Many a Weary Soul Was Revived at The Inaugural Suwannee Roots Revival Festival!
For nearly 20 years, a group of dedicated music fans and musicians have made the bi-annual pilgrimage to the Spirit of the Suwannee Music Park (SoSMP) in Live Oak, FL, for a soul-recharging weekend of bluegrass and roots music among the moss-covered trees. It has become as much a family reunion as a festival. Over the past few years, two of those beloved festivals changed ownership and relocated, leaving fans longing for a return to the pure roots music that they love. The inaugural Suwannee Roots Revival was a new beginning for the SoSMP. It was a return to the festival that the fans had been yearning for, and it delivered beyond our expectations!!
The lineup was a well-selected variety of the best acts in roots music that included Leftover Salmon, Jim Lauderdale, Sam Bush, Peter Rowan, The Shook Twins, Town Mountain, and Donna the Buffalo. There were so many exceptional sets on all of the five stages; here are a few highlights.
The show got started on the Amphitheater stage with festival co-founders Beth and Randy Judy introducing longtime festival friends Quartermoon. With deep roots in bluegrass and folk, they filled the Amphitheater with heartfelt music.
Town Mountain brought their unique mix of Alt-Country and Bluegrass to the Amphitheater with a stage full of energy. These guys are tight! This Asheville-based band masterfully blend powerful old school country vocals with tight bluegrass fiddle, banjo and mandolin for a unique and unexpected sound.
The Shook Twins delivered their earthy vocals with precision while blending two voices into one. This band can play just about anything that has strings on it, and play it well! They had a strong, rootsy vibe, with a bluegrassy twist. The Portland, Oregon based band melds the airy feel of the Pacific Northwest with a high lonesome sound along with a little beat-boxing and telephone vocals.
The Applebutter Express had the crowd singing along at the Dance Tent with a high-powered version of “Cover of the Rolling Stone.” Kyle and Shannon Bliss have such complementary voices, and their harmonies were seamless on songs such as “My Poor Heart.” Nobody can rock a ukulele like Kyle Bliss!
The Hillbenders had the people jumping with their Tommy: A Bluegrass Opry. Their covers of The Who’s “Can You Hear Me” and “Pinball Wizard” made the crowd go wild. It was a unique and memorable experience.
Grass is Dead was the final act of the night, and they delivered an energetic blend of The Grateful Dead and Bluegrass with some old school funk mixed in just for good measure. Drummer Brian Drysdale took over vocals for a few songs and delivered a passionate cover of Jimmie Cliff’s “Harder They Come.” It was the perfect set to close out the first day of the festival.
Day two had some schedule and lineup changes. The festival announced that JJ Grey and Luther Dickenson of Southern Soul Assembly would fill in for The Wood Brothers, who to cancel due to a medical emergency with Chris Wood.
A lot of folks, including myself, got turned on to guitar wizard Walter Parks. His expert manipulation of rock, jazz and blues translated into a swampy feel with soulful vocals that were impressive to say the least. Walter has lent his guitar skills to many legends throughout his career, including ten years playing alongside Woodstock legend Richie Havens.
When asked for his thoughts on the SRR festival, Walter had this to say: “Coming to this park, and being along the river, is bringing me home to where the music came from.” We couldn’t agree more!
Sauce Boss! This was a show within a show. Bill “Sauce Boss” Wharton was a tremendous hit with his slide guitar and a giant pot of gumbo. Yes, he made gumbo on stage and even had fans come up and help give it a stir. It was a delightful experience that fed the masses.
JJ Grey and Luther Dickinson were a last-minute, and most welcomed, addition to the lineup. As members of Southern Soul Assembly, MOFRO (JJ Grey), and North Mississippi (Luther Dickinson), their sound is original with deep roots in Southern rock, soul and blues. Their songs have a down-home feel with lyrics that create a visual image akin to sitting on the porch with some sweet tea and old friends. Luther’s powerful guitar and amp-tweaking sounds combined with JJ’s deeply passionate vocals that sent a wall of good vibes throughout the crowd on songs such as “Lochloosa” and “The Sun is Shining Down.”
Blueground Undergrass came together for the first time in years for an onstage family reunion. Electric banjo tamer Jeff “The Rev” Mosier was joined by brother Johnny Mosier on guitar as well as other original members. With a foundation in traditional bluegrass, they have drawn on influences from across genres to create a “wall of twang” sound. It was great to see these guys come together again, and there was no more fitting place for the reunion that the inaugural SRR.
Leftover Salmon closed out the night with a full set of their unique slamgrass sound. Front man Vince Herman led the group through a musical journey along a path of rock and roll-infused bluegrass. These guys have created a sound that inspired an entire genre of music and have been impressing crowds for 25 years. They had the Amphitheater crowd dancing up a cloud of dust with their highly talented blend of music.
Mike + Ruthy brought their kids onstage for a special set on the Amphitheater stage. This husband-and-wife duo are former members of The Mammals and have formed a new band that they label “rural rock.” With masterful songwriting and exceptional musical talent, they have a toe-tapping, sing-a-long vibe that puts smiles on the faces of the dancing crowd.
Jim Lauderdale and Verlon Thompson did an emotional tribute to fellow musician Sue Cunningham in the Music Hall. Sue was a fiddle virtuoso and one of the kindest and most humble of musicians to ever grace the stage. She was well loved and respected in the roots world who tragically passed away last year after a courageous battle against cancer. They performed original songs written to honor Sue, and there was not a dry eye in the room. It was a fitting way to pay respect to her memory and acknowledge the loss of a shining star whose light was taken too soon.
Peter Rowan has been performing at festivals at the SoSMP for decades but had been absent for the last few years. His return for the SRR was nothing short of perfect. He took the crowd on a journey through fifty years of bluegrass and Americana music. Peter’s sound is influenced by years of playing with Bill Monroe early in his career as well as his time as member of the venerable band Old and In the Way with Jerry Garcia. As he sat on a stool with his guitar, there was no sign that he had major jet lag caused by days of traveling from Italy. He still has the high lonesome sound and the impeccable guitar skills that have made him a living legend. I am a longtime fan of Peter and, yes, I cried when he sang “Rain and Snow.” It was truly an honor to see him on stage again.
Sam Bush! What can I say… he is a bona fide badass. He has mastered the mandolin to a point that it becomes part of his voice. He was joined onstage by members of Dread Clampitt and Drew Emmitt of Leftover Salmon for an all-star jam. Sam worked the stage like a well mannered host throughout the set, making sure that each musician was acknowledged and had what they needed. Their dual banjo version of “One Love” that was awe-inspiring!
There was a schedule, but it didn’t matter because the last day of the festival turned into a collaboration of numerous musicians. It was a revival of the musical kinship that was created over the last 20 years among likeminded artists.
Big Cosmo took the stage with Randy Judy seated front and center. Randy has been recovering from health issues and was not able to play guitar, but he lead the band with his usual quiet style.
The rest of the day was a veritable throwdown of talent with the joint musical forces of Verlon Thompson, Jim Lauderdale, Mike+Ruthy, Donna the Buffalo, Beth and Randy Judy, Col Bruce Hampton, Jeff Mosier, Grass is Dead, Dread Clampitt, Andy King and more. The sets blended into a whirlwind of sounds and spontaneous love that will forever leave its mark.
I managed to stay up for the after-show jam in the camping area, and it was well worth it. We found Jim Lauderdale, Donna the Buffalo and Verlon Thompson sitting outside of an RV surrounded by a couple of dozen fans. They played for over an hour! Who else can get that many inebriated people to be dead silent for an acoustic jam session? Well, they did, and it was spectacular!
This is what is unique about SRR. It is a festival by musicians for musicians, and the affect was a spirit-filled musical revival. The tireless efforts of Beth Judy, Randy Judy, Paul Levine and the SoSMP have managed to create something magnificent and unique in this world filled with uninspired corporate festivals. Yes, the love is back and music doesn’t just live there, it thrives! We were honored to have been there and will most definitely see you again next year!
Upcoming: Look for our interviews with artists including Walter Parks, Col. Bruce Hampton, Jim Lauderdale, Verlon Thompson, Jeff Mosier and more coming soon!