The Kay Brothers album cover

"Roots N Blues has always done a fantastic job of including great local artists," says Pat Kay from The Kay Brothers. They're scheduled to return for their second year and appreciate how the festival has always kept a local feel. 

Roots N Blues returns to Columbia Sept. 27-29 with new owners. In May, Jamie Varvaro, Tracy Lane and Shay Jasper bought Thumper Productions and Roots N Blues N BBQ.

Varvaro, Lane and Jasper are not new to the festival itself. Jasper began as an intern in 2014 and was brought on as assistant director of festival operations in 2017. Lane served as director in its inaugural year and then left the Ragtag Film Society last year to take up that mantle again. Varvaro started as a volunteer, then a consultant and then took on the role of marketing and development.

With new leaders come subtle changes, but this year’s fest includes many ingredients that CoMo natives and visitors have come to know and love.

John Prine is back as a headliner, joining all-star newcomers Maren Morris and Ben Harper. The fest has come a long way since planting its roots — and blues and barbecue.

It began in 2007 as a barbecue festival and celebration of Central Bank of Boone County’s 150th anniversary. Thumper Productions, then-owned by Richard King, purchased and continued the festival while making additions over the years.

The festival became a ticketed event in 2009. In 2017, Roots N Blues established the Betsy Farris Memorial Run in honor of its longtime director Farris, who died in 2016 from cancer. Roots N Blues also went cashless that year. Today, attendees pay for food by loading money onto wristbands and double tapping them at different stalls.

However, Varvaro says the biggest change in Roots N Blues history was the 2013 move from downtown to Stephens Lake Park.

This year’s changes are mostly behind-the-scenes, such as overhauling the website to make it ADA-compliant. This is a subtle way to improve the festival experience, Varvaro says.

“Even significant changes to us that improve our festival goer’s experience might go undetected, but not necessarily unnoticed, in our patrons’ overall experience,” Varvaro says. “Meaning that it’s not just one thing that sticks out; it’s about looking back at the weekend and being blown away.”

Varvaro says this year’s lineup is diverse. Eight performers are Grammy winners, including Amanda Shires, Patty Griffin and Del McCoury. Almost a third of the acts, including The Mavericks and The Mighty Pines, are Roots N Blues veterans.

Several Missouri-based acts will perform. Local artist Violet Vonder Haar of Violet and the Undercurrents says she is excited about the local feel of this year’s fest. Pat Kay of The Kay Brothers says he is, too. This is the second year his band has performed.

“Unlike a lot of other festivals in the country that have sort of risen to national attention, I feel like Roots N Blues has always done a fantastic job of including great local artists,” Kay says. “They’ve just done a really great job of maintaining that tether to the local music community.”

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