24th Annual Gamble Rogers Music Festival
Gamble Rogers, the iconic singer/songwriter and guitar player, was the very definition of the word “troubadour.” His storytelling about rural Florida, mixed with his incredible vocabulary and guitar skills, made him a cult figure. His career began as a member of the Serendipity Singers; later he appeared in the fabled ’70s documentary “Heartworn Highways” with Guy Clark, Townes Van Zant, Rodney Crowell and Steve Earle. He was a regular contributor to National Public Radio. His tragic death in October 1991 added to his legend; he drowned while trying to save a struggling swimmer. This year was the 24th annual Gamble Rogers Music Festival, a three-day memorial event held in the historic Colonial Quarter of St. Augustine. It’s changed venues several times over the history of the event, but placing it in the restored ancient Quarter provided an intimate setting, allowing easy walking access to some of Florida’s finest restaurants. During the festival there were a number of Folk School events, including music jams, a mandolin workshop, storytelling and crafts demonstrations, and separate activities for the kids. It’s a true family-friendly festival in a great environment, well-organized and with attentive volunteers who were always helpful.
Gabe Valla Band
After some great introductory sets by Lonesome Bert and the Skinny Lizards and progressive local acoustic band Remedy Tree, the Gabe Valla Band took the stage. Valla is a multi-instrumentalist and songwriter who has been playing since he was a pre-teen. His band includes legendary Florida couple Lis and Lon Williamson, nationally known banjo player Scott Anderson, and Tim Higgins on fiddle. Their set ranged from complex original tunes like “Gatorbone Reel”, more contemporary songs like “Cold Sheets of Rain” to straight-ahead bluegrass songs like “Big Spike Hammer.” They are great musicians and polished performers and were a perfect choice to start the evening session.
Brett Bass and Melted Plectrum
Bass started the “outlaw bluegrass” genre with his three-piece band Grandpa’s Cough Medicine, which mixed hard-driving breakneck instrumentals with a punk sensibility. Since the band dissolved, Brett has been planning his next venture while filling in with the Del McCoury Band, the Steep Canyon Rangers, Leftover Salmon and other progressive groups. He has collected some of the finest musicians in the state, including mandolin whiz Joey Lazio, hard-driving banjo player Benny McDowell, and bass player Rex Putnam. Their set was dominated by Brett’s aggressive flatpicking, which had the audience on its feet. This is a high-energy take-no-prisoners band, and their original material includes everything from thoughtful lyrics about the plight of Native Americans to rollicking stories about illegal substances in North Carolina. They threw in a bluesy number (“Asexual Blues”) and the title cut from their upcoming album aimed for a July release called Lost in the Fog. Don’t miss a chance to see them.
On Saturday, all three stages at the festival were open for business. The main stage included some fine regional bands and performers, including Brian Smalley, the Tampa-based band Gypsy Wind featuring multi-instrumentalist Michael Godwin and Kristen Holloway on flute and vocals. Their set included some gypsy jazz offerings as well as “Rider,” a tribute to recently passed Seldom Scene member John Starling. The Skinny provided some great harmonies, and Michael Jordan‘s set was fascinating to experience; he plays in mostly open tunings, using harmonics and percussion to produce a unique sound.
Originally from the Panhandle area of Florida, The Currys are now based in Charlottesville, Virginia. Brothers Tommy and Jimmy teamed with their cousin Galen and have been working together since 2013. I have recently become a big fan of their tight harmonies, tasteful instrumentation, and the fact that they are just plain fun to watch. Their harmonies set them apart from most other bands, and put them in a category of quality vocal groups like the Wailin’ Jennys and Red Molly. Their songs, all originals, range from the nostalgic to the edgy (most of which are written by Galen). They have just released a new album, their third, called This Side of the Glass, and it’s a polished, well-produced offering. Their set included a number of songs from the album, including “Fault Lines,” “Fly on the Wall,” and their closing number, “Good or Bad.” I become a bigger fan of theirs every time I see them.
Davis and the Loose Cannons
Meanwhile, over on the Picker’s Stage, I made it over to catch a set by Davis Loose and his band with pedal steel/Telecaster wizard Stan Coffman. Davis is committed to traditional country sound and picking, including a pedal steel and acoustic bass player. He was joined on a few numbers by festival music coordinator Michael Legasse for some hardcore country that had the audience wrapped up in their traditional sound.
This six-piece Americana/folk band from Gainesville has a great catalog of songs from writers like Blaze Foley and Guy Clark and some excellent original songs as well. They are anchored by the vocals of Dana Myers, with excellent harmonies added by fiddle player Andy Cook and keyboardist Noah Shitama, Brian Turk on bass, Scott Ashcroft on solid rhythm guitar, and Jared Groom on drums. I’ve seen them a number of times, and their distinctive sound and mix of covers and original tunes (“Still in Love with You” is one of my favorites) make them a must-see.
Next on the Picker’s stage was Grant Peeples, the poet/songwriter/activist who was described by one reviewer as “the only songwriter I have ever thought to call ‘ruthless’.” Sara Stovall accompanied him on fiddle. It’s very hard to describe one of Grant’s sets; this one began with a poem and included songs from hilarious to sobering (“Market Town” moved many in the audience to tears). He has a catalog of eight albums and several poetry books. A Grant Peeples show is a unique experience and will make you think, and that’s good music.
I made it back to the main stage to catch a set I had been looking forward to. American songster Dom Flemons of Carolina Chocolate Drops fame is an archivist and historian regarding African-American folk and roots music. He is also an accomplished multi-instrumentalist and is carrying on the use of many traditional instruments such as the rhythm bones, quills and fife. He has recorded several blues albums, and his most recent Grammy-nominated offering, Black Cowboys, addresses the role of freed slaves in the settling of the west. His encyclopedic knowledge and musicianship made this a great educational experience for the audience. His songs ranged from the more traditionally known songs like “Two Dollar Bill” to old blues songs like “Wild Ox Moan.”
Hawktail is composed of four nationally-known musicians who have joined together to make some music. Brittany Haas began her career at age 14 touring with Darol Anger. She recorded four albums with the “chamber-grass” band Crooked Still and has performed with many major artists, including Bela Fleck and Steve Martin. In 2015 she joined the David Rawlings Machine with Gillian Welch and is now a part of the house band on Chris Thile’s “Live from Here” radio show on PBS. Paul Kowert is best known as the classically trained bass player with the Punch Brothers. Jordan Tice is a well-known solo artist who has also played with David Rawlings. Dominick Leslie is a mandolin prodigy; winner of the Merlefest mandolin contest, he has studied with Chris Thile and is currently also playing with Phoebe Hunt and the Gatherers, who followed Hawktail on stage. Hawktail’s set demonstrated amazing virtuosity (several of them are classically trained), yet was clearly accessible and based in roots music traditions. The fiddle/bowed bass interactions were particularly mesmerizing, but the whole set was masterful.
Phoebe Hunt and the Gatherers
Providing an exciting conclusion to a full day of music, Saturday night headliner Phoebe Hunt is an Americana phenomenon. From her Austin roots, with strains of Appalachian string music and sensibilities touched by a life-changing meditation retreat to India, Hunt approaches music as a healing force (she did a TED talk about music and the community). She has been involved with Dustin Welch’s Soldier Songs and Voices, a program to involve veterans and their spouses in songwriting as a healing force. Her powerful vocals and fiddle and the instrumental interplay with her excellent band (including her husband/mandolinist, the aforementioned Dominick Leslie) left the audience wanting more. Her performance of “Pink and Blue” from her most recent album Shanti’s Shadow was a masterful combination of introspective lyrics and stringed interplay, “Just for Tonight” a sultry romantic fantasy, “Road to Kolhapor” a Grisman-esque exercise in musicianship. It was a great way to end the night.
The morning was a chance to catch local legend Red Henry and his son Chris play, but we were all aware of a threatening serious thunderstorm. The decision was made to move the final three acts to the covered Picking Stage, and as the first set began, the storm hit with intensity: lots of lightning strikes, and lots of water. The Four Troubadours soldiered on. All were close friends of Gamble Rogers, and their set has been a part of every previous festival, all 23 of them. Singer/songwriter Larry Mangum, guitar champion Charley Simmons, Bob Patterson (known as the festival guru), and Jim Carrick’s guitar playing and baritone singing made the rain bearable. The interaction of these old friends and the support from the audience was nostalgic for many long-time attendees of this festival.
While the rain continued, the crowd remained committed, and the last two performers were perfectly chosen to exemplify the life of Gamble Rogers as a troubadour. Both are known for their thoughtful and creative songwriting, and both have traveled and played in mostly small and medium sized venues for all of their careers.
I’ve known Pierce Pettis for many years. He is one of the great songwriters and storytellers who have made a life for themselves by playing wherever and whenever they can. Pierce’s songs have been recorded by Garth Brooks, Joan Baez, and Dar Williams, and he even once co-wrote a song with Dion Dimucci (Dion and the Belmonts). His most recent album (his eighth) is a classic example of his emotional songwriting and his distinctive open-tuning guitar playing, and he played a number of songs from that new release, Father’s Son. Many of his songs are autobiographical; “The Adventures of Me” describes his life on the road and the challenges it presents. “Mr. Zeidman” tells the true story of a tailor and dressmaker from his home town who kept a terrible secret; it moved many to tears. He has written some of my very favorite songs, and it was great to see the audience, as wet as they were, respond to his carefully crafted songs.
An Oklahoma boy who found himself in Nashville writing songs, Verlon has a long and storied career as a writer, but is probably best known as being Guy Clark’s sideman and co-writer for almost thirty years. Randy Travis, Kenny Rogers, Trisha Yearwood, Jimmy Buffett, and many others have recorded his songs, and the songs he co-wrote with Guy Clark have become classics, including “The Guitar” and “Boats to Build”. He is a masterful guitar player and flat-picker. A Verlon Thompson show is like viewing a tapestry of his life: his family, his life of the road with Guy, and the humor of the music business. He included many favorites, including “Darwietta’s Mandolin”, a rollicking tribute to his mother that includes some amazing guitar breaks; “Caddo County”, a song written about his father who just passed away three weeks before this festival, and left both Verlon and his audience in tears; and one of my favorite songs, “The Cape”. Verlon is a musical master, an engaging storyteller, and an all-around nice guy. He was a fitting conclusion to a festival dedicated to someone with similar traits: Gamble Rogers.
Review and all photographs by Rick Davidson