Thursday, May 5, 2016

Willow Oak Bluegrass Festival Has a Home in Bluegrass Hearts - Review of 2016

The Willow Oak that gave its name to this small, largely traditional bluegrass festival in north/central Roxboro, NC held year on the last weekend in April has died and will soon come down. But the festival from the opening band on Thursday to its closing on a drizzly Saturday night offered old and newer bluegrass in a near-perfect setting to a growing, enthusiastic audience that warmed to environment and cheered excellence. For people who find the crowds or the lineup of the exceedingly popular Merlefest being offered to the west, this event provides more than satisfactory music in an environment where listening while enjoying a relatively restful weekend can still be enjoyed. Let's take a look at the shows and the scene.

Trinity River

We first saw Trinity River when they were a gospel bluegrass band from Callahan, FL, just beginning to learn musical skills and far from being polished performers.  On Thursday, when they took the stage, Sarah owned it. She was winsome and funny as an emcee, and confident singing and playing the mandolin. Both parents, Mike singing well and playing guitar and Lisa on bass, have faded into the background, allowing their three developing children to develop into polished performers. Years of hard touring and constant practice show. Brianna, the youngest of the three at age fourteen, has become a competent fiddle player whose singing voice is blooming into a new-found maturity. Josh, singing mostly harmony while playing both banjo and Dobro is showing poise and maturity. Trinity River has become a band to watch, hear, and enjoy.

Sarah Harris

Josh Harris

Brianna Harris

Lisa Harris

Mike Harris

The Women of Trinity River
Sarah, Brianna & Lisa

Deeper Shade of Blue

Deeper Shade of Blue remains one of the best at that staple of bluegrass music, the finely tuned, hard driving bluegrass band composed of members who choose to play locally and regionally rather than to take on the rigors of the road. Each member, with the exception of lead singer, guitarist Troy Pope, has spent some time touring nationally. Pope has been unsuccessfully recruited, but resisted in order to maintain his priorities to family, church, and work. From Frank Poindexter, a Dobro master who's Tony Rice's uncle and a disciple of Uncle Josh Graves, the Earl Scruggs of the instrument, to recently added bassman Scott Burgess on bass at the other end, this band will please with its traditional bluegrass sound and interesting song choices. Recently the band has toured more widely in the east, working from Florida to Tennessee, South Carolina, Georgia and their native state of North Carolina. Northern and western festivals should give this band a good look. 

Frank Poindexter

Jim Fraley

Jason Fraley

Troy Pope

Scott Burgess

Jeff Scoggins & Colorado

Jeff Scoggins, winner of the 1980 national banjo championship at Winfield, leads this Colorado-based bluegrass band without saying much during the performance, while allowing his son Tristan to do most of the talking. Musically the band was interesting and tuneful. Between the songs there wasn't much happening, even though they tried. Greg Blake has a fine voice and is a strong lead singer. Tristan Scroggins and fiddler Ellie Hakanson are young and learning. The music was interesting and varied, but the time between the songs often offered dead air and weak jokes. Scroggins remains a strong, inventive banjo player.

Jeff Scroggins

Greg Blake

Tristan Scroggins

Ellie Hakanson

Isaac Calender

Darrell Webb Band

Darrell Webb has been around a long time for such a young man. Turning pro when he was only 19, this West Virginia native has played and sung with some of the best and been rewarded with recognition by both IBMA and SPBGMA. He's known as both a fine live performer and a first rate session musician. As he approaches his forty-third birthday, he's also establishing himself as a more reliable performer whose band appears and produces. The current Darrell Webb band, many of whose members have now been with him for five or more years, is filled with hot pickers making good musical choices. With their regular gig in Gatlinburg, TN, they still have plenty of time to tour and can be counted on for strong, driving, rock-inflected bluegrass music suitable for a dynamic closing band. Make no mistake, this is a very good band!

Darrell Webb

Jared Hensley

Jake Joines

Kameron Keller

Cody Hill

Darrell Webb

 The Golf Cart Brigade

Farm Implements and Flowery Settings

Commonwealth Bluegrass Band

The Commonwealth Bluegrass Band, coming from a broad spectrum of Virginia musicians, opened Friday with a lively, traditional bluegrass set filled with familiar songs delivered with sprightly tempos. Jesse Smathers, whose regular gig involves playing guitar/mandolin and singing with the Lonesome River Band, took a busman's holiday to sit in with Commonwealth, adding strong material. Leader Randy Cook, small in stature but much larger in presence and voice, leads the band. Wally Hughes on fiddle is a good addition since the last time we saw this band. 

Randy Cook

Malcolm Pulley

 Jesse Smathers

Wally Hughes

 Jim Green

The Vocal Trio
Pulley, Hughes and Cook

In the Campground

Lorraine Jordan & Carolina Road

Lorraine Jordan is hard driving, hard selling, and tradition bound, whether its bluegrass music or what she calls CountryGrass, the melding of bluegrass instrumentation with old country songs and singers. It seems to be working well for her now, as she has pivoted toward the recent increased interest in traditional country music making its way into the bluegrass repertoire. Adding Jason Moore to the band, placed just behind her left shoulder, has added a powerful bass beat and confidence to Lorraine. Tommy Long has developed as lead singer, doing well, particularly, on singing country songs, often sung by their originators on the recordings. Josh Goforth and Ben Greene are always strong and supportive. 

Lorraine Jordan

Josh Goforth

Ben Greene

Tommy Long

 Jason Moore

Jason Moore & Tommy Long

Lorrain Jordan & Jason Moore

The Becky Buller Band

Singer/Songwriter Becky Buller has been a star as a side-person. Having hit the ground as a band leader and won lots of IBMA awards last year, she must be under a good deal of self-imposed pressure. Becky's obviously becoming increasingly comfortable in the leadership position, watching and appreciating each member of her band as they solo, being the first among a group, not the boss, and it's beginning to work for her. Her voice is supple, her song writing varied and interesting, and her band brought together to support her. As she gains in confidence, the clown will return, too. Then the package will be whole, and who knows how far it may take her? All I know is that it's going to be fun watching as Becky Buller fully develops the whole range of her capabilities. 

Becky Buller

Ned Luberecki

Brandon Bostin

Dan Boner

Daniel Hardin

Brandon Bostic & Daniel Hardin

Triple Fiddle
Josh Goforth, Becky Buller, Dan Boner
Back to ETSU Days

 Flatt Lonesome

It wouldn't be unusual to  highlight two bands coming from Asheville, NC (for instance) and give each of them rave reviews, but Callahan, Florida? Yet two young bands with similar profiles coming from a small town in North Florida where they emerged as primarily gospel bluegrass bands must be considered to be unusual. Flatt Lonesome has come a long way from Callahan. Their tight family harmonies, edgy country sound combined with plenty of traditional bluegrass high lonesome have impressed the Nashville corps of star-makers to push this band, and they've begun to live up to the hype that's surrounded them almost from the beginning. They've appeared eight times on the Grand Old Opry, had a number of songs on the charts, and are becoming increasingly professional. What impressed me most this weekend was that they were relaxed and having fun. Their fun communicated itself to the audience and was reflected back at them with appreciation and joy. This band has only begun its rise. 

Kelsi Robertson Harrigill

Buddy Robertson

Charli Robertson

Paul Harrigill

Michael Stockton

Dominic Illingworth


Sideline always is fun to see, but at Willow Oak it adds a special quality because of the band's lineage. Steve Dilling got his professional start with The Bass Mountain Boys, one of whose members was Mike Wilson, the promoter. Nathan and Brian Aldridge are the sons of Mike (Precious) Aldridge, also a member of the Bass Mountain Boys. Skip Cherryholmes, once a member of thefamily band Cherryholmes, is Dilling's son-in-law. One can choose to see the bluegrass world as somewhat incestuous, or as I'm learning to prefer, a complex web of relationships to families deeply involved in music back to the days of back porches and warm mountain nights. Bass man Jason Moore is Virginia great Alan Mills' of the great band Lost and Found's nephew. In other words, the relationships run deep, and this band draws on that deep well of music for its inspiration and character. 

Steve Dilling

Brian Aldridge

Skip Cherryholms

Jason Moore

Nathan Aldridge

Guest - Mike Wilson

Local Banjo Player Tyler Jackson with Steve Dilling

Saturday dawned gray and threatening on Saturday morning after a significant rainfall during the night, probably suppressing attendance at least a bit, even though a historic set with IIIrd Tyme Out was scheduled to close the evening. 

Mickey Galyean & Cullen's Ridge

Mickey Galyean founded Cullen's Bridge in memory of his musician father Cullen. The band is located in Lowgap, NC, just south of Galax, VA and west of Mount Airy, rich country for a bluegrass sensibility to develop and thrive. Rick Pardue, who plays banjo in the band, was one of the first banjo players we ever saw, then playing with Lorrraine Jordan at Pickin in the Pasture in Lodi, NY. He turns out to be a fine funny emcee, a songwriter with a strong linguistic gift, and a good banjo player. Billy Hawks, long-time fiddler with Jr. Sisk, has been missing from our headlights for a couple of years, and we were glad to hear his fine fiddle playing again. Galyean is a strong singer who must represent his late father well. Brad Hiatt, who plays bass and sings baritone comes from a musical family, too. A thoroughly enjoyable local band.

Mickey Galyean

Billy Hawks

Rick Pardue

Brad Hiatt

 Junior Sisk & Ramblers Choice

Junior Sisk has been, perhaps, the most successful and popular neo-traditionalist of this century. His deep love of the Stanley Brothers, an original first generation band, and the Johnson Mountain Boys, a late twentieth century band that recreated the music of the founders with a level of energy that had been, essentially, lost to the music. His strong tenor voice and plaintive, raw emotion appeal as his whimsical sense of humor often strikes home with more recently written material. He has surrounded himself with musicians that share his passion for tradition with strong drive. Jason Davis, one of the finest young banjo players, has been with him since the beginning. Junior has become a strong leader of his band, and knows where he's going. 

Junior Sisk

Jason Davis

Jonathan Dillon with New Bassman Noah Brown

Jamie Harper

Noah Brown with Junior Sisk

The Vocal Trio
Jonathan Driscoll, Jamie Harper, Junior Sisk

 Shiela Maness 

The Wilsons and Friend at the T-Shirt Table

The Grass Cats

The Grass Cats are something of an anomaly among regional bands, because they have shown serious performance in their recording performance with several national hits. Nevertheless, the band continues to play near their homes in the Raleigh area while making occaisional forays to more distant festivals. They're an entertaining band and strong musically. 

Russell Johnson

Tim Woodard

Chris Hill

Rick Lafleur

Bailey Coe

 The Bluegrass Brothers with James King

The last time we saw the Bluegrass Brothers, they seemed a dispirited band that had lost it's drive. The band had lost a key member, while the new singer/guitarist had not yet fully become an integral part of the group. The banjo player was so ill, he needed to leave the stage several times. This weekend, only three months later, they have once again found the energy and drive that have given them their popularity and garnered to them an enthusiastic fan base. John Simmons has settled in on guitar, while Jamie Sparks is playing banjo well and happily. Interestingly, this also places two left handed pickers on the right side of the stage, providing a unique balanced look. Victor Dowdy, the founding father of the band has lost a lot of weight, and is playing with an enthusiasm not seen in some time. The Bluegrass Brothers have regained the qualities I feared they had lost, and must be looking forward to a busy summer festival season.

Victor Dowdy

Donnie Dowdy

Chris Hart

Jamie Sparks

John Simmons

The great James King, a longtime regular at this festival, just south of the King's home state of Virginia, made a surprise guest appearance with the Bluegrass Brothers. James, long ailing and often to sick to perform these days, seemed stronger than he has for the past year or so, singing two songs and then staying for a third one when the crowd, joyous to see and hear him, wouldn't let him leave the stage. 

James King

I had a chance to chat with James quietly after the crowd had left the merch area. Standing alone, he was grateful for a seat, but able to chat about his illness. He's much in need of a partial liver donation from a living donor, but hopeful and optimistic that he can regain his health, which seemed somewhat improved from when we saw him last summer. All his many fans wish him well as he continues his valiant fight.

James King

James King

 Mike Wilson Presents a Plaque to 
Russell Moore on 25th Anniversary of 
IIIrd Tyme Out

Russell Moore & IIIrd Tyme Out

If there's one show during the coming year that you shouldn't miss, it's the 25th anniversary of storied and much awarded band Russell Moore & IIIrd Tyme Out. In a nearly two hour performance to close The Willow Oak Bluegrass Festival, Russell thrilled the audience, singing crowd favorites from the many hits this band has produced over the years while introducing his latest CD Tyme for 25, which is also the name of the CD. There's a place on the band web site were you can click to receive notification when the band is near you. I suggest you go here and make sure you know when they're at your favorite local festival or concert hall. Every member of this band does a superior job, and, of course, they're one of the finest ensembles ever in bluegrass, each member leaving his ego as he comes on stage to produce wonderful band performances. Russell Moore, himself a five time Male Vocalist of the Year at IBMA, has the smoothest, most pleasant voice to be found...anywhere. Look at the IBMA list of Award Recipients to get the full picture. Jerry Cole has assumed the seemingly snake-bitten bass position, bringing experience and stability. 

Russell Moore

Wayne Benson

Justen Haynes

Keith McKinnon

Jerry Cole

Donnie Carver (iiird Tyme Out) and Doug Crabtree (Crabtree Sound)

Just as the IIIrd Tyme Out set concluded, the rain, which had been holding off all day let loose, as people hurried to their campers, cars, and the exit. Bur it sure was a terrific festival with almost too many highlights to mention. This festival is one that people who enjoy traditional bluegrass and like an occasional change of pace should consider attending.

Mike Wilson

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