Monday, April 25, 2011

Willow Oak Bluegrass Festival - Saturday & Final Assessment

By noon on Saturday the sky was clearing, the day parking lot was filling up, two dozen people were circled around the fishing pond wetting their lines, and people we hadn't seen all weekend were setting up their chairs for a day of fine bluegrass music.  A sense of festivity filled the air, blowing the damp and chill of Friday night away, even though great music had trumped the rain for those who had elected to stay for the music.

Al Batten & The Bluegrass Reunion

If you're looking for a first rate bluegrass band which plays classic bluegrass from the first generation masters of the genre, Al Batten & the Bluegrass Reunion simply can't be beat.  With a particular leaning toward the works of Monroe, Flatt & Scruggs, and Jimmy Martin, this band is filled with talent and experience.  Two grandchildren show promise of continuing in the tradition.  In addition to covering the greats, the band presents material written from within which carries the sound of feel of the best of the older work.  Batten is also a master of some of the wonderful (and sometimes a bit dated as in "Harold's Super Service," which describes a filling station no person under fifty would recognize, but nostalgic for those of us who remember that once there was a person who actually washed your windshield and checked your oil) novelty songs of the early period.  While this band rarely leaves North Carolina, they're an excellent choice for a festival seeking a lively, properly paced tradtional bluegrass band.

Al Batten

David Turnage

Mike Aldridge

Johnny Ridge

Jimmy Cameron

Nathan Aldridge

Sherry Boyd - Emcee

The Boxcars

We've watched The Boxcars become an increasingly cohesive group during the past year.  Hard touring and continual work have moved them from being a group of excellent individual pickers into a tight and musically exciting band to hear.  Adam Steffey has forged the band he wanted to be a part of with strong players at every position.  John Bowman on fiddle and banjo seems to have relaxed into his role and exudes a joy in playing and increased confidence.  His duo fiddle-banjo pieces with Ron Stewart provide a fine interlude that keeps the show going even with only two people on stage.  Keith Garrett's lead singing highlights his own song writing as well other numbers chosen by the group.  Ron Stewart, who has received more recognition on fiddle is a master of Crowe style banjo.  Harold Nixon on bass is more than reliable, bringing humor and range to the band.  This summer The Boxcars will be touring hard from Washington to Vermont with plenty of stops in between.  Be sure to catch them!

Adam Steffey

Ron Stewart
Keith Garrett

John Bowman

Harold Nixon

 Stan - The Flyer Guy

Michelle Nixon & Drive

Michelle Nixon has been limiting herself to an abbreviated touring schedule, staying pretty close to home.  She's adopted a new, and appropriate look, while surrounding herself with a larger and fuller band.  The audience responded to her set with warmth and enthusiasm.

Nick Nixon

Patrick Robertson


The James King Band

James King has surrounded himself with a young and quite inexperienced band that doesn't yet provide him with the support he needs for a top notch performance.  Josh Greene on fiddle is solid, but the remaining three players are in need of considerable seasoning to reach a truly professional level.  James is working hard with these young men to teach them and support them.  Hopefully, the rigors of a long summer festival season  and lots of patient work on James' part will lead to a tighter and more confident band capable of delivering a first rate performance with him. 

James King

Josh Greene

Jesse Smathers

Wade Cox

Clay Lillard

Sheila Mannes

Debbie Wilson - Mrs. Promoter

IIIrd Tyme Out

Formed in 1991, IIIrd Tyme Out continues to be one of the most recognized and recognizable bands on the ciricuit. Seven time IBMA Instrumental Band of the Year, their catalog runs from the traditional to bluegrass versions of pop standards like "Only You."  They are versatile, interesting, and engaging at every position in the band.  Russell Moore has been twice named IBMA Male Vocalist of the Year, including 2010. Ask another singer about who he admires and Russell's name is often the first one that comes up.  Wayne Benson is a master of the mandolin, who also contributes his own instrumental compositions to the band's repertoire.  Steve Dilling as band emcee has largely recovered from the distonia that plagued him for several years, and is back at the top of his game.  Edgar Loudermilk on bass provides the strong beat and a vocal range from high tenor to bass, while Justin Haynes continues his fine fiddle work.  

Russell Moore

Steve Dilling

Wayne Benson

Justin Haynes

Edgar Loudermilk

Don, Steve & Linda Dilling

Final Assessment

Four years ago we left Willow Oak Park with a bad taste in our mouths and had not returned until this year.  Several friends of ours had told us that veteran producer Mike Wilson, with years of experience as a Bass Mountain Boy and co-producing the Bass Mountain Festival had acquired the site and was making big changes.  When we saw this year's lineup we decided on the spur of the moment (unusual for us) to attend.  Despite the inclement weather on Friday, we're glad we came, enjoyed the festival, and plan on returning next spring.  Harris has eliminated the sense that Willow Oak is a private party for the promoter and his friends without dampening the chance for those attending to have a good time.  He has, however, emphasized the need for mutual consideration, and worked hard to eliminate smoking and consumption of alcohol from the immediate performance area.  Those wishing to indulge can still hear and see well from outside the stage area, and a ring of golf carts surrounds borders.  For some reason, many people do seem to think they can chat above the music without bothering those wishing to listen.

Gene Daniell


The lineup included both very traditional and cutting edge bands, local and national ones.  It was balanced and thoughtfully scheduled with many changes of pace between the groups.  Emcee work by Buddy Michaels and Sherry Boyd kept the music moving along and provided necessary information.  Knowledgeable emcees who focus on the event rather than themselves is always appreciated, and these two are pros.  The sound from Gene Daniell with the assistance of his wife Johnny along with Madison Gibson can always be counted on to provide top notch work.  This team knows what bluegrass music should sound like and makes bands sound their best.  At least one band bringing its own sound man was hurt by this decision.  Food vendors supplied good food, tending toward the fried side, and there were instrument vendors as well as some just plain shopping.  There were plenty of kids around having a good time.  Mike Wilson has improved the campground, adding more electric hookups and enhancing the gardened areas to make the site much more attractive.  The campground was the center of much jamming throughout the weekend.  I rode around the site with Mike the first day we were there as he described some of his plans and hope for Willow Oak Park.  Future visitors will be pleased and surprised as he develops the site into a place people from the surrounding area as well as further afield will look forward to visiting.  With strong public support, Willow Oak Park will be able to support and sustain larger events which will still offer the sense of intimacy some smaller festivals provide. Keep an eye on this one.