Steve Sweitzer takes his music — and his barbecue — seriously.
You'd expect nothing less from the man who has grown Columbia's annual Roots N Blues N BBQ Festival over a decade, but Sweitzer has good reason to sound downright bubbly about this weekend's three-day lineup. He and co-organizer Richard King (of the Blue Note and Mojo's) are putting more than 27 acts on two stages, including the Black Crowes, Mavis Staples, Steve Earle, Samantha Fish, Phosphorescent, Béla Fleck, and Johnny Winter.
The Pitch: Give me a little history on the Roots N Blues N BBQ Festival.
Sweitzer: This is our seventh year doing the show. The overall mission, when we created it all those years ago, was to have a very eclectic mix of genres. Believe it or not, we did research 10 years ago, and a lot of people still didn't understand what roots music was. They thought it was part of blues music. It seems odd, right, because we've been hit over the head with roots music, but that's really the origin of the name — originally it was just going to be the Roots N BBQ Festival, and when people didn't realize what that was, we decided to add blues to it.
Eclectic means something beyond roots and blues music?
Every category of music has been represented in that roots world: folk, bluegrass old and new, country old and new. Really, the mission was to build an eclectic show and feature what I like to call "the real deal." We're gonna have guys like Dale Watson — he plays old time honky-tonk, and he's influenced by all the country greats, back when country was country and not pop or whatever it is now. I'm not saying anything bad about that genre. It's just that's not the point of the show. It's to represent artists that aren't necessarily breaking artists, to represent artists that maybe have been around for a while and haven't done anything until recently. Like Mavis Staples, for example, who was helped along by Jeff Tweedy, and now a new generation knows her name. I think that's great. We have Mavis coming for the Gospel Brunch on Sunday.
At its core, there are a lot of singer-songwriters this year. That was intentional. Like Steve Earle, who's been around forever. The fact of the matter is that the guy's brilliant. Nikki Hill's an up-and-comer — there's a really cool soul thing she does with her band. We have Johnny Winter, who's still singing and playing like when he was a kid, and he's no youngster. There's Keller Williams, a brilliant singer-songwriter, and he's teamed up with the Travelin' McCourys, and their dad is one of the elders of bluegrass music — really one of the godfathers of that category.
Is there anyone you particularly think we should know about?
ZZ Ward. She's a good example of something I try to do every year. When artists come to the show, I always try to spend some time with them and find out who they're listening to — you know, up-and-coming young artists — and that's the case with ZZ Ward. We had Fitz and the Tantrums here a couple years ago, and I was talking to Fitz, and he talked about how he was producing a couple songs for ZZ Ward, and we immediately put her on our list.
The festival is at a new location this year, Stephens Lake Park. How did that move happen?
This is the first festival we've hosted there. We did a test concert last year about this time. What we wanted to see was how things looked and sounded and how people reacted to those surroundings, and it was very positive. Who wouldn't want to be out on 50 acres under the stars watching these great acts on two giant stages?
There's also a big race that you do. How does that fit in with the festival?
That's a feature that's really growing in popularity for us. It's a 10k race, and we've got over a thousand runners signed up now. It's a really good course, and it's professionally timed. But maybe the main feature is the live music on the race route, and the part where, when the runners are done, they get a big old can of beer and barbecue. [Laughs.]
Is there anything else about the show this year that's different for you?
The other thing that is brand-new for us is that we've never had a Sunday show. We've always just been Friday and Saturday and then done, so this year, for your weekend pass, we have two and a half days of music. On Sunday, we'll have the Gospel Brunch, and several of the food vendors are creating some special brunch items that you can enjoy while you're watching the show.