Written by Jane Ponte

The year 2020 was tough on everything and everybody, including live music venues, artists, and festivals all over the country and the world. In Columbia, MO, the yearly Roots n Blues festival was canceled in 2020—4 days prior to the announcement of their first-ever all-female lineup, due to the COVID-19 pandemic. To say that this was a sad and difficult blow for everyone involved–including the college town of Columbia itself–would be an understatement, as the yearly event has become a time-honored tradition of sorts for the legions of musicians and fans that perform at or attend the festival every year. Fortunately, however, and thanks to the hard work and perseverance of festival owners Shay Jasper and Tracy Lane, Roots n Blues came roaring back with a vengeance this past weekend at Stephens Lake Park. The 3-day festival took place in the 116-acre park under clear, sunny skies and with a renewed sense of hope and promise that seemed to permeate that entire festival and its revelers all weekend long.

Now in its 14th season, the festival has undergone many changes over the years, but this year’s installment likely included more “firsts” for the festival than in any year previously. For starters, the lineup this year was comprised completely of female solo artists or female-fronted bands. The decision to honor women in music this year was borne from the fact that the music industry in general is male dominated, despite the stellar contributions that women have made to the evolution of music since the beginning of time. These days, music festivals are often comprised of more than 70% of male-dominated acts, but this year’s Roots n Blues blazed a trail for female artists of nearly every genre of music. Blues, rock, hip-hop, country, R&B, country, and even an all-female mariachi band were all featured at the festival, and every artist came out swinging, bringing their baddest selves and their unique brand of talent to one of the two ample stages within walking distance of one another in the scenic and spacious park.

Another new addition to this year’s festival was the vaccine protocol put into place by the festival’s organizers. Attendees were required to either present a recent negative COVID test or proof of vaccination to gain entry onto the festival grounds. This new development seems to be becoming the industry’s standard at venues and events throughout the country. All of the festival attendees I spoke with regarding this vaccine mandate were in favor of this new development and praised Lane and Jasper for bravely implementing this measure, most stating that it allowed them to feel safer and to celebrate the return of live music in a more joyful and carefree manner.
Headliners included Brandi Carlile, Mavis Staples, Sheryl Crow, and Larkin Poe. For this music fan, standout performances included all of the headliners, along with Texas-turned Nashville artist Nikki Lane, Memphis blues and soul favorite Southern Avenue, Columbia’s own The Burney Sisters, and folk/world music virtuosos, Rising Appalachia.

One particularly moving performance came on Saturday night, when Brandi Carlile performed The Highwomen tune “Crowded Table” with Missouri native Natalie Hemby and Baltimore-bred, Nashville-based country singer Brittney Spencer. Carlile’s adoring crowd, one that reached nearly all the way back to the Ferris wheel that slowly turned as it glowed brightly on the festival’s perimeter, seemed to share in the song’s premise; there is room for everyone at the “Crowded Table” that was Roots n Blues last weekend. As the fans sang along and basked in the magic and music, I could not help but feel happy and hopeful. Thanks for all of it, Roots n Blues. Can’t wait to see you next year.

~ Jane Ponte