Tuesday, May 6, 2014

HoustonFest 2014 - Friday: Review Part I

Felts Park - Galax, VA

HoustonFest began because of a tragedy and has turned into a triumphal celebration of song and service dedicated to the life of Houston Caldwell. Houston was born in 1991. His short, but eventful, life ended on April 30, 2010 in a motorcycle accident which occurred as he was returning home to Galax, VA from Merlefest.  During those short nineteen years, he managed to become a beloved figure in his home town, where he became a member of the fire department, completed his basic training for the Army Reserves, learned to play the banjo, and became friends with a number of professional musicians who encouraged his enthusiasms and development. The story of his accomplishments is too long to detail here, but can be found Houston's life here.

Houston Caldwell

Within a few months of Houston's death, friends and neighbors came up with the idea of holding a festival in his honor at Felts Park in Galax, VA, the home of the fabled fiddle contest presented  in early August in Galax by the Moose club since 1935. The Festival was announced during the Kids on Bluegrass segment of the IBMA Fan Fest in late September of 2010.  The first HoustonFest was held in the Spring of 2011 and has continued to grow since then. HoustonFest has not only served to develop as a musical event memorializing Houston Caldwell's life, but has helped to provide direction and healing for the Caldwell family, three delightful and strong individuals.

Kenneth, Hayden & Tess Caldwell

HoustonFest has become a celebration of Old Time and Bluegrass Music with a strong emphasis on the preservation of the music and the development of youth playing it. The entire two day event gives a new meaning to the idea of "Family Friendly," as young people are featured on stage, given grants, scholarships and awards, and dominate the proceedings. That will be obvious in this and the next blog entry from there. Because there were so many musicians participating and so much going on, I have taken many pictures I don't have names for. You can help me label them where I have been unable to do so, by emailing me at keenevalleyguy@gmail.com to help me get the names right. I'll make every effort to bring the blogs up to date regularly until the are correct. I regret that I won't be able to picture each musician taking part, but there's too much happening at HoustonFest for even two of us to cover it all completely.

Houston Caldwell Memorabilia Exhibit

Don't miss this small and tasteful memorial to a short life well lived.

Main Street Galax

Bill Anderson & Irene at the Petting Zoo

Danny Knicely & Son

Emcee Harold Mitchell

The Wolfe Brothers Warming Up

White Top Mountain Band

The White Top Mountain Band, an internationally known band specializing in mountain music that clearly shows a transitional musical form between old time string band and bluegrass music filled with energy and a keening kind of singing. 

Emily Spencer

Thornton Spencer

Martha Spencer

Gravel Road at the Youth Stage

The Youth Stage provides a forum for young bands to perform as well as a focus point for a wonderful variety of young pickers to gather and jam.

Daniel Greeson & Jacob Greer

Lydia Bowman, Adam Bishop & Addie Levy

Audience at the Youth Stage

Jared Houseman & Addie Levy

Lydia Bowman & Adam Bishop

Jonny & the Jambusters

Danny Knicely

Loose Strings

This band is young and shows real promise. They sing and pick well. All-girl bands are no longer a novelty. These young women were active all over the grounds for two days.

Channing Russell

Ashley Nale

Grace Wilson

Lindsey Nale

Darren Nicholson & Eric Wilson

Dogwood & Holly

I was impressed with this band last year when I saw them on the Youth Stage and was pleased to see them promoted to the Main Stage this year. Dogwood & Holly is a progressive bluegrass band coming from Lynchburg, VA. Sadly, one of their key members had a final exam on Friday. When was the last time a bluegrass band member couldn't make a gig because of finals? Their instrumentals and singing were strong, and this band bears watching.

Richie Worrell

Luke Sawyer

Owen Sawyer

Sierra Hull at the Youth Stage
John Lohman Workshop - Houston Caldwell Remembrances

Sierra Hull

Sierra Hull's band has continued to improve as her always fine picking has become more robust while her singing is strong and clear.  The band is a real pleasure to see and hear as it roams through a range of opportunities to express its excellence in different kinds of music, while never losing the bluegrass touch. Justin Moses and Jacob Eller are standouts, and Jake Stargell has become an increasingly subtle guitarist to complement his already flashing virtuosity. It's always a pleasure to see Brian McDowell, when he's free to play in Sierra's band, an addition on almost any instrument, his tenor voices blends beautifully in this band.

Sierra Hull

 Jake Stargell

Brian McDowell

Dale Morris - Performer & Emcee

The Church Sisters sing The National Anthem

Singing from this frightening height, the Church Sisters sang one of the most beautiful renditions of the Star Spangled Banner I've ever heard. They sand it simply, with few frills and beautiful harmonies.

Jeff Little Trio

Heard mostly in western North Carolina and Southwestern Virginia, this musically innovative and enjoyable band deserves to heard much more widely. The keyboard - bass combination seems familiar, but add Steve Lewis on the banjo and a new sound worth hearing emerges in this jazz inflected group.

Steve Lewis & Emcee Sherry Boyd

Vendors Row

Balsam Range

Boasting one of the fullest sounds in bluegrass, Balsam Range continues to extend the borders of the genre without ever leaving the traditional audience behind. When the Allman Brothers and Jim Croce sound like they belong in bluegrass, you know you've seen something special. Tiny little Haywood County in the westernmost North Carolina mountains continues to reach out to the world in wonderful ways.

 Marc Pruett & Tim Surrett

Buddy Melton

Darren Nicholson

Marc Pruett

Caleb Smith - Singer/Songwriter/Luthier

Irene at the Balsam Range Merch Table

Sierra Hull Jamming with the Kids in the Field

Rhythm-N-Motion Cloggers

Lively and energetic, although the canned music jars somewhat at an event where live music is the feature.  

Ralph Stanley & the Clinch Mountain Boys

Ralph Stanley is one of the last of the great first generation bluegrass greats, and he's the last one still touring. His voice remains and his renditions of some of the old mountain songs sends chills down the back. Ralph has surely earned the honorary doctorate he was awarded in 1976 by Lincoln Memorial University in Tennessee. This year has been announced as his last tour, but he seems to have decided that he'll keep at it.

Dr. Ralph Stanley

James Alan Shelton - Ill But Carrying On

Friday at HoustonFest was filled with music, nostalgia, and promise for the future. I expect to be able to post Part II of HoustonFest on Thursday or Friday. This festival distinguished itself on two fronts: it serves as an important showcase for the future of bluegrass while never forgetting its roots in the hills and hollers of Appalachia while providing a real model for what "family friendly" actually means in practice.