Guest Post: Commitment To Equity At Roots N Blues Goes Beyond The Lineup

Brittney Spencer, Brandi Carlile and Natalie Hemby perform Sept 25, 2021, at Roots N Blues Festival in Columbia, Mo.  Photo by L.G. Patterson

Guest Post by Tracy Lane | Co-Owner/Producer Of Roots N Blues
Looking back on early music festival lineups from Newport to Monterey, there is historic evidence of a goal for gender and racial equity on stage. Joan Baez, Odetta, and Earl Scruggs are among the many artists featured at the first Newport Folk Festival in 1959. Nearly a decade later, Ravi Shankar, Otis Redding and Laura Nyro shared the stage at Monterey Pop. Fast forward to 1991, the timestamp I attribute to the launch of the modern music festival. 

On July 23, 1991, I drove down to Irvine from my apartment in Westwood and witnessed performances by the Henry Rollins Band, Nine Inch Nails, Ice T, Living Colour, Siouxsie & the Banshees, Butthole Surfers, and Jane’s Addiction. Siouxsie Sioux was the only female to perform on what would turn out to be an historic day in live music history, the first-ever Lollapalooza Festival. It was a life-changing day in the California sunshine. I was surrounded by 16,000 other Gen Xers – the children of the experimental and experiential 1970s, and teenagers of the exploitative and excessive 1980s – who were now coming of age in the angsty and angry 1990s. We gathered there to be a part of an intense communal music experience. At the time, I recall thinking that it was really great that they had included a female artist. My perspective today is quite different … Seriously, just one woman? 

Shay Jasper and I formed a concert production company and bought the rights to operate a 13-year-old music festival in Columbia, Mo., in December 2019. Alongside our male colleague, Jamie Varvaro, the three of us made a video, vowing to our community to book female and non-binary led artists for all 26 slots in the 2020 Roots N Blues Festival lineup. We posted our video on social media, shortly after forming our company. We knew this was our time to make our voices heard. If we didn’t make this public declaration right from the start, we would not garner the industry attention needed to make real change.

Two months later, our entire industry shut down. As we re-budgeted and re-planned, we never wavered from our commitment to equity. Despite everyone we consulted expressing concern that booking an all-women-led lineup in 2021 was a radical financial risk, we held fast to our vision and our values. In September 2021, Brandi Carlile, Sheryl Crow, Mavis Staples, Tank and The Bangas, Flor de Toloache and 21 other female-led artists graced our stage and proved that gender and race equity does not limit music quality or financial security; our event was stunningly successful. 

That work continues. As co-owner Shay Jasper said of the Oct. 7-9, 2022, lineup that features Wilco, Jon Batiste, Bleachers, Tanya Tucker, Chaka Khan and Old Crow Medicine Show: “We’re continuing to expand on what we started in 2021 by exploring all corners of American Roots Music – moving away from a narrow definition and adopting a broader view of what roots music is. This is the most exciting, eclectic lineup yet. There will be something for everyone at Roots N Blues 2022!”

Also with equally impassioned intentionality, we are working toward equity off stage as well. We all feel safer and more included in spaces where we see others like ourselves. That work begins with who we place on our stages, but it does not end there. We have hired women and non-binary individuals to work backstage in security, production and artist relations roles. We have established practices to remove gender, age, race, ability, and income barriers around live music for our artists, staff, and audience. 

Our ADA services include a fleet of carts and drivers to assist guests with limited vision or mobility from their vehicle in the parking lot to every area of the festival grounds during all hours of operation. In 2022, we plan to add elevated, ramped platforms for improved ADA viewing at both stages. A local hospital provides a new parents’ tent with several private bays, in a shady quiet space on-site, tucked away from the noise of the stages and the crowd. 

We donate hundreds of free tickets to low-income local families, in addition to granting free admission to children 14 and under with an accompanying adult. It’s vital to us that our live music event is a multi-generational experience where grandparents and grandchildren can witness living legends and contemporary artists side by side. Families can spread a blanket on a hill overlooking either stage; while fans who want the traditional fest vibe can stand near the stacks and feel the music reverberate through every cell of everyone in the crowd. 

Our work to create an event that is truly for our whole community will continue to evolve. In our initial planning, we looked to Newport Folk as a shining example of what we hoped to become, and we continue to look at what other promoters are doing in search of innovations. We hope our success will inspire other festivals to expand their equity initiatives.