The Spirit is Back: Suwannee Roots Revival 2021

Beth and Randy Judy have hosted spring and fall roots festivals at the Spirit of the Suwannee Music Park in Live Oak, Florida, since the late ’90s.  The past 18 months have been hard on those dedicated fans who are drawn to the mix of progressive and traditional roots and bluegrass music that has been a hallmark of these festivals.  Reconvening this fall, with four days of great weather, exuberant crowds, and happy bands, made for a good time for all at Suwannee Roots Revival Ocotber 14-17. Fans and artists expressed their emotions openly at being able to get the family together again.

These festivals have a long ongoing history, carried forward by artists that return every year, most of them for decades….Peter Rowan, Donna the Buffalo, Verlon Thompson,  jamgrass pioneer Rev. Jeff Mosier and Nashville jack of all trades Jim Lauderdale are regulars, and so is Joe Craven, who makes the annual trek from California and opened the festivities this year with Painted Mandolin. As always, their eclectic brand of music avoids pigeonholes….Craven played with both Jerry Garcia and David Grisman, and their set is a mix of original and Garcia-based tunes. Craven switches from fiddle to mandolin to percussion, and his wardrobe choices are always entertaining. Matt Hartle handled much of the lead singing, Larry Graff and Terry Shields pitched in on guitar and bass.

Joe Craven Photo credit: Rick Davidson
Joe Craven and Painted Mandolin Photo credit: Rick Davidson

Darrell Scott is a treasure. The singer/songwriter has been writing and performing in Nashville since the mid-90s, writing songs that have been covered by everyone from Brad Paisley, Robert Plant and Beyonce to the Dixie Chicks, Emmylou Harris, and Faith Hill. He has toured with Tim O’Brien as a duo and with Plant as part of the Band of Joy. His set was a great demonstration of his guitar, writing and vocal skills. As the songwriter, his version of “You’ll Never Leave Harlan Alive” is the definitive one, although the song’s been covered by Paisley, Patty Loveless, Kathy Mattea and many others.  He added the wonderful song he co-wrote with Guy Clark, “Out in the Parking Lot” and his “Long Time Gone.” Add in Paul Simon’s “America,” and “Satisfied Mind”  and you have a primer in great Americana writing and playing.

 

Darrell Scott Photo credit: Rick Davidson

Sarah Shook is a North Carolina-based singer/writer whose take-no-prisoner songs care nothing about traditional themes and sensibilities. Along with her very accomplished band, the Disarmers, she ran through songs from her last album release Years and a soon-to-be-released album Nightroamer. At times sounding very much like a young Lucinda Williams, she played several sets and gained a bunch of new fans.

 

Sarah Shook Photo credit: Rick Davidson

Sam Bush is a frequent participant at Live Oak, and his high-energy mandolin playing while leading the New Grass Revival for decades influenced probably half the bands at this festival. With new banjo player Wes Corbett and Stephen Mougin on guitar and vocals, the band ran through some NGR classics (John Hartford’s “Vamp in the Middle” for one) and a few long extended jam songs (“Crooked Smile”) that fired up the crowd on opening night, but they also played to to the “trad” crowd with “Little Girl of Mine in Tennessee” and “Shady Grove.”

 

Sam Bush Band Photo credit: Rick Davidson

 

Jim Lauderdale was pretty much everywhere, doing his usual Jim and Verlon show with Verlon Thompson, doing a set with Donna the Buffalo, and a solo Sunday set. Verlon also provided a few solo sets, but as usual their faux discomfort with each other always provides some of the most entertaining times every year. Two superb songwriters, playing off each other and introducing new songs to the crowd is not to be missed.

Jim Lauderdale and Verlon Thompson Photo credit: Rick Davidson

 

 

Jeb Puryear and Jim Lauderdale Photo credit: Rick Davidson

 

Verlon Thompson Photo credit: Rick Davidson

 

A few months shy of 80 years old, legend Peter Rowan was flying into town with the Free Mexican Airforce, otherwise known as Los Texmaniacs.  A set that provided some newer tunes with Rowan’s standards (“Panama Red,” “Midnight Moonlight” and “Land of the Navajos”) had the plus of Joe Craven adding some fiddle and percussion.

 

Peter Rowan and the Free Mexican Air Force  Photo credit: Rick Davidson

 

The Steep Canyon Rangers , the Asheville-based Grammy-winners, were busy during the pandemic working on albums. They released three albums in 2020 alone:  Arm in Arm, Be Still Moses and a live album. A collaboration with soul stalwarts Boyz II Men and the Asheville Symphony led to a revision of one of their older songs,  “Be Still Moses.” They performed some songs from these albums, as well as some of their older classics. “Be Still Moses,” “Call the Captain,” “Stand By Me,” and “Bullet in the Fire” were big crowd favorites. They also called Larry Keel out to play some guitar on several songs. Nicky Sanders is always a crowd favorite on fiddle, and both Mike Guggino on mandolin and Graham Sharp added harmonies to lead singer Woody Platt, and Barrett Smith, the bass player, got his lead singing turn.

Woody Platt and Mike Guggino: Steep Canyon Rangers Photo credit: Rick Davidson

 

Steep Canyon Rangers Photo credit: Rick Davidson

The headlining Infamous Stringdusters provided a high-energy set to a packed amphitheater on Saturday night. Opening with a wild jam, the crowd ate it all up. Whirling around the stage, circling each other for one-on-one jams, the Grammy-winning band knows how to fire an audience up. Jeremy Garrett on fiddle, Andy Hall, their award-winning dobro player, and bass player Travis Book anchor the lineup that also includes Chris Pandolfi on banjo and Andy Falco on guitar. They have a new album, Toward the Fray, due to drop after the first of the year. They’ve not forgotten their roots, putting out a Bill Monroe tribute album last year, but it’s the fire in their uptempo songs that gets the temperature rising in the crowd dancing in front of the stage. “Sirens,” “Fork in the Road” and “Gravity” were high points of the set.

 

Infamous Stringdusters Photo credit: Rick Davidson

 

Infamous Stringdusters Photo credit: Rick Davidson

Appearances by fan favorites Sloppy Joe, the Wisconsin-based “slopgrass” group;  Keller and the Keels (Keller Williams, Larry and Jenny Keel);  Nikki Talley; the Jon Stickley Trio, and Quartermoon kept things hopping. The Grass is Dead filled in as needed, including several sets for the Colorado band Bowregard that had to cancel,  and late-night jam specialists Leftover Salmon filled in the weekend and kept the joint swinging well after midnight.

As always, the diverse crowd was a major part of the show. Hanging tapestries in the campgrounds, decorated golf carts, jam sessions in the camping areas, canoeing on the Suwannee River and relaxing in the pine forests are all a part of the venue. Congratulations to Beth Judy for her tenacious work on getting this great festival together. We’re already looking forward to the next roots festival, Spring Reunion, scheduled for March 17-20, 2022.

 

Photo credit: Rick Davidson

 

 

Photos by Rick Davidson

 

 

Photos by David Lee

 

 

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