Laurel Lakes Music Park is a very pleasant venue for bluegrass festivals. The grounds are quite spacious with a campground offering full hookups, plenty of space for rough camping, a full service restaurant, two small lakes for fisherman to dip a line to their heart’s content, a spacious stage, good sound, and plenty of shade. Promoter Nancy Canady, according to a note on her festival program, had to absorb a significant financial loss on her July festival, necessitating making severe cuts in her announced lineup for September if she were to continue promoting bluegrass at Laurel Lakes. In order to allow her festival to continue, she was forced to offer reduced fees and to reach cancellation agreements with bands preferring not to work for less than their customary fees. The predicament left her with a weakened schedule, which was further damaged by at least two bands not being able to make their commitments for Thursday evening.
All that having been said, there was plenty of good music available on Friday and Saturday, with three top national bands, an emerging national family band, and two rising regional groups who performed well. While I’m not a good judge of crowd sizes, I’d estimate that no more than 300 or so people showed up for the weekend. I’ll try to examine some of the reasons I think the promotions at Laurel Lakes aren’t working well at the end of this review. Meanwhile, let’s look at the music.
Several pickup bands and local groups appeared. The Drifting River Band stood out among these as a solid bluegrass/country group. Within this group, young Ashley Davis, a seventeen year old fiddler impressed. She performed well with several groups on stage and will soon be joining Sweet Potato Pie, a (pardon the expression) bluegrass girl-band. It was also a pleasure to see Gina Britt performing on banjo with Nancy Canady’s house band, that also included her husband Tim Tew on Dobro, as well as Lorraine Jordan and John Wade from Carolina Road. Emcee Charlie Carlisle, who told corny jokes, sang, and played creditable mandolin acquitted himself well.
Band to Watch: We had seen Remington Ryde a couple of times over the past few years and recognized them as a competent if not very exciting band. At Laurel Lakes they showed themselves ready to step up into the next rank of regional bands seeking broader attention. The addition of Billy Lee Cox at banjo and a greater attention to their entertainment values and generation of high levels of energy have made a terrific difference. Their instrumentals are driving and solidly musical. They play a good selection of familiar standards and their own compositions with dash and verve. Danny Stewart on mandolin is strong and funny. Ryan Frankhauser sings well and plays solid rhythm guitar, while Wally Yoder contributes a solid beat at bass. Don’t let the Pennsylvania Dutch names fool you; this is a bluegrass band worth watching.
The Wells Family seems poised to take several steps upward, too. Their schedule indicates that they’ve made a move from performing mostly in churches and very local settings to bookings at bluegrass festivals such as Graves Mountain, the Nothin’ Fancy Festival, and are scheduled to appear at the Palatka Fall Festival in Palatka, FL in October. The band consisting of parents Gary (who was not at Laurel Lakes) and Debi and their three very attractive daughters offers a pleasing mix of bluegrass, Gospel, and country sounds that are as pleasing to the ear as the band is to the eye. Lead singer Jade Wells has a bluesy, earthy voice. The two other sisters blend well; their harmonies are quite solid.
The Wells Family
Pine Mountain Railroad presents solid, traditional bluegrass. This season they’re touring in support of their Gospel CD “Pickin’Praisin’ and Singin’” which is charting very well. At Laurel Lakes they sang a broad selection of songs from this CD as well as other pieces from their catalog. Jerry Cox, singing some leads and playing rhythm guitar, has added an exciting R&B tone to Pine Mountain Railroad’s sound and Dale Thomas on banjo is quite good, although all business in his performance. Cody Shuler, singing lead and playing a solid mandolin, is clearly in charge. Matt Flake on fiddle performs well and Bill McBee on bass takes on some of the hosting duties, too. Pine Mountain Railroad has been receiving a good deal of attention and delivers good value to fans.
Randy Waller remains something of an enigma in his role of flame keeper for his father’s legacy with the immortal Country Gentlemen. His band ably covers many Country Gentlemen classics without ever trying to sound precisely like the historic band. Their versions of Matterhorn, Two Little Boys, Rebel Soldier and many others are excellent. Randy’s voice is a mellow baritone with deep timbre and strong support. When he takes his own performance seriously, he can be truly excellent, but one never knows which Randy Waller is likely to show up, the singer or the clown. This week we mostly had the singer and a good performance. Dave Kirk on mandolin is quite good. Adam Poindexter is currently playing bass with the band, but will soon move to banjo as Mark Delaney will be joining the new Wayne Taylor band Appaloosa. This looks like a good move for Mark, who is an excellent and creative banjo player.
Saturday presented a strong day’s music. The Doerfel Family continues to develop as the oldest five of the ten Doerfel kids find their own way to express bluegrass music. Lead singer Kim’s mature, dusky voice is excellent for blues and her smile is always magical. TJ on banjo has continued to develop as an extremely interesting and increasingly effective banjo player. Red headed Ben (12) on lead guitar provides humor and lightning fast flat picking. I’m not terribly taken with the younger children’s too cute appearance on the stage, but I’m certain many fans like it a lot, and the kiddies are less intrusive as the older siblings performance develops.
Sammy Shelor and the Lonesome River Band closed the show with their patented driving bluegrass with a hint of rock sensibility always lurking. Their new CD “No Turning Back” has been released, and LRB sang a number of songs from it. It’s the first CD that this latest iteration of LRB has released, and they’re one of the strongest aggregations of the band since the earliest days with Ronnie Bowman and Kenny Smith. Brandon Rickman is a superb sing/songwriter whose compositions move and amuse. His ability to change strings on the fly without missing a beat or losing concentration is a wonder to behold. Does he break those strings on purpose? Andy Ball on mandolin has improved greatly as both a picker and singer. His tenor voice and close harmonies are always excellent. Mike Anglin on bass, often seems to be somewhere out in space, bouncing to his own groove. His beat helps drive the band in almost every song. Mike Hartgrove's thoughtful and tasteful fiddle is always there adding just the right note to the mix. There’s little new to say about Sammy Shelor. Four-time IBMA banjo player of the year, his drive and bounce practically define the words. His play grabs attention without seeming to be showy or overdone. The electricity of a Shelor performance is always a joy to behold.Laurel Lakes Bluegrass Festival and Promoter Nancy Canady may stand as emblematic of what happens when too much hope and idealism run into the realities of undertaking a business venture. Nancy is a nice person whose heart is in the right place. She loves bluegrass music and has passion for supporting wounded troops returning from the war. In the end, however, promoting a bluegrass festival is a business venture. The successful bluegrass promoter has to have a set of skills and observe a series of principles in order to assure that the event is a success for everyone involved – fans, bands, vendors, and the promoter all need to come away from an event whole if the event is to prosper and thrive.
We attend more festivals than most people are lucky enough to get to. We go to some of the largest and most successful; festivals like Merlefest, Palatka, MACC, and Strawberry Park. We also go to small festivals that appear to be growing and developing, festivals like Jenny Brook, Mountain Song Festival, and Otis Mtn. What seems to characterize these thriving events?
1. Attention to detail. 2. Knowledge of the local and regional market. 3. Clear goals for the festival. 4. Willingness to respond to local conditions. 5. A clear awareness of the audience. 6. Clear and up-to-date communication.
Unlike some people who attend festivals, we make our decisions weeks, or even months before the event. Reliability in communicating the lineup is essential for us in helping to make such decisions. Festivals not taking advantage of the Internet as a means of communication are making a serious mistake. Distribution of flyers at other bluegrass festivals is insufficient. Most bands seem to be at some level of awareness of this factor, although all are not equally far along. Promoters, especially, need to provide accurate and up-to-date information about their event. Not doing so creates a less than honest picture on which fans are asked to make decisions. In our distressed economy, where economic choices are ever more necessary, such communication increases in importance. In many ways the music and the audience are facing change in the future. Let’s be sure we’re communicating with the audience in ways that help them make better and better informed decisions. That’s bound to result in better attendance and more enthusiasm at the events.
The Rebel Soldier