Friday, January 29, 2016

Palatka Bluegrass Festival at Rodeheaver Boys Ranch 2016 - Preview

This year's February Palatka Bluegrass Festival, the 12th annual, presents an unusually fine and balanced bluegrass lineup with something for every bluegrass fan offered in support of a worthy cause in a first rate Florida venue. January and February provide opportunities to see re-configured bands with their new lineups for the first time. This year's Palatka has an unusual number in this regard, with at least six bands showcasing recent changes and recordings with new personnel. Many of the changes appear to have strengthened the bands musically.

The Lineup
Penny Creek

Penny Creek made its Palatka debut last year as a showcase band. This year they've made it to the lineup as a scheduled band. This popular local group from Melbourne, FL plays lively, enjoyable bluegrass chosen from a rich repertoire of classic and newer bluegrass. 

Special Consensus

For more than forty years, Greg Cahill has led the Chicago-based band Special Consensus as they have consistently provided sprightly music, often with a contemporary instrumental twist, with quality and dignity. This is a first rate unit. 

Feller & Hill

Two veterans from the mid-west, Tom Feller and Chris Hill bring their years of experience to a high energy, fast-paced show that features music from Buck Owens and the Buckaroos, the days of the Boys from Indiana, with whom they've both done time, western swing, and more. This is an enjoyable show fronted by two personable musicians. 

Lonesome River Band

Sammy Shelor has led the Lonesome River Band for sixteen years since becoming its leader in 2000. They have maintained the high quality of cutting edge sound featured in their early work while building and refining their own banjo-based defining sound. With a new CD just released paying homage to its roots while forging new ground, the band keeps on trooping while never giving less than their best. Shelor, a winner of the Steve Martin Prize for Excellence in Banjo and Bluegrass, remains one of the all-time greats on his instrument and as a dynamic leader. Brandon Rickman is an under-rated vocalist as well as a fine guitar player. 

The Spinney Brothers

Rick and Alan Spinney have led the Spinney Brothers as they tour the country delivering classic country and bluegrass. Even their new songs tap into their deep, traditional Nova Scotia roots. They've worked exceptionally hard and earned a loyal group of very supportive fans. 

Rhonda Vincent & the Rage

Rhonda Vincent remains the hardest working and hardest touring performer in bluegrass. There have been changes this winter in her sponsorship, and it will be interesting to see how that alters her performance. Meanwhile, no other artist in bluegrass offers a more polished and diversified show or does a better job of cultivating and maintaining fans. Rhonda Vincent & The Rage is a staple of many bluegrass festivals, guaranteed to bring people onto the grounds, entertain them, and then meet and greet them with warm attention. 

Alan Sibley & The Magnolia Ramblers

Alan Sibley is an engaging and earnest performer of bluegrass and bluegrass gospel music from Mississippi. He made his Palatka debut last year and earned a return engagement. Particularly for lovers of southern gospel music and gospel bluegrass, he well worth seeing and hearing. 

Audie Blaylock & Redline

Audie Blaylock and Redline deliver hard driving traditional bluegrass at its very best. Long a disciple of Jimmy Martin's style, he has played with Rhonda Vincent and Michael Cleveland. Long-time fiddle virtuoso Patrick McAvinue is a standout on the fiddle. Onstage, Audie is one of the most intense and hardest working performers you'll find. 

Joe Mullins & The Radio Ramblers

Joe Mullins & the Radio Ramblers bring Mullins' fine Scruggs style banjo and singer Duane Sparks' highly personal interpretations of songs from many eras, this band provides the best in traditional and traditional sounding bluegrass. They also fill the air with fine gospel music. They're based in the Dayton, Ohio area in the southern part of the state, where Joe has long been a signature voice on his own radio station. 

Dry Branch Fire Squad

Dry Branch Fire Squad has, for over forty years, been one of the most reliable and entertaining bluegrass bands on tour. Ron Thomason is widely recognized as the Will Rogers of bluegrass music, spinning yarns with humor laced with topical and historical references. The band has recently seen major changes with the retirement of long-time members Brian Aldridge and Dan Russell. It  has been joined by former member Adam McIntyre on multiple instruments and bassist Jeff Byrd. I'm eager to see how these new and accomplished musicians add to the mix. The always reliable Tom Boyd remains with the band. Dry Branch Fire Squad appears for two days. 

The Grascals

The Grascals have been touring for about eight months with new singer/guitarist John Bryan, who brings youth and renewed enthusiasm to the band. Their new CD has just been released and will be available at Palatka. Meanwhile, there seems to be a new spirit and liveliness in this band which has revived its youthful vigor with this addition. Kristin Scott Benson continues as one of the contemporary banjo greats and an effective den mother. 

The Gibson Brothers

The Gibson Brothers can be counted on to produce top performances, to release chart-topping recordings, to surprise and please with their own unique and uplifting songs. They're simply the most creative, tuneful, entertaining band in bluegrass today. The rumor is that the boys are busily working on new Gibson Brothers songs. We've heard a couple of them. All I can say is that we're all in for a treat. Meanwhile, between songs from their most recent CD Brotherhood, their deep catalog of crowd favorites, and their unique stage interaction they always leave the audience begging for more. 

The Marksmen

A regular Palatka favorite, bluegrass gospel purveyors The Marksmen hit the mark musically and personally with their energy and enthusiasm.

Breaking Grass

In recent years Breaking Grass has broken out of their native Mississippi and begun touring in an increasingly wide radius. Lead sing Cody Farrar, whose infectious smile never fades, has led this band to wider and greater attention. They keep the focus on strong new songs, interesting covers from the New Grass Revival and other contemporary bands, and several novelty numbers. They range from thoughtful, introspective songs to rousing, amusing, sometimes genre busting, ones. Breaking Grass should join an increasingly large group of worthy bands competing for IBMA Emerging Band this year. 

The Little Roy & Lizzie Show

Little Roy Lewis is celebrated by some, misunderstood by others, and a favorite change of pace for many, He remains the last of the old-time vaudeville style entertainers touring in bluegrass today. Since his days with the fabled bluegrass gospel group The Lewis Family in the 1950's, he's been the comedic mainstay of all music Lewis. Meanwhile, Lizzy Long has matured into an effective multi-instrumental and vocal force on her own. Enjoy this band and accept it for what it is, a classical institution representing what, for many, is a lamented, lost entertainment staple. 

The Bluegrass Brothers

Victor Dowdy has remained the musical and familial center of this band, the Virginia-based Bluegrass Brothers, which has experienced numerous personnel changes while still maintaining the repertoire and musical standards Victor champions. Most recently, elder son Steven has departed for another band, but son Donny and Brother Robert, both returned after their own absent periods, remain. Count on this band for crowd-pleasing covers of third generation staples. Their version of "Grandfather's Clock" is a standard as the bass circulates among them. 

Dry Branch Fire Squad

Steep Canyon Rangers

The Steep Canyon Rangers have changed a lot for a band that hasn't experienced the loss of a member for ten years. Since their emergence as undergraduates at the University of North Carolina the band has produced a number of ever-changing recordings. They've become the regular back-up band on many of Steve Martin's tours while continuing to tour on their own. They've adapted their sound to a younger and more hip demographic, often featuring Nicky Sanders flaming fiddle along with Graham Sharp's banjo and baritone singing, Woody Platt's fine lead singing, and Mike Guggino on the mandolin and tenor vocals stand out. Bassman Charles Humphrey III is always there with the beat. In the last couple of years they've added the very effective percussionist Michael Ashworth. Often found, these days, on much larger stages, it's a pleasure to see the Steeps on a bluegrass show this winter. 

The Details

The Palatka Bluegrass Festival runs February 18 - 20, 2016 at the Rodeheaver Boys Ranch, 380 Boys Ranch Road, Palatka, FL 32177. This year's lineup is superb. Beyond that, there are numerous vendors, including the ranch itself, which offers an expansive hamburger/hotdog stand. Be sure to try the Brunswick Stew they serve. Also, buy tickets for the Martin guitar raffled annually. Support the ranch in ways you can. 

You can download a printable copy of the Palatka Bluegrass Festival Flyer and Schedule here

Tickets and Camping may be purchased online at or by calling (706)864-7203. The prices below do not include camping, which may be arranged by calling (386) 328-1281. The camping area is large with over 500 water/electric sites available. There are still plenty of sites remaining at a cost of $25.00 per night. If you have a specific request for a site, ask to speak to Jeff King when you call. Rough camping costs a single charge of $30.00 to cover the costs of showers, free toilets, and other amenities. 

Several hotel/motel options are available. I'm told the Sleep Inn is offering an attractive bluegrass special rate, as is the Crystal Cove. For slightly more luxurious accommodations, there's also a Holiday Inn Express. There's plenty of day parking. 

Sherry Boyd - Emcee

The Rodeheaver Boys Ranch

The Rodeheaver Boys Ranch is a residential facility founded by Evangelist Homer Rodeheaver in 1950 on over six hundred acres of land adjoining the St. Johns River about ten miles south of Palatka, Florida. It's fitting that the Ranch should have become  home to a major bluegrass festival, as Rodeheaver himself was Billy Sunday's musical director during the early years of the twentieth century and a pioneer in the recording of gospel music. The Palatka Bluegrass Festival is held to benefit the Ranch, helping supply funds to support the roughly fifty boys and ten families who live there and provide homes for them. Visitors to the festival should remember that the Ranch was established on religious principles and behavior showing due respect is expected. Do take some time to chat with the boys, particularly when they're not in school on Saturday or to meet and get to know members of the staff of this closely knit community. They're worth taking the time to make their acquaintance. While you're at it, visit the small ranch museum, which now has a feature about the bluegrass festival. 

The Ranch Kitchen Serves
Breakfast and Dinner

The Performance Shed

Getting to Rodeheaver Boys Ranch
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The Campground

Norman & Judy Adams 
Relaxed Breakfast at the Ranch

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