Withlacoochee Bluegrass Jamboree is held on one of the most attractive sites in bluegrass. Down a dusty, bumpy drive past a skeet range off County Road 41 in rural
We are led to our campsite by a volunteer in a golf cart through a twisting maze of paths in the woods. Our site is, by
The lineup here has a reputation for being very strong and we’ve heard from festival goers at others shows that this is a great festival. The sad death of promoter Lonnie Knight has left his widow Miss Peggy and other family members and friends to put this show together. Saturday promises to be a very good day, otherwise the lineup includes some bands we’ve never heard of and some others we don’t care about. Fortunately, there are always surprises at a festival. The crowd assembled on Friday afternoon and evening seems tired and difficult to please. They listen pretty attentively, but don’t seem to rouse themselves too much enthusiasm, perhaps because they’re the oldest crowd we’ve encountered anywhere. The age of the fans leads promoters to select tried and true traditional bluegrass bands. If the future of bluegrass music lies in its past, then the music is doomed, I fear. There must be a happy medium between the incessant uproar we encountered at Springfest last weekend and this moribund crowd, but perhaps niche programming works better.
There are two pleasant surprises on the bill for Friday. The Scott Anderson Band, a local group from around
The Mark Phillips band is not interesting, and he has to leave the festival early because his mother is dying in
Saturday is really the day we came to this festival for, and we were not disappointed in the results. The Lewis family performs twice, their act now so familiar to us we tend to watch it for even small variations. We’re sad to see the continued deterioration in Polly’s ability to perform, but the audience is supportive as Janis and Lil’
Seneca Rocks is largely a recreation of the old Johnson Mountain Boys, a band which celebrated traditional bluegrass. Dudley Connell, Marshall Wilburn, Tom Adams, and Davod McLaughlin have performed together for years, and they’re supported by Sally Love on rhythm guitar and vocal harmony. Tom Adams, once a noted banjo stylist, has been afflicted with distonia and can no longer pick with his middle finger. He has taught himself a two finger style that works pretty well and probably fools 95% of the people in the seats, but
The older generation was well represented by the biggest surprise of Saturday night. Substituting for his son, the fabled Dr. Ralph Stanley and his Clinch Mountain Boys took the stage to a standing ovation. At age 80, Ralph Stanley has been a headliner and innovator in bluegrass music for nearly 60 years. He no longer plays three finger style banjo, but does well with clawhammer, old time banjo. He MCs his show, sings in that characteristic high lonesome sound that fits so well with songs like “O, Death” and “I Am a Man of Constant Sorrow.” He is a shameless self-promoter, seeking to sell CDs and other memorabilia at his merch table, but stays and signs for well over an hour, much longer than other lesser lights often stay. I never expected to get his signature on my A banjo head, but there it is.
The other band we came to see is the Lonesome River Band headed by Sammy Shelor, who Chris Pandolfi of the Infamous Stringduster told me has the finest right hand of any banjo player on the circuit. We saw LRB for the first time two weeks ago, but they are one of the great national touring bands and we’re eager to see them again. Shelor, tall and lithe, prowls about the stage in an almost catlike dance. He maneuvers his Huber banjo into and away from the microphone to manage the volume of his very powerful playing. On second hearing, I’m impressed by his backup play, an element of banjo playing often neglected but about ninety percent of what banjo players do. Brandon Rickman seems a little down today, but Matt Leadbetter is even stronger on the Dobro than he was two weeks ago. Matt, son of IBMA award winner
On Sunday morning we walk over to Mike and Mary Robinson’s Winnebago for their Bluegrass Gospel Jam, an event they hold every Sunday morning at bluegrass festivals. Usually they hold their jam in the main stage area, but this weekend one of the festival officials is a Baptist preacher and he will be holding a regular Palm Sunday service. I like playing in the jam, because I can be in the background and get a little more experience, while Irene likes singing the old songs and taking pictures, which she’s doing with increasing skill and enthusiasm. Mike’s leadership of the singing makes everyone feel included and his message and prayer are clear and pointed, but never delivered with a hammer.
We head back to the main stage shortly after to find a very fine band called Backwater substituting for a band that had to leave because of illness. They turn out to be a good deal better than the band they’re replacing. They’re one of those high quality local bands that don’t get any publicity, perform frequently in their region, and deserve more recognition.
The Bluegrass Parlor Band is an unusual and special group. Founded about 25 years ago by Tom Henderson who owns a music store in
The Withlacoochee Bluegrass Jamboree points to both the future and the past of bluegrass music. The age of predilections of much of the audience suggest little future for the genre. There were many elderly people here who came, sat, and listened, but added little vitality or enthusiasm to the proceedings. They seemed to prefer straight ahead traditional bluegrass bands, short hours at the main stage, and leisurely times sitting around their camping rigs. The Lewis Family, Ralph Stanley, and Wes Thibodeaux represent the music preferred by these folks. Youth and vitality were represented here by bands like Kickin’ Grass and the Bluegrass Parlor Band, bands which performed to good audiences but not strongly featured in the scheduling of the festival. Growing and revitalizing the audience for this wonderful music, retaining respect and enthusiasm for the past and integrating the sounds of new music of the present remains the challenge for bluegrass.