Suwannee Spring Reunion Music Festival Trip Report
Chatham County Line, Jeff Mosier, Roy Book Binder, Steep Canyon Rangers, Billy Strings, Marty Stuart…
Day 1 Thursday:
I arrived at 1:00pm on Thursday in my motor coach (snooty RV) and check in was a breeze. They gave me an escort to my campsite and I got parked, hooked up and settled in within an hour and hopped on my bike and went exploring. Located in a forest on the Suwannee River, just north of Live Oak, Florida, the Spirit Of The Suwannee Music Park has several camping areas to accommodate tents, small campers and trailers, larger RVs and even campers with horses. There are also cabins for rent. They have three main stages plus three smaller ones and various acts are going on from 10am to 2am the next morning. Several food venders and arts and crafts venders abound and bath house facilities, a general store, canoe rentals on the river, a pool, a lake, a chapel, a café and other services are available. With densely populated Spanish moss draped trees, a lake, horse stables, a beautiful open field, and mostly dirt or gravel roads, it’s quite picturesque. The weather was magnificent with blue sky sunny days mostly in the 60s and low 70s during the day and down into the 50s at night. Fresh crisp air often punctuated with wonderful smelling food from the food venders and multitudes of barbequing campers heightens the senses.
I went back to my coach to make dinner and get some banjo practice in and went to my first show of the day at 7:00pm at the amphitheater. The seating rules here are interesting; you may bring in your own chairs to secure your spot as early as 9:00am and leave them there, even if you are not attending every show. Other people are allowed to sit in your chair but must vacate it when you arrive. I had placed my chair when I went exploring earlier, so when I arrived my chair was right where I left it and unoccupied. I had never heard of Chatham County Line , so I didn’t know what to expect.
They are four guys from North Carolina and I have say I really enjoyed them. They have 16 albums of original music and because that’s a bit egotistical as they say, they’ve just released their 17th with other people’s music. The show was a nice mix of their own stuff with some from the new album. I’ll have to give these guys a serious listen later.
Day 2 Friday:
I slept in a little but got up and went straight to the main stage at 9:00 to place my chair for the day. Talked with a couple of folks and then back to my place for breaky and some practice. Around noon, I headed off to see the Shawn Camp Band and wait what? Someone was sitting in my chair. Oh well, I just went over and tapped him on the shoulder and indicated that it was my chair and he very politely relocated to the chair next to me and introduced himself as Jack. The band was pretty good and my foot sure was a tappin. Shawn Camp by the way is also a member of The Earls of Leicester, a tribute band founded by Jerry Douglass who I’ll be seeing at the Grand Ole Opry on April 2.
Jack and I got to talking and after a while I mentioned I was going to find a shady spot because I was feeling a sunburn coming on. He said “let’s go over to the tent”, referring to the Florida stage under a big revival style tent, “and I’ll introduce you Roy Book Binder ”. What? He’ll introduce me to Roy? Who is this guy Jack I wondered? “OK, lead on” said I. We walked through the vender area and across the big jam field to the big white tent and immediately encountered Roy. Right there he was, we practically bumped into him as he was headed outside, presumably to have a cigarette. Jack introduced me to Roy, this old blues man, and he was just as sweet as could be. Smiling practically the whole time and squinting through those little round glasses and fondling that cigarette he had between his fingers, he told me stories about the old days and people from his past and asked me questions and we talked for 15 minutes or more. He eventually got on to politics and then caught himself and exclaimed “don’t get me started”. I knew it was time for him to go on, so I thanked him for his time and he walked up on stage and did his set, never having smoked that cigarette.
He talked probably as much as he played. He told us stories about Rev. Gary Davis and others and played songs, some of which are from his “The Good Book” album.
A little later in the afternoon, I attended a banjo workshop by Jeff Mosier aka Rev. Jeff Mosier , founder of the Blueground Undergrass band. Now, he told us at the beginning that he wasn’t much of a teacher, and I must say, I concur. He was joined by John Mailander on violin and Mark Nelson on Bass. They performed some songs and he talked about … stuff, I don’t know. It was weird. He said things like “a couch is just a coffin without a lid” and “if it a’int live, it a’int live”. The he talked about the universe, sort of, I think… and then he got a little emotional. I was bewildered, befuddled, bemused. Several of us brought banjos and we just sat there looking at each other and with our eyes we asked each other – what the what the? When they played, they sounded good and Jeff has a nice voice. I was intrigued with John Mailander though. He sat there, never saying a word, just wearing his tie dyed shirt and looking around at everyone with smile and when he played, it so sweet. He could play ever so gently and slowly and it just sounded wonderful and he made it look effortless. He was just quiet and appeared… meek. By the way, John is the violin player in Bruce Hornsby’s band. More on John later. But this whole thing with Jeff was just bizarre.
A little later, I caught some of The Larry Keel Experience over at the Porch Stage and Graham and Mike from The Steep Canyon Rangers were playing with them as well as Brett Bass. They were really good and seemed to be genuinely having a great time. I stuck around for as long I could, but it was standing room only and I was feeling the sun burn again so I moved on. Just as I was leaving, Larry called out over the mic “John Mailander, if you can hear me, get up here on this stage with us”.
One of my must sees at this festival is the Steep Canyon Rangers , I’m a fan and have several of their albums. Woody, the cutie, is the lead singer has a unique voice which I like. Nicky is a master violinist and is just off the wall dancing around with his long hair flying and he just seems like he’s gonna explode any second. The other standout in my opinion is Mike on the mandolin. A true musician is he and such a pleasure to listen to and to watch. They put on a fantastic show as it got dark, doing some old songs but mostly new ones from their most recent album. The stage lighting was a bit much and distracting at times though, often pointed right in our eyes and blinding us; very annoying.
After the show, I went to the stage and asked Barrett the bass player if they were going to be signing autographs anywhere and he said “no, but if you have something to sign, I’ll take it backstage and get everyone’s signature for you”. I thought wow, that’s pretty cool. I told him I have everyone’s signature from a previous concert but that I’d love to get Niki and Mike on this hat so he took it back with him and about ten minutes later emerged with my hat sporting two new sigs; what a sweetheart. I sat back in my chair and Jack joined me and we chatted for awhile while I was waiting for Billy Strings .
With 60 minutes to go, Billy and his band walked out on stage to get set up and do a sound check. Opportunity presented itself so I sauntered up to the stage and while he was tuning his guitar, I said, “hey Billy, will you sign my hat?” and he said “yeeeaaaahhh”. As soon as he finished, he came up to the edge of the stage and signed the hat and said “thanks for coming”. No conversation or anything but nice as all get out considering I bothered him during his set up. They left and came back at the designated time and put on a great show but holy cow, it was so loud. I had to relocate up the hill to the very last section of the amphitheater where it was more tolerable. This kid is so insane though, lighting fast, and a wicked singer. You’d just never expect this wild man was inside this baby-faced youngster if you’d just met him on the street. Remember John Mailander from the bizarre encounter with Jeff Mosier from earlier in the day? Well, he was playing with Billy Strings tonight and he and his violin were on fire too. Certainly not the quiet meek John from earlier.
Day 3 Saturday:
8:30am - Grabbed my chair and rode my bike down the amphitheater this very chilly morning to place my chair and got third row center. Had a nice chat with several other folks doing the same, we chatted about the previous day’s acts and contemplated today’s events and shared stories of other festivals and famous musicians we’ve met. I got a surprisingly good breaky from one of the venders and headed back to my coach to relax for a spell.
Early this afternoon, I attended a mandolin workshop with Mickey Abraham , mandolin player for Belle and The Band and Kathryn (Belle) on guitar was with him as well. Several attendees brought mandolins and Mickey was wonderful. Sure, he and Kathryn did a couple of tunes but he was engaging, charming and attentive and this really felt like a workshop. It wasn’t so much a lecture or performance, he facilitated a group learning dynamic and we talked about chord progressions, chop chords, chord melodies, different strum patterns, and he taught a couple of his favorite licks. We talked about different ways of learning, and he answered questions from attendees. It was a very informative session and I really liked his playing, he made it look easy.
After some exploring, I sat on a porch and watched people go by while I had an ice cream cone. Then I hopped on my bike rode down to the river and hiked the river trail for an hour or so; it was very pretty and peaceful and yet invigorating.
By the way, I could not find my bike lock and so I’ve just been leaving it where ever I go, usually up against a fence and it’s always there when I come back. How ‘bout that?
Verlon Thompson was supposed to be here, but apparently, he just suffered a death in the family and so he had to cancel. I popped into the Music Hall during his scheduled set this afternoon to see who was filling in for him. It was Jeff Mosier. Oh Lordy. Well, he had a whole band with him so I sat down for a while. It was good music and I actually enjoyed it. The real standout though was a woman violin player with an amazing voice. She sang three or four of the songs and sang backup on others and I couldn’t get over her voice. I asked some of the people sitting around me (it was a real informal setting) who she was and no one knew. So, after the show, I just went up to the stage and yelled “hey you” and nodded for her to come over when she looked at me. It was pretty rude really but she came over and I apologized and just asked “who are you?” She kind of laughed and said Leah Calvert . I told her I really like her voice and asked her if she has any music out and she told me about her album called Satellite. As I’m talking to her, two others muscle their way in and ask her the same thing, “who are you?”, “we love your voice”. So, y’all check her music out. And FYI, she’s NOT the long blonde-haired teen mom Leah Calvert on TV.
Late this afternoon, I went to visit my chair at Amphitheater to listen to a second set from The Steep Canyon Rangers. It was only an hour long but very nice. All different music from yesterday and it was different dynamic in the daylight. They invited Brett Bass of Brett Bass & Melted Plectrum and formerly of Grandpa’s Cough Medicine, to come up for a couple tunes. I could tell it was so not planned or rehearsed because they kept getting in each other’s way and Brett did a break on his guitar during a break by Nicky and if Nicky is doing his thing, there’s just no way you’re gonna be heard. It all looked a bit awkward really.
Brett wasn’t on the published schedule that I saw; I think he was there hanging out and I have seen some YouTube videos of him sitting in with other acts. He was an artist at large I suppose. Brett lives here in Florida now and I just saw that he’s playing a pub just down the road me in May, so I’ll probably go check him out.
Next up was Marty Stuart and His Fabulous Superlatives (Cousin Kenny, Professor Chris and Handsome Harry). Honestly, I’ve never really spent much time specifically listening to Marty’s music. I have frequently seen him playing with other acts or in a brief video here and there. I know some of his history and I know he’s very talented. He played in Lester Flatt’s band for a few years as a teenager and later with Doc Watson and Johnny Cash and many more top musicians. He’s been around for quite a while so, I was really looking forward seeing him and I didn’t really know what to expect and there’s a great spot on my hat for his signature.
Well, boy howdy, what a great show I tell ya. He’s a great picker and I discovered I really like his voice and the band are real amazing characters. The music was great as most other acts were, but these guys made it a show. They’re entertainers at heart. It was flamboyant and they seemed to really be having fun, the crowd was going nuts and the band fed off that. They each had distinctive personas and costumes to match. Even with all the showmanship, the music never suffered. They did some amazing vocals and the harmonizing gave me goosies. This is how they ended it.
If you get a chance to see them, take it, you won’t be disappointed. They definitely left us all wanting more. After it was over, I tried all my tricks to get Marty to sign my BanjoBen hat, but alas, he eluded me. I hung out for an hour, talked with every stage hand I could find and festival staff and the guy guarding the artists backstage entrance. After the next band was practically set up, I walked away distraught and pouting. With my head hung low and hands in my pockets I kicked an imaginary rock on the ground. I’m so dramatic aren’t I?
I returned a little later to catch some of Donna The Buffalo. I hung out for four songs. I had never heard these guys before. Although they’re fine musicians, I just wasn’t feeling it. It was late so I head back and turned in for the night.
Day 4 Sunday:
There are several more shows today right up to 8:00 tonight, but I must be heading home. I’m taking my coach back to Clearwater and get it parked and set up and then I have one day to get a lot done and pack for Nashville. I leave on Tuesday and I’m driving my car to Mt Juliete for BanjoBens’s Inaugural Cabin Camp, which I’m really looking forward to. Then I’ll be in Nashville for a few more days including a night at the Grand Ole Opry on April 2nd. I then drive down to Tallahassee on the 4th to see Molly Tuttle in concert and then drive to Durham, NC to visit Jim Mills at his Gibson pre-war banjo showroom. I then drive home to Clearwater, possibly with a new old banjo… maybe, hopefully…
Other acts that were there but I did not get to see include Jim Lauderdale, The Grass is Dead, John Stickly Trio, Town Mountain, Joe Craven & Hattie Craven, Daddy, The Mammals, Pigeon Kings, Nikki Talley, Nora Jane Struthers, Ralph Rodenberry, TKO, Cycadia Rhythm, Balkun Brothers, Quarter Moon, Sloppy Joe, Habanero Honeys, and The Adventures of Annabelle Lyn.
I’ve just learned that the Suwannee Roots Revival is coming up October 10 – 13 and will have Sam Bush, Peter Rowan, Del McCoury Band, Verlon Thompson, The Travelin’ McCourys, We Banjo 3 and several of the same bands I mentioned above and more to be announced. Checkout this artist hyperlinked lineup page. I may just have to make this a regular thing.
Sorry this was so long… but it’s the only way I could describe the real experience. I’ll absolutely do this again.
Final Thought: If I never see another tie dyed anything for the rest of my life, I’ll be a happy camper.