Tuesday, October 9, 2007

Pickin’ in the Park – Moncks Corner, SC

The Old Santee Canal Park, a state park run by the largest public utility in South Carolina, is located in Moncks Corner, once a small town north of Charleston, but rapidly joining the other booming suburbs surrounding this charming city. The park is a rolling, grassy oasis containing a stately plantation home, the Berkely County museum, and a modern center. An elevated boardwalk leads off into a nearby swamp. The park is an ideal place to hold a bluegrass festival. Saturday was another in a string of hot, muggy early Fall days that have plagued the south this year along with months of too little rain. As the day wore on, much of the humidity left the air, the sky cleared, and a bright sunny day made the event nearly perfect.

Richard (Chip) Chipman is the owner of the Low Country Music Store, Promoter of Pickin’ in the Park, and a teacher well known in the area for giving young musicians their first taste of playing bluegrass music. His passion for introducing junior bluegrassers is a major part of the motivation for putting on this delightful small festival. He also provides a welcome stage for some very good local and regional bands as a headlining at least one national touring band. This year that band was Grasstowne, a band formed only at the first of the year, which is exploding into the consciousness of bluegrass fans. You can search the web for this store, this festival, and Chip himself with very little success, for he doesn’t advertise much, but this event is a delight if you happen to be in the area on the first Saturday in October.

We arrived shortly after noon to find Mike Morris sitting on the tail-
gate of his pickup jamming on his new Holt banjo with members of other bands. People started setting up their lawn chairs, Gary Payne of GP Sound bustled about getting his gear in place, vendors arrived and got the barbecue grills running, and the surroundings of a bluegrass festival began to take shape.

The first two bands offered very strongly gospel oriented sets. New Hope provides a female trio of singer/pickers whose voices blend well with each other and whose musicianship is quite good. Supported by a bass and a fiddle, their set included a blend of deeply felt gospel music with some pleasant bluegrass standards as well as bluegrassed versions of country standards like the Everly Brothers “Dream” and Cash’s “I Walk the Line.”

The day’s highlight non-touring band turned out to be Flatt City. This Charleston-based band deserves to get wider recognition based on their musicianship, their energy and stage presence, and the diversity of their musical choices. Leader Stephen Schabel, provides a solid Monroe style mandolin, often sings lead, and does most of the talking. His laid back style complements his driving picking. John Svenson also did a notable job on Guitar and Dobro, as did Michael Bruner on banjo. Their set list ranges from traditional vocals and instrumentals (Angeline the Baker was particularly good) to a lovely and affecting rendition of John Hartford’s “Tall Buildings.” They also sing some Jimmy Martin, Monroe standards, and Flatt (after whom the band is named) and Scruggs. They are entertaining and lively.

Flatt City

Bluegrass Academy

Chip Chipman’s Bluegrass Academy took the stage next. Chipman owns and operates the Low Country Music Center, which has been located in Moncks Corner for twenty years. There he teaches bluegrass (and other) instruments. The Academy is a special effort to bring bluegrass to young people, and Chipman has succeeded in attracting and teaching a variety of talented and enthusiastic kids. We first became aware of his results when we saw the very young Gregg brothers jamming with other young pickers at a meeting of the Rivertown Bluegrass Society in Conway, SC about five years ago. Since then, the brothers have moved to Knoxville, but returned to Moncks Corner for this event. The young people of the Bluegrass Academy play and sing with enthusiasm and skill. Chipman obviously and legitimately takes great pride in the accomplishments of his students. I have no idea how many such programs exist around the country. We’ve seen these kids, as well as the very accomplished band sponsored by the Bluegrass Parlor in Tampa, and there must be others. As long as such efforts are reaching out to young people, bluegrass’s future seems well assured. With the reduction of funding for public school music programs, with the only music in many districts provided to support the continuation of a marching band, music store instruction has become increasingly more important. One could only wish for more public school attention to bluegrass in those parts of the country where the music remains an indigenous part of the culture. The Bluegrass Academy provides such a program and should receive plenty of recognition.


The day’s only touring bluegrass band, Grasstowne, concluded the day. Begun only in January, Grasstowne’s popularity at festivals, on conventional and satellite radio, and in CD sales has grown rapidly since its inception. Principal artists Alan Bibey, Steve Gulley, and Phil Leadbetter have each been recognized for years as masters of bluegrass music. Bibey has played with top bands and long been recognized as one of the most refined and thoughtful innovators on the mandolin, where his signature triplets are legendary. Gulley’s expressive, soulful voice is one of the best in the genre. Now that he is back closer to his roots than he was with Mountain Heart, his singing has become even more effective. Phil Leadbetter, who was named IBMA Dobro Player of the Year for 2005, is never flashy, always tasteful. In fact, Earl Scruggs, years before Grasstowne was formed, defined the elements that make them outstanding – taste, tone, and timing.

In creating a new band, Grasstowne was faced with the challenge of defining a sound uniquely their own. They have succeeded by finding the crease between traditional bluegrass as played by the founders and the more progressive sounds of contemporary bands. Their synthesis creates a sound that pleases the ear while never jarring the mind with too new sounds or numbing with endless interpretations of earlier greats. Who could ask for more? I have things I want to say about Jamie Booher and Jason Davis, too, but since we’re seeing them again this weekend, I’ll save my further comments for next week. Suffice it to say that this new, but seasoned, group is headed for the top.

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