Monday, March 24, 2008

Great Southern Bluegrass Festival - Review

Promoter Ernie Evans and park owner Pat Tillman courageously took on the task of creating, promoting, and presenting a bluegrass festival in only six weeks after the unfortunate demise of the Spirit of Suwannee Bluegrass festival. While too few people came, this festival bodes well for the future if they decide to continue to build the lineups offered here as well as to develop the site.

Ernie Evans and Pat Tillman

Picker’s Paradise Park in Ochlocknee, GA (a few miles north of the lovely town of Thomasville) provides a good base to develop into a first rate music park. Located on a flat, large piece of land beside a picturesque pond, the park has a tin roof shed with plenty of space underneath and good site lines from the side. The stage is well-sized. The back of the shed contains an adequate kitchen which offered a limited but tasty menu of hamburgers, and barbecued pork or chicken. An excellent hot dog vendor was there for part of the festival as well as a well-supplied instrument vendor. Porta- johns were adequate and were kept very clean. The 125 water and electric sites at Picker’s Paradise Park are adequate for a small festival, but will need to be upgraded should Pat Tillman wish to attract a larger crowd. He expressed a desire to build both a shower/flush toilet facility and a dump station. These provisions would make his park more attractive to both RVers and tent campers. Pat and his staff were extremely pleasant and eager to please. On the whole, this park shows great promise to develop into a venue for medium sized, quality bluegrass festival. The grounds are certainly large enough to allow significant growth.

Brian Gandy (Gandy Brothers)

Skylar Gandy (Gandy Brothers)
Ernie Evans is, in many ways, a visionary promoter who, because of his experience as a performer, is well acquainted with the ins and outs of promoting a bluegrass festival. His festivals at Craig’s RV in Arcadia, Waldo, and Perry show that he knows how to offer a range of performers sufficient to satisfy a variety of bluegrass tastes. He is committed to providing a forum for local and regional bluegrass bands to perform and gain recognition. He has been particularly strong in booking and presenting small, little-known, young bands, some of which may grow into much more professional and recognized groups. Ernie comes from Jacksonville, FL and is well aware of the bands performing in Florida, Georgia, and Alabama who don’t have to travel too far to perform at one of his festivals. His knowledge of the national scene is broad, allowing him to book bands from traditional to somewhat progressive and balance them effectively. He is a hearty, enthusiastic, and optimistic man, essential qualities for any bluegrass promoter.

Brendan Andrews (Andrews Family)

Michael Andrews (Andrews Family)

Musically, The Great Southern Bluegrass Festival (a somewhat overblown name which will have to earn it) offered a limited, but enjoyable schedule. The Showcase, beginning at 4:00 PM on Friday, offered the Gandy Brothers, two kids (one 18 and one 10) who show promise. Ten year old Skylar on fiddle picks pretty well. His older brother Brandon a developing voice with a good baritone bottom. His banjo picking is adequate and will improve. The entire band did not perform, so they were supported by Ernie Evans on guitar and Clint Wilson on bass. The Andrews Family Band has improved significantly since we saw them at Live Oak a year ago. Brian Andrews on guitar shows real signs of becoming a first rate flat picker. His voice is still uncertain, but will improve with experience. Michael Andrews (13) is on his way to becoming a very good banjo picker and bears an eerie resemblance to Cory Walker. They were backed by their father on bass and Nick Ball (Southern Lite’s new banjo player) on mandolin. Both bands will continue to develop. The Kenny Hill Band features three more experienced pickers as well as a unique and interesting sound. Featuring Brian Hill on guitar, his wife Jennifer on lead vocals and bass, and Ken Baldauf on banjo, they offer a mélange of bluegrass, folk, country, and funk that comes together as an interesting and enjoyable Saturday afternoon sound. Brian is a very good flat picker. They step on ground where many a bluegrasser fears to tread by even using an accordion for one song, along with the comment that Bill Monroe also experimented with the cordeen. Their sound is tight and they were fun for me to hear.

Kenny Hill Band

Nick Ball (Ernie Evans & Southern Lite)

Ernie Evans & Southern Lite
More familiar bands appearing at Great Southern were led off by Ernie Evans and Southern Lite. Ernie’s added a new banjo player, Nick Ball from Tennessee, who picks well and has a terrific bass kicker in his voice that’s particularly effective on country songs, is too new to the band for me to have much to say about his contribution. Deb Evans plays bass and has a good bluegrass voice for singing lead or harmony. Ernie plays a lively mandolin and a good voice to his performances, and Brian Andres played guitar for him. The band offers a solid assortment of bluegrass standards, Ernie schedules them in appropriate places on the bill, and they provide good fill and pleasant sounds.

Deb and Ernie Evans

Pure and Simple Bluegrass

Greg Whigham (Pure and Simple)

Pure and Simple Bluegrass (MySpace) stands out as the surprise band for this festival. (Parenthetical question: would readers prefer that I link to a band’s web site or its MySpace page when I have a choice? Leave a comment or e-mail me.) This six piece band offers both high quality work on traditional bluegrass; some interesting grass takes on songs from other genres (Lynard Skynard, Alabama, Grateful Dead, Steve Goodman, and the Eagles). Add to this some delightful on-stage banter, a bunch of corny jokes at each other’s expense, and genuine delight in each other’s company, and you have a band worth watching and listening to. Dobro player Travis Perry promotes a festival in their home town of Dothan, Alabama which looks like a sure winner. Check out the Great American Bluegrass Festival. Pure and Simple’s trio is tight and sounds good. Their picking is enjoyable, and their enthusiasm infectious. They were a real presence at The Great Southern Bluegrass Festival and a delight to meet and be around.

Travis Perry (Pure and Simple)

Ronnie Rutherford (Pure and Simple)

The Wilson Family Band

Robert Wilson
The Wilson Family Band continues to improve almost from week to week. From Robert Wilson’s time with The River Grass Review two decades ago, he has been involved in bluegrass music in some way or another. His wife Melissa grew up in Jacksonville in a family that played and sang bluegrass, also. Together, from their home in Folkston, Georgia they have forged a family that is held together and strengthened through their commitment to their religious background and making music. In the case of this band, it’s pretty hard to beat. Robert’s gravelly lead singing and very solid rhythm guitar provide a solid base for this group’s presentations. While acting as spokesman for their group, he has ceded a good deal of this job to their son Clint, who at nearly eighteen has emerged not only as a fine banjo picker, but shows an improving voice and a very pleasant stage presence. Robert portrays himself as something of a rube, but don’t let this wise man fool you for a second. He has forged a group that shows poise, musicality, and personality in such a way they are sure winners. The acknowledged star of the band is twelve year old Katie. When we first saw her a little over a year ago, she was something of a novelty, it’s clear a year later that she’s the real thing. Her fiddle playing continues to improve, showing increasingly mature and intricate licks and growing power. Her singing, as she gains in age and strength, is becoming more melodious while losing its somewhat childlike edge. She’s becoming a real bluegrass singer.
Clint Wilson

Katie Wilson

Phil Leadbetter Workshop
Phil Leadbetter and Alan Bibey of Grasstowne led off Saturday with successive hour long workshops. Even for someone not playing either instrument, they constituted the beginnings of an advanced degree in picking. Their sessions were well-attended by interested participants with a range of skills. Both men skillfully responded to questions at the appropriate level, challenging each participant to learn and improve without moving beyond their capabilities. The workshops served as good lessons in teaching as well as musicianship.

Alan Bibey Workshop

Alan Bibey
Grasstowne is always a pleasure to watch. Even at this rather small, sparsely attended event, the band gave its all, or perhaps even a little more. The three veteran pickers each stand at the top of their profession. During his workshop, Alan Bibey was asked who he listens to. He mentioned Bill Monroe as well as several others, but if truth be known, Bibey has developed such a distinctive style, that while it reflects those who came before him, still stands on its own as Bibey style mandolin. Alan was awarded the SPBGMA award as Mandolin Player of the Year in 2007. Phil Leadbetter has already been recognized by becoming one of only three people ever to win IBMA’s Dobro Player of the Year award. Steve Gulley is a standout vocalist in a crowded field. The more I listen to his soulful singing and watch the depth of commitment evident in his face and the sweat dripping from it as he sings, the more I realize how much he gives to his singing and how much he rewards his audience. His clear tenor voice, capable of lows into the baritone range, reflects a range of emotion unusual in any singer and almost non-existent in most bluegrass performers. As an ensemble, Grasstowne sets standards of musicality hard to match in any other group. Jason Davis on banjo is quickly moving towards this sort of height. Though barely twenty years of age, Jason has toured with four top bands and now graced the cover of Banjo Newsletter, the youngest picker ever so honored. Having Grasstowne at the festival turned it into a success, even if the other bands hadn’t already done so.

Steve Gulley

Phil Leadbetter

Jason Davis
Pat Tillman and Ernie Evans have some work to do to build the audience for this festival in South Georgia. They have the expertise and the location. With good luck and persistence, they’ll also be able to create and cultivate both the local audience and the drive-in day group to make The Great Southern Bluegrass Festival at Picker’s Paradise Park into a financial as well as an artistic success.
Pat Tillman and Ernie Davis with Grasstowne