Sangamon Valley Roots Revival turns 10
How Sean and Jamie Burns brought ‘roots’ music home
The first wise guy in this old world to see the truth in the saw, “if you want something done, do it yourself” latched on to a key precept in human endeavors. Another seriously silly saying like, “every great journey begins with a step,” carries a good deal of folk wisdom as well. When the notion of hosting live music concerts in Springfield occurred to Sean and Jamie Burns, both these ancient adages soon came into play in a big way.
The wife and husband team originated the Sangamon Valley Roots Revival music organization on a whim and a wish in 2000 with no other idea than bringing live music of their liking to town without busting the family budget. Since those thoughtful and hopeful days, the project grew from several club shows a year personally organized and financed by the couple and attended by a loyal following of SVRR members, to encompass booking some of Springfield’s largest live music events held in conjunction with corporate sponsors, governmental offices and private organizations. All this happened while Sean and Jamie worked full-time jobs, raised a family and kept doing all those things everyone else does as everyday business. In fact it seems the biggest live music promoters in town aren’t actually promoters at all, but simply enthusiastic music lovers, willing to work to make a dream come true.
“Jamie and I have both been music fans as long as we can remember. My mother told the story that I would sing along to The Beatles’ ‘She Loves You’ in my playpen. Jamie remembers fondly sitting outside the family trailer and listening to the Grand Ole Opry,” reports Burns. “Music has always been a part of our lives.”
Sean, a convert from the punk movement of the 80s to the neo-hillbilly faction in the mid-90s, became intrigued with the bands and music of the rockabilly-country styles prevalent on small record labels and in nightclubs around the country. Jamie, always a fan of classic country music as well as 80s hair-metal bands, discovered a real kinship for some of the music in the genre then known by the rather clumsy and all-encompassing title of alternative country. The intrepid couple frequently took to the road, heading to Chicago, Indianapolis and St. Louis to find engaging music, enticing dance floors and an enclave of enthusiastic music fans. After more than a few weekend outings, the couple pondered how pleasant not driving 200-some miles to hear live music of their liking could be, and soon began scheming ways to bring this new-found music to Springfield.
“We were at a Derailers show in St. Louis and noticed on their signup sheet about three names from Springfield out of the 15 or so people there,” said Sean. “We thought surely if we booked them in Springfield we could get 30 or 40 people to come out, and that would pay for the band.”
The difference between being a music fan and a music promoter generally entails enjoyment without regard to income, versus selling an act to an audience for profit, regardless of the promoter’s personal taste. Combining the two can make for poor business decisions. The Burns realized early on that bringing in only artists they admired would likely not be lucrative and could be presumptuous, but then again the whole premise turned on the intent of booking acts they preferred.
“We realized the only way to make money at this was to take away from the artist, so we didn’t make much,” said Sean. “With all the expenses of phone, food, promotion, lodging, sound — that’s when I knew this would be a fan hobby.”
After mulling over the music hosting idea for awhile, then receiving encouragement and abetment from many acquaintances, especially Ron Sakolsky, Sean’s former professor at Sangamon State University, fellow DJ at WQNA and confirmed anarchist and action-minded individual, and David Landis, a longtime Burns cohort, graphic designer, music fan and believer in DYI philosophy, they decided to move ahead with the plan.
Sean’s previous booking experience came in 1984 while a student at Sangamon State University. He approached the student affairs director and discovered the reason no one brought in bands was simply because no one wanted to do it. Thus emboldened, he booked Chicago hard-core punk band Naked Raygun, paid them $600 of SSU money and accomplished his first booking/promotion mission.
“It demystified the process for me when I found out you just call someone, offer them money and they say yes or no and that’s that,” Sean recalled. “And I learned two lessons. One, that it can be done and, two, no matter what band you book someone isn’t going to like it.”
With the concept in place and progressing, the notion now needed a name. Music performance choices were based on Jamie’s and Sean’s affection for an array of music loosely defined as an amalgam of country, folk and blues singly represented by styles such as rockabilly, rock-n-roll and bluegrass. By the mid-90s music industry types developed the encompassing umbrella terms alt-country, Americana and American roots music to basically cover the wide variety of popular contemporary styles essentially based in folk music traditions. Adding the central Illinois location designation to the idea of rejuvenating this music gave birth to the moniker Sangamon Valley Roots Revival. The next step involved finding a music group to fit the bill.
“In the late 1990s Hightone record label was putting out a lot of great roots music. One act that I liked very much was called Johnny Dilks and the Visitacion Valley Boys. I found their booking agent’s contact information online. He told me that if I could come up with $250 and a couple of hotel rooms that we could get Dilks and his boys on a Wednesday night in March. This was very cool,” said Burns. “I reasoned with Jamie that we couldn’t lose more than about $400 and surely a few people would show up.”
The first show in March of 2000 immediately proved the possibility of combining music enjoyment with hosting bands to be a real and viable project. Rodney Patterson, manager of the Alley, a now defunct, then funky tavern at Second and Carpenter, hosted the show, while Matt Dietrich, the arts and entertainment editor at the State Journal-Register at the time, wrote a feature article on Dilks, and the Burns promoted like well-seasoned hucksters. An amazing number of people showed up and the show was a resounding success. They not only made enough to pay for expenses, they also made friends for a lifetime with Marc Mencher the agent, Dilks the entertainer, Rich Harrison the sound person and others involved in the show. Jamie made homemade lasagna for the band, signed up audience members for an upcoming newsletter and drove the musicians around, while Sean introduced the band, kept all on schedule and watched the door money. They both danced quite a bit to the delightful cowboy swing music, realizing their good fortune, hardly believing what just happened and reveling in a job well done.
Over the next several years they continued to build upon the success of the first night, but every show always contained the seed of the original notion. They booked artists because they were fans of the music and never lost sight of that vision. Even now, 10 years later with more than 100 acts hired of varying forms of Americana music, the same formula applies.
“When we started doing this I always went by two rules,” said Jamie. “Number one, we wouldn’t book an act we couldn’t afford to pay if no one showed up — and I used to not enjoy myself until I counted enough people so we would break even. And second, we wouldn’t book just to be nice. All the acts had to be stellar, since for the most part early on, most people had never heard of the artists we brought and they relied on believing if we booked them they’d be good. Our reputation is and was everything.”
Jamie’s two rules served the Burns well during the passing years as they moved through a succession of Springfield music clubs after the Alley, including On Broadway (now reopened as Broadway Nights) and the Underground City Tavern in the Hilton Springfield (now a Bennigan’s Bar & Grill), then on to bigger events in the last few years like the Taste of Downtown’s American Music Stage and Old Capitol Blues & BBQs with Downtown Springfield, Inc., and the Bedrock 66 Live! concert series sponsored by WUIS. Even as the venues and events changed, Sean noticed a consistent factor emerge from others involved with the work of the SVRR.
“From Rodney at the Alley, Brian Reilly at the Underground City Tavern, Bill Wheelhouse from WUIS, Landis our graphic artist friend, Todd Egizzi of E & F Distributors – the fun thing about all those guys and others we’ve worked with is they’re fans first,” said Sean. “They take care of business, but they’re fans first. It takes effort but they like music so they do it.”
The list of artists in the Americana genre who performed at the various venues reads like a who’s who these days, but weren’t necessarily well-known acts when booked at SVRR events. Ryan Adams, Robbie Fulks, Wayne Hancock, Rosie Flores, Deke Dickerson and Ray Condo all played at the Alley during the first year or so of the organization’s existence. The move to On Broadway brought bigger names and better draws such as Junior Brown, Del McCoury Band, BR-549 and Mandy Barnett with Harold Bradley. When the Underground City Tavern opened in 2003, manager Brian Reilly specifically designed it to be a live venue for Americana roots music. The Sangamon Valley Roots Revival, as a sure bet and good fit, soon brought Pete Anderson, Dave Alvin, Link Wray, Wanda Jackson, Big Sandy and His Fly-Rite Boys, Jason Ringenberg and many others to the corner stage of the popular bar voted the best live music venue in Springfield by Illinois Times readers for several years in a row until it closed in 2007.
While partnering with Reilly at the UCT, the SVRR booked and produced shows in the Hilton ballrooms, including a spectacular visit by Los Straitjackets, and three years running of a multi-band extravaganza called the Rooftop Roots Festival held atop the parking garage attached to the south side of the Hilton. This was the Burns’ first foray into an all-day event and directly led to the participation with Downtown Springfield, Inc. In 2007 the Rooftop Festival and Taste of Downtown event ended up scheduled on the same night.
“Megan at DSI was a visionary,” said Sean. “They had been burned by a promoter in the past and she thought bringing us together would be good. We did our best to find quality acts and we still do. That’s what got us to the Blues & BBQs too.”
The bigger events brought bigger budgets, plus higher profile sponsors and, along with the added responsibility, more challenges and more problems. The SVRR name isn’t connected with the several major area events the Burns help coordinate music for, but the spirit of the roots revival lives on. Even though the days of the home-cooked band meals and watching the door count are over for now, the same thrills still pop up when a favorite band is booked and the music magic is right on.
“Lot of people might not think this since I’ve got a reputation for liking only the hard-core roots and hillbilly music, but when I got to sit in on the Romantics rehearsal at Middle Option Music studio (owned and operated by local sound man Ric Major) it was great,” admits Sean. “They’ve been a favorite band of mine for years and here I booked them and got to hang out with them while they ran through songs.”
As other stories poured out about SVRR experiences over the last 10 years, emotions rode the gamut of elation, anger, disbelief, delight, exasperation, pride and hope. They recalled the extremely brief yet riveting 37-minute set (or was it 43 minutes?) of Ryan Adams, who was done “because the vibe felt right to quit right there,” and the infamous last night at the Alley when the Tarbox Ramblers concert was abruptly rescheduled at On Broadway because the Alley had new owners and a new name and no desire to host SVRR shows, but no one had informed Jamie and Sean of the change until they walked in the door.
There was the time Mandy Barnett told the audience her dress was “going straight into the garbage can” after her On Broadway performance because she had worked up such a sweat. When the 2009 Taste of Downtown was a washout due to all-day rains, several of the bands volunteered to perform at Bar None that evening simply to play music. Johnny Dilks saw Jamie at a Rockabilly Circus event a few years after his 2000 SVRR performance, pointed and exclaimed, “You fed me lasagna once!” Tales were told of romantic first dates at shows, couples who met at concerts now married with families, artists who weren’t as pleasant as expected and ones who offered to give money back after a poor audience showing, plus rainouts, cancellations, musician whims, late-night feedings, technical breakdowns and on and on and on.
Behind all the stories lies the thread of giving and guts, how Sean and Jamie took a chance and turned it into a force that has changed the world of entertainment in Springfield. By bringing in professional touring bands, local groups obtained opening slots and a window of opportunity to make industry connections. Through decent handling of the performance artists, word spread that Springfield treats musicians well, and by consistently booking credible acts, audiences appeared and cheered for more. True, not everyone agrees with the choices of all the acts booked and more than one person is sure of being able to do a better job, but that comes with the territory. After explaining how a naysayer disagreed with some SVRR actions, Sean simply encouraged the well-meaning fellow to “go right ahead and start finding sponsors, booking bands and putting on shows. That’s the way to do it.”
After the first 10 years, could we see 10 more years of the Sangamon Valley Roots Revival? The Burns are not making any firm commitments to longevity, but as music enthusiasts at heart, whatever the arrangement, the couple will likely be involved bringing live music to Springfield for some time to come.
“No matter how many times I do this it still feels like I’m getting away with something. We’re booking bands we enjoy and always get a good response,” claims Sean. “Best of all we’ve been fortunate to meet and work with really good people in the Springfield community we would not have known otherwise. I like to measure our success in cool units, not finances, and I think we’re doing well.”
Contact Tom Irwin at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Sean and Jamie Burns celebrate 10 years of the Sangamon Valley Roots Revival during the Bedrock 66 Live! concert series at Hoogland Center for the Arts on Sept. 24 at 8 p.m. with Big Sandy and his Fly-Rite Boys, Two Tons of Steel and Caffeine Patrol.