As I approached Bur Oak Brewing’s massive venue on a late April evening that was saturated with fog and humidity, I wasn’t sure what to expect from the experience. Even though I’ve lived in Columbia for the past four years and have enjoyed Bur Oak’s Big Tree IPA at countless downtown Columbia bars, I’d never been to the brewery itself. Few things can convince me to travel 15 miles down I-70 toward the dismal obscurity of rural mid-Missouri, but the promise of live bluegrass and craft beer proved to be more than enough temptation. My friend Dylan Hawf, a southern Illinois-based fiddler who recently relocated to Arkansas to make music his full-time job, had invited me to Bur Oak to see the band he had newly joined, National Park Radio.
The building — an industrial concrete warehouse usually reserved for Bur Oak’s beer production — emanated the yellow glow of string lights and lanterns. In the corner, a rustic wooden fixture enveloped a row of taps and two busy bartenders, and the familiar sound of folk floated overhead. From the ceiling, heavy drapes suspended acrobatic women performing flips and twirls—courtesy of CoMo Aerial Arts performers—adding whimsy and drama to the atmospheric 24-foot-high ceilings.
After grabbing a beer from guest brewery Lionstone Brewing Company—a tasty ale with strong notes of rich, citrusy orange—I found a spot in front of the stage. As I internalized the seductive stares of a white banjo and a kick drum crafted from an old suitcase, I felt the pre-concert suspense set in.
Finally, National Park Radio took the stage. Dylan Hawf—in usual form with fiddle in one hand, half-full cup of beer in the other—stood alongside songwriter Stefan Szabo (vocals, acoustic guitar;) Kerrie Szabo (vocals, percussion;) and Mike Womack (bass.)
Stefan Szabo’s voice soared. It’s the kind of warm, booming voice that seems like it was made for folk ballad; I immediately understood why NPR has been compared to the Avett Brothers and Mumford & Sons. When Szabo picked up the banjo — the band’s usual banjo player was missing from this performance — the energy intensified, fueled by the twangy vibration of raw bluegrass.
Overall, the band’s sound epitomizes the folky Americana that can get away with being simple in structure because it comes earnestly, vibrantly alive with the energy of its performers. NPR’s lyrics tell stories of family and love, of freedom and wilderness, of struggles with selfhood and spirituality.
Hawf’s fiddle can tell a story all on its own. It has the power to bring me back to late nights that turned into mornings at Kentucky bluegrass festivals: that bright, bittersweet sound rising above hordes of swaying, sweaty festival-goers.
To my left, two little girls of maybe three years old danced around in circles: tripped, laughed, got back up again. To my right, an elderly couple did a slow, graceful foxtrot. I softened at the reminder of live music’s ability to draw people together, controlled by some mysterious force, to congregate at an otherwise unremarkable factory in the midst of Missouri nothingness.