Willow Oak Music Park
is located about four miles west of Roxboro, NC. the county seat of Person, the county seat in the north-central part of the state, just fifteen miles or so south of the Virginia border. The rich triangle of major cities (Raleigh, Durham, and Chapel Hill) lies less than an hour south. The park, with many campsites having electrical hookups and pump-outs available during the festival period, provides a wonderful venue for music festivals and other group activities. Park owner and Willow Oak Bluegrass Festival promoter Mike Wilson has improved the park in every way since assuming ownership. In addition to the bluegrass festival, he also holds a beach music festival
at the end of May.
The three days of this year's Willow Oak Bluegrass Festival featured a fine mixture of top and rising national bands along with popular, familiar regional ones. The music was varied with plenty of range to satisfy a pretty broad range of bluegrass and old country music fans. Thursday and Friday were days featuring cool, crisp, sunny weather which brought record attendance for the first two days. While the evenings were chilly, folks came prepared, and many stayed to enjoy the shenanigans that often crop up later in the evenings at bluegrass events. Saturday, almost always the day promoters count on to provide the difference between making money and losing it, sadly provided another story. The day dawned chilly and threatening before devolving into a steady drizzle with moments of harder showers. The day-crowd stayed away in droves while many campers packed up and headed home. This was truly unfortunate, because the music was terrific. Saturday provided the kind of day that tests the mettle of musicians and fans alike. I flunked, The bands and Irene and our friend Marta Jones, along with too few other attendees, passed with flying colors as the chill air combined with a steady drizzle and occasional downpours to make it a miserable day for being outside. Here are lots of pictures along with some thoughts about the festival.
The Mayor of Roxboro - Merilyn Newell
Lawson Creek reprised their successful performance of last year with two good sets featuring singer Starlet Austin on bass. They do a good job covering bluegrass standards and with Starlet's traditional sounding newer songs. Nice job opening.
Chris Hill Doing What He Does Best....
Warming Up in Front of the Bus
Feller & Hill and the Bluegrass Buckaroos
Tom Feller and Chris Hill have been friends for years. Their mid-western background and lineage going back to the famed Boys from Indiana gives them strong bluegrass credentials. They decided to make a band in the midst of the great recession of the past few years. They have worked diligently to forge a distinctive look, sound, and band vibe through this period, and have accomplished the task, while not ever allowing themselves to become complacent. The result is a fast-paced, energetic, entertaining band with its bluegrass roots more in western swing and mid-western country/bluegrass mode which works very well. Their show is intelligently designed, the band obviously enjoys working together. Feller on mandolin, Hill on banjo, and Mark Poe on guitar have been together long enough to interact extremely well on stage. Boj Osborne (Bobby Osborne, Junior) effectively filled in for Bobby Davis on bass. I'm happy to name Feller & Hill
as my surprise band of the festival.
Emcee Buddy Michaels
Onstage Soundman - Danny
The Little Roy & Lizzy Show
Lizzy Long - What Should I Do With This Man?
With Little Roy Lewis recovering after 38 treatments for cancer in his mouth and giving up his beloved Mountain Dew, Little Roy Lewis, is recovering his energy and joy in performance while becoming trimmer than he's been in years. Watch for this icon of bluegrass gospel's storied past to perform at a festival near you, and enjoy his work. Meanwhile, Lizzy Long continues to grow as band emcee, a multi-instrumental repertoire, and a stage comic. The band is the strongest I've ever seen, with Nathan Stewart entering into the comedy on mandolin, David Hevner, a monster flat picker, and Tyler Biddix on bass.
Little Roy Lewis
Shiella Manness, Irene Lehmann & Linda Dilling
Little Roy & Buddy Michaels Introduce....
The Spinney Brothers
The Spinney Brothers
are becoming increasingly popular as they are introduced to increasing numbers of festival and concert audiences across the United States. They bring a particularly eastern Canadian tone and style to presenting traditional bluegrass and country music. Their singing and picking is precise, their preparation impeccable.
They Actually Catch Fish Here....
Little Roy & Lizzy Rehearsing
The James King Reunion Band
The James King Band was scheduled for a reunion appearance opening the evening set, but bands sign on for two sets, and James showed up in time for the last three songs of his first set. Ill for months and often unreliable before that, James was lucky that his regular travelling band was on time and ready to open at noon on Friday. They did a solid job, and are to be recognized for their professionalism and devotion to doing the job. C.J. Lewandowski, who's been traveling with James for more than a year, deserves particular kudos. Several members of earlier James King bands appeared in the afternoon set, including a much thinner and healthier looking Kevin Prater, the fine fiddler Owen Saunders, Adam Poindexter on banjo, David Nash on Dobro, and Merle Johnson, King's long time fiddler. While James is ill and his voice weak, his fans still want to see him and to hear his story songs and Stanley Brothers material.
The Po' Ramblin' Boys (James King Backup)
The Po' Ramblin' Boys (as they call themselves when not on tour as James King's backup band), opened and performed until James appeared. They are: Josh Rinkel on guitar, Jereme Brown on banjo, Jasper Lotentzen on bass, and C.J. Lewandowski on mandolin. I look forward to seeing them on the bill as themselves in the not-to-distant future. They acquitted themselves well in their fill-in and back-up roles.
Josh Rinkel & Jasper Lotentzen
Doug Crabtree's Sound Tent - Irene Shooting Video
We've seen Nothin Fancy
a lot during the past few months, and we haven't tired of them yet. While, like other bands, they feature songs from their latest CD and play numerous requests from fans, Nothin Fancy never repeats a set, keeps its show fresh, and gives each member of the band a chance to shine. While their show is filled with comedy, they should never be mistaken for a novelty band. They play real bluegrass music, especially strong renditions of second generation bluegrass materials, along with singer/songwriter Mike Andes' serious and comic songs. Taking advantage of Chris Sexton's classical training, they have several showpieces allowing his versatility and virtuosity to shine. Each member of the band has a character role as well as a musical one, and they carry off the combination with skill and grace. Nothin Fancy deserves greater consideration for its excellence at the IBMA awards.
The Vocal Trio
Smathers, Shorter & Andes
Marta Jones' New Chariot
Marta & Irene with Esie
Karl Shiflett & the Big Country Show
Karl Shiflett & the Big Country Show
evoke an older age in the history of country and bluegrass music. They seek to bring back to life the days of the live radio shows of the forties and fifties when bands traveled from one small, low powered radio station to another presenting live shows on air to publicize a performance at a school, a barn, or a small church later that evening. It was a grueling existence that spread the music to rural America. Using a single, radio style microphone, the band pulls it off with surprising authenticity, presenting a combination of western swing music, forties and fifties pop variations, and bluegrass/country. With his long, hound dog face and low keyed leadership, Shiflett moves the songs around providing each member of the band plenty of latitude to play and sing. When guest musicians are available to play, he calls them onstage, too. I had not particularly enjoyed Shiflett's show last time I saw them, but found myself falling under the spell of the illusion he creates, and the effectiveness of it.
David Nash Playing In
In the Campground
The Malpass Brothers
The Malpass Brothers
have been appearing with increasing frequency at bluegrass festivals, always to positive crowds and sincere appreciation. My theory is that somewhere between 40% and 60% of the bluegrass audience have become bluegrass fans because they're really traditional country music fans who can't find their favorite music live because it's been supplanted by something they refuse to see as country. This phenomenon is quite similar to the divide between traditional bluegrass fans and those more open to bluegrass variations and developments. No musician I've mentioned this idea to has contradicted it! The Malpass Brothers interpret the work of the masters of the Golden Age of Country Music (Ray Price, Hank Williams, Farron Young, Marty Robbins, Johnny Cash, Merle Haggard and many more) with remarkable skill and excellent mimicry. They haven't written (yet) any new traditional sounding songs, but one can hope. The addition of fiddler Johnny Ridge to their show has been significant, providing depth and color to their performances. This is a highly entertaining band representing not only a change of pace for bluegrass festivals, but first-rate entertainment in its own right.
Chris Malpass, Sr.
Marty Raybon & Full Circle
has been a star as a bluegrass singer and a country music singer, with his band Shenandoah, now on a reunion tour. He sings with commitment and nuance in both his rock tinged bluegrass songs and his fervent gospel ones. Onstage and in person, he radiates authenticity and musical energy. He's a soul singer with a difference. Listeners can hear and feel the emotion as well as relate to the language of his songs. He's simply one of the best. Considering this, it's difficult to understand why his tour isn't represented by a single appearance in the northeast this year. Marty Raybon is too good a performer to be stereotyped into a performance of only regional interest.
With his brother Tim always at his shoulder on bass, Marty's band is strong and supportive, but the show is Marty Raybon.
Marty & Tim Raybon
Mike Wilson Contemplating the Weather
Saturday dawned chilly and wet, and never improved all day. While it often rains in spring, such a complete weather downer is unusual...and costly to the promoter. Nevertheless, the music continue through the day as each of the scheduled bands played it's two sets, often to an almost empty space before them.
Randy Cook and The Commonwealth Bluegrass Band
Randy Cook and the Commonwealth Bluegrass Band is a Virginia-based bluegrass band centered in southern Virginia. Cook, after the band's first set, came over to the shelter to thank the folks there for coming out and staying for their set, a welcome gesture to the crowd.
Nick Nixon & Jason Davis
Justen Haynes & Keith McKinnon
Junior Sisk & Ramblers Choice
Junior Sisk's shy mountain ways and powerful interpretations of Stanley Brothers songs as well as other materials from the first generation of bluegrass artists combines with modern traditional sounding songs that contribute powerfully to maintaining and advancing traditional bluegrass. His tenor voice masks the fact that he's also one of the best rhythm guitar players anywhere. While he's had some recent changes in his band, it keeps improving in its musicality and tight presentation. One of the best.....
Michelle Nixon & Drive
Michelle Nixon was quite active on tour when we first discovered bluegrass and recorded on the first Daughters of Bluegrass CD. She retains her fine voice and sparkling stage personality while performing less frequently in recent years.
Michelle & Nick Nixon
The Darrell Webb Band
For a man still short of his fortieth birthday, Darrell Webb
has been in the consciousness of bluegrass fans and other musicians for a generation. His tenor voice and virtuoso mandolin play have distinguished him with some of the top bands in the business. Now, he's playing a full-time weekday gig at the Old Smoky Moonshine Distillery
, leaving him time to perform as the Darrell Webb Band on weekends. His band features three hot young pickers along with his kid sister Becky on bass. The music runs the gamut from hard core traditional to more progressive song-based music. He also continues as one of the most sought after fill-in pickers because of his versatility and thorough knowledge of the bluegrass repertoire.
Nick & Michelle Nixon
Famous Knitter Marta Jones
Russell Moore & IIIrd Tyme Out
For more than twenty years, under the leadership of Russell Moore, IIIrd Tyme Out has been one of the most reliable and musical bands on tour. From coast to coast they tour relentlessly, pouring out songs from traditional bluegrass through western swing to forties and fifties pop, all with the smooth and melodious sound audiences so appreciate from them. A fine band to close a fine festival with its strongest lineup yet!
Even with the near washout on Saturday, this was the best event we've attended at Willow Oak Music Park yet. The lineup was excellent, the volunteers helpful and busy, the crowd cheerful, and the site as beautiful as ever. We're alread looking forward to next year...and a warmer, dryer event.