This past weekend, Spirit of The Suwannee welcomed back hundreds of music lovers to Suwannee Roots Revival. A four-day celebration of music, dance, and art. The Americana music festival has a long history in the Spirit of the Suwannee Music Park, but this was the first time the festival was able to happen since the outbreak of Covid-19 in March 2020. There had been two pod music events that were on a much smaller scale in the spring and the fall, but this event was much more like the days before Covid with some needed precautions. Roots Revival is a haven for bluegrass enthusiasts and those who appreciate the best of songwriting. This year the lineup included Sam Bush, Leftover Salmon, The Infamous Stringdusters, the legendary Peter Rowan, and more. There were also surprise sets by Sloppy Joe and multiple sets by festival favorite The Grass Is Dead. On a personal level, the festival was a much-needed spiritual experience. It healed me. For years, I have referred to this event as “The Suwannee Reset” because Roots Revival isn’t merely about entertainment, it is an immersive therapeutic, and cathartic experience. It has a long history of calling folks out of their daily routines to set up camp in the forest, cook a meal over a fire, put new strings on their guitar and get back to their roots.
Spirit Of The Suwanee Music Park is the gem of the south and one of the best music venues in the entire country. It is famous for its massive live oak trees, cypress knees, and of course the Suwannee River. General admission tickets included four days of primitive camping, but there are also hundreds of RV hookup sites as well as a treehouse, and cabins available to rent. I had not been to the camping resort since the fall of 2019 and was pleasantly surprised to see some much-needed improvements. The first was the enclosed deck of the SOS Café. The deck used to be completely open, with only umbrellas for shelter and shade. Now, the entire deck is enclosed by a screen, allowing folks to enjoy a meal there rain or shine.
Another improvement was the updated bathhouses! The first time I walked into the building, I was stunned. I could hardly believe that this was the same bathhouse I had been using for at least twenty years. For a moment I would have thought I was standing in a fancy hotel bathroom. The lighting was excellent, it was clean, there was plenty of warm water with ample pressure.
The festival kicked off Thursday evening on the amphitheater stage with Joe Craven and Painted Mandolin. This was a fiery set, and it was wonderful to see folks eagerly hang their hammocks from the massive trees to enjoy weekend sets. That evening, the prolific Sam Bush Band performed. This was one of the best shows I’ve seen the band perform in a long time. My favorite moment was the climax into the standard Columbus Stockade Blues but they also played many of their fan’s old favorites like Eight More Miles to Louisville. The stage music ended with a powerful set by Leftover Salmon, but this was only the beginning of an amazing weekend.
Friday and Saturday are now a blur of amazing music. It was especially important to me to see Peter Rowan as much as possible. One of the things I’ve always loved about him is his ability to perform his best songs in a variety of styles. He’s been known to perform with Reggae bands, traditional Bluegrass bands, and solo. However, this time he brought Los Texmaniacs. A Grammy Award-winning Conjunto band formed by Max Baca. I managed to attend both of Rowan’s sets. The first out in the meadow under a large tent, and the second back in the amphitheater. Peter Rowan and his band were spot on. It warmed my heart to hear my songwriting hero belt out his famous, Land of The Navajo and the classic Midnight Moonlight.
Another set I particularly enjoyed was Keller and The Keels. This set was fantastic because not only did the band play the songs from their album Speed but they also played many of Keller’s early original pieces. This was a real treat for those of us who have loved Keller for many years. Larry Keel is one of the most gifted Flat picking guitarists in the bluegrass scene today, and his wife Jenny is a powerhouse bassist who always adds delightful and gorgeous harmony vocals. This was my most favorite set for the whole weekend. I also deeply enjoyed the Jon Stickley Trio’s late-night set. Other than Bela Fleck and The Flecktones, and David Grisman Quartet, I can’t think of any other bands that have had as much success playing mostly instrumental music. There has been more than one occasion when I’ve reflected on a Jon Stickley Trio performance thinking, “That’s simply too magical, I can’t believe I heard that” The chemistry between Stickley on guitar, Lyndsay Pruett on violin, and Hunter Deacon on percussion is radiant. Their music is mentally transcending, and I continue to find myself in a better headspace every time I attend one of their shows.
After the late-night sets have ended, it’s time to go out and play. My favorite element of Roots Revival is the impromptu jam sessions in the campground. It is a long tradition for musicians on and off the lineup to make music together around the fire and elaborately decorated campsites. Slopryland and The Bill Monroe Shrine are both listed on the festival map and welcome players of all skill levels to share tunes. As a musician myself, I have made many long friendships as a result of the campfire jams. It’s wonderful to experience the camaraderie that comes from playing music with folks who start as strangers but quickly become new friends. It’s also fulfilling to continue playing fiddle tunes that have existed and evolved over hundreds of years essentially prolonging the tradition while keeping the tunes alive. The Suwannee family can confirm that the music in the camps is as important as the onstage music, and perhaps even more intimate.
Sunday at Roots Revival is also known as Vassar Sunday. It’s a bittersweet day of remembrance for not only the iconic fiddle player Vassar Clements, but also those in the Roots Revival community who have been lost over the years. Through song and dance, their memory is honored, and their spirits are felt by anyone with an open heart. The festival features music on four stages, but on Sunday there were only two, so it was easy to transition between sets. The Ralph Rodenberry Band was a shining force of positive energy and created an environment of warmth and healing. Roddenbery’s originals are feel good songs that recount stories through immense sincerity, passion, and wit. It was fantastic to see festival staple Donna The Buffalo invite Roddenbery onstage to bring the festival to a close Sunday evening. I’m still clinging to the memory of standing beneath the live oaks, breathing the forest air, and feeling a deep connection to the natural beauty around me accompanied by the unforgettable music.
This event was a complete success and a victory. It would not be possible if not for festival director Beth Judy, staff, and volunteers. It is a miracle to see this event return to Spirit of the Suwanee Music Park. Many of the attendees have been faithfully going to the festivals organized by Beth Judy for twenty years. It was wonderful to unite with folks from all over the country and share a love of music and community in one of the most beautiful places in existence. On my commute home I wept, happy tears because I knew this experience was what my soul needed so badly and that need had at last been met. Thank you, Beth Judy, and everyone for your leadership and for creating an event that is unique, inspiring, and most importantly brought us back to our roots. Spring Reunion is the sister festival to Roots Revival and is set for March 17th-20th, 2022. Get your tickets at SuwanneeeSpringReunion.com and come be part of the magic at Spirit of The Suwannee Music Park.