Danielsen: Three reasons to relax as Roots N Blues fest becomes Treeline

Jack Antonoff and Bleachers perform during the third day of the Roots N Blues festival on Oct. 9, 2022, at Stephens Lake Park in Columbia, Mo.
Jack Antonoff and Bleachers perform during the third day of the Roots N Blues festival on Oct. 9, 2022, at Stephens Lake Park in Columbia, Mo.

Soon the lineup will be released for the first-ever Treeline Music Fest, Sept. 29-Oct. 1 in Stephens Lake Park.

Only Treeline isn't a brand-new festival. Back in February, co-owners Tracy Lane and Shay Jasper announced their Roots N Blues festival — a Columbia concert staple since 2007 — would receive something of a refresh and restore, complete with a new name.

Responses scattered like seeds along predictable ground. A number of concertgoers and area musicians, keeping track of Lane and Jasper's vision since assuming control of the fest, expressed excitement. Others lamented — that a festival they once anticipated seemed to be getting further and further away from them.

Exercising my very unscientific powers of observation, it seems Treeline will be more than fine. Even though University of Missouri alum Sheryl Crow stood on the Roots N Blues stage two years ago and (prophetically, it now seems) sang "I think a change ... would do you good," change always inspires backlash. But often, with time and continued success, dissonant chords fade away or resolve on their own.

Aarik Danielsen
Aarik Danielsen

Also, a few comments on social media posts don't add up to a revolt. The minority opinion is vocal, but also it seems just that — a minority.

Still, concerns expressed in the wake of this recent change resemble complaints lodged at the festival formerly known as Roots N Blues for well over a decade now. Similar messages cloaked in different details.

So before Treeline fully grows into its new identity this fall, here are three reasons concertgoers should relax a little and tune to the music.

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1. The blues are in everything — especially hip-hop

Since Roots N Blues debuted in 2007, as a living, breathing, rocking celebration of Central Bank of Boone County's 150th anniversary, every step away from that first year has provoked hand-wringing. Moving from a free event to a ticketed festival. Moving from downtown to Stephens Lake Park. Losing its local stages, formerly nestled in Peace Park. Waving farewell to its barbecue competition.

There were both legitimate concerns about each change and some that were less on-point. This, again, is natural.

But perhaps the most common refrain sounds something like this: They don't play the blues anymore.

This gripe found fresh expression this year when Treeline launched a series of genre reveals, forecasting what styles would be heard this fall — and started with hip-hop. (The fest has since gestured toward indie pop, stomp and holler and, yes, the blues.) An unsurprising number and kind of pearls were clutched.

Complaints about perceived scarcity, and the presence of hip-hop, ignore a key reality: Blue is a deep color. Continuing to request a single shade — the same guitar-slingers you can see at any other American blues festival — actually sells the blues short. The blues are in every American music, and the fest has excelled at programming artists who draw on the blues like they draw breath, yet stretch into other genres.

And hip-hop absolutely qualifies as the spiritual and logical outgrowth of the blues tradition. The great, pioneering bluesmen of 100 years ago would be rappers were they born today. To miss this is to lose touch with the blues.

No listener has to enjoy a certain style of music. If you don't dig hip-hop, you don't dig hip-hop. That's more than fine. But don't throw up your hands as if it arrives from an alternate universe.

An aside: hip-hop dawned around 50 years ago. Reacting as though it's some new craze would be like concertgoers in 2000 expressing surprise at rock 'n' roll's inclusion on a festival bill. This is a vital art form. It earned the great Kendrick Lamar a Pulitzer Prize in 2018. Frankly, it's about time for hip-hop to be heard at Stephens Lake Park.

2. Festivals, like artists, need to evolve

Ask any of the great Roots N Blues artists from the past 15 years — Wilco, Tanya Tucker, Jason Isbell, John Prine, Los Lobos, and even more traditional blues acts such as Taj Mahal and Buddy Guy, and they'd all hold one idea in common. They can't stand still, and they don't want to.

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Stasis is the enemy of good art. These musicians keep finding new wrinkles in their sound and keep chasing last night's dreams.

And so it is, or should be, with festivals. Check out the lineup for the iconic New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival, which kicked off Friday. Sure, there's a wealth of jazz. But there's also Dead and Company, Mumford and Sons and The Lumineers. A number of Roots N Blues alums will stop by — Jon Batiste, Gary Clark Jr., Leon Bridges. And, yes, there's hip-hop in play with the likes of Lizzo and Ludacris.

The Newport Folk Festival doesn't stick to one strict definition of folk. These festivals grow with the music and, like with the blues, acknowledge there's jazz and folk in nearly everything. That all music is roots music to someone.

3. Treeline's owners are aiming for permanence

Sheryl Crow performs on the EquipmentShare stage during the 2021 Roots N Blues festival at Stephens Lake Park
Sheryl Crow performs on the EquipmentShare stage during the 2021 Roots N Blues festival at Stephens Lake Park

Perhaps the greatest reason to relax is the simplest: Lane and Jasper have a strong vision, and they've shown their ability to execute it. With the name change, and their willingness to expand the lineup — which probably won't feel all that different from the past couple years — they are making a bid for something permanent and special.

The Treeline name tethers the festival to its setting. A responsiveness to musical trends and the time-honored interweaving of styles allows the fest to keep going, and avoid carving its initials into the same niche over and over.

Lane and Jasper have already taken chances — programming female representation in every slot of the 2021 edition — and they've paid off. Both in industry attention and meaningful live-music experiences. The pair clearly love music and love Columbia.

This doesn't mean every change they make should be gospel. They have and will make mistakes. But they've also shown themselves well worth a measure of good faith.

Maybe all this will be moot when the Treeline lineup comes into view. Probably not, if the last 15 years are evidence. But there's reason enough to take a deep breath and look forward to this fall. And maybe it's time to take Sheryl Crow at her word.

Aarik Danielsen is the features and culture editor for the Tribune. Contact him at adanielsen@columbiatribune.com or by calling 573-815-1731.

This article originally appeared on Columbia Daily Tribune: Danielsen: Three reasons to relax as Roots N Blues fest becomes Treeline