Over the last several years, Fayetteville has come to be known all over the the country – and in some cases around the world – as a hot spot for folk, bluegrass, roots, and Americana music.
There are several reasons for that perception, but a lot of it has to do with local husband-and-wife team, Bryan and Bernice Hembree of folk duo, Smokey & The Mirror.
The couple has served as ambassadors for the local roots scene for nearly a decade, first as two-thirds of the popular touring band, 3 Penny Acre, and recently, as co-founders of the Fayetteville Roots Festival, an event they started five years ago with friends and frequent collaborators, Jerrmy Gawthrop and Clayton Suttle. At last count, ticket holders for the 2014 festival come from 22 states in the U.S., as well as the U.K. and Sweden.
Their latest musical collaboration, Smokey & The Mirror, has also been busy.
The band just released a live album with Raina Rose and Rebecca Loebe called Three Nights Live. They’re also hard at work on a new studio album , due out in early 2015. They’ve been touring pretty extensively this year, playing festivals, venues, and house concerts all over the country.
In a few weeks, the couple will perform two sets at this year’s Fayetteville Roots Festival, set for Aug. 28-31 at various locations around Fayetteville. Specifically, the band will play on the main stage on Saturday, Aug. 30 at 5 p.m., and at 6:15 p.m. with friends Raina Rose and Rebecca Loebe at the Sunday night festival closing concert on Aug. 31 at George’s.
We got in touch with Bryan and Bernice this week to talk a little bit about the new band, and this year’s nearly-sold-out Fayetteville Roots Festival.
Here’s what they had to say:
What have you been listening to lately?
Bernice is a big fan of 80’s on 8 on XM – I think she listens just to catch every Heart tune. Bernice spends her days with our daughter, Bergen, who’s 8. So, she gets her fill of kids music and pop hits. Paul Simon, Fleetwood Mac, and Guy Clark are her daily go-to’s. And she’s a big fan of John Elliott, Hayes Carll, and Lake Street Dive.
I’ve been listening to a bunch of new music. Hurray for the Riff Raff’s new album is great. Everyone should give it a listen. John Moreland out of Oklahoma is blowing me away right now. (John) Fullbright’s new album is tremendous as well.
We have been traveling a lot this summer. We listen to a ton of podcasts: Fresh Air. On Point. Ozarks at Large. Those podcasts help the miles melt off.
Tell us a bit about how Smokey and the Mirror came to be.
In April 2013, during a tour in support of our release of our third record Rag and Bone, Bayard and I had a long late night drive from Minnesota back to Arkansas. We talked a lot about where we were all headed. Bayard was getting ready to marry his long-term partner Janee, and he was getting more and more requests for his luthier work. On that drive he expressed that he wanted to take some time off. When we got back to Fayetteville and rested up we all had a big sit down and talked it out. We realized that it wouldn’t be 3 Penny Acre without Bayard.
Bernice and I wanted to keep touring and recording. One day shortly after that, Bernice and I looked at each other while driving to a gig, and realized that we had never really been in a duo together. We figured it was time, and said “why the hell not?”
That is how it happened. We have been having a blast out on the road and learning to playing as a duo. We are feeling very productive and inspired with this new musical endeavor.
You guys seem to be staying busy. What are some city’s you’ve played in in the last year or so. What have been some of the most memorable shows?
In November 2013, we went on a live recording tour in Texas and Oklahoma with Raina Rose and Rebecca Loebe. We recorded three nights at the Mucky Duck in Houston, the Cactus Cafe in Austin, and the Blue Door in Oklahoma City. We got a really cool live record out of those three shows. It was an intense process. We had two long days of rehearsal in Austin and then three gigs straight. It was a wonderful and invigorating experience.
We also had a nice run of shows with our good friends Elephant Revival. It was great to get in front of their fans with our new duo. Everyone was very gracious. Bridget Law (fiddle) and I finally got a play the song we wrote together on stage. It was pretty great jamming with those folks.
We had a great tour to Virginia and West Virginia this past July. The Purple Fiddle in Thomas, West Virginia is always a highlight. It is the tiny old coal town. This guy John has turned an old general store into a music venue with a hostel next door.
It is a tiny, old coal town tucked away in the mountains. It was 55 degrees at night in the middle of July. Going to Thomas is always like taking a trip out of time.
We also played the Red Wing Roots Music Festival Mt. Solon, Virginia. This is a great new fest hosted by our friends The Steel Wheels. This year was their second year. It was great to see other artists out there starting and building a successful festival. We were delighted to be a part of it.
We heard you guys will be playing with some of the guys from John Fullbright’s band at Fayetteville Roots Festival this year. Any truth to those rumors?
It is true. Our long time collaborator on keys, Daniel Walker, has been playing with Fullbright on some of his bigger gigs. He did Bonnaroo with Fullbright in 2013 and is getting ready to do Letterman with him in a couple of weeks. There is this great scene of Okie musician who all kind of know each other and play together when they get the chance. I feel my Okie roots coming out when I get around those guys.
In fact, we met Daniel on a gig at the Blue Door in OKC in 2010 – he sat in on our set that night.
So we were brainstorming with Daniel about recording our studio album for Smokey & the Mirror and we decided we wanted to bring in a drummer. He suggested John Carnuccio.
John (aka Nooch) spent the last few years touring with Fullbright. He was with the band at the Fayetteville Roots Festival in 2012 and 2013. He also used to play with the Turnpike Trubadoors.
Nooch and Daniel also play together in a great Norman band, Mama Sweet. So we were all lined up to make the record with the four of us. We were back at the Blue Door in June about a week before we were set to start recording in Norman. We were testing out some of our new tunes with a live audience.
Greg Johnson, that runs the Blue Door, knows his stuff. He knows good songs. He will tell it like it is. After the gig he said he loved everything we were doing but that we were missing one element, one note. He literally pulled his phone out of his pocket and called Terry “Buffalo” Ware and asked him to join the session. Terry said yes. Bernice and I were floored. Terry got his start playing with Ray Wylie Hubbard back in the 70’s. Truth be told he has played with just about everyone. He has been a mainstay on tour and on records with Fullbright for the last five years. He is one of the most tasteful guitar players I have every heard.
When we got to the studio Bernice looked around and realized she was standing in an Oklahoma studio surrounded by all Okies. We just went in and knocked out the record in a couple of days. It was all very spontaneous. One or two takes max. We recorded to tape – real old school. It was an exhilarating experience. At the end of the session we talked about doing some gigs with that configuration. We asked them to come play Roots with us. Long story short, Terry and Daniel are going to join us at the festival. It should be a lot of fun.
Tell us a little more about the new record.
What can we say? We are super excited about it. We feel like it is some of our best work yet. It is electric. Drums. It sounds like a record that could have been made in 1974, but it also sounds fresh.
We are finished with the record, but are going to give it space and probably release it around the first of the year. It’s at this point where we feel like the process of making the record and the act of preserving the songs is the fulfillment. It is hard to say what folks will think about it. We like it. It feels good to know that is enough at this point.
We know you guys are really plugged in to what’s going on in the folk and Americana world these days. Tell us some bands that you’ve seen out on the road that people need to know about. Bonus question – tell us about an artist playing at Fayetteville Roots Festival that may be a little lesser known that deserves some attention this year.
Traveling around the country and seeing other bands in one of our favorite parts of the job. We caught a set from Sarah Jarosz at the Red Wing Roots Festival in Virginia. She is tremendous. We definitely would recommend her to anyone we meet. We also caught an intimate solo set by Tim O’Brien while we were there. He will be at the Roots Fest with Darrell Scott. Be there – that is our recommendation.
We got caught up in this great music scene in Baltimore. We played a house concert there this summer. Our good friends, the Honey Dewdrops just moved to Baltimore and they are living with Caleb Stine. He is definitely worth checking out. After the house concert, we realized that almost everyone in the audience were musicians. The jam afterwards was epic. It was really refreshing to see and participate in a thriving musical community like that.
Let’s see. What else? Really, you just have to look at the Roots Fest lineup to see who we are into. We first saw the Wood Brothers at Folk Alliance in Memphis 2012. Chris broke a bass string and had to borrow Bernice’s bass. I told them that night they should come to the festival. I am glad it worked out to have them here this year. It is a similar story with Tony Furtado. We have this running thing with Tony, that we try to play one show a year at Folk Alliance if we happen to be there together. I think we have done a showcase with him for three years running. We love his music and are glad he is coming to the fest.
You guys obviously make a pretty good team, but when you’re in a touring band with your spouse, it ever hard to leave your work at the office?
It is truly not. We have a great working relationship. It just fits. We have literally been gigging together since we met. It is a part of our lives and love.
We played together at our wedding, we play together in our living room, we bounce song ideas while traveling the road together, and we get up on stage and share it easily. Bernice and I are partners in everything.
Tell us a little bit about how you guys write songs.
It usually starts with a song that I write and then Bernice will add some arrangement or take the vocal melody to a better place. We have been working more and more together on songs right as there beginning to form. On the new album, Bernice has a song “Ancient Lillies” that is her first ever 100% write. She did it all herself. I am real proud of it. She probably has the best song on the album. She has a vast well of songs that she is just getting around too. I can’t wait to hear what she comes up with in the next five years.
Fayetteville Roots Festival is turning 5 this year, correct? You guys have obviously been involved since the beginning. What have been some of the highlights for you?
The biggest highlight is how the community, both festival goers and musicians, have really rallied around the festival. The level of support from folks has been amazing. We never could have dreamed that we would have the chance to work on a project like the Roots Fest.
I also feel like there have been some truly magical music moments over the past four years. Darrell Scott sitting in with John Prine on Paradise. Guy Clark’s 2 hour set that was supposed to be 70 minutes – he just kept playing. He told me after the show that he was just “feeling it.” Prior to his show, I got to hang with Guy in his dressing room and play his handmade guitar.
Other great moments: John Fullbright sitting in with The Carper Family at George’s. Rob McCoury sitting in with Reverend Peyton at George’s. Bernice getting to drive Iris Dement around town (that was a big highlight for her!) It goes on. I can’t wait to see what happens this year.