Monday, May 7, 2007

Lewis Family Homecoming and Bluegrass Festival - Review

During the 1940’s, country music musicians toured the southeast in tent shows which were much like circuses, medicine shows, and tent revival meetings that inspired them. Bluegrass festivals, the first of which occurred in 1965, took this idea, brought numbers of music fans together in a campground or open field, and created a way for fans to come together for two to four days to listen to their favorite form of music, jam together, eat, and have a good time. The twentieth anniversary Lewis Family Homecoming & Bluegrass Festival held May 3 – 5 at Elijah Clark State Park in Lincolnton, GA partakes of elements of all these elements to create an event.

The Lewis Family, styled as the “first family of bluegrass gospel” dominates this festival as its leader, Little Roy Lewis, dominates the family. Roy Lewis, 63, is the youngest sibling of the Lewis Family, which has toured churches and festivals and appeared on television and radio for over fifty years. Roy Lewis is perhaps five foot three inches tall, doughy red faced, with graying blond hair. He is a constant whirlwind of energy on stage and on the festival grounds where he greets friends and strangers, tells stories, helps vendors sell their wares, and never stops moving. On stage he transitions seamlessly from singing the family’s characteristic up-beat gospel music to baggy-pants clowning. At least once a session, he dons an outrageous costume, often in drag, and becomes a part of some other band’s act, convulsing members of the band as well as the audience. He is a consummate showman and clown.

The Lewis Family Festival is promoted by Norman Adams and Tony Anderson, who organize seven bluegrass festivals from Florida to North Carolina during the year. Their promotions generally appeal to a fan base, the majority of whom are well past retirement, which prefers hard driving, old-time bluegrass music in the fashion of Bill Monroe, Flatt & Scruggs, and the other pioneers of this country music genre. Adams and Anderson provide what their core audience wants in spades. Rarely do they try to challenge or educate their audience to new music, although they do bring younger, newer bands to their shows, especially if they feature a solid dollop of traditional music. The Lewis Family Festival was no exception. Highlights of this year’s version included Earle Scruggs as both a participant and an attendee and Mac Wiseman. Mac Wiseman, 82 years old and no longer mobile due to a reoccurrence of paralysis from childhood polio, sang his classic repertoire, reminisced for his audience, and signed for hours. Earl Scruggs, whose new album features Lizzie Long, Little Roy’s protégé and Roy Lewis, played better than he had the previous weekend at Merlefest, and seemed relaxed and happy in this more informal setting where he felt himself to be among long-time friends. Emcee Sherry Boyd and sound man Gene Daniell did their usual first class job.

This festival, as one might expect, featured a high proportion of gospel music. Wednesday evening, before the festival began, offered a Community Southern Gospel Night sponsored by the Lincoln County Chamber of Commerce. The music was not bluegrass and featured local church groups singing to recorded backgrounds with enthusiasm and a range of skill and musicality. During the festival itself, the Lewis Family played and sang an afternoon and evening set on each of the three days. This must have been exhausting for the three sisters, who are aging and not in good health. There was also a featured gospel group on each day. With the exception of New Found Road, these bands are most appreciated by the choir to whom they preach.

New Found Road, appearing on Thursday, have chosen a different path. While still committed to gospel music, which they dispense liberally in their program, this band has decided to widen its audience and broaden its appeal by singing secular singer/songwriter songs and traditional bluegrass standards as well as gospel music. They bring strong musicality and a lively appeal to their performances. Lead singer Tim Shelton has a strong and appealing voice while Rob Baker on mandolin and Jr. Williams on banjo are very solid players and good singers. This band has withstood criticism from traditional gospel quarters and is persisting in offering up this appealing mix of music. They will find an audience that will hear their faith while enjoying their music.

Honi Deaton and Dream have strengthened their program and group since we saw them at Denton in October. By adding a Dobro, Wade Powell who recently graduated from North Georgia State where he majored in classical guitar, is just feeling his way into the band, but will add color and a richer, fuller sound to the band. Honi Deaton, whose red hair and warm smile complement her singing, has a voice that ranges from sweet and balladic to a throaty belt and has continued to grow in her delivery. The bands interplay and humor have lost their rough edge, and this band has improved itself in only six months. Other Thursday bands, especially Lonesome Will Mullens and the Virginia Playboys, continued the traditional mode. Mullens harkens back to hillbilly music in his humor, presentation, and appearance. His act is extremely high energy.

Friday offered so much good music it was difficult to take it all in. Lorraine Jordan and the Carolina Road Band have found their groove and have continued to improve since the addition of Jerry Butler to the group as lead singer. By taking on some of the emcee role and bringing an element of humor to the group, Butler has freed Jordan to sing and play better as well as to become a more personable band leader. Josh Goforth is a first rate young fiddler who can play with anyone and adds versatility and quality to the band. Todd Meade plays a strong bass and doubles on fiddle with Goforth for the double fiddle tunes, a highlight of traditional bluegrass. Ben Green on banjo offers solid soloing as well as fine backup. This combination of band mates has enabled Lorraine to find her groove in singing tenor and concentrate on her mandolin playing. Her lead singing is stronger since she has to do less of it. Jordan has achieved notice through producing two Daughters of Bluegrass albums featuring the finest of women players. When some of these women are at the same festival, as here at the Lewis Family, they share the stage with her for at least one song, and this is always a pleasure.

Since the Gary Waldrep Band was also at the Lewis Family Festival, we had the pleasure to see two versions of the Daughters play. Mindy Rakestraw and Jane Baxter, regular members of Waldrep’s band also appear on the Daughters album. In his typically generous fashion, Waldrep invited Jordan to join him for a song, making it possible for part of the Daughters of Bluegrass combination to appear twice on Saturday. Waldrep, a shy man who puts it all out on the stage, should be recognized for his willingness to put three women on his stage at once. Rakestraw on rhythm guitar and singing strong lead on several songs is one of the best as is Jane Baxter on the acoustic bass. Shirley Seim on fiddle and is very solid, too. Waldrep plays fast and energetic three finger style as well as claw hammer. His mix of deeply held faith and high value entertainment works very well. His band’s performances are always highly satisfying.

Mac Wiseman has not traveled with a band for years. He appears at an event, assembles his band from those available, and takes to the stage to present his program of songs both new and old, reminiscences of the early days of bluegrass, and jokes that evoke a rare response from this somewhat stodgy and tired audience. With Little Roy Lewis as his banjo player, Lizzie Long on fiddle, and 2005 IBMA Dobro player of the year Phil Leadbetter, Wiseman could not have had better support. It’s amazing to see a man of his age present two full sets without ever appearing tired or waning in his presentation. Wiseman is a national treasure for bluegrass and a joy for those who get a chance to see one of his infrequent performances.

Grasstowne rounded out this fine day of music. When Steve Gulley left Mountain Heart, Phil Leadbetter opted out of Wildfire, and Alan Bibey removed himself from Blueridge, the bluegrass world wondered what sort of band would emerge. Now, with their first CD hitting the table at this festival and two polished performances, it has become clear that this band will soon be solidly entrenched in the first rank of bluegrass music. Each player left his previous band because he found something lacking in where he was. In Grasstowne, the three men have an opportunity to blend their styles and create a sound that shows respect and love for traditional bluegrass and country music while creating a sound uniquely their own. Each is a consummate musician, recognized by other musicians as belonging at the top of the field. Together, these three men show no individual ego as their work blends together seamlessly. Jason Davis on banjo and Jayme Booher on bass, both in their early twenties but deeply experienced and highly skilled, add to the mix. This group allows its music to speak for itself, not relying on excessive showmanship or glitz to sell the music. We have seen Grasstowne four times in the past four months, and each performance has improved and deepened. Steve Gulley’s lead singing and humorous impressions of country musicians are top notch. Alan Bibey’s mandolin break on Sunny Side of the Mountain was astoundingly good, although it blew past many of those who were in the audience. Phil Leadbetter never has a moment of bad taste in his playing, which deepens the already rich sound of Grasstowne. What a day!

Saturday could not help but be a letdown from the previous day. The weather had turned cool and rainy, putting something of a damper on the day, too. Heaven’s Echoes, a gospel band, managed to sing a song so offensive to American values of tolerance and acceptance that even this Christian and patriotic audience only gave them a lukewarm response. Carl Shifflet and the Big Country Show continued the tone of hearkening back to the bluegrass past. Shifflet, looking something like a tired bloodhound, spends a good deal of his time mugging at the audience while he stands on one foot with his other leg waggling in the breeze. His solid band provides good support for a range of recognizable tunes. Jimmy C. Newman & Cajun Country offered a change of pace with their chink-a-chank Cajun sound, but Newman relied more on his Grand Ol’ Opry reputation than on rehearsal and polish. He ended up trying to remember the words and having difficulty deciding what song to sing next.

Saturday offered two musical highlights. LeRoy Troy gave his one man show. Troy’s presentation is reminiscent, they tell me, of Uncle Dave Macon. He plays clawhammer style on both resonator and open back banjo, singing amusing hillbilly songs backed by good playing and humorous patter. His most requested songs feature his playing on the open back banjo while he flips it and swings it in the air, playing all the time. His Grandfather’s Clock, in which the banjo serves as the clock’s pendulum, is a wonder.

The Cherryholmes Family is always a crowd pleaser. While only having been on the bluegrass scene for four years, this energetic family band has achieved top honors in IBMA, performs regularly on Grand Ol’ Opry, and tours ceaselessly. Father Jere Cherryholmes has taken some of the edge off his presentation and daughter Cia continues to improve on an already very good performance in her singing and playing. Recently she appears happier and more relaxed on the stage. The Cherryholmes keep the music coming at the audience and have added new material as their newest album is about to hit the stands and has had extensive air play on XM radio.

The Lewis Family Festival presented just what its audience wanted. That being the case, it seems odd that the audience required so much work from the performers for so little response. Perhaps this is because as the audience ages, it just doesn’t have the energy to give back to the entertainers. If a newer, younger audience is to be attracted to this music and to keep it vital, promoters like Adams and Anderson need to provide a broader range of bluegrass sounds. Groups like Crooked Still, The Infamous Stringdusters, and Cadillac Sky have kept themselves rooted in bluegrass while extending the sound of the music. Mountain Heart, Special Consensus and Blue Highway continue to lead the way. Including music from these groups will help to educate the audience for traditional music while attracting the younger audience needed to keep the music alive and vital.

Earl and Lizzie Long