It almost seems like fate that Bernice and Bryan Hembree met. The voices behind the popular and critically lauded musical duo Smokey and the Mirror blend beautifully while harmonizing, as though meant to be. As two-thirds of the team behind the Fayetteville Roots Festival -- their friend and partner Jerrmy Gawthrop is the other third -- it's obvious they work exceedingly well together. And the way they met was one of the most "small world" moments imaginable: A young man with whom Bernice attended high school in Mena met Bryan at Oxford while he was on a Fulbright Scholarship in England.
"We became friends, and he said, 'Oh, you're from Arkansas?'" remembers Bryan. "'There's this girl, you've got to meet her.' And I thought he was crazy. I was like, 'Why are you telling me this? This is silly. Let's just play some Bill Monroe.'"
Through Others’ Eyes
Bernice and Bryan Hembree
“I’ve played the Roots Fest every year it’s been alive. It’s been like watching a dear friend’s child growing up. I’m not as surprised that the brainchild of such wonderful people has grown to be so wild and powerful as I am proud to have been a witness.” — Raina Rose
“Bernice is a very strong and confident-minded person. If we’re having a hard time with a scenario or a person, she’ll give us a new perspective. We get so entrenched sometimes, we need a voice of reason. Whenever we have something that we need someone to run with, it’s her. Bryan sees the complete vision and all the steps to get there, from point A to Z — when you have over 100 unique programs in a five-day event, there’s a lot to keep track of. He’s meticulous that way. He’s a great communicator — being a musician for so long, and being a teacher and being a dad, and all of those parts — those 12 jobs — it’s in his wheelhouse. He brings each of those things to work.” — Jerrmy Gawthrop
“Bernice is an exceptional singer, a great player, and she’s also really fearless in her musical endeavors. One year I introduced her to [folk singer] Eliza Gilkyson at the Kerrville Folk Festival, and Eliza said, ‘Oh, I love your voice! Do you want to sing with me tonight?’ and Bernice just answered, ‘Sure,’ with no hesitation. Without having seen the music. I think she even had to sing a song in Spanish. She’s fearless.” — Bayard Blain
Ann Prentice Wagner
"He had been pestering us both for years, saying, 'You know, I really think you guys should meet,'" says Bernice. She got the chance to do just that when she settled down in Fayetteville following a brief stint studying music in New York City. Though, she says, "I was not interested whatsoever in meeting anybody."
But. That all changed when Bryan walked in the door on a Taco Tuesday night arranged by their mutual friend.
"Bryan walked in with, like, three instruments, coming over to do a little jam, and I didn't even know that this was the guy [my friend] was wanting to fix me up with, and I said, 'Who is this? Who is this guy?'" says Bernice, laughing. "And we started playing music that night, and we haven't stopped since."
Bernice invited Bryan to sing the Alison Krauss song "When You Say Nothing at All" at her sister's wedding.
"And I said to her, 'Hey, you should just jam with this band thing we're putting together called Wildwood,'" says Bryan.
"That's how I learned to play bass," nods Bernice. "We had a very different musical upbringing -- he played guitar in front of the radio. That was crazy to me. I played classical piano since I was nine or 10, and you played piano with music. You know, it's not something I would have ever been able to do, because I didn't know how to play by that kind of ear. But they needed a bass player. I said, 'I could play piano!'"
"Uh, no," says Bryan.
"You said, 'We're in a bluegrass band, you're going to have to learn to play bass,'" says Bernice, laughing. "I was just singing, and he was, like, 'You're going to have to pick up some slack.' He would not let me use music when we practiced. That was one of the rules. I would want to write everything out, and he would say, 'No, no, we're just going to "one-four-five" it -- I didn't know what that number system was, either, so I had to learn that. 'What is "one-four-five" in music? Just call it by its letter name! Give me the chord!' But I've learned way more from him than he's learned from me, so, thanks."
"Oh," says Bryan, smiling, "you're welcome."
Lives of music
Three months after they met, they were married.
Meant to be.
Both tell tales of childhoods where music and performance took center stage, eclipsing all other interests. Bernice started studying classical piano at the age of 9 and picked up the clarinet when she was in fifth grade. She started playing the latter for the choir at St. Agnes Catholic Church in Mena.
"During a responsorial psalm, when all of us sang together, the choir director said, 'I think you should put the clarinet down, and you should sing with us,'" says Bernice. "I guess I was louder than everyone else. Wyona Abbot, the choir director, she was really the person who got me singing."
Bernice auditioned for a traveling missionary choir called The Celebrant Singers in 1998, when she was a senior in high school, and left on tour two days after she graduated.
"I had my suitcase ready to go," she says. She toured for about six months and then headed to Hot Springs to attend the Garland County Community College (now National Park College), where she had a scholarship, and then on to the American Music and Dance Academy in New York. By this time, she had discovered that her voice was perfect for musical theater -- which she performed in often at the Ouachita Little Theatre in Mena. Now, through this post-secondary study, she was expanding her range to opera. She had been studying in New York for a little over a year when she realized that big city life was not for her.
"I was tired of the city," she says. "It stunk. I remember, it was a summer day, and I had this nasty smell enter my nostrils, and I said, 'I'm done with this place. I can't handle it.' That was the last straw."
Bryan, meanwhile, was on his own musical path. Born and raised in Sand Springs, Okla., his first focus was academics; he was a gifted student with high grades. He was traveling with his school's debate team when a fellow team member's musical skill sparked a new interest in him.
"He was this really flashy, great guitar player," remembers Bryan. "And he would bring his acoustic guitar on those trips. I was probably 14 years old, and I just saw it, and I just thought, 'Yeah -- that's what I want to do.'"
Once the passion was ignited, Bryan realized he needed his own guitar.
"Probably what happened was, I was, like, 'I need $100 for a guitar,' and [my parents] were probably, like, 'Bryan, come on,'" he says with a laugh. "The only thing of value I had to my name was my Sega Genesis. And so I went down to this pawn shop in Sand Springs downtown, and I traded my Sega Genesis for a really bad copy of a Gibson Les Paul. The guitar was fake, but the case was real. Inside, someone had scrubbed off whatever the bad name was -- I think with Wite-Out -- and had tried to draw Gibson on it. I thought it was amazing."
He spent hours in his room learning to play the songs he was hearing on the radio. He formed a band in high school, and, when they first performed in front of a crowd, he was hooked. At 16 years old, he and his band started performing regularly, including gigs in downtown Tulsa.
"I just felt right at home doing that," he says. "I wasn't nervous. It felt comfortable."
Once in college, he performed with an eight-piece funk band called Grandpa's Goodtime Fandango. Even his Fulbright Scholarship and relocation to England didn't stop him from performing: He brought his mandolin to Oxford and formed the Oxford Bluegrass Collective.
"It was just people who wanted to play or sing or hang out and listen to bluegrass music," he says. "And the dean of St. Catherine's College, where I went, the entire time I was there he never called me by my name -- he always called me 'Bluegrass'. There was another American there, this guy, John Gates, and he was from Mena."
And, of course, we know the rest of that story.
The couple would take a few side roads before officially pairing off to become Smokey and the Mirror. They toured with Wildwood for around a year before breaking off and leading choirs at both St. Joseph and St. Thomas Catholic churches in Fayetteville. They then toured for some time in a folk/bluegrass band with their friend and former Wildwood band member Bayard Blain (now proprietor of Bayard Guitars), playing at nearly every Saturday Farmers' Market in Fayetteville. It was during this time that they had their daughter, Bergen.
"At the Farmers' Market, I would strap her on my back and play," says Bernice.
This trio would become 3 Penny Acre and would eventually release two very well-received records.
"We released the second record, and that did really well, nationally, with respect to folk radio," Bryan says. "We had the No. 1 song for two months in 2010, and we were getting some good attention. In some ways, it felt like we were moving toward, 'Hey, this could be a full-time thing.'"
In addition to their other "full-time things": Not only were the couple raising a daughter, but they also had multiple other projects outside of their music. Besides teaching music lessons, Bernice started Terra Tots, a natural parenting store located on the Fayetteville square, in 2007 (she "passed the Terra Tots torch" to Jennifer Creel in 2011). Bryan switched from an administrative to teaching role at the University of Arkansas, which allowed him more flexibility for their music.
"We were living the gig economy before it was a thing," says Bryan. "Always doing three or four things, because you have to do that as an artist. It may take a lifetime to say, 'Oh, this is what I do full time.'"
The couples' plentiful energy and desire to expand musical access in the Northwest Arkansas area led them to their most ambitious project yet, though they didn't know it at the time. They had frequently offered up their home to visiting musicians, who performed intimate house concerts for small groups of people. One particular weekend in 2010, they got notice that three different acts were looking for a venue and realized their house was too small to host. So they reached out to their friend and Northwest Arkansas restaurateur Jerrmy Gawthrop. The couple had met Gawthrop when 3 Penny Acre started playing at Gawthrop's restaurant, Greenhouse Grille.
"We kind of said, 'Why don't we just invite them and a few more people, and then you've got a one-day music festival?'" remembers Bryan. "It was literally just completely off the cuff, just like, 'Let's see what we can do here.' Jerrmy Gawthorp was our good friend and a chef at Greenhouse Grille. He agreed to let us host there on a Sunday, because they were closed."
It was an immediate success.
"There were a lot of people from the community that came out and really enjoyed it," says Bryan. "They told us that this is something that was missing from Fayetteville, and that they wanted to see it happen here. They encouraged us to think a little bigger and expand our horizons. So, in 2011, we did ramp it up, and it was a two-day festival. And then we started ramping it up from there."
"Ramping it up" does not quite do justice to what the trio -- the Hembrees and Gawthorp -- have accomplished with the Roots Fest over the past nine years. They started, almost immediately, attracting world-class headliners: Noted singer-songwriter Guy Clark headlined in 2011, and last year's headliners included Iron & Wine, the Wood Brothers and Elephant Revival. This year will feature Gillian Welch, the Turnpike Troubadours and Josh Ritter. They're also committed to offering performing venues for musical acts on the rise.
With over a hundred events at over a dozen venues, crowd sizes have exploded since the first event, and tickets are routinely sold out. Bryan estimated that some 5,000 people participated in last year's festival, which expanded its celebration of food and culture, bringing several nationally known chefs to host culinary classes and tastings at Brightwater: A Center for the Study of Food in Bentonville. The Roots Fest gives back to the region by partnering with Feed Communities, a nonprofit organization that strives to make healthy food more accessible. And, through the years, the founders have made sure that there is plenty of free programming -- including movie screenings, musical performance and culinary classes -- to benefit the community.
"It's been nine years of work and effort," says Gawthrop. "In the beginning, I think we were humbled that there was any response, and we were thankful. We also saw the need, that there is a big hole in the music scene here for something this style. Over time, it would ebb and flow -- we would have so-so years and great years, but we were learning the whole time. There was always data mining going on. For the last couple of years, we've had great acts and great culinary programming and doing great promotions, so there has been some expectation of success. We've been working hard and putting our best foot forward for a while now."
Bernice says she particularly loves the collaboration she sees going on around her during the week of the festival.
"And it's not just musicians or chefs," she says. "[Singer-songwriter] Darrell Scott was really impressed by our solar power that we used -- Flint Richter with Richter Solar Energy powers several of our stages. Darrell was really intrigued and wanted to know more about it, and they started talking -- and Flint and [wife] Melissa drove out to his property in Tennessee where he was building an off-the-grid cabin. All because they met at the Roots Fest and had that spark of interest to teach each other. We love when that happens."
Both Hembrees are vocal and effusive in their gratitude for the help they get from the city of Fayetteville and the many volunteers who assist with the festival each year. But, in the end, it's the original trio who does the bulk of the year-round planning for the festival. And Bryan says it is, indeed, a year-round effort.
"Last year, the festival ended on the 27th of August, and, two weeks later, Bernice and I were in Nashville at this big conference, meeting with agents and starting that process right away," he says. "I used to think we could end the festival and take two months off, but it's pretty much right back at it, now."
"[They don't] do it for money," says Blain. "Because they don't make any money. Bryan is really taking one for the team because he spends all year doing this for very little return. It's a labor of love."
"I know a lot of people who have big dreams about throwing festivals but absolutely no work ethic," says close friend and fellow musician Raina Rose. "A festival needs an architect who is willing to get dirty and sweaty building the foundations. Bryan and Bernice are people who work tirelessly, bridging their art with the community at large. That's why this festival has been successful -- the hard work they've put in."
Partner Gawthrop says communication is key.
"We're friends, first," he says. "We spend every Thanksgiving and Christmas together with our families. We communicate really well. Bryan and I spend hours and hours throughout the year on the phone, and things just happen when we're talking, which is great. There's a lot of synergy. We can talk ourselves through a problem, find a solution and an outcome that's even better than we could have imagined. A great mark of a good partnership is open and transparent communication."
And everything else
Despite the heavy responsibility of the Roots Fest, the Hembrees haven't neglected their own musical aspirations. Sometime around 2013, the trio of 3 Penny Acre became a duo when Blain decided to pursue a career as a luthier full time. The twosome kicked off Smokey and the Mirror in a big way by recording performances in Houston, Austin and Oklahoma City and then releasing a live album.
"Literally, our first gigs [as Smokey and the Mirror] were going in, recording our live record," says Bryan. "Which was weird. But was fun."
The balancing act between maintaining a life on the road and all of the other projects they have going on is precarious, but it's important to the couple because, as Bernice says, "Otherwise, you're not nurturing that other side." They have a tour of Denmark coming up in March -- daughter Bergen will travel with them -- and in April, they'll be performing a series of concerts in Fayetteville, Dallas and Houston with the female folk trio I'm With Her.
And their work expanding cultural offerings in Northwest Arkansas isn't just limited to their own musical talent and the Roots Fest: They were part of the group that helped launch the local outpost of House of Songs, a hothouse for songwriters from around the world to collaborate and share their work. They're also working with the Walton Family Foundation in their partnership with real estate developer and property manager Artspace. The research on that project aims at pinpointing ways the arts can help drive economic success in Northwest Arkansas.
Their work, taken collectively, seems a little like a valentine that the Hembrees regularly offer both to the folks who live in Northwest Arkansas and the musicians who travel here to perform. Bryan admits that sometimes he feels a bit like an "unofficial ambassador to Northwest Arkansas."
"I think that we're really fortunate in that respect -- that we still get to travel, but we still have this home base," he says. "There was one artist that came for the festival, and she said, 'I want some of this.' I said, 'What are you talking about?' and she said, 'Community, you know?'
"We travel all over the country, and sometimes we try and list, if we weren't living in Fayetteville, where would we live? And that list has just shrunk and shrunk to where we're just -- this is the best place we could imagine. We're full in and we're invested. How could you not be? It's a great place."
NAN Profiles on 02/18/2018
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