The YeeHaw Junction Bluegrass Festival and Fiddle Championship kicks off the winter bluegrass season in Florida on January 22 at YeeHaw Junction in Kenansville, FL on January 22 and runs through January 25th. Located here, just of the YeeHaw Junction exit of the Florida Turnpike due west of Vero Beach, adjacent to the world famous Desert Inn, YeeHaw Junction is a festival for bluegrass true believers. The festival site is located in what, only a few days before being mown, was a pasture. Behind lies another fenced off pasture with cattle grazing in it. On cool mornings, you sometimes see the cattle rising out of a low, clinging fog. It’s really quite romantic. Promoter Steve Dittman provides 20 amp electrical hookups powered by a huge diesel generator for an added fee. Most attendees, however, elect to rough camp and use their, mostly quiet, RV generators. The performance area is a large tent and there are a goodly number of high quality vendors who come to this festival. A smaller tent, conveniently located, is home to a series of well-chosen workshops during the four days. As you might expect, there’s lots of jamming at YeeHaw as well as some great music.
Dry Branch Fire Squad
The Bluegrass Brothers bring high energy, traditional bluegrass in a crowd pleasing package, and have developed a wide ranging fan base as they have spread from purely a local phenomenon to regional, and now emerging national status. Fans feed off their energy, and reward, the band, composed of members of the Dowdy family, with rowdy and rapturous responses. The brothers Victor and Robert with two of Victor’s sons, Donald and Steve, provide rousing traditional bluegrass for their fans. Their schedule, ranging from Maine to California as well as the Rhonda Vincent bluegrass cruise testifies to their emerging national visibility beyond their home stomping grounds of Virginia and North Carolina. Donald Dowdy, who plays both guitar and mandolin lefts handed and upside down, is interesting to watch.
The Larry Gillis Band
Last year we saw a revitalized Larry Gillis Band with members of the Rose family in support of Larry’s aggressive and interesting banjo play. This year, he has retained Evan Rose, who has switched from mandolin to playing lead guitar and singing and added the very fine fiddler Shirley Seim to his group. Rafe Waters on the bass is billed as a traditional bluegrass and gospel player. We were pleased to see a new level of maturity in Gillis’s performance last year and expect it to continue with this reconfigured band. Evan Rose, 17, had been featured in his family’s band on mandolin, where he was a young phenom. There’s no reason to doubt he will be equally strong on guitar. Gillis plays banjo with speed and power while singing effectively. He can also Wow a crowd with his claw hammer work.
Nothin’ Fancy always can be relied on for solid music and an amusing stage show. They work to keep it fresh and seek to add new material each year. Musically, they reflect two elements of their leader Mike Andes. Andes is a talented singer/songwriter whose own songs are delightful. His strong baritone voice has overtones of Charlie Waller in it, and the band provides excellent covers of Country Gentlemen songs, which they freely acknowledge as part of their inspiration. Other members of the band, which continues with its original members in its fifteenth year, an unusually long time for a bluegrass band to stay together, contribute to both the fun and the music. Chris Sexton, a classical violinist turned bluegrass fiddler provides musical wit and first rate fiddling. Mitchell Davis on banjo’s expressive face and expert picking contribute mightily. Tony Shorter and Gary Farris both add strength to this excellent band’s performance.
The Gary Waldrep Band
The Gary Waldrep Band from the Sand Hill region of Alabama has gone through some changes since we last saw them. Waldrep is a first class entertainer who always works hard and gives excellent value combining fine musicianship with his deep religious faith. Gary is a first class banjo player in both Scruggs and clawhammer styles. Mindy Rakestraw provides exceptional support at rhythm guitar an vocals, and Stan Wildmon is a good mandolin player. I’m not familiar with the work of Waldrep’s aunt, Donna Townsell, returning to the band to replace Jane Baxter or Kenny Townsell, Donna’s husband, on fiddle. One element to be admired is Gary Waldrep’s willingness to hire several women to play in his band and give them generous opportunities to shine. I look forward to seeing this new iteration of the Gary Waldrep Band.
Al Batten & The Bluegrass Reunion
Al Batten & the Bluegrass Reunion return to Florida after several years absence. While primarily a regional band from North Carolina, this excellent band plumbs the richness of its region and comes up with a strong, energetic and entertaining band. Leader Al Batten, now retired from his long teaching career, is a first rate banjo player and an amusing emcee. He is supported by Johnny Ridge, one of the very strongest traditional fiddle players in bluegrass music. David Turnage, with his bright white head of hair, is strong vocally and on rhythm guitar. Mike Aldridge on mandolin chimes in with strong solos and Phil Patterson is solid on bass. This band will be at YeeHaw Junction for two days.
I’m not familiar with the Moron Brothers, who will be performing on Saturday. Roger Bass & the Hillbillies are familiar to Florida audiences. Palms Bluegrass will perform a gospel set on Sunday. Stage Coach bluegrass, a fairly newly formed band originating in Milledgeville, GA also will perform on Sunday. The Cunninghams are up on Friday, and their fiddler will organize and run the fiddle championship on the weekend. Mike and Mary Robinson will present their always popular Gospel Jam & Sing on Sunday morning and Mike will assist Evan Carl with the emcee work. Workshops have not yet been announced, but they are usually well done and well attended at this festival.
Bluegrass Gospel Jam & Sing