A little more than a year after giving the annual Fayetteville Roots Festival a "gentle break" and closing the doors of the former Roots headquarters venue on the downtown Fayetteville square, organizers Bernice and Bryan Hembree find themselves at home again -- just a few blocks away.
"When we came in, we were like, this is part of our history, too," Bryan Hembree said of the Walker-Stone house, which is now home to Folk School of Fayetteville. The Hembrees opened it this May to make space for "people to teach people" through music lessons, classes, workshops, jams and more.
On the walls of the Walker-Stone house is a mural painted during the 2017 Green Candy Art event, which was hosted in conjunction with the Roots Festival that year. In the hallway is a felt painting by Donna Mulhollan, one half of Still on the Hill, who played the festival and hosted jam sessions at the former Roots headquarters.
The bold red walls and bright blue leaves in the pre-Civil War front room harmonize with paintings created by local artists, such as Matt Miller and Brandon Bullette, during mainstage events for the annual festival that boasted headliners such as John Prine, Iris Dement, Mavis Staples, Taj Mahal, Gillian Welch, John Fullbright, Lucinda Williams, Hurray for the Riff Raff, The Wood Brothers and so many more.
The Hembrees have explained many times that the Folk School of Fayetteville is not an extension of the Fayetteville Roots Festival and although the space is imbued with its history, the Folk School isn't hosting large concerts. Instead, local and visiting artists host workshops and classes at the school.
Earlier this year, local musician Adams Collins (Arkansauce, Dana Louise and the Glorious Birds) hosted a series of classes on banjo playing. Just last week, folk duo The Lowest Pair performed a concert and held a banjo workshop at the Folk School.
The rooms of the pre-Civil War house are dedicated to lessons. In the evenings, jam sessions, open mics, and the occasional spontaneous square dance (thanks to Willi Carlisle), are held at the school. Nearly every room has a piano, many of which were donated. Then there's the instrument library with accordions, mandolins and guitars hanging from the walls, various percussive instruments spread over the top of a piano and banjos propped on stands next to a hammered mandolin.
Bernice Hembree says that the instrument library, and later the instrument fund to maintain those instruments, came about from listening to the needs of the people coming to the school.
First, some of her piano students expressed an interest in trying other instruments like electric guitar. Another wanted to try playing accordion. Thanks to 13 years of hosting a folk festival, the Hembrees had a couple and loaned the kid a squeezebox.
"He took that accordion home and picked it up and it was like he was meant to play it," she said. "That really sparked the idea that if people have more access to various instruments ... that just opens up a whole other level of music making for them, so we decided 'Let's open this up and have more instruments available.'"
Before they even announced the drive to raise money and collect instruments and sound equipment, people were already handing over instruments.
While Bernice got the idea to avail more instruments to her students, Bryan took direction from their ongoing instrument and sound equipment rental program for performers who come into the area to perform, but don't bring their gear. It's referred to as "backline" in the music industry and the program began during the Roots Festival. The Hembrees have rented out instruments from guitars to violins to cellos and even a B3 Hammond Organ.
"The biggest difference between the backline and the instrument loan program is backline is really nice instruments that players have been playing on for years, and they know what they're doing, and they know exactly what they need," Bernice says. "And we charge for that because it's expensive to have all that gear."
"For an instrument library, these are instruments that are set up and geared for learners, so we don't charge. There is no fee for people to rent these," she points out.
Students can take the instrument home for about a month or they can reserve time at the Folk School to really spend time working with the instrument.
"You might have someone who plays guitar, and they think they really want to play fiddle -- they're so invested. Then they actually get a fiddle and realize they hate it and it's not for them. You hear stories about this all the time."
It's the story behind many of the instruments that have been donated to the folk school so far. Basically, one musician's failed investment is another student's opportunity to explore something new.
Sometimes having an extra instrument or an instrument set up properly makes a big difference, Bryan Hembree points out. For instance, sometimes guitars aren't set up correctly for left-handed players. Other times, players struggle simply with moving from an acoustic guitar to an electric one.
"Same six strings, two different worlds," he said, but "being able to try that uninhibited, not just five minutes, like in a store where you're trying to play your riff [but] having time to dig into that. I think that that goes a long way."
"I think there are players, music makers, out there (who) stopped playing music because they have a really bad instrument," Bernice added. "That can be a guitar that doesn't hold its tune, and so it never gets tuned up to the proper string turnings. Or it could be a keyboard that has about eight keys that don't work, so they stopped making music because it's not working and it sounds terrible."
"Having an instrument that is a player's instrument makes all the difference, especially for beginners that are advancing from the interest level to getting better by stepping up from a level two to level three. It makes a huge difference for those players," Bernice said.
The instruments at the Folk School aren't just available for students, either, they point out. During their free jam sessions, which include a Soldier Songs jam session, a regular "old time" jam, a 21-and-under jam and open mic nights, players may grab a mandolin off the wall and play along. Then they can also reserve time in the instrument library to explore what's available.
"We have a hammer dulcimer that is mind-blowing beautiful," Bernice added.
The couple take turns talking about a recent guest at a jam session who admitted to being reclusive at first, but as the night went on they discovered that the woman was a multi-instrumentalist who moved easily from a borrowed guitar to a borrowed bass to borrowed percussion instruments.
"It was really nice to have access to those things, and I think it broke down the barrier for her feeling like she couldn't participate just because that was readily available," Bryan said.
As the library grows and more people take advantage of this program -- especially those taking home violins or banjos -- how do you keep people from just running off with instruments?
Bernice said that they are putting some plans in motion just in case.
"Up until this point, everyone that has borrowed an instrument (are) people that we know -- a student or a friend that has been coming to school for a long time," Bernice explained. "Now we have strangers who will be taking [instruments] so we've had to had to ask that question ourselves."
Currently, they are setting up a system that will hold credit card information, cash or a check that will be returned to the borrower once the instrument is returned to the Folk School.
Bryan said the social contract established with people who come into the Folk School will bring back more banjos than holding a check.
"Most people that are coming in here to have access to what's happening at the Folk School want to contribute," he said.
"Having the trust that we do -- trusting that person to take care of this instrument and we're not going to charge them -- I think there's something to that," Bernice said. "You got to show trust to get trust. That goes a long way in this project, we're trusting people a lot even to come in and use a practice room upstairs. We are really trusting that they are taking as much care with the instruments and the amps that we have in putting them up there and [making them] available."
Right now the Hembrees are crowdfunding through ioby.org to raise money to expand the library and to hire local technicians to repair donated instruments and equipment. The Folk School of Fayetteville - Instrument Fund project is eligible for up to $15,000 in matching funds, up to $1,000 matched per donor, through the Northwest Arkansas Neighborhood Match Program. They have until November 28 to raise $30,612.
They are also accepting instruments and sound equipment from the community and looking to connect with people who know how to work on the vast collection of instruments.
"We're also excited to engage the luthier community and have them start to work because that's a part of this creative economy as well," Bryan said, referring to those who make and repair stringed instruments such as guitars and violins. Through the regular Irish Jam Session, they've already connected with a player who can fix fiddles."
"It's given him an opportunity to hone these skills that he hasn't used in a long time, which is a really good tradition to pass on," Bernice said. "Hopefully, he'll teach me something!"
"This thing keeps being said over and over, I hear from different people. There's this idea of like, 'I want to get back to that knowledge that I've lost,'" Bryan Hembree said. "On the flip side, many of the folks coming through the door are looking to pass on their knowledge, which is at the heart of a folk school -- people teaching people."