The Gamble Rogers Folk Festival: A New Venue, Same Great Music

After several years in downtown St. Augustine in the Old City, the Gamble Rogers Folk Festival moved back to its old location at the St. Johns County Fairgrounds. The much larger venue made for a more relaxed atmosphere and allowed for a lot of campground jam sessions that had been missed by many. This is the 27th year of the festival honoring Florida’s troubadour Gamble Rogers, the storyteller/singer/songwriter and guitar master who was loved by all and who gave his life to save someone from drowning in 1991. Gamble was a totally unique talent; he joined the Serendipity Singers in the ’60s, who appeared on The Tonight Show and Ed Sullivan, before embarking on a solo career. He appeared in the epic documentary Heartworn Highways with Guy Clark, Steve Earle, Rodney Crowell, and David Allen Coe. The non-profit Gamble Rogers Foundation offers remastered CDs and DVDs through their website here. For a brief introduction to Gamble, see this video which includes interviews with those who knew him, including Jimmy Buffett, who dedicated the album Fruitcakes to him.

The festival has always honored local and regional performers with a fine selection of headliners. This year folk/country icon Iris Dement, long-time duet Robin and Linda Williams, the retro/contemporary string band Bill and the Belles, and guitar master Richard Smith were a perfect collection of the variety intrinsic in folk music. Many of the regional performers were friends with Gamble and performed with him. The festival featured instrument workshops, a youth stage for local players, pony rides for children, and a nice group of roosters and hens prowling the grounds and adding punctuation to some performances in the main stage area.

📸: Rick Davidson

I was looking forward to seeing Iris Dement; somehow I had never seen her perform live. Her first album Infamous Angel was listed as one of the greatest country albums of all time by Rolling Stone magazine, and two later albums were Grammy-nominated. Her newest album, Workin’ on a World, was begun shortly after the 2016 elections and made up much of her set. The album resonates with the echoes of past social justice warriors, political activism, and, in the end, hopefulness.

“Now I’m workin’ on a world I may never see /
Joinin’ forces with the warriors of love /
Who came before and will follow you and me.”

Iris Dement.  📸: Rick Davidson
Iris Dement.  📸: Rick Davidson

Robin and Linda Williams have been performing together for fifty years. They made regular appearances on Prairie Home Companion, and their songs have been recorded by Emmylou Harris, Tom T. Hall, Tim O’Brien, and The Seldom Scene, along with many other artists. Their set included “Across the Blue Mountains” and the Leonard Cohen tribute to songwriters “Tower of Song,” along with numbers from their most recent album A Better Day A-Coming.

Robin and Linda Williams.  📸: Rick Davidson

Bill and the Belles apply old-time string music instrumentation to contemporary issues; their most recent album Happy Again is about Kris Truelson’s divorce (he’s Bill). Aidan VanSuetendael plays old-time and strumming banjo, Kalia Yeagle plays fiddle, with Andrew Small on bass. They manage to take what might be sad situations and make them humorous, and there’s no telling where the music might go. “Bye Bye Bill”is a song about a pale ale-drinking whale (one takes rhymes where they can find them). A thoroughly entertaining set kept the crowd enthralled.

Bill and the Belles.  📸: Rick Davidson

Richard Smith is an internationally award-winning guitarist. The UK-born fingerstyle player is an acolyte of Jerry Reed, and his sets always include a number of Jerry Reed songs, along with the Merle Travis chestnut “Walking the Strings.” I’ve been fortunate enough to see him a number of times, including a few years ago at Heartwood Soundstage in Gainesville (article and video here) 

Richard Smith.  📸: Rick Davidson

In addition to his solo set, he also performed with one of my highlights for the weekend, Annie and the Hot Club Trio. Annie Sellick has been voted the best jazz singer in Nashville for five years in a row. Pat Bergeson shared guitar licks with Smith and also provided some of the best harmonica breaks I’ve heard in years. The Django-inspired group performed both standards and some originals. Their version of “Sweet Georgia Brown” was lightning fast. Annie dominates the stage, dancing, cheering, and providing an amazing energy to the virtuosity of the guitar playing. They were a wonderful surprise.

Annie and the Hot Club Trio.  📸: Rick Davidson

The Wild Shiners are a regional band with a great following in Jacksonville and Gainesville, where they play regularly. It was great to hear them in a venue with excellent sound, and they ran through some of their original songs (“Hinesville, Georgia”), some Gamble Rogers songs (“Habersham County Mephistopheles”), and some great mashups (including Lyle Lovett’s “She’s Already Made Up Her Mind”). Leader and guitar player Michael Lagasse anchors the group, with  the unique banjo stylist and vocalist Tom Grant and accomplished fiddle player Andrew Cook;  T’ai Welch and Brian Turk providing solid support on drums and bass. They’ve been described as “face-melting Americana,” and that’s a pretty accurate description. They are uniquely fun and well worth seeing.

Wild Shiners.  📸: Rick Davidson

The Driftwoods are a regional band that has been playing regular gigs for decades in St. Augustine. The stalwarts of roots music in north Florida, Lis and Lon Williamson in combination with Eric Searcy on banjo, Tim Higgins on fiddle, and multi-instrumentalist Gabe Valla provide great harmonies and picking chops, and their original songs, many of them Florida-centric, are well known around the state. They are always a pleasure to see.

The Driftwoods.  📸: Rick Davidson

Another great surprise was Jacksonville native and current Portland, Oregon, resident Hadley Parrish-Cotton. The singer/songwriter played with their dad, local legend Crucial Eddy Cotton, and provided a great selection of insightful and though-provoking songs. “Bathroom Graffiti,” “Jesus’s Son,” and “What Birds Do” were great songs, and “States Between,” the title song from their most recent EP, is a masterful work. My favorite had to be “Tea, Earl Gray, Hot,” a shout out to individuality. I look forward to more of their music.

Eddie Cotton and Hadley Parrish-Cotton.  📸: Rick Davidson

The Peyton Brothers have also been performing together for fifty years. From their teen days, when they hosted their own television show in Jacksonville, they’ve been headliners at the Florida Folk Festival and toured extensively during their younger years. Dan, Lee, John and Michael were joined by Lee’s son Grant, a really excellent flatpicker, and provided some of their best known songs. Friends of Gamble Rogers for many years, they performed one of their standbys, “July, You’re a Woman,” which they first heard from Gamble. “Winnsboro Cotton Mill Blues,” “Make Me a Pallet on Your Floor,” and “Who’s That Knocking on Your Door” were all solid additions to their set, and Michael’s ode to an ex, “Fiberoptic Angel,” always gets a great response.

Peyton Brothers.  📸: Rick Davidson

Another highlight of the weekend was the combination of Chris Henry and his dad Red playing with mandolin prodigy Wyatt Ellis. They did a workshop as well as a set on the main stage, running through some triple mandolin numbers, which is not something you see every day. Chris is Peter Rowan’s regular mandolin player; Red has been playing in Florida for decades and always returns for this festival.

Wyatt Ellis, Chris and Red Henry with Barbara Johnson.   📸: Rick Davidson

One of my very favorite performers, Grant Peeples, did a great set on the Picker’s Stage. His new album, A Murder of Songs, is a treatise in contemporary folk music and activism, and it’s unusual to get through listening to a set without being impressed by his insight and commitment. Listening to Grant is always a learning experience in how to express yourself. You can read about his new album here. 

Grant Peeples and Susan Brown.  📸: Rick Davidson

The weather was beautiful all weekend, there were lots of high-quality jam sessions in the campground, and the new venue worked out very well for the festival. I’ll be looking forward to next year’s version.



Gamble Rogers Folk Festival





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