Tuesday, April 3, 2007

Withlacoochee Bluegrass Jamboree - Review

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 Levy County, Florida, the Knight family has established a music park under a large grove of moss draped live oaks lying along a backwater in the Withlacoochee River. The performance shed, a large wooden shed with a rusted tin roof sits in front of an old white house with long porches on each floor facing it. The river, at this time of year, teeming with migrant wild fowl provides a steady light breeze to cool the area. The cement floor of the shed is scored off to show the seating pattern; almost all the seats have been reserved before the festival begins. We have reservations in the twenty sixth row, just in front of the sound booth. The stage, which seems miles away, is made of old barn wood and decorated with old farm implements and household items.

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 Withlacoochee standards, pretty wide, and we set up, putting our awning out and finding space to park the car. We go off to explore and when we return a find a fifth wheel from New Brunswick shoehorned in beside us. The owners are complaining, pretty bitterly, that we’ve taken too much space and they can’t get their slide out and can hardly open the door. We check and find our rear corner perhaps three inches over the faint line demarcating our border, but he surely has a just beef about the size of his site for the size of his rig. We’ve been in the same situation and feel bad about it, but not bad enough to hook up our rig in order to move it six or eight inches. It’s very tight in here with hundreds of rigs accumulating. Each pair of rigs shares a water hookup and 30 amp electric plugs are clustered on a wooden post. Electricity proves to be problematic as the weekend moves along. The owners make a real effort to keep dust down by sprinkling, but it’s an impossible task. Fortunately, most attendees here are in self-contained rigs, because the grounds have one wash house and too few porta-johns spread about the grounds. Day ticket folks are on their own here.

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 Gainesville, is musically very solid and Scott is a good spokesman as well as playing a creditable banjo. Their song selection is traditional, but varied. They aren’t available at the merchandise shed, so I don’t get a chance to talk with Scott or get him to sign my banjo head. The other surprise is a rising young band called Kickin’ Grass. This band, which seeks to span a range from traditional bluegrass to progressive styles, is really quite good. Their version of “My Grandfather’s Clock,” a song rarely sung at bluegrass festivals, worked quite well. A version of “Hot Corn, Cold Corn” began at a very slow tempo and then accelerated to a rousing finish; a different and effective way to play this old song you might think had seen its day. Led by Jamie Dawson and his wife Lynda, a talented song writer and singer, they offer a lively show, singing and playing well. Interestingly, Jamie’s dad Harry is a man we’ve met along the road. We first saw him in Lodi, at Pickin’ in the Pasture, where he was driving Lorraine Jordan’s bus. Later, we met him on the grass at the Americana Stage at Merlefest. It’s interesting how paths cross in this small world. We buy their CD and they give us stickers and a picture as well as a schedule and seem grateful to sell something. I buy a cap, too.

The Mark Phillips band is not interesting, and he has to leave the festival early because his mother is dying in Oklahoma. M.C. Jo Odom leads a prayer for her, which later appears to have worked as Phillips calls her from home to tell her he arrived on time and his mother recognized him. This brings a cheer from the audience. Larry Gillis is a fast and loud banjo player for whom I can’t raise any enthusiasm. His band is lackluster and he seems to have lost some shine since we last saw him a year ago. The tension and excitement that grew from playing with his brother is sadly missing.

Wes Thibodeaux and the Cajun Travelers are a very pleasant change of pace in this hard driving bluegrass crowd. They sing in French and Wes plays typical Cajun accordion. He tells low-key jokes about a stereotypical Cajun character he calls Boudreau and leads the band with a light hand. I gather they play lots of bluegrass events, and they were well-received by the audience. He later showed me a beautiful, new D accordion hand made in Louisiana. He talked about life on the road and the aging of some of the great icons of the past. This is a hard working band, on the bill here for all three days.

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’ Roy help her when she needs it. This act has been on the road for more than fifty years, mixing gospel singing with Lil’ Roy’s broad clowning and high energy musicianship. He can still play, sing, and stand on one foot at the same time. Often his best bits occur when he comes on stage with whatever act is either lucky or unlucky enough to follow him. The Lewis’s have lots of friends who cluster around their merchandise table to chat and buy CDs. They may finally have sold the last of their tapes.

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 Adams knows and he’s unhappy and dissatisfied. Seneca Rocks has added a more folky and modern sound to its catalog of Johnson Mountain Boys songs to produce a new sound that I found quite enjoyable, but that didn’t really light up the crowd. This response raises again the issue of the future of bluegrass music. The audience at Withlacoochee is perhaps the most elderly of any festival we have attended. It stands (or rather, sits) in marked contrast to the proto-hippie crowd at last week’s Springfest. There must be a middle ground and perhaps the youth movement represented by Josh Pinkham, Ryan Hathaway, and Cory Walker will point the way.

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 Phil Leadbetter, has fit into this band, which never had a Dobro player before, just perfectly. He has helped make a band with a legendary big sound even bigger. Andy Ball on mandolin is strong and adds a good voice. LRB has had only one constant over the years, Shelor, but this version has emerged even stronger from its recent changes.

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 noon 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 Tampa by that name, the band has been a vehicle for developing young bluegrass players. The current version, managed and led with quiet authority by 27 year old Jeff Jones, is quite remarkable. Heather Franks does a good job singing, serving as MC and playing rhythm guitar while straight-faced Jason Jones plays bass. Three remarkable young musicians, all in their teens, give this band its excitement. Austin Wilder, 15, plays a fine flat-picking guitar and sings lead on many songs. His voice is becoming stronger, but his picking is fast and accurate. Jarrod Walker, only fourteen, has emerged as a premier mandolinist since the last time we saw them a year ago. His solos are inventive and clear. The centerpiece of this band in both musicianship and charisma is Cory Walker, who at seventeen is already recognized as one of the fine young emerging banjo players. Cory’s picking has continued to improve, while his stage presence has made him a dominant figure on the stage. Cory showed his versatility by playing a Django Rhinehart swing piece on the guitar and providing an alternative sound for the band on Dobro on several songs. The youngest Walker, eleven year old Tyler, plays guitar as a guest today, but will soon join this group as a regular. Because this band so clearly points to the future of bluegrass music, I have only one wish, which is that the band took a few more risks toward incorporating progressive sounds into its essentially traditional sound.

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.