Norman Adams and Tony Anderson are fair-minded men who put on fine, very well-attended bluegrass festivals from Florida to West Virginia each year. They bring together many of the finest bands on the bluegrass circuit. Rodeheaver Boys Ranch, located along state route 19 south of Palatka, has gone to extensive and expensive lengths to provide a model festival facility for producing bluegrass events. All the care and planning notwithstanding, the most tension producing event of the festival routine revolves around the placement of seats. This year, in order to make the system orderly and fair, they provided placement numbers to attendees on arrival which placed them in numerical order for putting their chairs in place. However, no system is perfect and there are always people who figure out how to cheat the system to their own advantage, and there are always well-meaning people who abide by the rules who get run over by those with less respect for the intent of the system. Thus, individual people with low numbers were able to bring in chairs associated with others who had much higher numbers, meaning that a low number might have brought in a dozen chairs by having a dozen arm bands hanging around their necks. The early seats went down in 36 minutes and most people found themselves acceptable seats, but it’s a shame that some cheaters have the capacity and will to gum up the works.
By Thursday morning, feelings were calmed and a huge crowd kept the seats largely filled for a fine day of traditional bluegrass music and southern gospel. The bands’ performances were first rate, the audience was large and enthusiastic, the weather was warm, and attendance was high, especially for a Thursday.
The Gary Waldrep Band
Gary Waldrep brings his band out of the sand hills region of Alabama largely to festivals in the southeast. His energetic showmanship and fine banjo play in both three finger and Clawhammer styles draw cheers from the crowd. With all members coming from Alabama except the exceptional Mindy Rakestraw on rhythm guitar and vocals, this band deserves much wider attention than it gets. Ken and Donna Townsell (Gary’s uncle and aunt) are strong on fiddle and bass. This week 16 year old Josh Palmer substituted for his mandolin teacher Stan Wildmon to tremendous support from the audience. He’s quick and plays both solos and backup well. Josh will bear watching in the near future as he enters the bluegrass world. Palatka is quite a place to make your festival debut.
The Chuck Wagon Gang
This pure southern gospel band originated on the radio in Texas about 70 years ago as a western band. Today they’ve become an all gospel group with vocally very strong gospel quartets backed by electric guitar and bass, ably played this weekend by sound man Gene Daniell. They provided a distinct change of pace at this bluegrass festival.
The Larry Stephenson Band
Larry Stephenson made a brilliant personnel decision when he hired Kenny Ingram to play banjo in his band. Kenny, from his early days with Lester Flatt through his years with Rhonda Vincent, has been a standout banjo picker. As we walked back to the shed after a brief break, I noticed that Kenny is playing in the center of this band, right next to the leader, rather than on the outer fringe he previously inhabited. He’s an integral part of this band, playing inventive breaks on nearly every song and contributing superb backup and banjo solos. He’s also singing. His power and drive lift the efforts of the rest of the band. Even more important, his obvious joy in his new role energizes the band and the audience. Stephenson’s pure, clear, high tenor voice carries the songs associated with him such as “Knoxville Girl,” “Patches,” and a very fine “Muleskinner Blues” as well as the rest of his large and varied repertoire. Kyle Perkins on bass remains solid and strong. It will be very interesting to see other new members emerge in this band as Mike Fagin, leaving Larry Sparks, will soon join Stephenson’s band, too. Steve Day filled in very well on fiddle here at Palatka. Kevin Richardson, on guitar, is a very good flatpicker, plays reliable rhythm, and sings. Major changes are difficult for any band. Stephenson seems to be improving his sound and dynamism with each of his recent moves.
About half way through the Grascals’ first set, Irene passed me a note that said, “No matter how often we see this band, they stay fresh.” And she’s right. When we last saw them in Lebanon, NH in November, Kristin Scott Benson was making her first festival appearance with the band and Danny Roberts was absent because of the automobile accident his wife Andrea had suffered. This weekend, with IBMA banjo player of the year Kristin Scott Benson settled in and Danny Roberts returned, the band seemed to be at the top if its game, despite having had a three week layoff. The Grascals have always been an extraordinarily entertaining band, lively and full of fun as well as good music. Now, with their personnel solidified, they have become not only entertaining, but have moved into the very top ranks of bluegrass bands musically, too. Danny Roberts is one of the very finest mandolin players around. Jeremy Abshire on fiddle, while not nearly as dynamic as his predecessor brings fire and insight to his play. I particularly noticed Kristin’s kick-offs yesterday. While only a measure or so long, they introduced each piece with a unique flair for what was to come in an intricate an often highly figured fashion. Great stuff!! Similarly, Terry Smith on bass uses masterful little flourishes to embellish the oh-so-solid beat he provides the band. His harmony vocals fill in the baritone beneath Jamie Johnson and Terry Eldredge’s fine lead singing. Eldredge is also first rate as a rhythm guitar player. The band works as a cohesive ensemble, always showing humor and enthusiasm. They’re one of the very best.
Larry Sparks & The Lonesome Ramblers
Larry Sparks, as one of the remaining second generation of bluegrass greats, deserves to be heard just for that. He still possesses, however, one of the most distinctive and finest voices in bluegrass music. At a time when high lonesome was the standard, Sparks’ mellow baritone provided a welcome alternative. His voice remains one of the treasures of our music. Having said that, I’ve wondered why a Larry Sparks performance often fails to excite me the way some other performers do. It might be that the music he chooses is just not to my taste. But yesterday, as I viewed the changes in other bands, something else caught my attention. While Sparks himself is undiminished, his band serves only as a support to him and his voice. I wondered to myself what sort of impact a Larry Sparks band would have if he surrounded himself with dynamic performers and allowed their excellence to help burnish his own while using his strength to highlight their excellence. Larry Sparks remains so good he doesn’t need to be concerned about performing in a band designed merely to support him.
Tomorrow, I plan on writing a little more about Rodeheaver Boys Ranch. Meanwhile, take a look at their web site and consider making a contribution to this very worthwhile work that can always use additional support. I also want to mention that Irene is now holding a camera, too. Several of her pictures appear in today's blog and more will show up. Her contribution to the content is terrifically important, and I want to thank her, especially as it's Valentine's Day.