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

Friday, March 21, 2008

Silver River State Park, The Big Green Egg Fest & Ocala

Along the Sinkhole Trail
Silver River State Park lies tucked in between the City of Ocala and the old Florida resort of Silver Springs. It is one of the newest parks in the Florida system and shows how it has learned enough from other parks so that now it’s teaching them how to bring themselves up to date. The park’s spacious campground features four loops in two separate sections, each one featuring sites large enough for even the largest RVs while maintaining enough separation to give plenty of privacy. Sites are graded and leveled using gravel and rock fines in such proportion as to give a very solid base, almost appearing like paving while accepting spikes for awnings or tents. All sites have water and electric service, and there are some sites with 50 amp service. Each section has a large rest room complex with a washer and drier. These facilities are kept spotlessly clean by the very pleasant and welcoming staff of work campers. The park lies along the Silver River, the largest artesian fed river in the world and the site of the famous 1930’s resort Silver Springs, where Lloyd Bridges filmed many of his SeaHunt episodes for television.

Our Campsite

Rest Room Facility

The park has about fifteen miles of trails open to hikers and off-road bicyclists. We hike two of these trails and found them to be interesting and enjoyable. The Sinkhole trail leads through a north Florida hammock with mixed vegetation around a sink hole which is difficult to see because of the heavy growth down in it. Interpretive signs introduce hikers to the wildlife and give some understanding of the ecology. There are two River Trails. We took the swamp trail leading down toward the Silver River through a predominantly pine and live oak forest through a cypress swamp where the trail turns into an elevated walkway. Eventually, the walkway leads to an outlook on the Silver River, a beautiful clear water stream fed by artesian water bubbling from the ground. We saw a huge bass and a bowfish, although no alligators. One of the rangers, who regularly comes down to this spot for his lunch, walked us back up the boardwalk to show us a cotton mouth moccasin curled quietly in the notch of a tree. The park claims 5000 acres of viewable habitat and many animals. All this lies within a couple of miles of the bustling city of Ocala.

Silver River Museum Display

The Marion County Board of Education, in close cooperation with Silver River State Park, operates an Environmental Education Center featuring the Silver River Museum and the Cracker Village. The museum is open to the public on weekends for a nominal charge. The buildings of the Cracker Village, demonstrating life in north Florida in the late nineteenth century, are only rarely open to the public, but it’s worth checking to park’s schedule to take the opportunity to view these old and primitive buildings. The museum has a fine collection showing the development of this part of Florida from an environmental and scientific viewpoint for its early development and then tracking the social history of the region from the days of the Seminole Wars through the development of tourist Florida in the 1920’s and 30’s until the present day. The artifacts are very useful. The descriptions are sufficiently detailed to give a good overview of the regions natural and human history without becoming boring or pedantic. This small museum is a special gem.

Sweetwater Bluegrass Band

After we’d been at Silver River a day or so, we put up our Bluegrass Music banner on our awning. Early in the evening there was a knock on the door and one of the rangers stood there asking if we were pickers. As we chatted with Mickey Summers, it developed he had just returned from the ETA Bluegrass Cruise we had enjoyed so much. After much enjoyable reminiscing, Mickey invited us to attend the Big Green Egg Fest on Saturday to hear his band Sweetwater Bluegrass and enjoy the festivities. Around eleven on Saturday morning we wandered over to the pavilion. We could hear the big bass pounding and the banjo leading the way as Sweetwater Bluegrass kept the music coming. Perhaps a couple hundred people milled around as dozens of green, egg-shaped cookers belched smoke and the aroma of cooking meat filled the air. Ostensibly a public event, the hefty$30.00 admission fee made it pretty expensive to attend, so the largest portion of people attending appeared to be Egg enthusiasts appreciating each other’s work. We sat at a picnic table to enjoy the music of Mickey’s band, but soon succumbed to the temptation to sample the productions of the Eggers.

Jeff Houck Live Blogging

Egg Culture

Big Green Eggs are a beautifully designed smoker. cooker, grill shaped like an egg and lined with a heavy ceramic coating that concentrates the heat of natural charcoal and various flavoring additives to allow users to cook either fast or slow and to control cooking time and temperature quite accurately. The results were a variety of smoked and grilled meats as well as quick breads, and even pizza that looked and tasted wonderful. A large regional distributer was very much in evidence as well as several other vendors. People cooked, people ate and milled and chatted and compared recipes and enjoyed themselves. Sweetwater Bluegrass contributed to the generally jovial atmosphere. Tampa Tribune food writer and blogger Jeff Houck had set up his computer at a nearby picnic table and was live-blogging the event, posting commentary and pictures to his blog. Check his work out here, here, here, here, and here. I’ll leave it to his very professional work to portray the event. For us, the food was tasty, the concept of the Big Green Egg intriguing, and the music enjoyable, making a real contribution to the entire event. Silver River State park hosts a variety of events, and it’s worth checking the schedule there if you live close enough to get there easily. There’ll be a bluegrass event there on May 16th.

Vendor Diplay

Rayne Summers Displays Egg
Ocala proved to be a delightful place to visit. We’ve driven around the circumference several times in recent years, but not stopped to spend any time before. A short drive from the quiet and seemingly remote Park, the city offers all the shopping and eating conveniences of a regional center which for years has attracted wealthy horse lovers. We found a delightful Thai restaurant across the street from the Paddock Mall that more than satisfied our taste for this delightful food. Ocala’s real draw is horses. Large horse farms of almost every kind from jumping to racing through cattle herding surround the city. Many of these can be visited. There are also frequent horse shows and other equine events. Driving out of Ocala in almost any direction will yield views of horses and training facilities. Since most of these are working farms, it may be difficult, but worthwhile, to arrange visits. All told, Ocala is worth a visit and Silver River State Park provides a great base for making a grand tour of the region or for enjoying a quiet spot to get away for a weekend or a couple of weeks.

River Trail Cypress Swamp

Silver River

Our New Friend

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Lorraine Jordan and Carolina Road Homecoming - Preview

Lorraine Jordan and Carolina Road
Lorraine Jordan and the Carolina Road Band will host their Homecoming Bluegrass Festival on March 28 and 29, 2008 at the Ramada Inn in Burlington, NC. While this festival serves primarily as a showcase for bands from North Carolina it will also present a selection of excellent bands from a wider geographical area. Lorraine tells me it’s called a homecoming because of the friendly reception and sense of reunion the festival embodies. This event provides fans and promoters an opportunity to view bands from the region as well further afield to preview bands, hire them, and make decisions about both hiring and festival attendance. The indoor festival opens the spring bluegrass season in North Carolina and offers a lot of diversity for fans of traditional bluegrass and gospel.
Remington Ryde

David Davis

Anita Fisher

Deeper Shade of Blue
Bands on Thursday from outside the region include Remington Ryde from Pennsylvania and David Davis and the Warrior River Boys from Alabama. Davis’ band is known for its hard driving Monroe style picking and Davis’ soulful voice. Davis version of “Chancellorsville” is a heart rending telling of Stonewall Jackson’s death from friendly fire. Owen Saunders is a standout on fiddle. Remington Ryde plays mostly in Pennsylvania and neighboring states, so this event will give them broader exposure. The cuts on their web site suggest solid and traditional bluegrass. The Anita Fisher Band, featuring Ray Deaton, which hails from Georgia, will also be featured. This band is receiving wider play in recent months as folks become accustomed to Ray’s no longer being a member of IIrd Tyme Out, the band he founded. Deeper Shade of Blue plays a solid mix of gospel and traditional bluegrass. Each of the bands above will be playing two sets on Friday.
Grass Street

Carolina Junction

Al Batten & the Bluegrass Reunion

Johnny Ridge (Bluegrass Reunion)

In addition, Blue ‘No’ More, Boys from Carolina, Grass Street, and Carolina Junction will each play a full set. The ever popular Al Batten & the Bluegrass Reunion will be playing a set on both Friday and Saturday. We’ve seen Batten in Florida as well as North Carolina. He’s a popular mainstay in his home state. Fiddler Johnny Ridge is a particular standout. These five bands are all from North Carolina and have strong regional backing and experience. They are seasoned bands who will delight fans of traditional bluegrass. Carolina Junction is a young band which aspires to a wider audience. Playing a somewhat more eclectic mix of music, they deserve watching. I highlighted them in my blog after their appearance at White Oak Shores last October. I could find no information on-line about Blue ‘No’ More. It’s truly important these days for bands to have at least a MySpace presence to help fans and festival organizers become familiar with them.

Constant Change

Jr. Sisk

Carolina Sonshine

James King
Saturday also features a strong list of regional bands as well as several national bands and a couple in the process of making the transition to a larger and wider audience. Crossroads is a California band playing largely gospel music, while the Fritts Family hails from Tennessee and also specializes in gospel music. Red and Donna, Chris Jobe, and Constant Change, are bands primarily known in North Carolina. The Grass Cats are another North Carolina band with a rising national reputation bolstered by a showcase appearance at IBMA and lots of recent play on XM radio. They’ll be offering one set at 8:15 on Saturday. Some higher profile bands will be playing two sets on Saturday. Junior Sisk & Ramblers Choice has recently signed a recording contract with Rebel Records. Junior spent a number of years as lead singer with Blueridge. Long recognized as one of the finest tenor singers in bluegrass, he has recently re-established his band. The range and diversity of his touring schedule attests to the happiness among bluegrass people to see his band back on the road. Carolina Sonshine, long an established gospel band in the Low Country has stepped up in the last couple of years, appearing at more widespread events as well as on the Bell Buckle Bluegrass Cruise. The storied James King Band will perform a single long set at 9:15 on Saturday evening. King has been named SPBGMA traditional male singer of the year seven times. He’s particularly noted for the soulfulness of his singing in which he often becomes so involved the tears flow. Festival hosts Lorraine Jordan and Carolina Road will close out the festival on Saturday night with another set of their hard driving, traditional bluegrass. Carolina Road has improved steadily during the three years we’ve been watching them. The band Lorraine has assembled and toured with for the past year or so is the best she has had. Balanced and strong at every position, Carolina Road specializes in Monroe style bluegrass and sets a standard for the other bands performing at this festival.

Lorraine Jordan

Benny Greene (Carolina Road)

Jerry Butler (Carolina Road)

The Ramada Inn is conveniently located at 2703 Ramada Road, Burlington, NC 27215 and can be reached by phone at (336) 227-5541. There will be plenty of room provided for workshops and jamming. Promoters wishing to see regional bands from North Carolina and surrounding states as well as fans tired of the long winter, will welcome this homecoming festival jam-packed with fine bands.

Owen Saunders and David Davis

Ray Deaton

Wayne Kinton (Grass Street)

Jason Johnson (Constant Change)

Dennis Cash (Carolina Sonshine)

Danny Stanley (Carolina Sonshine)

Kevin Prater (James King Band)

Josh Goforth (Carolina Road)

Todd Meade (Carolina Road)