As we drove into the Florida Classic Park, previously noted as the home of numerous large dog shows, we realized this site was almost ideal for a late winter Florida bluegrass festival. Built on a gentle hill sloping away from the performance pavilion, the site is mostly wide open, although there are a couple of small groves of live oak trees under which campers may park, the grounds contain over 200 water and electric sites, a four hole dump station, a cinder-block flush toilet and washbowl building and plenty of parking. As with other festivals Ernie Evans promotes, there are organized activities beginning Tuesday with something happening each through the rest of the week.
Rosalie Canaday prepared a range of ways serve soup beans and cornbread into a southern gourmet dinner proving more than satisfactory to all who were there.
Followed by a jam by local musicians already assembled.
Followed by a demonstration and introduction to square dancing techniques led by one of the best callers I've ever heard.
And the featured entertainer for the evening, singer, storyteller, and songwriter Michael Reno Harrell, one of the finest of that combination of entertainment I've ever heard. Harrell spent more than an hour weaving songs and stories of his upbringing in rural western North Carolina that would find a place in the heart and experience. of any person, rural or urban who looks back at his childhood with awe and understanding. He's a deeply evocative, wonderfully skilled performer. While I remember hearing his singing on the radio and seeing him once at Merlefest, years ago, this is the first time I had ever experienced the immediacy and poignancy of his stories and songs. I can't wait for the next time.
Here's and example of his work, not from that night, but representative:
Thursday's opening band Gordon & Gail Pike offered an enjoyable opening act for the first paid show of the weekend. Their material included classic bluegrass and classic country with a slight Maine accent.
Blue Highway is a deeply respected and widely loved bluegrass band which has been together with the same members for over twenty years. When Dobro giant Rob Ickes, who has won the IBMA Dobro Player of the Year fifteen times in the last seventeen years decided to leave the band, there was surprise and a question about who could replace him. The hiring on nineteen year old Gavin Largent was a surprise of almost equal proportions. The surprise is now over, and so are any questions about the ability of this young and brilliant Dobro player to fill the big shoes without ever seeking to be an Ickes clone. Gaven Largent contributes plenty of echoes of his predecessor while establishing his own style in the band and helping to re-invigorate their performance. Blue Highway, on a chilly evening in central Florida, put on one of the best performances I've seen from them in some years. Everyone in the band was sharp and enthusiastic, as was their music. I look forward to Largent's making a rich contribution to this storied band.
Martin Guitar representative who travels, along with his wife Maggie a well-known duo performing bluegrass and gospel music, presents his guitar maintenance workshop.
Nothin' Fancy is one of the few bands on tour today who can (and will) present two days of shows with four entirely different programs, never repeating themselves. At the Bluegrass Classic they played one repeat, by request, on Saturday, but otherwise were their always entertaining selves. Recently signed by Mountain Fever Records, this hard working band is finally getting the attention they've long deserved, partly because of increased airplay occasioned by Sirius/xm radio's practice of generally playing only titles coming from major bluegrass labels. While the ability of bands to record, produce, and distribute their own recordings has made selection for airplay more difficult, those in a position to help bands obtain recognition need to accept their responsibility to the music, and at least listen to independently produced materials. It was a pleasure to see Mitchell Davis return from his recent injury. The band played lots of songs from it's new album By Any Other Name as well as old favorite from their over twenty years of touring.
Saturday dawned bright, clear, and warmer than any other day during the festival. It brought out the largest crowd of the week, drawing people from nearby Brooksville and The Villages, just to the north. Two bands played repeat shows and two new bands were added. It was a great day to end a new festival.
Lorraine Jordan has toured hard with her band Carolina Road for many years moving from traditional bluegrass, into country influenced bluegrass, returning to become the Lady of Tradition and now releasing a CD with a series of former classic country singers seemingly searching for the formula that will fire the audiences' imaginations. Brad Hudson has returned to the group, his Dobro adding a country, slide guitar sound. Josh Goforth is always terrific on both guitar and fiddle, deserving to be featured more. Tommy Long continues to be a competent singer and guitarist, while Ben Greene is always solidly reliable on banjo.