Tuesday, March 17, 2015

Newell Lodge - Spring 2015 - Review

Newell Lodge lies off U.S. route 1 headed six or seven miles north of the small town of Folkston, GA. Turn right and head down a hardened sand road past acres of recently harvested timber land and turn left at the sign onto a narrower sand road surrounded by pine forest. After a couple of miles there's an imperceptible rise in elevation, perhaps four or five feet, where the vegetation changes from pine into a lovely, secluded live oak grove, many of the trees wrapped with fairy lights keeping the world alive and slightly glittering through each night. Newell Lodge is a magical place to host a bluegrass festival. After four years, it has still failed to attract a significant audience for programs that have been designed to attract a local and regional audience with bands they know as well as to introduce new, but never far out, emerging bands and solidly excellent national bands. This weekend, despite fears of bad weather, a pretty good audience came and stayed. The highlight of the weekend was the long set presented by the Lonesome River Band, which closed the festival on Saturday evening, but there was much to enjoy, inspire, or speculate about the potential of other bands on view. Let's take a look at the show.

The King Family Band

Newell Lodge, through booker and sound man Clint Wilson, has provided many opportunities throughout its history for local gospel family bands to have a performance platform. Some have moved on to a larger stage (Flatt Lonesome and Trinity River were both featured at Newell Lodge early in their performing careers) while others are still in their formative stages, and may or may not remain there. The King Family comes from Hoboken, GA and are in their nascent stages as a performing band. They're pleasant, and the Newell Lodge stage introduced them to a new audience for their primarily bluegrass gospel music.

John King

Amanda King

Aubrey King

Allie & Amanda King

Josh Griffith

Backstage Warmup Tent

Big Cypress

 Big Cypress is a regional bluegrass band from Trenton (a small crossroads town near the Big Bend region of Florida west of Gainesville) which has been performing at events around the area for several years. Featuring singer/songwriter Kim Heirsoux (Slaughter), whose songs are lively, funny, and thoughtful, and a good variety of traditional material, the band acquitted itself well.

Kim Heirsoux & Randy Slaughter

Randy Slaughter

Randy Lewis

Ricky Downing

David McBrady

Kim Heirsoux (Slaughter)

Hold Your Horses Cafe

 Emcee Irby Brown


BlueRoad is a very promising bluegrass band from North Georgia just getting off the ground. They combine high impact music written from within the band and their own arrangements of bluegrass standards like "Old Home Place" that force a listener to pay attention to an old song in a new way. They exhibit an attractive, at least to me, sense of edginess along with a sort-of puppy like enthusiasm. However, they still have considerable work to do to become a first rate band. At present they need to improve their musicianship and the band must become much tighter, both matters of discipline and hard work. They had enough material for one good set, but were confronted with having insufficient material to keep from repeating the same songs that were fresh and interesting in their first set three times. Nevertheless, this is a band worth keeping a close eye on as they develop their skills and material.

Hayden Bramlett

Matt Southern

Josh Hollifield

Greg Fleming

Dylan Smith

Norman Winter & friend Katie Wilson

Amanda Cook & Kennesaw Mountain

Amanda Cook is a good bluegrass singer/songwriter. She has a pleasant voice, which makes no attempt to imitate, as do so many others, the top two or three female bluegrass singers on the circuit today. She has the potential to attract at least regional notice, but she needs a stronger band backing her and more experience, both of which will be available for someone who can sing and write like she can.

Amanda Cook

Scotty French

Carolyne Hood

Chrystal Owens

Peter McCartney

Amanda Cook

Amanda Cook Rehearsing 

A Quiet Bluegrass Fan

Clint Wilson - Sound

Clint Wilson is one of the very best sound men around. He combines technical skill, a great ear, and good taste to produce crystal clear sound. Unlike many comprehensive sound companies, he knows what bluegrass should sound like and produces that sound while allowing each band to sound unique. 

Brandon Bostic - Sound

Gary Waldrep

Gary Waldrep is a first rate entertainer who has put together a band which has showmanship, enthusiasm, and strong musicality rolled into an effective unit. Several years ago, when we first saw Mickey Boles on mandolin with this band, I would have bet that he wouldn't last very long. However, Waldrep has found a way to harness his strengths and blend his high energy enthusiasm into an important part of the show. His impression of Chuck Berry is classic! Mindy Rakestraw, one of the original Daughters of Bluegrass brought together by Lorraine Jordan, has a fine resonant, strong singing voice ideal for every kind of song from love songs to gospel as well as playing first rate rhythm guitar. Waldrep himself continues to knit this all into a varied, entertaining, and sometimes amusing combination of secular and gospel material.

Gary Waldrep

Mickey Boles

Mindy Rakestraw

Donna Townsel

Gary Waldrep & Mickey Boles

Bill Warren

Mountain Faith

Mountain Faith has earned my "Surprise Band of the Festival" award for the weekend. Although I may have seen them briefly at IBMA, the last time we saw them in performance was at RenoFest, in the band contest, several years ago. Since then, they have worked hard, really hard, traveling and performing at festivals and in churches. A look at their current schedule suggests that they are playing an increased number and improved quality of festivals while continuing to work in churches throughout the midwest and southeast. Summer McMahan, principal singer and fiddler for the band, has become a powerful, convincing singer and more than adequate fiddler. Her brother, Brayden, plays a strong banjo and sings fine harmony. The duo is separated in age by less than a year. Luke Dotson on guitar adds another able voice and good picking to the mix. The recent addition of young and experienced Cory Piatt to the band has lifted it to another level. His skill and enthusiasm have helped the band begin to work towards new heights. Sam McMahan, on bass, is noticeable for the disparity of age he injects into the band, yet his enthusiasm and able work as band emcee are useful. Mountain Faith has a new recording out from Mountain Fever Records. Sam McMahan emphasized his realization that the band needs to expand its repertoire to build more of a national audience. Their new CD demonstrates that they are engaged in achieving this goal. Despite performing four sets at Newell Lodge, Mountain Faith only repeated a few. This is distinctly a band for promoters around the nation to consider booking and a serious contender for IBMA Emerging Band of the Year in 2015. 

Summer McMahan

Brayden McMahan

Luke Dotson

Cory Piatt

Sam McMahan

Luke Dotson & Summer McMahan

Sammy Shelor's New Bus

For a road warrior like Sammy Shelor and his Lonesome River Band, a bus is a necessary part of doing business. His last bus had over 900,000 miles on it and required Sammy to spend way too much time underneath it and too much money on repairs. Working with Don Wilson, who builds both buses and guitars, Sammy has a new, reconditioned bus which will stand him in good stead for many years. In fact, Wilson referred to it as a "lifetime" acquisition. Here's a peek inside:

Sammy on the Phone in the Main Cabin

Looking Forward

Sammy's Bunk

The Refrigerator

 The Lonesome River Band

More than thirty years down the road and with many notable alumni, the current version of The Lonesome River Band is arguably the best they've ever been. As a closing band, they have no peer with their driving, often hard edged, and rock inflected music, they not only please an audience, they excite it. Sammy Shelor has won too many awards to have room for them in the new bus. Brandon Rickman continues to write fine songs to add to the collection he recorded a few years ago, and the recordings keep coming. Barry Reed is a superb bass player providing a strong, driving beat as well as subtle, thoughtful jazzlike solos. Randy Jones is not nearly noticed enough for both his tenor singing and his mandolin mastery. Mike Hartgrove digs deep on the fiddle, always delivering heartfelt emotion. LRB is always right where they belong, at or near the top of any lineup they're included in, and there aren't enough Saturday nights to make them closing band at every festival they play.

Sammy Shelor

Barry Reed

Randy Jones

Mike Hartgrove

Brandon Rickman

Sammy Shelor

Newell Lodge Summation

Newell Lodge is one of the most beautiful venues there is. The grove of mature live oak trees creates shade and a sense of location that's beyond comparison. Owner Harvin Carter has, with the able help of Robert and Clint Wilson, developed a stage that's both spacious, sound-friendly, and well-lighted. Harvin's original conception of a multi-use facility that includes comfortable, spacious cabins, a small restaurant, stables and a gazebo can be used for weddings, riding events, concerts, group get-togethers, and bluegrass festivals. 

So far, despite offering some fine national bands and a good assortment of regional and local ones, Newell Lodge has been unable to attract strong enough crowds to become self-sustaining. Very few bands are capable of delivering four sets of first-rate material, and too many were asked to do so this weekend. As Harvin Carter has handed over direct management of the bluegrass festival to his daughter Ashley and full-time bluegrass entrepreneur Ernie Evans (Evans Media Source) it is hoped that publicity will reach out much further and the lineups will be broadened and strengthened. The venue, the concerts, and the festivals have the capacity to become an economic engine in an economically challenged county. We sincerely hope that the surrounding area will provide greater support in the future and that travelers will find Newell Lodge to put on their bluegrass schedules. 

Ashley Carter

Cory Piatt with Sarah Beth Thomas

Gospel Jam on Saturday Morning

Robert Wilson


Harvin Carter

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