He’s played (the saloon) one time. He’s one of the most authentic sounds out now, as far as traditional music goes.”
Tracy Huffman and the Downers are another. They play the Riot Room indoor stage at 8:15 p.m.
“He’s out of St. Joe, about 45 years old and an untouched gem,” Hendrix said. “He’s a real intense songwriter, between Neil Young and Daniel Johnston. It’s got a weird tic to it. But he’s country. He’s an amazing guitar player and has always been a hired gun. He’s just now starting to take his songs out and be a frontman.”
Then there’s Dead Soldiers, who perform at the Riot Room indoor stage at 10:15 p.m.
“It’s that melding of punk rock and country,” he said. “I’m not going to call it cowpunk. That’s a thing of the 1980s. But it’s that generation of guys who grew up listening to Black Flag who are now in their 30s but with knuckle tattoos … aggressive but with twang and steel (guitar) and fiddle.”
And the youngest of them all is Julian Davis, a 15-year-old flat-picking guitarist from Pittsburg, Kan., who plays the Westport Saloon at 4 p.m.
“You hear this kid play guitar, and it’s like he came from 1948,” Hendrix said. “He’s solo. He sings and plays guitar. He’s very Pokey LaFarge, very old-timey honky-tonk but vaudeville, that little bit of ’30s, ’40s martini-swagger to the country hillbilly thing.”
The jump from 25 to 45 bands could have been even larger. The number of acts who fit under the “roots” umbrella gets bigger every year, and Hendrix books many of them at the saloon and signs them to his label. Hendrix and Fields also are behind the launch of American Roots Magazine, a monthly periodical dedicated to the music and its many sub-genres.
It wasn’t always this way.
“Back in 2002 or 2003, if we could have put together a bill of four or five bands, that would have been a big deal,” Hendrix said. “I could have added 30 more bands to this year’s festival if we had more space and more stages.”
The Westport Roots Festival begins at 3 p.m. Saturday at these venues: the Westport Saloon, the Riot Room (two stages) Mills Record Co., Harling’s Upstairs and the Firefly Lounge. A full-festival pass is $20 in advance, $25 at the door. A single-venue admission is $10. Free shuttles will be available from the Westport Saloon to Harling’s.