Tuesday, April 10, 2007

Florida State Bluegrass Festival - Perry

Driving north toward Perry we roll up U.S. 19, a mostly four lane highway with almost no traffic on it, a marked contrast to I-75 with its speed and stress. As we come into Perry we see a park with lots of RVs parked in it, but Irene thinks it’s too nice to be the grounds for the Florida State Bluegrass Festival, so we drive on for a few minutes before deciding we’re wrong and turn around. We enter the Forest Capital State Park and Harold, sitting in his golf cart with his large cowboy hat asks us if we mind parking our rig in a small site to the rear of the facility rather than the one we’ve been assigned to, which can accommodate a forty foot rig. Happily, we’re led through a field of rigs into a lovely, quiet grove of live oaks where we park and set up. We know the cats will be comfortable and cool here during the next few days.

We stroll out to check out the scene and find Robert Wilson and his family band parked along our way. We’re happy to see them as we were really impressed by their work as a band and their manner of working with their young children. Robert stops to ask whether I’d be willing to write some material for them to use in their promotional material, and we agree to sit down later to work out what they’ll want. This festival is sponsored by the Taylor County Chamber of Commerce and has an admission charge of only $10.00 for its two day format. The cost of the performers is being largely underwritten by the

Chamber and some other sponsors, while water and electricity cost extra. A lovely band shell with huge curved, laminated wood trusses has been built and fresh sod covers the ground in front of it. There’ll be no sand in our toes this weekend and much less dust in the air. Vendors are setting up their booths in the shaded area behind the sound booth. At 3:00 we set up. We find the post office, where our mail is waiting for us and go to the pleasant, modern library, which is blessedly equipped with a powerful building-wide Wi-Fi hotspot, where we get some work done. There’s a delightful, small Mexican restaurant where we have a delightful supper.The weather has cooled off and we are promised a sunny, but chilly couple of days as we get up on Friday. This is an enjoyable change for us after the heat and dust of the past few weeks. Friday is a leisurely day. We sit down with Melissa and Robert Wilson to interview them. As we talk they emerge as much more nuanced and interesting folks than we had imagined. Robert spent some years touring with is own band, The River Grass Review, as well as building his logging business. He and Melissa met at the festival at Jekyll Island, where she was playing with a small band based in Jacksonville. For some years Robert left active touring to build his business and his family. As the kids have developed musical interests, they have formed a band and begun performing in the region while keeping their priorities well aligned – Church and family always before the entertainment business. The kids are polite, funny, and unassuming. Eleven year old Katie shows me her new violin. Robert proudly plays and sings a new song their son Clint has written with Melissa called “Second Best.” Children run in and out of the Wilson campsite, young pickers who enjoy the family and are led, in many ways, by Katie, who is the youngest of them all.

First on stage this afternoon is The Bluegrass Parlor Band. For some reason they do not seem a sharp or tight as they did last week at Withlacoochee. Nevertheless, this group of young musicians is interesting and exciting. Cory and Jarrod Walker, whose names will be heard in bluegrass music for years to come, are, as usual, very good. Austin Wilder on the guitar is a wonderful flat picker whose singing will improve as his voice gains timbre. At fifteen, his voice is still not a reliable instrument, but it will be. The Still House Band is composed of four men in the medical field whose sound is mellow and folksy and who play easy to listen to music with skill and grace. Bits of Grass is a more traditional hard driving band featuring Carl Bailey, who is a fine Dobro player.

The last of Friday’s group of local/regional bands, The Wilson Family comes on. This band, which we also saw at Live Oak a few weeks ago, has the capacity to turn on a crowd and does it again this evening. Katie Wilson, with her special rendition of “Five Pound Possum” brings the house down. Perhaps most important in watching this group is the pure love and pride parents Robert and Melissa evidence for Katie and Clint as they play. It’s perfectly clear that these two gifted young pickers will be around for quite a while and will enrich the music.

Melissa King and Phatgrass have the disadvantage of appearing in the dinner hour. King is lovely to look at and has a strong voice. This week, having seen her three weeks earlier, it seems she has added some new material to her set list and has not been asked to stretch her voice too far or to perform her limited repertoire too often. Both these decisions benefit her, and her performance is stronger and more pleasing. Supported by three young players whose musicianship complements her and by her mother on bass, King’s set works well for her.

Promoter Ernie Evans has used the first four sets to showcase lesser known bands with lots of young pickers. By doing so he has given these bands an opportunity, has saved some money to spend on his headliners, and has filled the first part of his bill. Ernie has a commitment to young and emerging groups. In Melissa King he has twice scheduled a young singer with the potential to become a star in bluegrass or country music.

This festival has a lot of people attending who love to jam. The members of those bands that don’t arrive by chartered or owned bus, perform, sell their product and leave are much more likely to be found around the camping areas jamming with each other or joining other jam groups to pick with them for a while. Under the Wilson’s awning there is almost always a group of young pickers joining in with a couple of Wilson family members to make music and have fun together. One festival we attend, Pickin’ in the Pasture in Lodi, NY (held the last full weekend in August) has members of a band and festival promoter Andy Alexander circulating through the campground on Friday night to pick the best jam band, which is chosen to perform from the main stage on Saturday morning. This provides good fun for lots of people as well as an opportunity for one band to be heard in front of an appreciative audience. Often jammers take more pleasure in pickin’ and singin’ than they do in hearing multiple bands. They show up at the main stage for small groups containing friends of theirs and for the major groups. Irene is more likely to stay in place in our seats, while I like to cruise the grounds looking for pictures or just chatting with people. She has become increasingly active in taking pictures and her work has improved to the point where I really rely on her for taking pictures and pointing out photo opportunities.

Even though it become chilly as soon as the sun sets, the evening’s two featured bands are ones that bring out almost everyone attending. The U.S. Navy Bluegrass Band called Country Current is the band that brought us to this festival. We have never seen them before, but one of the songs, “I Would Walk 500 Miles” is one of my favorites, and I’m eager to hear it performed live. The various service bands perform at official government functions as well as fulfilling a major recruiting function. As might be expected, Country Current’s presentation is filled with patriotic feeling, recognition of former military service completed by audience members, and playing of the service anthems. Because the members are on active military duty, there are virtually no recordings of their performances and they do not sell merchandise at the festival. This increases the luster of seeing them live.

Country Current is one of the finest bluegrass bands on tour. Lead singer and guitarist Wayne Taylor is a first class flat picker and has a wonderful voice. Frank Sollivan plays a marvelous mandolin – fast, accurate, and complex – while contributing good solo and harmony vocals and doubling on fiddle. He has a solo CD out and, if he leaves the Navy will certainly become a major force in bluegrass music. Keith Arneson plays the banjo with humor and exceptional skill. He has a light touch on the strings and is lightening fast. Pat White plays a very good fiddle. He and Sollivan do double mandolin and double fiddle pieces during their show, both of which are effective. Joe Wheatley, who will soon be retiring from the service, plays a complex and effective bass and provides a rock solid beat. This band is not to be missed.

Valerie Smith and Liberty Pike closed Friday night on a chill, clear evening. Val has had throat surgery recently and cannot strain her voice by singing. Fortunately, her band can carry the show for her as she provides her customary spark. Becky Buller, a wonderful fiddler and singer/songwriter, steps into the limelight in this circumstance and shines. Her glowing voice, stellar fiddling, movement on stage, and careful clowning all add up to a fine performance despite the absence of Smith. Jonathan Maness on guitar added much to the mix. He is a versatile young guitarist who describes himself as progressive, but can play in almost any setting. His pleasing stage personality and quality voice contribute effectively. Chad Graves contributed well on the Dobro, bringing fine playing and an element of humor to the mix. Val Smith, at the top of her game, is more a vocalist and personality than an instrumentalist. It takes courage for her to be on stage without being able to sing, and she looked a little lost and somewhat sad, although her generosity in giving the limelight to her band is admirable.

A sharp, chill breeze blows across the campground as Saturday morning arrives. Competition for Florida State Championships in instruments and vocal groups are being held in an indoor auditorium. Ernie Evans has spent several years trying to coordinate the efforts of the several regional bluegrass associations in Florida, and they have finally been able to cooperate on establishing a set of criteria. All contestants in this event have been winners in regional competitions. Musicians who have won in previous years compete in a masters division. Ages range from five to about sixty-five and musical experience from beginning to quite experienced. The audience for this event is small, but appreciative. With work and effort from the local associations and the good health of this festival, these championships can grow into a major event in Florida. On the main stage, the appearance of the Tallahassee Fiddlers gave a large group of kids on fiddles and mandolins an opportunity to perform.

In addition to the bands appearing yesterday and a couple of additional local bands, there are two big additions. Ryan Holladay is a fourteen year old banjo wizard. While he has yet to develop much in the way of a stage personality, this may not be necessary, as his banjo playing, as well as mandolin and guitar, is truly marvelous. He is fast and accurate, has excellent timing, and plays very fine backup, too. His father says he’s been playing the banjo since he was five and is self-motivated. Off stage he comes across as a somewhat shy, but engaging kid.

The Grascals have been so active on the festival trail and so successful as a recording group that little needs to be added here. The addition of Aaron McDaris on banjo has been a net improvement on the band’s performance. They have created the nickname of “Boo” for him and encourage the crowd to use it loudly whenever he plays. A chorus of Boos ensues whenever he has a solo. Jimmy Mattingly is on tour with Dolly Parton, and his substitute did an adequate job without bringing Mattingly’s energy and charisma to the Grascals’ lively mix – a net loss. The festival winds up with the remaining audience swaddled in every bit of warm wear people could find. A small, but appreciative audience stayed to the end.

This fifth annual Florida State Bluegrass Festival can generally be considered a success. The Forest Capital State Park is a delightful – tree shaded, clean, and well laid out park with a building that could be used for performance if rain required it. A good selection of vendors, including several local service clubs provided good variety of food and gifts. A chili cook-off on Saturday added to the culinary choice as well as providing some fun as attendees tried out a number of differing versions of this now national dish. Styles ranging from a white, chowderish chilly to pure Texan without beans or tomatoes and using chunks of beef provided quite a contrast. A variety of clinics helped musicians improve their skills. The MCs were competent, although they spoke too much of their home in Georgia without enough focus on Perry. The $10.00 fee for attending is, if anything, too reasonable as it competes with promoters who must charge much more in order to afford first rate bands. Nevertheless, Ernie Evans offered lots of support for local bluegrass and acoustic music. This festival provided an enjoyable time for attendees, whether they came to listen or jam and should continue to grow.

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