Suwannee Roots Revival: Four Days of Great Music
Attending the fall and spring roots festivals at Spirit of the Suwannee Music Park is like going back to your hometown. Familiar faces in the campground and on stage plus one of the most beautiful festival sites anywhere provide a relaxing and comfortable atmosphere. The returnees know what they like and so do the regular performers… Peter Rowan, Donna the Buffalo, Verlon Thompson, Jim Lauderdale, Nikki Talley, The Grass is Dead, Larry Keel, Joe Craven, Jeff Mosier, and others. Throw in a few headliners, some up-and-coming bands, some instrument workshops, kids activities, and beautiful weather, and you get a fantastic experience. And I found a new band that had everybody talking, but that comes later.
The headliners this year for Suwannee Roots Revival (October 13-16) were JJ Grey and Mofro and Punch Brothers. JJ Grey has a huge fan base; the Florida-based blues/southern rock/soul artist, along with his great players and horn section, had the crowd singing along on every song and hanging on every note. His vocals are classic… whiskey-soaked emotion and amazing range, and his harp and guitar convey the same emotion. His two-hour set was a sampling of his own songs and some traditional blues, but he makes songs pretty much his own. The highlight for me was his version of “House of the Rising Sun,” channeling Eric Burdon (encouraging the crowd to sing the last verse on their own) and then seguing into his classic Florida song and one of his most popular, “Lochloosa.” The audience sang along at the right times with his encouragement; the song represents the natural beauty of Florida to many, and in the festival location along the Suwannee River it rang true.
Punch Brothers played at the spring festival in 2014, which was the first time I saw them. Certainly one of the most impossible bands to characterize, their music is essentially what happens when five virtuoso performers let their imaginations run wild. Formed in 2006, there is nothing they can’t play… but they do it in their own way. Whether it’s the Brandenburg Concerto, Chopin, or “Church Street Blues,” their instrumentation is mind-blowing. Their most recent effort is a tribute album for Tony Rice, Hell on Church Street, a reimagining of Rice’s classic album. Reimagining is the word. They started working on the album during the pandemic and recorded it in November 2020; Rice died a month later before it was released and never heard it. It’s likely he would approve, being a ground-breaking creative musician himself. They performed several cuts from the album; the title cut (“Church Street Blues”), a Norman Blake classic that Rice made his own; a melding of “House Carpenter” and Kenny Baker’s “Jerusalem Ridge”; and the Hamilton Camp song “Pride of Man.”
Chris Thile seemed to be honestly delighted to be playing; animated, joking on stage, he’s a remarkable and entertaining leader. After taking over “`Live from Here” on PBS when Garrison Keillor retired, he is constantly busy with many projects. Noam Pikelny is one of the most highly regarded banjo players alive, Gabe Witcher’s fiddle and harmony singing fits right into the mix, and Paul Kowert, who also plays in and co-founded the progressive group Hawktail, is a masterful bassist . Chris Eldredge, the son of the late Ben Eldredge and one of the founders of The Seldom Scene, grew up around music and actually took guitar lessons from Tony Rice. They’re truly one-of-a-kind and impossible to categorize, but if you get a chance to see them, you should.
A few years ago at the International Bluegrass Music Association festival, I saw a young band called AJ Lee and Blue Summit. Their lead singer and mandolin player AJ Lee had just won the Momentum Vocalist of the Year. I was impressed by her vocals and also very interested in seeing one of the guitar players in her band, Sullivan Tuttle. AJ began playing with Sullivan, his older sister Molly, and their dad Jack when she was a child. She put this band together in 2015, and being in the Bay area, they haven’t come east very often. My guess is that’s about to change. I’ve seen some amazing bands this year, and this is one of the very best. I’ve not been following them, so I wasn’t really sure what to expect, but they basically knocked it out of the park, generating lots of discussion among the crowds.
They did three sets on three different stages and never repeated a song. I saw two of the sets; the indoor stage at the Music Hall was a perfect place. One thing that makes them atypical for a “bluegrass band” is that instead of having a banjo player, they have two lead guitar players. And they are both creative, fast, and clean. Scott Gates adds a great vocal range, singing lead and sometimes singing tenor over AJ’s vocals. Sully Tuttle is a force of nature; he is certainly distinctive. With a very short strap, he is comfortable playing in a position that most people would find uncomfortable, with the guitar pulled up right under his chin. It does not inhibit him; he is a remarkable player. He also sings a few leads, with a deep baritone voice that some suggest sounds like Johnny Cash. Bass player Chad Bowen is the oldest member and adds a solid bass and some fine baritone vocals. And fiddle player Jan Purat is an amazing young gun. His instrumental “Rodney Dangerfield” is posted below; I was lucky enough to record one of the best performances of the weekend. AJ’s mandolin is solid, and her vocals are absolutely among the best I’ve heard this year. Her version of Darrell Scott’s “You’ll Never Leave Harlan Alive” was spellbinding. They’re fun on stage, clearly enjoying what they’re doing, and people are already begging them to come back. I was talking to Bowen, and they are now starting to travel more. They are doing a few shows with Sullivan’s sister’s band, Molly Tuttle and Golden Highway, who is the best new band I’ve seen this year. Blue Summit is not far behind, and that double bill would be a classic. I have no doubt they will be one of the top touring acts within a year; they are that good.
As far as old standbys (“old not being pejorative”), it was great to see them again. Some of my favorite moments at these festivals, other than the campground picking sessions, are the Music Hall events that usually feature Verlon Thompson and Jim Lauderdale, sometimes with Shawn Camp. It’s always entertaining to hear these three politely teasing each other, but I’ve heard some amazing music at these shows. Camp and Thompson did a Friday session tribute to Guy Clark, who both of them wrote with and Thompson toured with extensively. As Vince Gill wrote, “There ain’t nothing like a Guy Clark song,” and he was spot on, and who better to perform them than the people who wrote with him. On Saturday it was the Jim and Verlon show, playing to a packed house that loves these guys. Camp did a set at the Porch Stage with Lisa Stewart and took requests, most of them for Guy Clark songs; he also sat in with Peter Rowan’s band for a song. Camp is a multitalented artist, singing Lester Flatt’s parts in the Earls of Leicester, touring with Verlon, and writing great songs.
Jim Lauderdale was everywhere, doing a set with his country band on Thursday and playing the Dance Tent with Donna the Buffalo, another pairing that’s become a tradition at this festival.
Recent Bluegrass Hall of Fame inductee Peter Rowan performed with his bluegrass band and provided a solo set as well.
John Mailander was listed as “artist-at-large” and sat in with multiple bands, including Donna the Buffalo, Jeff Mosier, AJ Lee, Larry Keel, and Peter Rowan. The composer and regular member of Bruce Hornsby’s band was a great addition to many sets over the weekend.
Regulars The Grass is Dead provided lots of progressive late-night music, and they had Christian Ward on fiddle, who recently won Song of the Year honors at the IBMA for “Red Daisy,” a song he co-wrote with Jarrod Walker for Billy Strings.
Great flatpicker, singer, and songwriter Larry Keel gave us some strong original tunes. The Larry Keel Experience can always provide entertaining sets, and they did on both Thursday and Friday.
Electric blues master Seth Walker did a number of sets over the weekend, bringing to life his new release, I Hope I Know.
I was fortunate enough to camp next to Nicholas Edward Williams, his band, and his family. The host of the roots music history podcast American Songcatcher, he has been working toward preserving early American roots music, from Appalachian folk to Piedmont and Delta Blues and traditional folk songs. His sets were a great trip through the history of roots music.
There were multiple fine sets by progressive bluegrassers The Grass is Dead and Ralph Roddenberry, the Montana-based Kitchen Dwellers, the trio The Krickets, the purveyors of “Sloprygrass” Sloppy Joe, and the Dixieland-leaning Blair Crimmins and the Hookers. Award-winning flatpicker Brett Bass came with a reformulated Grandpa’s Cough Medicine and opened the festival.
The Roots Revival always provides a broad palette of roots music, from bluegrass and blues to folk and rock, and this year’s version kept up that tradition. Late nights around the campfire playing with friends or dancing to the late night jam bands always results in a lot of happy, tired people at the end of the weekend, and this year’s version lived up to those expectations.
AJ Lee and Blue Summit at the Suwannee Roots Revival: “Rodney Dangerfield” and “You’ll Never Leave Harlan Alive”
📷 Rick Davidson