Suwannee Roots Revival Review

October 13-16, 2016

Spirit of the Suwannee Music Park, Live Oak, FL

Written by Ashley Feller

Photos by Josh Webster

On the 13th of October Spirit of the Suwannee Music park opened the gates for the first ever Suwannee Roots Revival. A four-day celebration of music, art, love, and community. The festival was deeply rooted in the traditions which were made during the early days of the relocated Magnolia Festival which formerly took place in the park until last year. Although the festival was familiar to the seasoned Suwannee family it was the birth of a whole new tradition which will hopefully live on in the future. Roots Revival featured over thirty of the best bands in the Americana music genre. Combine that with four days of camping in one of the most beautiful venues in the south and you have the makings of a fresh new but yet familiar music festival.

Quartermoon of Gainesville Florida opened with the first set of the festival.  Playing songs by the great Townes Van Zandt.  The band has also hosted one of the two open jam spots in the park for the last several years. At the Bill Monroe Shrine, musicians come out to play at all hours of the day under the big tent which sports not only a shrine to the father of bluegrass Bill Monroe but also a painting of the legendary Vassar Clements. Songs are shared and campers gather around to listen to the musicians play in an intimate setting.

Chad Graves and Jim Rea of The Hillbenders

The group that stood out the most Thursday evening were without a doubt The Hilllbenders performing Tommy-A Bluegrass Opry. The entire Rock opera “Tommy” was performed stunningly well while embracing  minor idiosyncrasies of the original. The musicianship was admirable. Their sound was not only top notch but the band also captured the passion of the classic record and showed it extraordinarily well on stage.

Closing out the evening was The Grass is Dead. They are not just another Grateful Dead Tribute band, they bring an entirely different element to The Dead’s repertoire. The instrumentation includes traditional bluegrass instruments. Many of the songs are given the bluegrass treatment which  transforms them into up-tempo perpetual improvised mastery.

The festival featured five stages but the most interactive of them all was the Music Farmers Stage. Campers are welcome to come here to participate in hands-on workshops with members of bands that were performing. Brush up on guitar solos with Tom Nelly, fiddle with Holly Riley or come play a song with Sloppy Joe. The stage is in a barn complete with farm equipment. With many instrumental workshops, there was something for every aspiring musician.

Nikki Talley

Nikki Talley greeted the day with her beautiful voice on the Amphitheater Stage Friday morning. Her original songs are inspired by the mountains and days on the water. Her most recent album Out from the Harbor is a mellow yet heartwarming album. Her songs are honest and relatable, and she performs them powerfully. Her musical partner and husband Jason Sharp always add the most delightful melodic fills, and tasteful guitar solos. His sound completes her’s and together they put on a hell of a show.

Later in the afternoon, Dread Clampitt played in the dance tent. The two piece features Balder Saunders on mandolin and Kyle Ogle on guitar. The two represent musical brotherhood and have been making music together in south Walton county Florida for many years .They played songs as far back as their debut album Dread Clampitt. They also included a few songs from the late great songwriter and artist Butch Hornsby. Dread Clampitt is by far one of the most intense two pieces in Americana music today.

Vince Herman of Leftover Salmon

The last set of Friday evening highlighted veteran jam band Leftover Salmon. This set packed a serious punch and positive energy spread through the audience. Everyone who was there had to have been dancing. Drew Emmitt and Vince Herman have a chemistry that is difficult to replicate or describe. After spending years touring and making music the whole ensemble never fails to entertain fans of New Grass music.

The new favorite of the festival for many was The Honeycutters. The lead singer Amanda Platt is one of the south’s best singer-songwriters. Her voice has just the right amount of everything. Sweetness, power, and purity. The bands feature some of Asheville’s best musicians and are collectively brilliant. They are each in tune with each other’s musical tendency and consistently put on a flawless performance. The band recently released a new album titled On the Ropes .The album is comprised of excellently written songs that are arranged quite remarkably. The best song of the set was Leonard Cohen’s Hallelujah. The phrasing was slightly different than the original but was equally moving.

Amanda Platt of The Honeycutters

Friday night ended with a grand finale of another set by Leftover Salmon. After the stages close, the music does not stop. There are two campsites that welcome musicians and music lovers to gather there to jam in an intimate setting. The first previously mentioned is The Bill Monroe Shrine, hosted by Quartermoon. The other is Slopryland located near Rees Lake. Candlelight leaks through the trees and the bonfire glows. Palm fronds hang from a large tent. Dozens of jack o’ lanterns line the interior and even more hang from the trees. Slopryland is a fundamental part of festivals at the Spirit of the Suwannee. It is famous for late night jam sessions that continue onto sunrise. The atmosphere is absolutely dreamy and is a significant part of the Suwannee magic. Songs are shared, hot licks are exchanged, the quality of the music heard in Slopryland is often times on par with the music heard on stage.  

The Music Hall is one of the most interesting stages at Roots Revival. It features a restaurant known as the SOS café, as well as a full bar. The prices are quite affordable and the staff is always attentive. The music hall is a chance to come out of the sun and have a seat and enjoy warm performances which sometimes include question and answer sessions. The set this weekend that really struck a chord was Peter Rowan. Not only did he perform his best songs but he also fondly recalled his days as a bluegrass boy, touring the country with Bill Monroe. He recounted his times driving the band’s bus The Bluegrass Breakdown and colorfully described the double clutching process. Peter Rowan owns the high lonesome sound as he delicately sings impressive intervals. His vocal palette is extensive and lacks boundaries. Rowan is an integral part of bluegrass music history.

Peter Rowan at the music hall

Sloppy Joe followed in the music hall. For years the band has made the journey all the way from Wisconsin. Not only are they the hosts of Slopryland, they also have a long history of performing at festivals in the park. The band calls their brand of music Slopgrass and is a long time favorite of many who have attended previous festivals. The five-piece band is comprised of multi-instrumentalists who frequently swap instruments between songs. They were one of the most entertaining bands on this year’s lineup.

The most profound progressive band of the weekend was The Jon Stickley Trio. The three Asheville musicians intensely show supreme virtuosity. Instrumentally driven, cleverly arranged, and versatile might be the best way to describe this band. There sound is large, and with eyes closed, one might not guess the music was being played by a trio. They encompass multiple genres of music and play them all sublimely. They recently announced a kick starter project to help in funding their newest album.

Sam Bush

Finally, it was time for The Sam Bush Band. The band energetically played songs from Bush’s new album Storyman as well as  favorites from Sam Bush’s past band The New Grass Revival. The pinnacle of the set was the moment Sam Bush welcomed Dread Clampitt and Drew Emmitt to the stage. The result was mandolin-mania! It was truly a moment of musical bliss. Their sound filled the amphitheater and their energy overcame the audience. It was an experience that will always be remembered as one of the best in the park’s festival history.

Sunday is better known as Vassar Sunday. It’s a day to remember and honor Suwannee family’s dearly departed. The tradition began after losing the legendary fiddle player Vassar Clements in August of 2005. This year paid homage to violinist  Sue Cunningham, Buffalo, and most recently Kenny Oliverio of the band Dread Clampitt. The Amphitheater is the last active stage of the weekend and never fails to bring everyone together to close the festival in a positive way. The festival’s last set was performed by Donna The Buffalo. This band is an essential part of the Spirit of the Suwannee and has an extensive following known as The Herd. Their songs are upbeat and combine rock and zydeco qualities.  

​Festival Founders Beth Judy (left) Randy Judy (right)

The festival could not have been better. One of the reasons is due to the magic of the venue. The Spirit of the Suwannee Music Park is perhaps the most beautiful campground in the state of Florida. It features primitive camping, RV sites, as well as a tree house and cabins that are available to rent. There are several bath houses available as well as many pavilions scattered throughout the park. The property is massive. However, bikes are welcome and golf carts are available to rent. There is a country store, a pool, restaurant, disc golf course, craft village, and horse stables. There is also a canoe livery. The Suwannee River is a wonderful place to relax on the beach and enjoy the beauty of the Cyprus trees. The other reason this festival is promising is not only because of the quality of musicians but the quality of the people it attracted. Everyone comes from different walks of life but they all have one thing in common, the love of live music. The love showed bright among the festival attendees. The experience was intensely magical. Many thanks are due to James Cornett, Beth and Randy Judy, the sponsors, the volunteers  and everyone part of crafting the event. The festival was a wonderful experience and it’s hopeful the tradition will continue for many years to come.