Saturday, April 23, 2011

Willow Oak Bluegrass Festival - Friday

 The sky was overcast when we got up.  At noon the drizzle started.  Soon it turned to rain.  The walkways turned to muck, even with the hardening promoter Mike Wilson has already accomplished.  Gene Daniell provides such good sound that many people were able to stay under their camper awnings to listen.  The bands looked out onto a vast glade with a few scattered people huddled under umbrellas or standing in rain gear coming down to watch as well as listen.  It was the sort of day-crowd killing day a promoter dreads, despite the excellent bands who, consummate professionals, gave their all.  The tradition in bluegrass is that the show goes on unless the weather is dangerous. Discomfort is not an option.  We stayed, enjoyed the show, visited with friends, and went home at the end of the evening chilled, wet, and happy.

The Grass Cats

The Grass Cats have been around North Carolina for a long time under the leadership of tenor Russell Johnson.  They play a lot of their own work, originals from other writers, and a well-selected group of classic and not-so-old covers.  They feature excellent instrumental work and good singing to offer a product that deserves to be heard by a broader audience.
Russell Johnson

Tim Woodall

Chris Hill

Steven Martin

Rick Lafleur

Junior Sisk & Ramblers Choice
When we first saw Junior Sisk fronting his own band a few years ago, right here at Roxboro, he seemed uncomfortable in his skin as an emcee.  Always known as one of the best lead singers in the business, talking on stage and keeping the show rolling along was not exactly his thing. No More!. Junior has emerged  as an engaging host, introducing the songs and band members, allowing his sense of humor and human warmth to show through, expressing his admiration for other performers, while demonstrating his faith and love of home and family.  He's gone from being a great singer to being a first rate band master as well.  Meanwhile, the current configuration of this band, with cousin Tim Massey contributing his voice in expanded roles, Billy Hawkes back with the band, Jason Davis always improving on banjo, and Jason Tomlin lively and animated on mandolin. has become a supple and varied unit.  This band is currently one of the two or three the strongest traditional band touring.Combining old sounding originals with a few covers, they are consistently entertaining.

Junior Sisk

Tim Massey

 Billy Hawkes

Jason Davis

Jason Tomlin

The Expedition Show

 Kimberly and Blake Williams' band The Expedition Show provides tuneful and entertaining bluegrass music. Kimberly has one of the most beautiful voices in the genre, clear and subtle.  Blake in addition to being a fine banjo player is one of the rare, and much needed, stand-up comics in the business.  He combines  some corn with real wit to provide an interlude for the band and wholesome laughs for the audience.  He keeps his material fresh, so it doesn't pall on people.  Wayne Southards is more than solid on guitar, singing lead, and offering his own songs.  Alex Hibberd on mandolin has been with the band a couple of years now.  He fits in well, completing this strong four piece group. Kimberly also does double duty as one of the top publicity agents in the business, representing several top bands as East Public Relations.

Kimberly Williams

Blake Williams

Wayne Southards

 Alex Hibbets


Promoter Mike Wilson

New Found Road

New Found Road's name has become increasingly appropriate as they continue to develop and emerge as a cutting edge band.  Beginning as a mainly gospel group five or six years ago, they have discovered new dimensions in their music under the leadership of Tim Shelton, continuing to play some traditional bluegrass, but always with an edge and often reaching for new interpretations and means of presenting their music.  Tim Shelton has an expressive, bluesy, strong voice.  His version of Glen Campbell's "Houston" is an outstanding example.  Joe Booher, plugged in on mandolin, uses his virtuosity along with a pedal for extended solo riffs.  Josh Miller continues to be one of the fine young gun banjo players seeking new horizons while still incorporating Scruggs style and more into their work.  Jamey Booher continues to grow as a bass player, and has begun to sing, too.  You can see New Found Road as an independent group and as back-up bound for the touring Joe Diffie.

Tim Shelton

Joe Booher

 Josh Miller

Jamey Booher

The Seldom Scene

Sitting in the rain watching The Seldom Scene and listening to their songs coming from the stage and being echoed back by the audience, many of whom knew the lyrics to all their songs, I began to think about the history of this storied band.  Later, I asked Ben Eldridge, the only remaining founding member of this band formed in 1971, whether there had ever been another lead singer who's had so much influence in two such distinctly different bands as The Johnson Mountain Boys and Seldom Scene as has Dudley Connell.  He looked stumped and couldn't come up with another person.  The biggest problem this ground-breaking group has is they can't get around to much new material, because their audience knows and loves so much of their catalog that requests for older, familiar (and more obscure) material just keep coming. The words "deep catalog" were new vocabulary for me when  Dudley uttered them.  I never heard live the earlier iterations of this great group, but I've listened to their recordings.  The current band is as good as any version, a true delight each time we see them.  And they keep their brand alive by remaining true to their name. 

Dudley Connell
Lou Reid

Ben Eldridge (Lay Down Suzie)

Fred Travers

Ronnie Simpkins