2016 Nebraska Folk & Roots Festival | Essay & Photos

Gregory Alan Isakov walked on stage by himself. Four standalone globes glowed ember, one on an amp and some on the floor. The pooled light didn’t distract from Isakov’s gentle vocals but heightened the desire for lovers: current, past, future, anyone to wrap your arms around.

It was the first night of Nebraska Folk & Roots Festival at Branched Oak Farm and Isakov was the last to perform. The crowd had endured nearly six hours of heat, but seemed undeterred. The weekend was quintessentially Nebraskan: hot, sunny and swelling with local artistry and Isakov’s honest, tender voice contributed to a humble summer fling.

Imagine a temporary love, one delicate and intimate that burns bright until it gets suddenly snuffed out. For a moment, that South African native turned Colorado resident gardner and indie folk extraordinaire tugged heartstrings tight, lacing them through his proverbial fingers.

His band temporarily lost power and gathered around a standing mic. They sang and played like they were telling the crowd secrets. They didn’t need the extra support from the sound system, just a sweaty bunch of people willing to listen.

photo by Lauren Farris

The whole weekend proved to be absolutely sweltering and patrons took note, snagging slivers of shade and making anything waveable a fan. But the weather didn’t overshadow the talent bred in the midwest. Well-known local acts like Josh Hoyer & Soul Colossal, Bud Heavy & the High Lifes, Kris Lager Band and Mesonjixx all took stages covered with rippling fabric. They plucked banjos and tugged at double bass strings. Most artists wore sunglasses and watched miniature reflections of themselves in the crowds’.

Between two Saturday mid-afternoon sets, when the sunglassed crowd sluggishly traveled to the beer tent, an older corgi sauntered out from under the equipment trailer. This was his land, and we were on it with our shoes off and heels tapping. He turned around and went back under like a mirage from the radiating heat.

photos by James Dean

The Folk & Roots weekend is one of moments that don’t readily seem real. CJ Mills’ voice carried across the five-acre setting like Lauryn Hill’s and the Mezcal Brothers’ performance felt like an Elvis resurrection.  Seasaw, Illinois indie folk band with Haim-like cool asked if they could play one more song after kicking off the main stage on Saturday. Members of the crowd echoed their request.

In a way, it was a weekend of getting what you wanted, soaking up the company and moments and talent spread across a field of prickly grass. A boy in a camping shirt carried a stack of plastic cups and an empty wine bottle to a trash can. It was a weekend of respecting the land too.

But really, it was a weekend for lovers. A weekend that craved watermelon slices and smeared sunscreen and scratched bug bites. The bugs only came out after the sun tucked itself away, when the only light left came from a waxing crescent moon, speckled stars and string lights. The crowd turned into a conglomerate of silhouettes, a few with their arms around each other as if to say, “I’m here to share this beautiful thing with you.”

photos by James Dean

Then they’d fade into the dark, the middle of the field where people stumbled and laughed and sat in sunhats that stopped providing shade long before. A few phone flashlights flickered on and off, lighting a path home to hide after a fun yet exhausting Nebraska summer weekend.

They had a few more months, more time to sweat and love. A few empty cups bobbed across a spiney terrain, soaked in humidity. Even the cups seemed to dance and on Friday night they hushed with the crowd whenever Isakov sang.

Halfway through his set, Isakov asked for requests. He took the first one he heard, “Sweet Valentine,” and told the Ghost Orchestra to join along. Their bows floated across violin strings as Isakov calmed the normally speedy vocals. He plucked at his guitar and sang like he was having a conversation, a thank you to the sky speckled with stars and a moon that glowed over a Nebraska summer field.

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From Pandas & People to Bud Heavy & The High Lifes, we captured pictures of every band from the 2016 Nebraska Folk & Roots Festival. View photos by Lauren Farris and Will Stott below:


Pandas and People

Mezcal Brothers


Smooth Hound Smith

Kris Lager Band

Josh Hoyer and Soul Colossal

Gregory Alan Isakov

photos by Lauren Farris


Pleiades and the Bear


Root Marm Chicken Farm Jug Band

Matt Cox Band

Nick Dittmeier and the Sawdusters

CJ Mills

Old Sea Brigade

Andrea Von Kampen

Evan Bartels and the Stoney Lonesomes

photos by Will Stott

Mike Semrad

photos by Lauren Farris


photos by Will Stott

The Bel Airs

Jack Hotel

Darrell Scott

Bud Heavy and the High Lifes

photos by Lauren Farris