Monday, May 6, 2013

HoustonFest 2013: Friday - Review

Houston Caldwell

HoustonFest grew out of tragedy and has become a celebration of Song and Service, , as the poster says. Nineteen year old Houston Caldwell's death in a motorcyle accident as he returned from Merlefest in 2010 was a tragedy not only to his family, but to the entire community of Galax, Virginia, where he was a dynamo of enthusiasm and action for all his interests, which included service in the military and to his local fire department as well as precocious skill and recognition as a young bluegrass banjo player. HoustonFest, more than any other festival we know, except perhaps for the MACC (Musicians Against Childhood Cancer) has taken a great loss and turned into something so positive that Houston Caldwell's name and spirit will continue for years to come.

While there are plenty of great bands performing for the audience, HoustonFest prominently features the accomplishments of young artists, many of whom have, in the past three years, received financial support for lessons, workshops, programs, and instruments from funds raised by the festival. The music they produce ranges from old-time string band through traditional bluegrass to the farthest edges of bluegrass descendents. One band we heard covered Rocky Top to Munford & Sons. We heard a young band take on Bela Fleck. The range is wide, the ability is huge, the kids are nice and fun. Here's a look at the two day event:


Felt Park in Galax, also home of the famed Galax Fiddler's Convention in August, is the home of HoustonFest. With a covered concrete grandstand, a substantial stage and plenty of room to spread out for HoustonFest's four stages, there is ample room for expansion, too. 

Mountain Park Oldtime Band

The Mountain Park Old kicked off Friday in the mid-afternoon, as befits a two day festival featuring a host of volunteers and attendees, many of whom are employed, giving massive amounts of time in addition to the event.  Oldtime and bluegrass lie in comfortable co-existence at HoustonFest, early signalling the new attendee that this festival grows from people's love of and acceptance and respect for a range of genres and approaches to them.

 Houston Drive

Composed of former member of Houston Caldwell's band Broken wire, this band with Courthey Boroughs Rohreron fiddle acting as emcee played straight ahead bluegrass with pickup members in several positions.

Courtney Burroughs Rohrer

Asa Graveley

Will Jones

Zach Gilpin & Nick Keane

Jake Eller

The Instrument Petting Zoo
became a center for jamming

Featured on all stages throughout the two day event were lots of youth bands, many of who had been introduced to bluegrass through programs in the schools sponsored or encouraged by the JAM (Junior Appalachian Musicians). For more information about JAM and its affiliates, look here.


Vendors Galore Offering a Wide Variety
Food & Crafts

A Silent Auction offered the works of local luthiers and crafts people as well as Galax and environ's stores and shops. Objects were donated with proceeds going to support Houston's scholarship and grants program as well as his beloved Galax Fire Department, on whose grounds the festival takes place and which was in evidence throughout the festival.

Houston had also been an enthusiastic member of Jr. ROTC and had just returned from U.S. Army basic training at the time of his accident. All his interests and passions were found in some form on the grounds of HoustonFest.

Dance stages place strategically to either side of the stage provided plenty of space for those wishing to clog or dance while never interfering with site lines for people wanting to listen and watch the music. Considering the chill air for most of the weekend, the dance stage also gave folks a chance to warm up.

 White Top Mountain Band

One of the most popular Oldtime bands in southwester Virginia, the White Top Mountain Band is in demand throughout the region and known world wide.

Emily Spencer

Martin Spencer

Jackson Cunningham

Martha Spencer

Debbie Bramer

A small trailer on the grounds contains a collection of Houston Caldwell memorabilia, including the last letter he wrote his parents and a letter he wrote to Mr. Wilson, the Captain of the fire company.  In the trailer are displays of Houston's ribbons from banjo and band contests, photos from his basic training, and much more.
No hint of pathos or morbidity attaches to this affectionate and revealing display. Rather, a thoughtful person will discover a young man who would have accomplished much, who lived life to its fullest, and inspired others to wish to be like him and remember him.  That spirit pervades the festival, not only in formal presentations, but in conversations with those around the grounds. We both left the weekend on Saturday night only wishing we had had a chance to know Houston Caldwell directly, too.

Dogwood & Dolly

The Houston Caldwell Cake

 Hayden & Tess Caldwell

The Boxcars

The Boxcars, boasting a lineup of multiple award winners Adam Steffey and Ron Stewart, along with strength at every position and has garnered emerging artist and instrumental group of the year at IBMA. Singing from lead singer Keith Garrett and tenor John Bowman is very solid. Their timing is superb while they have become increasingly recognizable for their own sound.

Adam Steffey

Adam Steffey & Harold Nixon

Ron Stewart & John Bowman

Steve Dilling & Sheila Maness

Keith Brown
Fellow Photographer 

Blue Highway

Twenty years of playing together with only the brief absence of Jason Burleson probably says it all. Blue Highway's sound is always distinguishable. They write much of their own material as Tim Stafford, Wayne Taylor, and Shawn Lane are all award winning song writers. IBMA awards in seven different categories including fourteen times Dobro player of the year to Rob Ickes testifies to their versatility and staying power. Blue Highway is simply a great band!

Wayne Tayler

Vocal Quartet
Jason Burleson, Shawn Lane, Wayne Taylor, Tim Stafford 

 Shawn Lane

Jason Burleson

Tim Stafford & Rob Ickes

Debbie Robinson - Promoter

I had intended to write one entry covering HoustonFest, but there's so much to cover and say about this unique, valuable, and wonderful event, that I'll say Saturday for Wednesday or Thursday morning. If you're the kind of person who likes to see fine young musicians on the cusp of being ready for prime time, this is a festival you shouldn't miss. If spirit and warmth count as much for you as the music itself, this one is also for you. More coming.