When Sean and Jamie Burns discovered American "roots" music during its resurgence in the '90s, they took the music to heart. Trips to Indianapolis and Chicago to see acts like Wayne Hancock, Johnny Dilks, and Big Sandy solidified their love of swing, rockabilly, hillbilly blues, and the culture surrounding the music. After seeing Hancock at the Illinois State Fair and noticing local organizations bringing in national acts, the couple decided to start the Sangamon Valley Roots Revival. Four years later, the same desire keeps them bringing in notable roots music acts.
"It sounds corny, but it's true," Burns says. "There's a global community of people that are keeping this music alive and it's fun to be part of it."
The Burnses started with an artist wish list and began contacting people in that "global community." Soon names came off the list and onto publicity posters. The first SVRR show was at the Alley on Second and Carpenter (presently Ollie's) and featured Johnny Dilks, a San Francisco yodeler with a western swing band. Ray Condo (who recently passed away), Robbie Fulks, Big Sandy, Rosie Flores, Mandy Barnett, Hank Williams III, Ryan Adams, Del McCoury Band, Nick Curran, and many others graced Springfield stages over the next few years, invited by Sean and Jamie through their homespun operation.
The couple has come a long way since those first days, when they worried about attendance and paying the bills. They have established a newsletter, a Web site, a radio show, and a word-of-mouth credibility with artists and agents across the country. After the original home at the Alley disappeared, they made a few more stops at now defunct bars, then landed at the Underground City Tavern in the Hilton Springfield. They helped to organize the Rooftop Roots Festival, a concert held on the parking garage roof of the Hilton that featured international star Junior Brown in 2003 and has Mandy Barnett and BR549 on this year's bill.
Recent support from the local Miller beer distributorship plus continued help from Recycled Records and Flowers by Mary Lou, has allowed the SVRR to settle in along with other local organizations like the Illinois Central Blues Club, Springfield Classical Guitar Society, and the Jazz Society of Greater Springfield, to become a basic part of the Springfield music scene.
SVRR is not a not-for-profit legally, but certainly qualifies for the title in reality. "We don't make any money at this and the musicians we bring aren't getting rich," says Burns. "Just last night at the Hilton, Candye Kane [a blues singer booked by the SVRR] was talking about how she wanted young girls to know that it was possible for a person to make a living playing music. It's great seeing middle-class musicians doing what they love and making a living."
Live performances are vital to those "middle-class musicians" who don't have big royalty checks from million-selling albums rolling into the mailbox on a quarterly basis. Burns catches these working bands while they're passing by Springfield to fill the SVRR schedule. "The Oneida Bingo Casino in Green Bay has been booking all kinds of roots music bands. That's how we got Marti Brom for the anniversary party."
Brom, who rarely plays outside of her hometown of Austin, Texas, is considered quite a coup for the local group. She was born and raised in St. Louis and spent her summers in New Orleans with her grandparents. Later in life, she married, had children, moved to Austin, and began her rise to becoming the "finest female rockabilly vocalist of her generation." She claims Patsy Cline as her past music mentor and looks to the likes of Chrissie Hynde and Rosie Flores for present inspiration. Her back-up band, the Barnshakers, are considerd the best rockabilly group ever to come from Finland and are renowned world-wide for their authentic look and sound. Deke Dickerson rounds out the anniversary show with his eclectic electric guitar licks and almost corny hillbilly swing. Deke has performed several times locally, including the Decatur Celebration, CILCO Summer Serenade, and SVRR bar shows.
After all the time and effort he and Jamie have spent single-handedly keeping the Sangamon Valley Roots Revival together, Sean still views it as a healthy combination of community improvement and personal satisfaction. "Fours years down the road I look at it more as cultural preservation," Burns says. "I just wish more people would take a chance and come out and spend five bucks to see something they've never heard before and search a little for their art. Whatever happens, when we go out we always like the band."
The Sangamon Valley Roots Revival celebrates its fourth anniversary at 9 p.m., Saturday, April 24, at the Underground City Tavern, Hilton Springfield. Special guests include Deke Dickerson and the Ecco-fonics and Marti Brom with the Barnshakers and of course, anniversary cake and door prizes. Tickets are $8 and are available at Recycled Records (522-5122) or at the door.