Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Where Bluegrass is Found II - The Wilson Family Band

We first heard the Wilson Family Band about three years ago at the Spirit of Suwannee Bluegrass Festival in Live Oak, FL. I had taken a pass on the band, but Irene, as often is the case, insisted I give them a serious listen, and I’ve never been sorry since. They were young. Katie was just ten years old and had been playing the fiddle for perhaps six months. She was clearly a novice, but her childlike voice and playing held promise. Clint, fifteen at the time, already had some skill on the banjo. Mother Melissa, on mandolin, added rhythm and an occasional mando break. Robert, the father, contributed first rate rhythm guitar and a fine baritone bluegrass voice to the family’s bluegrass and bluegrass gospel program. The pride and love of his family showing on Robert’s face as they worked through their set, overcame my suspicion of family bands. The crowd went wild to two of Katie’s pieces. She sang a song of her own composition called “The Old Man” and brought down the house with “Five Pound Possum,” a ditty about eating road kill. Three years later, we’re still fans of the Wilson family and now proud to be their friends, too. The band has shown consistent growth and improvement, and their reputation has grown wider and richer in the southeastern region where they play.

Practice in the RV



Kalyn Hall

Katie, Kalyn, & Clint

Professional Musicians at Work
The words “family band” set a certain sense of suspicion off in me. There’s a great tradition in bluegrass music for families to play together at home and then go out on the road to appear at festivals and concerts. Starting with the Monroe Brothers, and moving through an almost endless list, families have contributed hugely to the bluegrass catalog. Today, Cherryholmes and The McCoury family band show the heights to which families picking together can excel. Nevertheless, the potential to parental authoritarianism and exploitation of young children for merely financial gain is strong and concerns me a lot. Plenty of stories revolve around of children being ruined by their parents’ ambitions in all fields of entertainment. As we’ve watched this family grow and develop during the past few years, none of my concerns have found support. The Wilsons are a family first. Being a band is important to them, but seeing their children grow into well-adjusted young people with a balanced set of values built on a base of home, church, school, and music is their main concern. And they’re succeeding beyond all measure.

Rehearsal at Home



Blake Gowen


Clint in his Studio
Recently, during a period of about three weeks, we had a chance to catch up with the Wilsons on the road at a festival, in their home for a rehearsal, again in their home for supper and some jamming, at a performance in a restaurant in Jacksonville, FL and at a golf tournament where Katie was playing for her school team. The overall picture that emerged during this time was of a close knit group of people living, working, and playing together as a family. We caught up with the Wilsons on a Friday morning at Craig’s RV Resort in Arcadia. There GoldWing Express was hosting a small festival I’ve already written about. I walked over to their Winnebago motor home and heard music coming from the inside, the solid beat of a bass fiddle. The door cracked open and I saw Clint sitting in the passenger seat with his banjo. Melissa curled up in the driver’s seat clutching her mandolin. Robert sat on the sofa with his guitar while his daughter Katie sat next to him. A pretty teenager I later learned was Kalyn Hall stood at the bass, and they were running through their songs for her benefit. She would be standing in for the absent Blake Gowen, a Wilson nephew. Their reception was almost as warm as the crowded interior of the motor home. Clint showed Kalyn a couple of the licks they wanted from her and the songs came jumping from their instruments and voices. Clint and Kalyn ran through a song they had written together called “Along the Narrow Track.” Its refrain goes like this:

“Since that night I’ve followed him along the narrow track

And not one time have I ever looked back

Before that night my life was filled with pain and regret

And thanks to him I found myself while walking down those tracks” ©

Later, they sang it from the stage. The audiences in Florida, Georgia, and South Carolina have come to know and appreciate the Wilsons for their music, their charm, their enthusiasm, and the solidness of their faith. It’s a hard combination to beat.

A week or so later, we parked our rig at Laura S. Walker State Park near Waycross, Georgia with the thought of spending a little time with the Wilson’s. Robert called me on the phone and allowed as how he should probably come out to the road to meet us, as they lived pretty far back in the woods. I suggested that Clint send us directions (Robert claims he can only type with two fingers). The directions brought us right to their door near Folkston, but we never would have found their comfortable and welcoming home without help. We came into the living room where Katie on fiddle and Clint were working on a song. Soon the whole family had their instruments out and Robert’s nephew Blake had arrived to play bass. They practiced for about an hour as we watched the interaction and enjoyed seeing them work out new arrangements, bring Blake up to speed, and just plain enjoy each other’s company. Mellissa served a delicious blueberry cobbler cooked in an iron skillet from local berries. Afterwards we went out to a guest house where Clint has been putting in his own studio. Working with pro tools, he’s produced “Clinch Mtn. Funk” Check it out here. Our instruments never cleared their cases, but we had a great evening.

Jammin' at the Wilson's

The Wilson Home

Clint Playing my Deering 30th Anniversary

Katie Working on her New Song


A couple of days later we travelled down to Folkston for supper and a jam. Katie and Clint, both on guitars were working on a regret song Katie had written. Clint took the lead on developing the arrangement, seeking to help Katie get just the sound she was looking for. The kids worked as Robert watched closely, but only put in a word or two. His critical eye and ear never took over from the loving father. It never seems to. It’s hard to know where a thirteen year old girl gets the understanding that goes into a song of lost opportunity like this one. We had a delicious dinner of Jambalaya, fried cabbage, and cornbread then got out our instruments. Jamming with the pros is not usually a part of our experience. I feel inadequate and Irene’s self-conscious; the Wilsons are thoughtful and play at our speed for songs we know. I try valiantly to keep up on ones they call and, thankfully, Clint is playing bass. Irene does fine on a couple of mando breaks, and we have a great time. We get home a little late, tired but elated.

Road Trip

The adventure came to a climax on Saturday with our getting to sample a performance from beginning to end. In mid-afternoon we arrived at the Wilson’s home to find their Suburban hitched to an equipment trailer and everything ready for their trip to Jacksonville, FL, about 50 miles south, for an evening performance at the European Street Café. The venue is a pretty up-scale café with fancy sandwiches and fancier deserts serving several dozen beers from around the world. It’s very pleasant and provides a good room for live music, although there’s no stage. When we arrive, the trailer door is opened and everyone helps carry gear in. Speakers, monitors, mics, and a soundboard are all in fancy suitcase style wheeled carriers. Gear and instruments seem to take up much more room in their cases than they do as they are assembled and the balanced to provide good sound in the room. Robert’s sister Elizabeth and her husband Hamp have brought Blake, the bass player with them. Clint and Robert do the setup and sound check to provide the right volume and balance for the room, and Clint tunes all the instruments. As people begin to drift in, we eat supper from the varied and interesting menu.

At eight o’clock the Wilson Family Band, somehow made larger by the capital letters than the family we enjoy spending time with, kicks off their ninety minute set. The audience seems to be about half band friends and relatives with a good sprinkling of people who’ve come for supper and stayed. The Wilsons’ set includes, perhaps, fewer gospel songs than they might offer at a bluegrass festival, but includes their good mix of bluegrass standards, some grassed country classics, and songs written by Katie and Clint for them. The response is enthusiastic and as they finish their set with Mule Skinner Blues, one of Bill Monroe’s first recorded songs, they get a standing ovation. For an encore they sing “Five Pound Possum,” a Katie Wilson crowd favorite because of the contrast between her youth and the song’s picture of a hungry working seeing a possum in his headlights and knowing it represents dinner for his family. The crowd clears quickly, after buying a solid number of the band’s CDs. We pack the trailer and head for home. The conversation on the return trip combines analyzing the performance just past with a general sense of satisfaction on a job well done. Clint’s raw throat and empty stomach require a pit stop. Soon we pull into the drive, and Irene and I head for home. It’s been a good couple of weeks, and we’ve come to know and appreciate in a new way, a family whose life is rich in the music they make, the faith they share, and the closeness they experience. We feel privileged to have been given a chance to enter into it.

The Gear

Robert with Strange Woman

Blake Gowen on Bass

Robert & Melissa

Wilson family CDs can be purchased directly from their web site or their MySpace page. Give this emerging band a try and recommend them for booking at your local or regional bluegrass events. You’ll be glad you did.

Katie & Clint Sing Her New Song