Suwannee Springfest, Spirit of Suwannee, Live Oak, FL- 3/17-20
Photo by Brian Hensley
Suwannee is universally agreed on by artists and fans alike to be one of, if not the best, festival locations around. Local laws aside, everyone gets along, and the strong police presence keeps things from getting too messy like at other festivals. There is so much space and infrastructure at the campground it is easy to get comfortable and roam free. Springfest, in particular, is a musician’s dream, as any given night one can wander the campgrounds and experience any number of jams with artists from off or off the campground. There was a designated jam area held behind the “Bill Monroe Shrine,” an area hosted by local band Quarter Moon; In the front was the slow/trad jam and bluegrass in the back. I wandered into two separate bluegrass “splitter” jams which proceeded side by side at once. Most of the songs were called by Jon Stickley and included monster virtuoso picker Brett Bass of Grandpa’s Cough Medicine and Travis Book of Infamous Stringdusters on the bass. Larry Keel jumped in for the multi-section fiddle tune Hangman’s Reel. We ripped through the old-time tune “Cherokee Shuffle” followed by Stanley Brothers “How Mountain Girls Can Love.”
Rumpke Mountain Boys out of Ohio played all night at a campsite near mine singing so loud and clear I thought it was amplified. I had to visit and ended up picking a tune or two. I was impressed by their stage presence and extensive song repertoire singing requests with ease. We jammed on the jazz standard “All of Me,” and bluegrass traditional “Lonesome Road Blues.” Rumpke stands out as an Americana act following in the folk punk tradition of Hackensaw Boys and Old Crow Medicine show.
Grandpa’s Cough Medicine is a lightning fast bluegrass trio that draws influences from heavy metal. Their song “The Murder Chord” Is a modern day bluegrass classic about a guitar chord that turns teenagers into killers. Bluegrass has always had roots in dark gothic themes, and this band takes it a step further without missing a beat in virtuosity.
Applebutter Express is a local Florida band out of Tampa that has an infectious feel-good personality and stands on its own amongst a bill packed with virtuosos and bluegrass legends. They have tight vocal harmonies which are fun and original. Another newer band I was lucky to have caught was Fruition, a band that mixes bluegrass with folk rock and at times a pop sound. The band has incredible poise and songwriting abilities and played to a packed music hall, leaving the crowd begging for an encore. Infamous Stringdusters, one of the tightest bluegrass bands around, ripped through their original “Fork in the Road,” and reminded the bluegrass traditionalists that they could keep it between the lines as easily as branch out into experimental newgrass territory.
Jeff Austin, formerly of Yonder Mountain Stringband has a talent for picking musicians. Two NYC musicians were also known for years in NYC as the best pickers at their respective instruments. Max Johnson on bass and Ryan Cavanaugh on Banjo. Ryan Cavanaugh formerly of Bill Evans Soulgrass is perhaps the most impressive banjo picker most people will ever lay eyes on next to Noam Pickelny or Bela Fleck with an incredibly fast and fluid technique. Cavanaugh spent a year kicking around NYC playing the local gigs, after leaving Soulgrass and Jeff Austin got him at the right time. Max Johnson formerly a local bass player who has played in the bars for years and is equally a virtuoso, has a bow technique second to none. Jeff Austin is the charismatic singer and leader, but his band is what sets them apart, while Yonder has gotten one of the world’s best mandolin players Austin made out with the best banjo and bass player available.
Right before John Prine’s set, there was a loosely organized jam on the “Porch Stage” referred to by some as the Ashville Gary Jam. “Gary” is apparently a term for bluegrass musicians from Ashville, of which there were many. The stage was crowded with three banjos, a handful of mandolins, fiddles, and guitars all packed together in one hot mix. The band tore through fiddle tunes “Big Mon,” “Shenandoah Breakdown,” the standard “Sittin on Top of the World,” and the classic Vassar Clements tune “Lonesome Fiddle Blues,” a song no Suwannee bluegrass jam would be complete without. Vassar was a Florida native who often played in the Suwannee woods; he had an incredible influence on bluegrass music while overcoming struggles with alcoholism and bouncing back and forth from professional music and day jobs. Andy Pond was one of the banjo on stage who was at the festival playing with the Virginia Daredevils, but he is also known for playing in the long-running bluegrass/reggae band Snake Oil Medicine Show. Andy is a virtuoso banjo picker, and I went home with a new favorite band that I may never get to see, with Snake Oil Medicine show now playing on repeat on my car stereo. Few people understand what a struggle it is to be a touring musician particularly in a genre like Bluegrass. It takes a tremendous amount of sacrifice to reach the necessary level of musicianship and to be able to make a living on the road as a 3-5 piece band is a daunting task. Other artists from this jam included Jack Schueler, Sam Wharton, Brian Drysdale, Steve Pruett, Jon Stickley, Anna Kline, Drew Matulich, John M Looney, Rob Parks, Mickey Abraham, Billy Gilmore, Lyndsay Pruett and Zebulon Bowles. Afterward, John Prine took to the main stage and played a slower low energy set that was nonetheless enthralling.
Larry Keel has earned status as a guitar hero and is a testament to perseverance and hard work. This journey is exemplified in his 2004 documentary “Beautiful Thing.” He had a big jam with Tim Carbone of Railroad Earth, Brett Bass of Grandpa’s Cough Medicine and others. Keel also sat in with the bluegrass Legend Del McCoury during his set on the main stage. Del is one of the few first generation bluegrass legends still standing. He played two of my favorite songs of his, both covers which he made distinctly his own; The Lovin’ Spoonful’s “Nashville Cats” and Richard Thompson’s “1952 Vincent Black Lightning,” accompanied by the distinctive drone of dropped C banjo tuning. The latter he forgot the words to and joked his way through as he asked the crowd to help him out. He exudes grace and charisma even in such moment and is a lesson on how to live. Before Del went on Paul Levine, long time booker/promoter of many Suwannee festivals got on stage and gave a heartfelt tribute to f Randy Judy.
Finally, Donna the Buffalo, the only band to have played every Springfest, closed out the festival with their signature epic closing jam, including, Keller Williams, Nicki Bluhm and Jim Lauderdale, who also sat in with Ronnie McCoury and John Prine earlier in the fest.