Wednesday, May 2, 2007

Bluegrass on the Waccamaw – Preview – May 12, 2007

Conway, South Carolina lies about ten miles west of Myrtle Beach, just off U.S. 501, and it’s everything that Myrtle Beach is not. Myrtle Beach is gaudy, loud, flashy, and overbuilt. Conway is reserved, quiet, bland, and relatively undeveloped. In other words, Conway, the county seat of Horry County, is an ideal place to spend a Saturday soaking up bluegrass music in a small town where the people who come to the event come because they love the music. Bluegrass on the Waccamaw is a “free to the public” festival held the second Saturday of May each year at the Old Peanut Warehouse in Conway. It is promoted by Jennings Chestnut, a local mandolin builder and music shop owner, who works all year to provide this day of free music at the highest quality and free to anyone who comes.

Jennings has been in and around bluegrass music for many years. He is well connected and has a good eye for talent. Each year he manages to book several top national bands as well as a couple of up and coming groups and local bans of consequence. Since coastal South Carolina and the nearby North Carolina lowlands produce plenty of high quality but not well known bluegrass bands, this festival offers lots of talent. Jennings also likes to feature youngsters who will be the bluegrass musicians of the future. This year students from the Low Country Bluegrass Academy will be performing. Other local bands include Flatt City and the Hager's Mountain Boys.

The Bluegrass Strangers are a bluegrass band from Ohio whose members will also be providing the sound at Bluegrass on the Waccamaw. Randy Waller and the Country Gentlemen will continue in their effort to provide Charlie Waller’s son Randy a platform while keeping the innovative legacy of the Country Gentlemen alive. The Country Gentlemen were a Washington, D.C. based band who emerged in the sixties and seventies to challenge the forms and style of Bill Monroe. They merged traditional bluegrass music with folk songs growing out of the folk revival of the fifties and sixties and old mountain music taken from the works collected by musicologists. This synthesis brought a fresh sound to bluegrass as well as challenging the orthodoxies many bluegrass fans craved. Along with Seldom Scene and other bands, they moved the music forward in interesting and exciting ways. Randy Waller seeks to meet the challenge of continuing in this legacy.

The Lewis Family is known as the “First Family of Bluegrass Gospel.” When I first heard and saw them, I had a hard time getting beyond their advanced age, their simple Christian message, and the corny clowning of Little Roy Lewis, their star and leader. As time has passed, I have come to appreciate and enjoy the music and clowning of the Lewis Family. The three Lewis sisters are aging and two are ill, but they’re real troupers who come out and give their best each day of a demanding touring schedule. Janis’s son Lewis Phillips is a competent picker, singer, and song writer who quietly stays in the background. The center of the Lewis Family, what keeps folks coming back, is Little Roy Lewis. Little Roy is a sixty-three year old ADHD kid who will do nearly anything for a laugh while playing great banjo and energetic guitar as well as autoharp. A highlight of any festival where the Lewis Family appears is found in Little Roy’s appearing on stage with some other band and pulling some sort of high jinks.

The Grascals have been both IBMA emerging artist and entertainer of the year. They feature high energy traditional bluegrass with a twist. All the members of the band have been high level session musicians in Nashville and have toured with top bands. They came into their own several years ago when they toured with the Dolly Parton show and opened for her. Each member of the band is a first rate musician. Danny Roberts stands out on mandolin. Last time we saw the Grascals, in Perry, FL, fiddler Jimmy Mattingly was absent and Shad Cobb, a very solid fiddler filled in for him. Unfortunately, while Cobb is a fine fiddler, he doesn’t have the energy or charisma of Mattingly. It matters who shows up on Saturday. The addition of Aaron McDaris on banjo has improved the band. Terry Smith is a fine bass who brings a sardonic sense of humor to their performance. Singers Jamie Johnson and Terry Eldridge are first rate. The Grascals can be depended on to provide a high energy, professional performance for two solid sets.

For us, and for others in the area, the appearance of Grasstowne will be the highlight of the day. This band was formed in January when three well known players left their respective bands to form Grasstowne. Steve Gulley, long lead singer for Mountain Heart, had long felt the music they were making was taking him down a path he was less than enthusiastic about. He discovered that IBMA award winning Dobro player Phil Leadbetter, his lifelong friend, also wished to leave his band Wildfire to explore new directions and the two of them decided to jump. They asked Alan Bibey, whose wonderfully clear mandolin playing had put him in the position of being a musician’s musician to join them. Bibey left his band Blueridge and a new band was born. They asked Jason Davis, a young banjo player from Virginia and Blueridge joined them. Jamie Booher, a member of the Booher family band from Tennessee, replaced the original bassist and improved the band. We saw him play last week at Merlefest with Sierra Hull’s fine band. Grasstowne will soon be releasing their first CD and has been chosen for both the Fan Fest and as a Showcase band for the IBMA meeting to be held in early October. They are fast on their way to becoming one of the great bands in bluegrass with a sound that forges new directions and exhibits high levels of musicianship while remaining true to the roots of bluegrass music. How can that combination be beat?

The Old Peanut Warehouse in Conway, where Bluegrass on the Waccamaw will be held, is exactly what it says, a lovely, weathered old wooden building with a long, narrow porch where Sen. Strom Thurmond once gave a speech. The Thurmond porch is an ideal location for a bluegrass festival. The music starts at noon and lasts until ten in the evening. Alcohol, coolers, and pets are prohibited. This is a small intimate festival with a very nice feeling about it and worth a great deal more than the price.