Tradition Persists at the Palatka Bluegrass Festival
The three-day festival held at the Rodeheaver Boys Ranch outside of Palatka, Florida, was packed with traditional bluegrass talent. Diversity in bluegrass has been popular. Festivals such as Telluride may draw 10,000 visitors a day, and the free San Francisco Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Festival draws over 750,000 attendees over four days. Strolling through those festivals you’ll hear Grateful Dead jam songs, reggae and jazz tunes played with bluegrass instruments…a potpourri of music.
But there are many bluegrass fans that favor the traditional… Bill Monroe, Flatt and Scruggs and Stanley Brothers songs, four-part gospel, and songs that represent their values. The Palatka Bluegrass Festival is one of those festivals; there’s no jamgrass here, no smoking or drinking allowed on site, and that’s fine with the attendees. The crowd is older and attentive and look forward to the opportunity to spend time with their favorite artists at the merchandise tent after each set, posing for pictures and providing autographs.
This was the 16th year of this festival, and it featured some of best in straight-ahead bluegrass, with multiple award winners and fan favorites. It provides the kind of personal fan contact that is rare in music these days, and it draws a dedicated group of fans, around 2000 this year. Most of the bands did two sets per day on the single covered stage. And like most festivals, there were jam sessions in parking lots until early in the morning.
Jackson, Cordle and Salley
Three musical veterans and award-winning writers, Carl Jackson, Larry Cordle, and Jerry Salley, have been playing together for years. Although two-time Grammy winner Jackson is best known as a banjo player and a member of Glen Campbell’s band for many years, he’s an accomplished songwriter of songs like “Lonesome Dove” and his production of the Mark Twain: Words and Music compilation, featuring Clint Eastwood, Jimmy Buffett, Garrison Keillor, and many others. Cordle, a winner of multiple IBMA Song of the Year awards and several Grammy nominations, provided some of his classics: ”Black Diamond Strings” and “Murder on Music Row,” two songs that look back at the days when country music was more about people and less about pickup trucks and red solo cups. Salley has had over 300 of his songs recorded and won several Dove Awards. His “Thin Blue Line,” a heartfelt tribute to police officers, was spare and moving. The three-guitar arrangement put the emphasis on their songs, and their tight harmonies were evidence of their familiarity. They’ve been touring for years and play at Nashville’s Station Inn weekly.
The high-riding kings of retro country were warmly received. They first came to national attention when they opened for Merle Haggard for a number of years and recorded with Haggard’s steel player Don Helms. A public television documentary about them, The Malpass Brothers: Heading Home, was released in 2018. A unique period act with hair and vocals to match their set list, they ran through Haggard’s “Sing Me Back Home,” Presley’s “Money Honey,” and Faron Young’s “Hello Walls,” along with some of their original songs. If you loved what some people call “authentic country music,” this is where you can find it; it’s a trip back in time.
Joe Mullins and the Radio Ramblers
Fresh off their win as IBMA Entertainers of the Year, Joe Mullins and the Radio Ramblers provided a solid polished set of mostly original songs, anchored by their Song of the Year nominee “Bacon with My Beans.” They added some of their more popular songs: “Folded Flag,” “The Guitar Song,” and several gospel songs including “Rock of Ages Keep My Soul.” The band is tight and accomplished; Jason Barie is one of the finest traditional fiddle players around, having spent six years with Doyle Lawson and Quicksilver.
The Gibson Brothers
For two brothers from New York, the Gibson Brothers have carved out a massive career in bluegrass. There’s a reason; they are great songwriters and great musicians and have the best vocals in bluegrass. Even better, their stage show is just plain fun. With constant brotherly jabs (Leigh is younger and losing his hair, and Eric has lots of hair and is overly concerned about his appearance), they are spontaneous, and their humor is infectious (when the band members are laughing too hard to play, you know). With IBMA dobro player of the year Justin Moses on dobro and mandolin, they were the best show of the weekend for me. Not surprisingly, they love brother acts, with songs from the Louvin Brothers and Jim and Jesse’s “Sweet Little Miss Blue Eyes” to the Everly’s “Bye Bye Love.” Add their moving originals “One Raindrop,” “Special One,” and “In the Ground” plus their relaxed professionalism and tight vocals, and you have a great show.
Fortune was with the Statler Brothers for over twenty years; when they retired, he began a long solo career. Beginning his set with “This Land is Your Land,” he ran through some Statler standards: “Too Much On My Heart,” which he wrote and was the Country Music song of the year in 1985, and “Flowers On the Wall,” probably the Statler’s best known song. He provided some old standards: Ray Price’s “Crazy Arms” and Eddy Arnold’s “Make the World Go Away.” Adding in spiritual numbers “Old Rugged Cross” and “Life’s Railway to Heaven,” he was accompanied by John and Mary Meyer, who have their own family band (The Meyerband).
The Lonesome River Band
While the band has undergone many personnel changes over its 28-year history, the one consistent thread has been Sammy Shelor. Winner of the 2011 Steve Martin Banjo Award, Shelor is a man in motion during their sets, walking around behind the band and stepping up to jam with members during breaks. Long-time fiddler Mike Hartgrove, compelling vocals by Brandon Rickman, and the solid mandolin of Jesse Smathers provided two great sets of music. Standbys were included: “Bonnie Brown,” “Red Bandana,” their popular dance number “One Step Two Step,” and “Home of the Red Fox” gave everybody a chance to show their skill set.
Every now and then you come across something unexpected, and this weekend for me that was Born Lonesome. A regional central Florida band, I had heard some talk about them, but I overheard them warming up and knew they had the stuff. Their set included a few covers: “Pikeville Flood” and “Stone Cold Loneliness,” but some of their original material, “Frogstrangler” and “Micanopy,” was first rate. Chad Spikes is a soulful lead singer, Royce Burt a very solid and inventive banjo player, and Jimmy White and Lamont Goff were sturdy on guitar and mandolin. Claybo Barnum on bass shared some lead singing, and Christian Ward, who has toured with Sierra Hull, is as good a fiddle player as I saw this weekend. They are a very solid original band and have a great future.
Rhonda Vincent and the Rage
The Queen of Bluegrass, Rhonda Vincent, has had seven Grammy nominations and won the Grammy for Best Album in 2017. She was the IBMA Vocalist of the Year from 2000-2006 and Entertainer of the Year in 2001. She’s a powerful singer who commands the stage, and she plays with some of the best musicians around. Hunter Berry, Josh Williams and Aaron McDaris have been together for many years, and it shows. As the headliner, her sets were packed full of some of her past hits: “Kentucky Borderline,” “When the Grass Grows Over Me,” “Leaving Town Tomorrow,” and some hot instrumentals (“Remington’s Ride”) were mixed in with standards like “Driving Nails in My Coffin.” Watching this band work the stage and the crowd was like watching a skilled surgeon. She provided a great finale to the festival.
There were many other fine performers, including the always entertaining Little Roy and Lizzie Show, the traditional sound of the Dry Branch Fire Squad, and straight-up gospel from the Primitive Quartet. The Penny Creek Band from Melbourne played some fine songs as well. A band of young pickers, Duck Wallow Lane, were showcased and did some fine harmony singing, and Saturday morning there was a gospel sing-along that included many of the fans. To get a feel for the stage, see the video below.
If traditional bluegrass is your thing, or if you want to see some of the best performers in comfortable surroundings, put this festival on your calendar. The festival is one of the major sources of funding for the Boys Ranch, which provides a stable environment for up to 50 at-risk young men, so your participation helps them in their mission.
Video courtesy of Katrina Kimbrough-Brake