A punch to the gut was how one fan of the Rhythm & Roots Festival described news this week that the longtime South County mainstay of late summer won’t return in the future.
Chuck Wentworth, the festival’s producer since its start in 1998, announced that his health concerns have forced him to step away from the yearly celebration of roots music and dance that drew more than 10,000 visitors to the grounds of Ninigret Park in Charlestown each Labor Day weekend.
It was set to take place Sept. 2-4, with artists booked and tickets scheduled to go on sale at the end of this month.
So it was with a lot of regret and disappointment that Wentworth said his company, Lagniappe Productions, was suspending work on the festival permanently.
“I have not come to this decision lightly,” he said. “After consulting with my doctors and my family, we’ve decided that I should step away from festival production for health issues that have taken their toll for the past 12 years.”
It was last year’s festival, a return to live music after COVID-19 canceled the 2020 show, that served as a wake-up call for Wentworth. He suffered a major medical event that landed him in the hospital for two of the festival’s three days.
“You can imagine the frustration and disappointment that I experienced missing the festival that I planned for two years,” he said.
The festival brought an eclectic and acclaimed roster of artists through southern Rhode Island over the previous 23 years. Headliners over the last few years alone have included John Hiatt, Rosanne Cash, Keb’ Mo’, Taj Mahal, Richard Thompson and Steve Earle.
Dozens of musicians performed on three stages. More than 1,000 campers, including food vendors, artisans and families, made Ninigret Park home for three days.
Visitors were treated to delicacies ranging from Cajun and Creole to Southern-style barbecue, Greek, Middle Eastern and New England seafood.
Over the years the festival offered something for everyone — lessons in the basics of the jitterbug, two-step and waltz, as well as the zydeco dance style; a music workshop tent where performers and audience could interact; a Cajun Fiddle Academy for youngsters. A merchant area specialized in hard-to-find CDs and recordings, authentic handcrafted musical instruments, fine custom jewelry, clothing and other festive items.
“Thanks to Chuck and the Wentworth family for all their hard work that brought great pleasure to many over the years,” Joe Viele, executive director of the Southern Rhode Island Chamber of Commerce, said. “Many people have enjoyed the festival since 1998. The Southern Rhode Island Chamber of Commerce is proud to have been associated with the promotion and has been happy to help contribute to the success of the event.”
News of the cancellation also hit hard for performers like the Pine Leaf Boys, a Grammy-nominated Cajun rock group from Louisiana who have played the festival several times over the past 15 years.
“Very sad to hear that Rhythm & Roots, the festival we have played in Rhode Island for years and years, and we were planning on returning this year, is permanently canceled. What a sad loss for everyone,” the group said.
Shunning megabuck corporate sponsors, the Rhythm & Roots festival stayed true to its home-grown beginnings.
More than 300 volunteers – the majority of whom returned year after year – helped run the festival with Wentworth, his wife Deb, their children, grandchildren and extended family.
It was Wentworth’s passion for every genre of roots music, a learn-as-you-go attitude and knack for putting on a varied show with longtime favorites and up-and-coming talent that kept fans coming back year after year. Most bought their tickets before the artist lineups were announced.
“My main focus was always, and still is, just on the music – the production and the quality of what we were doing,” Wentworth said. “But being the sole owner of an independent, family-run festival, I had to become a businessman also and learn how to handle all the financial aspects of Rhythm & Roots to keep it more stable.”
Wentworth said he’s proud Rhythm & Roots has stayed independent and relatively small while the musical landscape has changed dramatically. The norm in recent years before COVID has been a shift to large events run by major corporations. Family-run producers, faced with exponential costs and other obstacles, find it difficult to compete.
Musicians like Teddy Larkin who made the festival an annual stop as well lamented the news, while at the same time wishing Wentworth good health.
“I had many a great day and night performing with Mickey Bones and The Hot Tamale Brass Band at this festival on Labor Day weekend for about 20 years,” Larkin said.
Some fans said they hope a new, younger contingent of the family might be interested in taking up the reins, but it doesn’t appear to be in the cards, for now.
A perennial favorite at Rhythm & Roots, Donna the Buffalo appeared 11 times between 2000 and 2021.
“Such a special musical place,” keyboardist David McCracken said of the festival. “Every element about the festival was top notch.”
McCracken said he first played there with CJ Chenier 19 years ago and then at least another half-dozen years with Donna The Buffalo.
“I hope Chuck Wentworth knows just how much all the energy he put in means to so many,” he said.
McCracken remembers “great big warm crowds full of the most earnest music lovers on the planet.
It’s like a highlight reel from a career in music.”
He also remembers the music he got to experience just by being there.
“In just the years I played I remember seeing Robert Cray, Keb Mo, Hot Tuna, Keith Frank, Richard Thompson, Delbert McClinton, Charles Bradley, Los Lobos, Lucinda Williams, Marty Stuart, Susan Tedeschi, Dr. John, James Hunter. Kyle Spark’s kids on stage with Taj Mahal,” he said.
Wentworth said he and his wife will miss their festival family of volunteers and fans, and the reunion-like vibe of the event, which has been a huge part of their lives for decades.
“Deb and I are forever indebted to all of you for sticking with us,” he said. “We will always cherish every one of you who attended Rhythm & Roots over the past 24 years. You won’t be forgotten, and we hope our paths will cross again.”