This week the site is the Palatka Bluegrass Fesitval at the Rodeheaver Boys Ranch, a few miles south of
The first big issue at Palatka surrounds getting our seats located for the festival. At Palatka, promoter Norman Adams enforces a rule prohibiting placing chairs before on Wednesday. We arrive at the performance shed at 11:30 to find a couple of hundred people lined up just outside lines painted on canvas flooring waiting to jump out onto the floor to claim space.
Thursday - Each day begins with an open mic period and then the first band is introduced at .
Gary Waldrep and his band have not been able to keep their commitment because of his mother’s illness. This means that the day’s lineup features two gospel bands in succession. The Village Singers perform traditional gospel featuring the very fine bass voice of Warren Goad, the leader’s son. Their work on acapella songs is strong. They are followed by Carolina Sonshine, another bluegrass gospel group stepping into a larger arena than their usual
The Grascals are reigning IBMA entertainers of the year and deserve it. On the road together for only three years, this band of experienced bluegrassers hit the circuit hard and has kept running. They offer high energy, fine musicianship, and an interesting mix of traditional bluegrass and country. They have improved with the addition of Aaron McDaris at banjo, strengthening both the banjo spot and the trio, which now features bassist Terry Smith along with Terry Eldridge and Jamie Johnson. Jimmy Mattingly plays a first rate stomping fiddle. These guys are terrific showmen without coming across as being too slick or polished. All the band members served apprenticeships with some of the biggest bands in the music and came together working with Dolly Parton.
Friday – Norman Adams and
Adams and Anderson also provide the current top bands in bluegrass. On Friday this means that Larry Stephenson, The Cherryholmes, and Doyle Lawson and Quicksilver all appeared. Each band, by itself, is one that fans will pay to see. As part of a day’s program, they offer about as good as it gets. Stephenson uses his clear tenor voice to deliver some of the sorriest murder ballads available, filled with death and loss. His already good band featuring Dustin Benson on guitar, Kyle Perkins on Bass, and Kriston Scott Benson on banjo has been immeasurably strengthened by the addition of Jason Barie on fiddle. Barie is both a brilliant soloist and one of the premier backup fiddlers in bluegrass. The Cherryholmes, a family band, have hit the bluegrass world fast and advanced to numerous IBMA and SPBGMA awards in only three years on the road. They provide a high energy show and daughter Cia, now 23, has been named banjo performer of the year at SPBGMA. With three teenagers in the group, it remains to be seen whether this band will continue its growth and develop its sound in years to come. Doyle Lawson and Quicksilver, however, bring years of stardom and one of the most solid reputations in both gospel and bluegrass music. They are highly professional, amusing, and musically impeccable.
Saturday – The Rodeheaver Boys Ranch was founded in 1950 on nearly 800 acres south of Palatka by Homer Rodeheaver. The Ranch provides a home for 43 boys who come from troubled backgrounds but have not themselves been involved in the judicial system. Generally, they are chosen because, for one reason or another, their parents cannot care for them or supervise their development. The boys live six to eight boys to a house with a pair of house parents and attend the local public schools. On the ranch they work and play in an environment of Christian love, discipline, and what appears to be a good mix of fun and work. During the festival, these boys are much in evidence cleaning, collecting trash, helping out at meals, and enjoying the scene. Our interactions with them have been always pleasant. The staff is friendly and helpful. The fact that the ranch is filled with boys, paid staff, and volunteers means that this festival can provide services no other festival we attend does. For instance, when we bought a bag of oranges, the staff delivered it to our trailer.
The highlight of the festival, for us, was the festival debut of the new superband, Grasstowne. Composed of the principal members of three bands, Grasstowne is fronted by
Grasstowne has only been together for a couple of months and has spent much of this time in the studio and disentangling its members from previous commitments. Thus they have not had much time to put together two sets of fresh performance. Nevertheless their initial sets, composed of only a couple of new numbers as well as pieced together songs from each of their former groups, provided attendees with sufficient promise of things to come to earn standing ovations and an encore at each performance. Since they have not had time to assemble their own CD as well as a selection of T-shirts, hats, and other gear, their merch table was stocked with a selection of solo albums and songs from former groups. Steve Gulley’s first solo album is in the pipes, but was not yet available for this performance. A new Grasstowne CD will be available this summer. The band members made themselves graciously available to fans and will soon enough be busy with sales as their reputation moves from potential to reality. I was pleased later in the evening to get a picture of
The day continued with first rate performances from the always entertaining Nothin’ Fancy and Bobby Osborne and The Rocky Top X-Press. Nothin’ Fancy combines Mike Andes first rate song writing with excellent covers of Country Gentlemen standards. Their rendition of Kris Kristofferson’s “Darby’s Castle” and “Two Little Boys” by the Country Gentlemen are truly excellent. Chris Sexton’s fiddle offers depth, humor, and quality. Osborne, supported by a scratch band and his young son Bobby Jr. played classic Osborne Brothers tunes capped off by their great song, “Rocky Top,” which has become the state song of
Rhonda Vincent and the Rage brought the festival to a rousing conclusion with two great sets. Singing a duet with Bobby Osborne of their Grammy nominated song “Midnight Angel” with a new verse provided a truly touching moment. To see Rhonda, one of the most dynamic of contemporary players, looking respectfully at Bobby Osborne as he sang says much about what bluegrass means to its fans and performers. Vincent’s own song, “All American Bluegrass Girl” says much about the connection of present day players with the roots of the music. Her good looks and obvious niceness have a marvelous appeal. One fan I talked to said he had attended 117 Rhonda Vincent appearances. I can’t imagine this is a record.
On Sunday morning the community breaks up, to reappear next week somewhere else. We wend our way across the peninsula to