Florida Folk Festival
This was the 67th year for the Florida Folk Festival which from its inception has highlighted the diversity of the state. The early years of the festival included a broad spectrum of music and ethnic groups: members of the Seminole, Miccosukee and Minorcan tribes demonstrated building, trapping and jewelry techniques and native music and dancing. African-Americans played music and told folk tales; Florida crackers rode horses and demonstrated folk and square dancing. Greek-Americans from Tarpon Springs talked about sponge diving. This diversity has continued; this year’s festival (May 24-26) included presentations from Junkanoo parades, Congolese fashion and cooking, Seminole folklore, and Minorcan cast-net techniques.
But for many, the music is the key attraction. This year you could find demonstrations of historical music from Trinidad, Myanmar, West Africa, and China and from Pentecostal churches. There were fiddle, mandolin, banjo, dulcimer, and guitar workshops and jam sessions. The featured performers all have ties to the state, and there are nine stages, providing an abundance of riches that makes decision-making a challenge. Most of the performers performed three times over the weekend, sometimes at three different stages. Saturday alone there were over 200 performances, demonstrations, and workshops to choose from. While the options are spread out across the Stephen Foster Folk Culture Center State Park, there was a fleet of golf carts that ferried people to event sites; that was greatly appreciated this year, as the soaring temperatures were a concern. The excellent volunteers had water available at all venues, and the event organizers did a masterful job considering the size of this effort.
John Anderson, a Florida native, moved to Nashville in 1972 and found his way to become one of the brightest country music stars of the past few decades. His 23 albums spawned 20 top-ten singles, and he’s a member of the Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame. His vocals are instantly recognizable, with his smooth control and delivery. I was expecting to see his full band but was pleasantly surprised to have a completely acoustic set, sitting with his old friend and great multi-instrumentalist Glenn Rieuf on dobro and guitar. The acoustic presentation really allowed the audience to concentrate on his carefully crafted songs. His Saturday night set was a march through his career, starting with his first big hit “I’m Just an Old Chunk of Coal” and including “Money in the Bank,” “I Just Came Home to Count the Memories,” and “Straight Tequila Night,” finishing with his ode to Florida’s most well-known tribe, “Seminole Wind.”
John McEuen and the String Wizards
One of the founders of the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, John McEuen has had an epic career in music. The Dirt Band was already successful in 1972 when, at the urging of McEuen, they decided to take a risk and try to gather together a group of legendary country and bluegrass musicians to make an album that demonstrated their common ground: acoustic music. The multi-platinum Will the Circle be Unbroken brought the band together with Mother Maybelle Carter, Doc Watson, Earl Scruggs, Merle Travis and many more and exposed millions of young music fans to this music. A Zagat survey found the album to be the most important album in country music. John’s new album Made in Brooklyn includes a broad spectrum of Americana-flavored music. McEuen began the Friday night set onstage by himself. He involved the crowd in several sing-alongs (the Beverly Hillbillies theme song for one) and talked about the early days of the Dirt Band. His sidemen came out one at a time: two former members of the Dirt Band, John Cable and Les Thompson, with multi-instrumentalist Matt Carsonis. They ran through some great versions of classic Dirt Band songs: “Some of Shelley’s Blues” and “Mr. Bojangles.” “Dance Little Jean,” “Blue Ridge Mountain Home” and “Way Downtown” filled out the set, and the finale of “Will the Circle be Unbroken” had great audience participation. It was a pleasant trip through John’s career, which also served as a timeline for many of us who have been fans since the ’70s.
Billy Dean, a native of Quincy, Florida, is an established country music singer/songwriter, with thirteen albums, eleven top-ten singles and a Grammy. His songs are not the usual bro-country offerings (he’s been called the “James Taylor of Country Music”), and he has had success as an actor in many TV shows and made-for-TV movies. I decided to catch his set at the River Gazebo stage, a small intimate stage on the banks of the Suwannee River, because there’s no sound system there; performers just stand in the middle and sing. He began by talking about his arrival in Nashville and working at EMI as a songwriter with a tiny office; the office next to his belonged to this guy named Guy Clark. They became good friends, and he worked two of Guy’s songs into his set: “Indian Head Penny” and “The Cape.” His set included some of his best songs: “Billy the Kid,” “Only Here for a Little While,” and a new one, “Down that Road Again.” The natural setting and lack of a microphone and speakers provided the perfect way to experience his emotional songwriting.
Winter Haven native and Folk Festival regular Jim Stafford is the definition of an entertainer. A comedian, multi-instrumentalist and regular at Branson, Missouri, Jim has a long history in “the business.” Beginning in the mid-’70s with “Swamp Witch” and “Spiders and Snakes,” he landed his own show on ABC in 1975. He continued to record hits such as “Wildwood Weed” and “Cow Patti,” a song he wrote for Clint Eastwood’s movie Any Which Way You Can, which he also appeared in. He performed all of these hits for an overflow crowd at the Heritage Stage on Saturday afternoon and provided some great laughs as well.
This genre-defying group has been together for seven years. They play a mix of original songs that include the unique banjo style and vocals of Tom Grant and blazing flatpicking by Michael Lagasse, accomplished fiddle leads and harmony vocals by Andy Cook, with a solid rhythm section provided by bass player Brian Turk and drummer and harmony singer T’ai Welch. Their Saturday night set included Lagasse’s rousing “Mama, Hinesville Georgia,” and included Grant’s ballad “To Rule the Night.” They are a hard-driving, entertaining group; it’s unlikely you would ever find yourself bored at a Shiner’s set, so make it a point to see them when you get a chance.
Playing together now for almost fifty years, the Peyton Brothers were a full-time traveling band in the mid- to late-’70s, playing primarily in the Southeast. They’ve played with Doc Watson, John Hartford, Ralph Stanley, the Dillards and many other national acts and even had their own TV show in Jacksonville. Dan, John, Lee and Michael were known for their family-honed harmonies and their entertaining stage show and performed at the Folk Festival for many years. As frequently happens with young bands, life intervened, but now they’ve reorganized, added Lee’s son Grant, and still have a huge following at the Folk Festival. At the PawPaw Stage they performed some of their favorites: “Winnsboro Cotton Mill Blues,” “July You’re a Woman,” “Gone Gone Gone,” and Michael Peyton’s ode to sketchy marriages, “Fiber-optic Angel.” They closed with a rousing version of Pure Prairie League’s “Picking to Meet the Devil” that had fans up and dancing in spite of the heat.
The Lee Boys
The Lee Boys are probably the best-known purveyors of “sacred steel”, a gospel-based mixture of jazz, R&B, and rock based around lap steel guitar. As a several-generation family band from Miami, they have been playing together for decades. I was persuaded to see them by a friend who knows music, and she was right on target. At most festivals I’ll come across a band I haven’t seen that just blows me away, and that would be the Lee Boys. High energy is an understatement. Gospel-styled vocals and shades of funk in their rhythm section, they were amazing to watch. My attention was riveted on their lap steel player, Chris Johnson, and his Allman-esque leads. In spite of the heat, the crowd wanted a longer set. They are worth a trip to see.
Rod MacDonald spent the early part of his career as a Greenwich Village performer. His political and socially aware folk songs and tenor voice brought him to performance stages with a broad range of performers, from Pete Seeger to Tom Paxton to the Violent Femmes. His Friday night set included some well-known songs including “With God on Our Side”, “It’s a Tough Life,” and his best-known song about inequities, “American Jerusalem.”
Ben Prestage is a festival favorite. While many people consider a “one-man band” show to be a novelty, Ben’s shows are anything but. He has serious blues-style and fingerpicking guitar skills and a voice made for singing blues. His set included some of his original songs about the swamps and rural life in Florida, along with a fine version of “Are You From Dixie?” and ended with a song based on a Seminole legend written by Chief Billie, a cautionary tale about the environment.
Even though I just saw them recently at the Gamble Rogers Festival, I went out of my way to catch two sets by the Currys. Their intricate harmonies and well-written original songs may be a little outside traditional folk music, but they are great fun to watch, especially for a fanboy like me….and they are very good. They performed many songs from their new album, The Other Side of the Glass, including one of my favorite songs about Florida, “My Gulf Coast Home.” Although I missed it, I was glad to see they performed this song at the Festival Finale.
I caught many other great acts over the three-day weekend, including Cortadito, a Miami-based trio that focuses on Cuban music from the early to mid-1900s; Firewater Tent Revival, a self-described psychedelic bluegrass band from Jacksonville who put on a high-energy set in spite of missing their lead singer; and Reptile Dysfunction, a trio that mixes tasteful guitar and mandolin playing with a dobro and Melodica. Pictures of these acts and some other views around the festival are included in the gallery below. I also wanted to see three of my favorites, Dim Lights, Gypsy Wind and Uncle Mosie, but the schedule just wouldn’t allow it. They are all fine bands. In spite of the otherworldly heat, the festival was well attended, and I can’t wait to get back next year.