Richard Buckner, the roots rock vagabond, is pacing the floor and checking his gear. The gig tonight is a house concert in Peace Dale, a series under the name of Roots Hoot. Dan and Liz Ferguson, who own the house, are filling their usual roles. Dan is focused on sound equipment and the clock. His wife, Liz, glides from room to room with a smile and a glass of wine, saying hello to visitors and catching up with friends.
Chairs fill the living room in tight rows. The final beams of setting sun pierce through the screen door. Buckner, a bear of a man with long black hair and a ragged flannel shirt, takes his seat in front, drops a battered guitar into his lap and begins to pick out a constellation of dark, brooding chords. The crowd's low mumble fades into silence. Leaning into the microphone, eyes closed, he begins, "You woke up too late/You know what they thought/While you were waiting for the strangers that had gone."
The house concert isn't a new concept, of course; punk, hardcore, and emo were introduced to an entire generation of Midwest teens via high-energy basement shows in the '80s and '90s. But more recently, hosts have taken up roots music, a fluid genre that borrows from rock, blues, folk, Tex-Mex, and country, blooming into what Gram Parsons called "cosmic American music."
It is, in a way, a return to the form's origins. Roots was practically invented in American living rooms at the turn of the 20th century, a time when nearly every family had a guitar or banjo player and popular entertainment was a local affair. These days, back-to-the-land revivalism, DIY experimentation, and a deep craving for community has turned the roots house concert into a comforting antidote to a digital, manufactured music industry — and the digital world writ large.
Since 2001, Dan and Liz Ferguson have hosted more than 100 Roots Hoot concerts. Musicians have traveled near and far to perform on a stage of area rug, under lights no brighter than 100-watt bulbs. On one night, the audience sits captivated by a shy singer-songwriter with a whisper of a voice. On another, fans rock out to the Telecaster riffs and pedal steel grit of a blazing West Texas garage band. And while the performers each bring their own unique sound, all share one thing in common: genuine appreciation for being invited.
"All the artists want to come back," Dan says. "Every single one."
"People that we idolize are playing for tip jars," Liz adds. "They come here [and] get a captive audience, a fabulous dinner, and they sell all their swag. Everybody wins."
High school sweethearts from Long Island, the Fergusons came here to attend the University of Rhode Island in the early '80s. After marriage, the couple decided to make the state their home. Children followed and the couple settled into the rhythms of careers and kids in Peace Dale — Dan working as a software engineer and Liz as a middle school English teacher. Devoted music fans, they traveled to every hub of Americana they could manage: Austin, Memphis, Nashville, and New Orleans.