Spirit of the Suwannee Roots Festivals: A Family Affair
The Spirit of the Suwannee Music Park has hosted music festivals since the ’80s and some bluegrass events even earlier. Under the ownership of the Cornett family, Randy and Beth Judy have been managing spring and fall festivals at that location for over 20 years. As Charles Cornett stated:
“Many folks don’t know that the Spirit of the Suwannee began as an extension of my parents’ successful venture in festival creation with the Festival of the Bluegrass in 1973. That festival is still held annually in its original home in Lexington, KY. The early shows featured then “new” acts like J.D. Crowe and the New South (featuring a very young Tony Rice, Ricky Skaggs, Jerry Douglas and a host of other great stars), and the Seldom Scene (who were new at the time as well). Indeed, both of those bands were among the first to sign up to help kick off the Spirit of the Suwannee at Mom and Dad’s in 1985. They dreamed of a “full time home” for bluegrass and roots music along the banks of the Suwannee. The park has evolved, covering multiple festivals including a much broader range of music, but the roots festivals are still my favorite. I was 10 when we held our first, so I literally grew up looking forward to renewing friendships every year. We absolutely view the roots festivals as family, and Beth and Randy “got that” even before they arrived to join us. The “family” truly is the festival. We just let the big names come by and set a spell, cause that road life can be tough.”
Randy Judy was a committed musician with great affection for the Grateful Dead; his wife Beth loved music of any kind, but Beth describes themselves as Deadheads, and they traveled to many Dead shows. As she noted:
“Randy always was more interested in who was playing; I was more interested in the experience. After visiting the Rockygrass festival in Colorado, Randy convinced me that Florida needed something like that; the only thing similar was Mitch Lind’s Wings and Strings festival which at the time was located in Orlando. When we looked at the Spirit of the Suwannee, we knew we loved the place. It just felt right, and the facilities were perfect; we didn’t know anything about the history of festivals there at the time. We put together a proposal for Springfest in March, but we realized that there were open dates in October, so we put together another one called Magnoliafest; we wanted to find times when the weather would be pleasant for everyone. We really had a shared vision. While there are many crossovers, initially we leaned toward more Dead-oriented bands for Magfest, as it was called. Springfest leaned a little more toward string music of all kinds; bluegrass, singer/songwriters, blues, and old-time bands. Essentially our goal was to provide a musical experience; we’ve always considered music to be a form of healing. Our regular attendees know that they can expect something appealing and unique; many buy tickets before the headliners are announced.”
The festivals began in 1997, and although the names changed several years ago because of business issues, they have continued as the Suwannee Spring Reunion and the Suwannee Roots Revival. While the lineups have changed over the years, there have been many regulars. Donna the Buffalo are considered by many to be the de facto host band for the festivals. Vassar Clements came for many years, every year until he passed away in 2005. Guy Clark was a regular until his death in 2016. His sidekick, Verlon Thompson, an accomplished singer/songwriter in his own right, continued coming and has been a regular now for many years. Peter Rowan is known as the Godfather of the festival and continues to return each spring and fall. Rev. Jeff Mosier, The Grass is Dead, Sloppy Joe, Dread Clampitt, Jim Lauderdale and California’s Joe Craven are there almost every year. And Randy and Beth give back to the community; in 2001 they started a non-profit, the Live Oak Music and Arts Foundation, that raises money through raffles. Funds go directly to local school programs, instrument donations to groups, and sponsoring the Suwannee Spirit Kids Music Camp four times a year. Also funded by the foundation are music and arts programs in hospitals, detention centers and community centers.
Over the years, those “roots festivals” were joined by a number of festivals that crossed genres. The Wanee Music Festival started in 2005 and was hosted by the Allman Brothers Band, with an obvious emphasis on Southern rock. It ended in 2018. There was a short-lived Pow Wow festival. Bear Creek Music & Arts Festival ran 2007-14, and AURA Music & Arts Festival moved to the park in 2013-16. More recently, Suwannee Hulaween has become the largest festival on site. A wild Halloween-themed multimedia rock and progressive extravaganza, it attracts over 20,000 attendees; the spring and fall roots festivals have around 4500 each.
There are two consistencies that are a part of the spring and fall festivals: the location and the fans. The park contains around 800 or so acres of spectacular Spanish moss-draped oak and cypress trees. The Suwannee River courses alongside the property, and canoes and kayaks are available to rent on-site. There are several small lakes and a beautiful three-story treehouse built in the ancient oak known as the Mother Tree. It was built in part as a feature for the cable TV show “The Treehouse Guys.” There are tours of the treehouse that are very popular.
There are over 600 improved campsites, and primitive tent camping is allowed almost anywhere on the 800 acres. During festivals there are high-end RVs, pop-up campers, and a large number of cabins, most privately owned but around 35 or so available to rent. Because of the longevity of these festivals, groups of campers have been coming to the same areas of the park for many years to spend time together, play music, and enjoy the outdoors. Unlike some of the other festivals, the spring and fall festivals are geared toward families. They even have a Kid’s Tent with special events for kids and workshops for both kids and adults to learn playing tips from musicians. There are colorful hammocks hanging throughout the trees. It’s a relaxing environment, and the festivals mimic that vibe.
At the last Suwannee Roots Revival festival, Ronnie McCoury walked out for a set and commented that he always felt like he was coming home when he walked onto the stage. I decided to corral some of the performers who had played there for many years to ask them what the park and the fans meant to them. As you will see, there are several common themes, none surprising to anyone who attends these events. The first person I spoke to was Joe Craven, a multi-instrumentalist, entertainer and educator. Beth noted that Joe had initially come with the David Grisman Quintet; when that band broke up, Joe continued coming from his home in California, and, along with his popular genre-breaking sets, he provides educational experiences both at the park and in local schools.
“I love the fact that this is based in such an openly shared dialogue that is about community… it’s about bringing together people with a common ground for artful living. And that transcends any differences that we normally perceive about ourselves outside of this micro-community, this family. You have the park here, a beautiful setting for many festivals, but I particularly love the festivals that were originally brought here by the pioneers of people bringing festivals here, Beth and Randy Judy. In spite of some changes over time, they were the ones that brought that spirit early on and have maintained that consistently- that philosophy of establishing that place, that common ground. And it also relates to vernacular music, folk music if you will, which is an inclusive music. It invites people in in an open, organic way. They established this place as a kind of sanctuary before that became a trending thing. I know so many people that have been coming to these festivals that feel blessed that the integrity of that philosophy hasn’t changed much, but now has more relevance and is needed more than ever.”
“For me, the first word that comes to mind is ‘family.’ These people watched me come here as a young guy who was a sideman with Guy Clark, around ’99, and they’ve watched me through everything. I’ve been on this stage with broken legs, broken arms, I was called from the stage because Guy was dying… we’ve been through a lot together; they’re like my family. When my father died last year, I got thousands of cards and letters from people, and they mentioned that they were part of my Suwannee family. As for the park, it’s unlike any other venue or location I’ve ever played, and I’ve played a lot of outdoor festivals. I think it’s the moss that hangs down from the trees; it’s almost like the spirits from above reaching down to touch us, and remind us that they’re still here, all the ones that we’ve lost over the years, that we sing about and remember.”
“I’ve been coming here since ’97, the first year of Magnoliafest. It was just a sand stage with a piney forest. I found out that the Stanley Brothers and Jim and Jesse had played here; bluegrass stalwarts, the first generation. That attracted me at first. Over the years they’ve put in infrastructure, but not too much. At first there weren’t many people here, but those of us that were felt a real comradeship. It really is like a family reunion. I get this nice feeling of seeing everyone who was here back then. And I love the eclecticism of the music…. some bluegrass, some R&B, some jam bands…it’s a broad spectrum of music”.
(currently playing with the Gina Furtado Project, formerly with Billy Strings) “I’ve been playing here forever, it seems. It’s most important to me to have my life to be the best musical journey I can have. I don’t need to be famous, or make tons of money. I enjoy being able to play with my friends, to teach students how to play, and live out that journey. This place has always been there for me; I feel like I started everything here, like these people are my family”.
“First of all, I think there’s something magical about the place itself. The live oak trees, with the Spanish moss hanging down…it’s a beautiful setting for creating and watching music. I think I’ve played here about nine years in a row, first with Grandpa’s Cough Medicine, and now with my new band, Melted Plectrum. It’s inspiring for the musicians to see their favorite artists in this beautiful setting. Last night, watching Del McCoury under the full moon… it was something you don’t forget. And the park contributes to that vibe. Being out in these trees, seeing your heroes on stage just makes you want to do your best. We went back to the campsite last night and probably jammed for four hours or so. And the fans…. the people here are like one big family. It’s common to hear people say that they can’t wait to come see their Suwannee family. It does feel like an extended family reunion when you come here. You see all the people you’ve been picking with for years, shared beer with, broken bread with. People are here for the commonality of the music”.
The spring and fall roots festivals are different than any festival I’ve attended. I’ve heard people describe them as “Woodstock Light”… the tie-dye everywhere, lots of old hippies, as they like to describe themselves, the not-so-occasional whiff of banned substances. But the characteristic that is most similar is the community ambiance: every single person I interviewed used the word “family” to describe these festivals. I’m looking forward to getting together with this family next spring for the Suwannee Spring Reunion Festival, March 19-22. Hope to see you there.