Tuesday, February 13, 2007

Palatka Bluegrass Festival - Review

Each week a floating community begins to appear at a campground or in a pasture or cornfield somewhere along the road. On Monday or Tuesday a few trailers and motor homes arrive and set up near a stage or large circus tent sitting in lonely splendor. As the week progresses more trailers and motor homes come. Some plant themselves in a semi-circle behind the stage, put out display tents with sales tables or a field kitchen. Others arrive in the general camping area, creating compounds with tent structures in the center. By Wednesday the trickle of campers has become a steady stream spreading in a closely packed profusion across the available landscape. Campers sit in small circles near their rigs drinking beer or soft drinks, talking, and pickin’. Guitars, mandolins, banjos, fiddles and even full size doghouse basses can be heard playing. The singing, sometimes in creditable nasal harmonies, floats through the area. People head for the stage area to place folding lawn chairs under the tent or in front of the stage. A bluegrass festival will start on Thursday afternoon.

This week the site is the Palatka Bluegrass Fesitval at the Rodeheaver Boys Ranch, a few miles south of Palatka, Florida. We arrive at around eleven in the morning. As in any small town, there are disputes. Border problems arise almost immediately. Can we put out our awning without impinging on our neighbor’s territory, keeping him from putting out his own window awnings? Have we blocked off our neighbor on the other side? Later, questions of how much noise someone makes jamming at 2:00 AM or cooking breakfast at 5:00 create the small irritations and animosity found in any community.

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 noon 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. Adams keeps people from getting out on the floor too early. An elderly couple (it’s pretty hard to call anyone here elderly as the vast majority of people at Palatka are well past retirement) steps out onto the canvas and starts to place their chairs to boos from the crowd and Adams’ quick remonstrance that the time has not yet come. At noon he tells people to set up and there is a rush from both sides of the floor to claim spaces and get folding chairs in place. We end up in the middle of a row about seven back from the stage, almost exactly where we were last year. By 2:00 PM, chairs are neatly lined up fifty or sixty rows back. People arriving on time or coming on Friday will either be far back our outside the shed looking in.

Thursday - Each day begins with an open mic period and then the first band is introduced at noon. Adams is a master scheduler and a powerful force in bluegrass and has assembled an extremely strong lineup for this festival, which in three years has mushroomed into a major winter event. The James King Band opens today in Palatka. King is an old trooper, recognized only a day or two earlier for the fifth time at the SPBGMA awards ceremony as the finest traditional bluegrass singer. He is a bleary-eyed alcoholic who has little discipline and is a great performer. King is noted for singing melancholy songs and crying during his own performances. He also has a blustery, sunny personality that shows he’s laughing at his content at the same time he gets maudlin. He’s supported more than ably by mandolinist Kevin Prater, a powerful high tenor and mandolin player, Chris Hill on banjo, and newly returned Adam Haynes on fiddle. Robert Feather, a very fine flatpicker, has joined the group this week on guitar. The band sports a new look, all wearing black suits and white cowboy hats. Hill seems to have brought a new discipline to the group in the year he’s been with them, and they are tight and powerful in both performances today.

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 Carolina venues. This band leaves me cold, as usual. Danny Stanley, who has a quite good baritone voice, does competent impressions of noted country singers. My problem lies with mandolin player Dennis Cash‘s singing of a song called “God’s Been Good to Me.” There’s a line in the song where the singer speaks of “all my Christian friends.” Somehow, Dennis manages to make the word Christian sound as if these were the only friends worth having. It gets my back up every time I hear it. Probably my problem.

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 Tony Anderson, promoters, have skillfully provided a lineup with something for everyone. In each day of the festival they offer at least one performer who, while perhaps past his prime, is deeply imbedded in the history and traditions of bluegrass music. Performers like Larry Sparks, Jesse McReynolds, Bobby Osborne, and The Lewis Family have been recording and appearing at festivals for more than forty years. The Lewis Family practically defines gospel bluegrass. McReynolds and Osborne, particularly, were there at the beginning and contributed significantly to the development of bluegrass music. McReynolds is still creating new music and passing his legacy down through his very talented grandson, Luke McKnight.

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 Alan Bibey on mandolin, Steve Gulley on rhythm guitar and as lead singer, and Phil Leadbetter on dobro. They are ably supported by the young Jason Davis, who, at age eighteen, has played banjo with several top bands, and Lee Sawyer on bass. Each of the three lead players has won multiple awards and is noted for his playing and singing. When we talked with them, they each asserted their having left their previous bands on good terms and spoke of their desire to hew more closely to a traditional bluegrass base while taking the band in a variety of new directions.

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 Alan Bibey and Bobby Osborne together, a great mandolin innovator from the first generation with one from among the best contemporary players.

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 Tennessee. Bobby’s reminiscences of times with his brother and a trip to Europe with Bill Monroe provided contact with the early days of classic bluegrass. The Lewis Family followed with their always entertaining combination of deeply felt gospel singing and Little Roy Lewis’s masterful instrumental work on banjo, guitar, and autoharp along with his brilliant clowning. Despite the illness of his older sister Polly, Roy Lewis keeps the energy high and always satisfies his fans. His corny humor still elicits laughs, no matter how familiar the material is and the group reaches out to the faithful at an elemental level.

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 Crystal River where we’ll stay a few weeks until we rejoin this mobile group of bluegrass adherents for another festival in a new venue. For now, our plate has been filled with a fine weekend of wonderful music put on in one of the best settings on the bluegrass trail.