Sunday, May 11, 2008

Bluegrass on the Waccamaw 2008 - Review

Bluegrass on the Waccamaw is an unusual and delightful small festival. Held on the grounds of the Old Peanut Warehouse in Conway, SC, the festival is organized and presented by luthier Jennings Chestnut, Sr., who owns the Chestnut Mandolin Shop on Main Street, Conway. Involved in bluegrass music for well over 30 years, Jennings knows a lot of people, has fine organizational skills, and an idealistic view of how and for whom bluegrass should be presented. As a result of this combination of qualities, Jennings brings together a winning combination of local, regional, and national groups to present “World Class Bluegrass” free to the public. To accomplish this goal, he has had Bluegrass on the Waccamaw recognized at a non-profit 501 c(3) organization and spends much of his year, when he isn’t busy building finely crafted and lovely sounding mandolins, raising money and support for his festival. Through dint of hard work and the encouragement of the city fathers of Conway, this was twelfth annual event, always held on the second Saturday in May.

Jeanette Williams

Jeanette Williams Band with guest mandolin
The festival actually begins on Friday night with a fund raiser banquet in the Old Peanut Warehouse. After a delicious chicken bog dinner catered by Larry Dickerson, The Jeannette Williams Band entertained. Her lovely voice and the support of her fine band made it a festive evening.
The Chestnut Family
This year’s version of Bluegrass on the Waccamaw featured nine bands during its ten hour duration. The two featured bands, Grasstowne and Russell Moore & IIIrd Tyme Out, were both at the top of their game. The always popular Lewis Family performed two sets. Interestingly, Little Roy Lewis did not appear in his usual clown role in any other act’s set. More about the headliners later.

Drovers Old Time Medicine Show
The day dawned clear and hot despite warnings of bad, not to say dangerous, weather on the way. An early crowd arrived looking for whatever shade was available, grew and turned over several times as the day progressed. The early bands represented local and regional talent. New River, a local bluegrass gospel and traditional bluegrass band, provided a pleasant surprise early on in their single set. They are an enjoyable band that deserves watching. Other local bands appearing were Drovers Old Time Medicine Show, and the County Line Band. The Bluegrass Strangers, a traditional cover band from Ohio, performed two sets and provided the sound.

The Snyder Family Band

Samantha Snyder

The Snyder Family Band played one set early in the evening, having been added to the lineup when Jennings heard them at Bluegrass First Class in Asheville this last winter. This trio features nine year old Samantha on fiddle and twelve year old Zeb on guitar, backed by their father Bud on bass and, occasionally, mother Elaine on gospel vocal trios. The two kids are accomplished musicians for their age with pleasant young voices. Samantha, a smiling sprite who barely peeked over the ferns and carnations decorating the stage, plays fiddle with élan and sings in a young but on-key and pitch voice. Zeb is already an accomplished flat picker, and competed in the Merlefest guitar competition this year. Both Snyder children have improved considerably since we first heard them at Carolina in the Fall back in October. Personally, they are precocious and unassuming kids, home-schooled, polite, and engaging. Their parents seem to be succeeding at keeping the performing and the learning fun for them. Look for these kids around the festival circuit as more fans become aware of them. They received a standing ovation and an encore at the end of their set.

Zeb Snyder

Roy Lewis Watches the Snyder Family

Janis, Polly, and Little Roy Lewis
The Lewis Family has been touring for over fifty years. They are rightly called America’s First Family of Bluegrass Gospel Music, and have performed a traditional gospel music program leavened with lots of humor and Little Roy Lewis’ clowning, which reaches back into the early days of bluegrass and before. While Little Roy frequently appears in various outrageous costumes in other people’s acts, he never sings secular lyrics in his own show, although he frequently plays patriotic and popular tunes. While his sisters are increasingly hindered by age, he has recently begun to ease younger performers into his program. Sister Polly asked for the audience’s prayers as she battles her illness. The Lewis Family is well-loved by their fans, who support them wherever they perform.

Little Roy

Jammers on the River Walk

Mandolin Workshop with Alan Bibey
A few hundred yards away from the Old Peanut Warehouse, the Waccamaw river flows past the grounds. Conway has built a lovely wooden walkway along the river where boats tie up, kids swim and sunbathe, and jammers congregate during the festival. Two groups of jammers, one the regulars from The Rivertown Bluegrass Society and the other a group of kids. The festival had erected a small tent beside the river walk where three workshops were held. Alan Bibey, Steve Gulley, and Phil Leadbetter each presented very well attended workshops where enthusiastic musicians of all age participated and learned. These workshops are an excellent addition to Bluegrass on the Waccamaw.

Russell Moore and IIIrd Tyme Out

Justin Haynes (IIIrd Tyme Out)

Steve Dilling
The end of the afternoon performances and the evening were dominated by the two national touring bands. The two bands playing on Saturday night are inter-related in many ways. Alan Bibey, now of Grasstowne was one of the founding members of IIIrd Tyme Out along with Ray Deaton and Russell Moore back around 1991. Now, seventeen years later, Russell is the only remaining member of this storied band, but the great sound remains. Wayne Benson, one of the finest mandolin players around is currently playing mandolin with the band. Meanwhile, bus driver Doug Driscoll has taken on the role of singing bass that Deaton once filled. His solid bass voice and disarming pleasure at finding himself on stage create a winning image. Edgar Loudermilk, who has wide experience as a first rate bass player improves upon his predecessor at the instrument. Steve Dilling on banjo and singing harmony excels with his fine instrumental work and winning personality. Justin Haynes on fiddle is first rate. Meanwhile. Russell Moore remains one of the very best lead singers in bluegrass music.

Wayne Benson (IIIrd Tyme Out)

Russell Moore

Doug Driscoll (IIIrd Tyme Out)


Alan Bibey

For Grasstowne, there simply is no better mandolin player on the circuit today than Alan Bibey. His precise and lightning fast breaks are a joy to hear and watch. Steve Gulley, having joined Grasstowne after a lengthy stint as lead singer with Mountain Heart, remains at the top of his game. And his game is very near the top of the vocal heap. To hear two of the best mandolin players and two of the finest lead singers in successive sets is truly a great treat. Phil Leadbetter on Dobro remains one of only three musicians ever to win IBMA Dobro Player of the year along with Jerry Douglas and Rob Ickes. That’s pretty rare territory. Jayme Booher, who has played a very capable bass for Grasstowne since shortly after it was formed, has taken on the job of singing baritone, which he performs with skill and good voice, but always in his typical self-deprecating manner. Jason Davis, a still developing master on banjo, allows his banjo to do the talking for him, and talk it does with taste and exquisite melding of this difficult instrument into the sound of one of the best bands around.

Jayme Booher Sings

Jason Davis

Steve Gulley

Phil Leadbetter
The evening closed having made the point that great bands make a fine festival. By bringing these two fine bands together at Conway, along with the other distinguished groups, Jennings Chestnut has continued the legacy of the excellent festival he created.