Drive onto the grounds of the Riverbend Bluegrass Festival and you find yourself in the midst of the beauty of the agricultural south. The performance area as well as much of the campground lies in the midst of a grove of stately pecan trees, at this time of year dropping their fruit for folks to pick up and crack open. Beside the campground in one direction are fields of cotton, ripe and ready to be harvested. Nearby one of Georgia’s other major crops, peanuts, are nearly ready to go to the warehouse. In the pretty nearby town of Ocilla, the annual sweet potato festival will take place on the same Saturday as the big day of the festival. We arrive early in the afternoon on Wednesday to find many RVs already parked and the rather small covered shed nearly filled with chairs already. We’re happy to find our spot is quite near the stage and convenient to all facilities and even happier to learn that this isolated small event has a broadband service of sorts. By Friday, the grounds are nearly full, and promoter Verniece Kennedy is looking for spots to shoehorn rigs into. The vendors have set up, some of the musicians begin to appear, and the bluegrass community is set for another weekend.
Thursday evening features open mic performances, which we decide to ignore in favor of watching the first game of the World Series. Most people here appear blissfully unaware that baseball is being played anywhere and, indeed, during the weekend we only talk to one other person who cares. Music begins on Friday evening at 6:00 PM with the host band, The Riverbend Bluegrass Band opening up. Verniece sings creditably while husband Dale and the other band members are entertaining. The four of the five professional bands for the weekend follow. Fontanna Sunset is the only band we haven’t heard before. Fronted by Frances Mooney, one of the Daughters of Bluegrass, this band is one of those delightful regional bands that always provide surprises at bluegrass festivals. Frances Mooney has been in bluegrass music forever. She has a fine voice, deep timbred and full, she and slaps a pretty good bass, too. Her support is strong and this band deserves more attention. Her son Mark plays a very good rhythm guitar as well as doing some creditable flat-picking. Their voices blend as only those or relatives can, close and clear, they’re a pleasure to hear. Other band members provide experienced, solid support. Most band members are from Georgia and their schedule doesn’t take them too far afield, although they’ll be seen in Tennsessee, Florida, and Mississippi in the coming year. Frances will make some appearances with the Daughters of Bluegrass, a group which is more a recording effort than a performing one, but which will be increasingly in demand to perform together.
Four of the five featured bands appeared on Friday as well as Saturday. Lorraine Jordan and Carolina Road led off with one of the best sets we’ve seen them do. The crowd was alive and responsive, lifting Carolina Road to a higher level of performance than even their usual very professional and high quality work. During the past year, this band has developed cohesiveness, increased its warmth, broadened its appeal, and raised its standard of performance. The personnel have been stabilized, yielding real variety and quality. Lorraine remains the decided band front, yet has ceded some of the emcee duties to the genial Jerry Butler, who has established a relaxed camaraderie with her that is fun to watch. Benny Greene is always reliable on banjo as is Todd Meade on bass. On Saturday, dressed in drag, we finally heard Todd sing, too, as Josh Goforth had to meet another obligation. With Josh on fiddle as well as playing a very good finger picking guitar, this band can provide a real breadth of quality music even as it adhere’s pretty closely to Monroe style bluegrass. By including some classic country and a few novelty numbers, this excellent band can always be counted on.
The Gary Waldrep Band can also always be counted on the provide a solid and enjoyable performance. Waldrep, coming from northeastern Alabama, plays in what is called the Sand Mountain style. I’m not enough of an analyst to describe the essentials of his approach, but Waldrep’s band features his blazing fast banjo in both Scruggs style picking and clawhammer, with a very strong primitive gospel component. Waldrep communicates clearly and fervently his deep religious conviction in songs like his signature, Thomas. Two standouts in Gary’s band are guitarist and tenor singer Mindy Rakestraw and bassist Jane Baxter. Waldrep is one of the few bluegrass band leaders to place two (sometimes three, although fiddler Shirley Simes has moved on.) female performers in key positions in his band and is to be applauded for this. Rakestraw plays very solid rhythm guitar and has several opportunities to sing solos as well. Baxter, who’s been in bluegrass since before she was born, is a versatile bassist and sings both gospel and blues with real depth. Stan Wilemon, an experienced bluegrasser, is excellent on mandolin and backup harmonies. Waldrep is an exciting performer who is also an extremely generous bandleader. He deserves broader exposure.
I am not a fan of Goldwing Express. This band, based in Branson, MO gives a slick, sometimes amusing, canned performance which is exactly right for Branson type audiences and attracts a number of devoted fans to their performances on the road. This being said, the band tries to have it both ways as the father, Bob Baldridge, portrays the dirty old man making allusions to his sex life and continually returning to bathroom talk while his dutiful sons try to keep him from making comments. By using this approach, the sons appear to be clean cut and straight while the father can say anything the group wants to say. His use of the insulting ethnic slur “Polock” is unacceptable before any audience. This is accentuated by the group’s double message in referring to their Cherokee heritage while calling their father “white man” and singing about the infamous “Trail of Tears.” From time to time I found myself laughing at his act and then wanting to go wash my mouth out with soap. The cynical and manipulative appeal to motherhood, country and God used as the finale to their last set set comes across as insincere and makes this group seem untrustworthy to me.
We’ve been watching the Wilson Family Band from Folkston, GA for nearly a year now and they just keep getting better. Robert Wilson has been around bluegrass music for quite some time, beginning his career touring with the River Grass Review in the eighties. He and wife Melissa have built a family band around their two children, Clint, age 17 and Katie – 12. With the addition of Drew Jones on bass, this young band is maturing almost by the day. Katie, a gifted singer/songwriter who plays the fiddle has continued to improve in every aspect of her performance. At Riverbend it was clear that she has developed a deeper understanding of her instrument and its potential inside a bluegrass band. She is taking risks and hits much more often than she misses. She has become a solid mainstay of a good band, and is not to be seen as a novelty kid who can perform. Brother Clint has also continued to mature and expand. This weekend was the first time we had seen him perform on the mandolin and guitar as well as his primary instrument, banjo. He made significant contributions at the workshop the family conducted on Saturday morning, too. Even though the band’s focus is on the kids, Melissa is taking more and more intricate mandolin breaks as her confidence before an audience increases. Drew Jones provides a solid beat at bass and also offered some strong flat picking on the guitar. The Wilson Family Band is the kind of band that audiences respond to strongly. They play a solid mixture of gospel and traditional bluegrass as well as several songs written by the kids. They will only continue to improve as they mature with their instruments and their connection to the music.Riverbend attracted a very enthusiastic and large audience this year, completely filling the available campsites to overflowing. Gene Daniel did a good job on sound and Jo Odum was a lively and engaging emcee. A good variety of food was offered and a real sense of connection between the crowd and the performers prevailed. Riverbend Music Park offers two festivals in the year, April and October and should be considered as a stop on your bluegrass trail, particularly if you like a strong component of gospel with your traditional bluegrass.