Riverhawk 2019: A Spectrum of Roots Music
The Sertoma Youth Ranch, near Brooksville, Florida, hosts a number of roots music festivals throughout the year. There’s the Riverhawk Festival in November, the annual Thanksgiving Festival, and String Break, held in mid-April. All those festivals are hosted by the Lind family, and the homey atmosphere and beautiful location attracts repeat attendees, many returning to the same campsites year after year. This year’s Riverhawk Festival brought a great mix of talented performers, a hallmark of a Lind family festival for the past twenty years. Even a drizzly Friday for much of the day didn’t dampen any spirits. There are three stages, two of them covered, and a large outdoor meadow stage called the Blue Sky stage. Thankfully the weather cleared and provided a great backdrop for some excellent music, including some impressive groups that were new to me.
Among the headliners were the Cleverlys. If you’ve never heard accomplished bluegrass musicians covering Beyoncé, Katy Perry and the Zombies, then you’ve never been properly entertained. Along with the covers, their stage act is smart and current while pretending to be the opposite, very reminiscent of the original Dillards. In spite of the rain, they got a great audience response.
The Band of Heathens, an Austin-based roots-rock band, provided a great set of their standards. Their most recent album pays homage to Ray Charles with a reimagining of Charles’ classic album A Message from the People. They have many fans at Riverhawk, and they provided a great set, switching from the jangly folk-rock sounds of “Shotgun” and “Hurricane” to more hard-core offerings like “Trouble Came Early.”
The Black Lillies are also repeat offenders at Riverhawk. The Knoxville-based band organized by Cruz Contreras always provides a solid set of country/folk songs. Contreras also did a solo set of mostly Black Lillies songs, and the acoustic versions of some of their best-known songs made for a great listen.
The biggest buzz from the crowd, and for me as well, was about High South. This Nashville-based quartet is well known in Europe and is just getting started in the US. Their harmonies are ethereal. Three of them rotate lead singing parts, and their covers of ’60s and ’70s songs are on a par with any cover you’ve ever heard. But they’re far from being a one-trick pony. Their original tunes are expansive in scope and exciting to hear. In their set on the small stage they wandered into the audience and continued their precise three-part harmonies, at times echoing Crosby, Stills and Nash, America, and the Band. They closed that set with a medley that included “Mrs. Robinson,” “California Dreaming” and “Listen to the Music” that had the crowd going wild for more. Their set in the meadow provided the same excitement. This is a band not to be missed if you are a fan of harmony singing and great musicianship.
Songs from the Road Band are based in Asheville; the experienced quartet, all well-known individually, switched seamlessly from the old Jimmy Martin chestnut “Sunny Side of the Mountain” to the Blues Image tune “Ride Captain Ride.” They were joined in their set by Allen Shadd, three-time national flatpicking champion from South Carolina.
Brett Bass and Melted Plectrum were also joined by Allen Shadd, providing two flatpicking champions onstage at the same time, and many notes were provided to the audience in a blazing display of energetic, fluid picking by everyone. Their indoor set showed a mastery of more traditional bluegrass, including “Little Sadie” and a number of fiddle tunes. Their outdoor set featured more songs from their new album Lost in the Fog. I’ve seen this band three times in the past few months, and every time I’ve been more impressed with their instrumental virtuosity. See them if you get a chance.
There were a number of other great performances. Yarn, a Brooklyn-based (yes, that Brooklyn) band provided some unique songs. A mix of country and folk mixed with bluegrass tendencies, they were a pleasure. Their songs cover the waterfront: lost love, challenging relationships, life on the road, adversity. They’ve been nominated for four Grammys in their long career but tend to play more in the Northeast, so it was a great opportunity to see them live, and they didn’t disappoint.
Yarn Photo credit: Larry Fowler
Escaping Pavement is a Michigander songwriting duo that met in high school. Their songs are bluegrass-inspired folk, and their mandolin, guitar and two voices provide a tapestry of sound. Their most recent album Road Warrior celebrates off-the-grid awareness and nature, and seeing them in the beautiful natural setting at Riverhawk fit perfectly.
Front Country is an exciting group that I just saw at the Spirit of the Suwannee Roots Revival Festival. Their approach to pop-oriented bluegrass and intricate harmonies built around Melody Walker’s lead singing is unique. Her voice has many textures, from sweet to gritty, and their three-part harmonies are perfect every time.
I first saw Nora Jane Struthers and Party Line at Merlefest a number of years ago; her sound has become more electric and edgier, in keeping with her powerful vocals. She is also becoming known as an excellent songwriter, which is quite a compliment as she is based in Nashville. Many great albums come from personal struggles of the artist; her most recent album Champion was inspired in part by her difficulty in having a child. It’s a blend of self-awareness and hope.
Sugarcane Jane, featuring former Neil Young band member Anthony Crawford and Savana Lee, always put on an energetic and thought-provoking set. Excellent original songs sung in a meaningful way, their fans hang on every song. As the focal point of the highly respected supergroup Willie Sugarcapps, they escaped Nashville to move to their home in coastal Alabama to raise a family, and their music reflects their personal attachments.
A number of other performers provided a true spectrum of roots and Americana music. Mike McAdam played with Steve Earle for many years and sat in with several bands, including Tim Carter. He’s known for his excellent guitar work. Ben Prestage’s one-man band show far exceeds whatever clichés you had imagined about that genre; Ben is a hard-core original bluesman, writing songs about environmental issues. And one of my favorite discoveries, Silver Alert, the duo of veteran songwriter Richie Parsons and resonator master and guitar-builder Damon Wack, played Richie’s original songs to a crowded Jamshak stage, covering Jerry Jeff Walker’s “Night Rider’s Lament” for their finale.
If you’re looking for a festival that is easy to navigate, family-friendly (there’s a kid’s tent and parade), pet-friendly (there is a best-dressed dog competition), and provides a great spectrum of Americana-oriented music, Riverhawk should be on your must-do list.
Special thanks to Larry Fowler for the use of his photographs.