RenoFest, held the fourth weekend in March each year at the Center Theater in downtown Hartsville, SC, is a small, creative, and important festival held in an restored theater. Best known for its band and instrument contests, the festival also features a few top notch national bands, this year headlineing the Claire Lynch Band and Balsam Range as well as host band Ronnie Reno & the Reno Tradition. Also featured will be last year's band contest winner, the Hinson Girls. A free outdoor concert and BBQ open to the public is held in the town park on Friday evening to announce the winners of the band contest and showcase their performance. Altogether, RenoFest offers an enjoyable weekend. A look at previous contest winners suggests its importance as a showcase for new talent. Many musicians now familiar names in national bands won the RenoFest instrument contest early in their careers.
Claire Lynch, twice IBMA Female Vocalist of the Year, is known for her supple voice and contemporary interpretations of classic songs. Her Wabash Cannonball has become a bluegrass classic on its own. Her own songs and interpretations of songs she chooses with taste and care are exquisite examples of bluegrass with a jazz/swing edge to them. Mark Schatz, twice IBMA Bass Player of the Year, brings clogging and personality to his commanding beat. Matt Wingate on guitar and mandolin and Bryan McDowell on fiddle and mandolin bring virtuosity and versatility to this fine, ground-breaking bluegrass band.
Balsam Range, coming out of rural Haywood Country in westernmost North Carolina, has established itself as one of the finest bluegrass bands in the country over the past several years. Featuring song selection from both inside and outside the band and a driving beat that thrusts their music forward, the band is effective with both hard driving bluegrass, thoughtful ballads, and heartfelt gospel songs. The national stature has been increasing as they spread their wings both in their recordings and their appearances at festivals. Balsam Range is such a strong group it's hard to highlight any particular individual.
Ronnie Reno & the Reno Tradition
Featuring Jimmy Edmonds, Wayne Henderson, Gerald Anderson, and Spencer Strickland, this band of top notch pickers is also composed of four master instrument builders all located in southwestern Virginia. They're fun to hear and watch, playing their own instruments. Gerald Anderson, on bass here, also builds the prize guitar for the Guitar contest. They will have a set on the main stage as well as on the outdoor stage at the town hoe-down.
The Hinson Girls were the surprise winners of last year's band contest. Their harmonies and advanced play for their years took away the prize. It will be interesting to see their advancement over the past year. One of the prizes for winning the band concert is a paid gig at the next year's RenoFest.
The Center Theater in downtown Hartsville, SC is also the center of this festival. There is ample hotel space in town and camping at Lee State Park, about twelve miles away. (We really like it at this quiet, secluded state park.) Tickets may be ordered on line or purchased at the door. There is plenty of parking in the neighborhood, although it's a bit tight right behind the theater. Director Marty Driggers and his staff as well as promoter/brothers Rob and Russ Jordan do a fine job of running a thoughtfully conceived and professionally delivered bluegrass festival. With the outdoor season still a few weeks away in the mid-South, RenoFest provides a pleasant, low-keyed weekend of professionl and aspirational bluegrass music.