Columbia, Missouri is a town most people have probably never heard of. Fans of college football may know Columbia for its SEC team, the Mizzou Tigers, and documentary enthusiasts have likely heard of the True/False Film Festival, but otherwise this college town in a “flyover state” sits surrounded by rural farmland, over a hundred miles from any major city, and goes largely unnoticed by the rest of the world. That is—apart from one weekend each September when the Roots N Blues Festival takes place.
What began as a grassroots, hometown event that largely featured local artists has since grown into one of the midwest’s largest live music events, with festival-goers coming from across America – and around the world – to attend. Each fall, beloved local groups and Grammy-winning icons alike gather in central Missouri to grace the stages of Roots N Blues. Leon Bridges, Maren Morris, EmmyLou Harris, John Prine, and Ben Harper are just a few of the major names that have played a set in the festival’s recent history.
Roots N Blues was started by Central Bank of Boone County as a one-time event to celebrate their 150th anniversary. The town responded so well that Columbia’s resident live music promoter, Richard King, purchased the festival from them in 2008 and turned it into an annual event. King remained the owner until 2019, when he decided it was time for him to move on. Enter King’s long-time friend and professional collaborator, Tracy Lane. She had directed Roots N Blues during its inaugural year as an annual festival but as the single mother of a then nine-year-old daughter, she did not have enough time to devote to such a demanding role and had to step down. Ten years later, she received an interesting call from King: “I’m looking for a retirement plan and I think you’re it,” he said. Lane had managed King’s concert venue, The Blue Note, in the 90s and had always dreamed of pursuing a career in the music industry, but the demands of single motherhood did not align with those of a job in such a field. But when King’s call came, Lane’s daughter was weeks away from graduating high school. “This was a perfectly timed opportunity,” said Lane. “I felt like it was one of those little gifts from the universe, you know?”
At this point, Lane had never met Roots N Blues’ current co-owner and then assistant director, Shay Jasper. Before Lane formally accepted the job, King suggested that the two get together, along with Jamie Varvaro, the festival’s development director, to make sure the three meshed.
“Instantly, when I met Shay, I knew I wanted to work with her,” said Lane. “Everything that came out of her mouth, I was like, yes, yes, yes. […] Immediately after meeting Shay I called Richard and I said, ‘Yes, I want the job.’”
At that time, Jasper was only twenty-six and still in disbelief that her college internship with Roots N Blues had led her to the role of Assistant Director. “I had hoped—sincerely hoped—and asked the universe for a career like this when I was in college but there are so few and far between opportunities for something like this,” she said. She knew King had been working towards retirement from the festival, and hoped that her assistant director position would eventually lead to ownership. So when that opportunity came, she readily accepted. “You know how some things in your life, they just happen and you’re like, ‘I don’t know what I did to deserve this, I don’t recall working as hard as it takes to do something like [this.]’”
Little did Jasper know what the universe had in store for she, Lane, and Varvaro after they purchased the festival from King and began formally operating it in late 2019. The three formed a production company, Trio Presents LLC, named after Dolly Parton, EmmyLou Harris, and Linda Ronstadt’s 1980s folk group. “In November and December [of 2019], I didn’t have a care in the world. Life was good,” said Jasper. “We were doing this really cool thing, planning this awesome project. We left the office excited every single day for what was next.”
But while Trio were enjoying their first weeks as owners of Roots N Blues, on the other side of the globe, the first cases of a new virus, Covid-19, were being recorded. Mere months after the virus first reached American soil, the live entertainment industry saw a total shutdown. “What we signed on for in December became a very different thing in March,” said Lane.
However, Trio – like many of us – were confident that the national lockdowns in March would stop the spread of Covid-19 and the world would go back to normal by May—worst case scenario, August. But by May, the pandemic was only getting worse and Trio had to make the very difficult decision to postpone the 2020 festival to September of 2021. The pandemic’s total shutdown of the live music industry would demand superhuman levels of perseverance, work, and dedication from Trio to keep Roots N Blues alive.
“The excitement of the uncertainty is why we do this, is why I think a lot of people in this industry do it,” said Jasper. “It’s that piece that you love to hate, but it fuels you. It’s like a challenge. The weather is a challenge. The ticket grosses, that’s a challenge. Predicting the artists that people want in this market, that’s a challenge. Then add a worldwide pandemic on that and it no longer made it fun. It made it—in my very personal opinion—a burden.”
As the spread of Covid-19 rapidly increased, Trio watched as their friends moved from working in their offices to working in the comfort and—more importantly, the safety—of their homes. Meanwhile, those in the live entertainment industry were left floundering. No live events, no crowds, and no performances meant no paycheck—there was no “working from home.” For the thousands of Americans employed by the live entertainment industry, this meant a total loss of income.
Varvaro stepped down as an owner of Roots N Blues, but continued to assist the festival as its development director. The sponsorships he played a role in securing helped ensure the survival of the festival, but the lack of revenue meant that Lane and Jasper, the new 50/50 owners, were without any income throughout the entirety of 2020.
“Without [the festival’s] income, I had to go work as a bartender,” said Jasper. “And so I put myself behind a bar, potentially in danger of getting Covid. I cleaned houses to make money to pay for Christmas gifts.”
Meanwhile, Lane waited tables over the winter holidays and spent the fall as a farmhand on her father’s soybean farm in northern Missouri. “There were a lot of really hard decisions to be made personally and professionally about survival. I’m very grateful for the people who were like, ‘Hey, do you need a job right now?’ Because I couldn’t just get another job. It’s not like I could leave this company that I had just purchased and take on a new career. Plus my whole thirty years of [career] history is mostly in the arts and the arts weren’t… (laughs) doing anything. There weren’t a lot of job options to take. But most of all, I just did not want to give up on this vision. […] Suddenly this thing, this vision, this hope I had had pretty much my whole life…I wasn’t ready to let go of that. I was willing to fight and to wait tables and to drive a grain truck—whatever I had to do so that I didn’t have to give up on this company and let it go. And I didn’t want to let down the community.”
At one point, in a last-ditch effort to save Roots N Blues, Lane put her house on the market so that she’d have survival money. “I had to make a choice: am I going to save my company or my home? So I chose the company and then I put my house on the market.” The very next day, an old friend offered her a seasonal position at Hoss’s Market waiting and bussing tables, which paid just enough to cover her mortgage payments. “I got food from the Food Bank. I’m not ashamed to say it. I’m grateful for the Food Bank—I am one of those people who lost their income during covid and the Food Bank gave us food.”
For Lane and Jasper, getting new careers would mean the end of Roots N Blues. “There are a lot of people that don’t think this is a year-round job,” said Jasper. “We do this job all year, it’s how we make our living and for folks to think this is something we just throw together in a couple months on the side, that we have other jobs or maybe this is just kind of what we do casually—it’s frustrating.”
Even with the pause 2020 put on the festival, there was much work to be done to keep it alive. Alongside doing all they could to retain the artist lineup, sponsors, and overall plans of the 2020 festival for 2021, they tirelessly lobbied with the National Independent Venue Association to get congress to pass a bill that would grant monetary relief to hundreds of independent event venues and promoters around the country—and more importantly, grant relief to the thousands of live event industry workers struggling to survive not only a deadly virus, but complete loss of employment.
After many long months, the bill was finally passed on December 26, 2021. However, it would take another four months before grant applicants began to get approved, and another couple months before successful applicants started seeing any of the money. Despite the excruciatingly long wait, this grant was the last-minute miracle that kept venues all over America from closing their doors—forever.
The pandemic saw millions of Americans and countless industries take economic hits. Many of the small businesses that were forced to close up shop were unable to reopen, even once the economy began its shaky recovery. The hard work of the Roots N Blues team, the moral and financial support of its patrons of both the past and present, and the help of the National Independent Venue Association kept this festival from meeting the same fate.
Why all the blood, sweat, and tears to save a music festival? To save independent venue promoters in general? After all, the independent live entertainment industry was not the only industry that took a dire hit from the pandemic, and other industries that are arguably more important were also at-risk.
To this, Jasper said, “After the year that we’ve had, this experience that we offer is—it enhances lives. It’s this thing that we put together for the community so that we can see each other again as humans and we can acknowledge each other’s interests and who we are culturally. […] It’s essential.” Independent venue promoters have the personal connection to their locales that is necessary to put on events that, in Lane’s words, “reflect the values of the community that they serve.”
“It’s not just about the data,” said Jasper. “[Big live music corporations] do great things, but it is data-driven. The artists that are booked in the market, it’s all about the numbers and the big marketing and the money, whereas I feel like there’s something charming about independent promoters. […] We reach out and ask people, whether it’s on social media or our community partners or even in the grocery store, people will provide feedback about what they want to see and they feel comfortable doing so.” Furthermore, money generated by these independent events benefits the community at large. “We want the money that’s spent local to stay local,” Jasper said.
On the flip side, the passion independent venue promoters have for their communities mean they are more willing to not only reflect the values of their communities, but to broaden them, too. This year, Roots N Blues’s decision to feature only women in their lineup came after countless conversations between Lane, Jasper, and Varvaro about the lack of female representation in the music industry, especially when it comes to festival lineups.
Despite noticing a “renaissance of country music” in which very powerful storytellers—often female storytellers—were taking off in a historically male-dominated sphere, festival lineups continued to be predominantly male. Roots N Blues wanted to play a role in changing that.
“We’re not just gonna talk about what needs to happen, we’re gonna do the work to make the change,” said Lane. They consulted industry insiders and while they respected the idea, they warned it was very risky from a financial standpoint. “We just decided it was worth the risk because changes don’t happen unless you activate change. Of course, at the time that we made that choice, we didn’t know we were going to be up against a global pandemic on top of, you know, shuffling the cards in the music industry.”
However, the response to this announcement was overwhelmingly positive. Of course, there were nay-sayers, but ultimately, Columbians were proud to see their town acting as an agent of social progression. Music events owned and operated by large corporations are often unwilling to take these risks—they don’t have the attachment to the local community needed to brunt the potential financial consequences. The risk is simply not worth the reward.
For independent venue promoters, this is not the case. Live music is not merely ticket sales and merchandise, it is an opportunity for celebration, joy, togetherness. Flutes made from prehistoric bone and music painted on the walls of Paleolithic caves prove music is as old as human culture. It is more likely than not that songs existed before language did. Music is as human as it gets. It has always been something that brings our species together, helps us tell and preserve our stories, reflects who we are culturally, politically, emotionally.
Roots N Blues is nothing if not a labor of love—this is something that became glaringly obvious during the pandemic. Under the new ownership, this festival is not only a chance for the community to come together and enjoy live music, it is also an opportunity to represent Missouri, to show the world who we are now and who we’d like to be. It’s a way to take socially-motivated risks like elevating female voices—do things that may threaten ticket sales but will ultimately help make meaningful change in both the music industry and the world.
This weekend, our small college town will put on one of the largest all-female music festivals in our nation’s recent history. We will have the eyes of the country on us and prove that women can and do make and perform music at the same caliber as their male counterparts. This weekend, Roots N Blues will rise from the ashes of a pandemic that nearly destroyed not only the festival, but an industry that has proven to be a vital part of life. We understand now more than ever the importance of meaningful social union and for many of us, this weekend will be our first time coming together to enjoy a live music event of this scale since March of 2020. Let the last year-and-a-half remind you to truly treasure and cherish this weekend, not just for its novelty, but for the significance of its message.