Oct 16-19, 2014

Spirit of the Suwannee Park in Live Oak, FL

written by Benjamin Landsman

photos by Mark Cordrey

The 18th annual Magnolia Festival is  traditionally  held in mid October.  The spirit of Suwannee music park is a visually stunning venue which includes primitive and full hook-up campsites featuring the essential  amenities complete with fully stocked bath houses,and even a   general store, also  the S.O.S cafe which is open year round. This festival is alluring to veteran festival goers and first timers alike. From the tall live oak trees, down to the cyprus knees Spirit of the Suwannee is overwhelmingly beautiful and picturesque.


    Creatively assembled campsites flood the campsites yearly. Everyone brings a “town” feel to each one.  It isn’t unusual for  the attendees to purchase  early bird tickets immediately  as they go on sale.  Experienced folks will often reserve or “claim” their campsite in advance to ensure their favorite location . Some  groups will have meetings to discuss meals, costumes and any further preparations  that need to be discussed before there Magnolia Festival experience takes place

   For the barebones campers there is a limitless amount of primitive campsites to choose from.  If your family needs quiet seclusion the river is the place for you. If you are all about late night acoustic jam sessions, festival meandering, then hunker down by Ree’s Pond, or out in the field for easy drum circle access. This festival is quite massive, but no worries there are golf carts to rent from the park, or you can also bring your bike!

  With a festival so beautifully crafted in every way it is no wonder that is adamantly supported by passionate fans who travel thousands of miles every year to stand beneath the spanish moss, and listen to the vibrant acoustic sounds coming from the dozens of musicians camping.  The most elaborate campsite is Slopryland. Its even on the festival map, and is always inviting to all who can’t wait to have a great time.   It was Wisconsin’s own sloppy joe’s 31st time setting up this amazing campsite all over the country including their own  hometown festival named Jackpine Jamboree  every Labor Day weekend. Every night dedicated die hard pickers make their way to the Slopry Land to reconnect with old friends and jam around the fire. . Often times there is so much music in Slopry land it bleeds into its neighbor The Taj ma hut in Camp Caruso. There’s also The Bill Monroe Shrine hosted by Magfest Favorite “Quarter Moon” of Gainesville Fl. Just listen for the pedal steel guitar and electric bass!

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    Music started Thursday at the gorgeous  natural Ampitheater Stage surrounded by live oak trees that create a canopy overhead.  There are plenty of trees to place your hammock. Also if you’d like to take a seat feel free to place your chair down front. The sound on this stage is exquisite, and is kept at a level that is pleasing to all. Big Cosmo aka Randy Judy the festival’s creator kicked off the weekend right in a spirit of positivity and comradery. Followed by Honey Island Swamp Band, and then the ever astounding Portland’s own March Fourth Marching Band. To close out the evening was grammy award winning songwriter Jason Isbell formerly of The Drive by Truckers.

    Ringing in the Friday morning  couldn’t have done any better than by The Nikki Talley Trio. Their three part harmonies sailed upward through the amphitheater. They are what some may call the festival’s hidden gem, but soon made themselves clearly heard. Later in the afternoon Williesugarcapps took the stage. Comprised of songwriting greats Will Kimbrough, Grayson Capps, Sugarcane Jane, and Corky Hughes.

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     That evening Rock n roll hall of famer Dr. John took the stage pleasing all his fans with his famous  “Right Place Wrong Time” The Wailers closed out the evening by playing “Exodus” in its entirety. North Mississippi All stars lead by famed Guitarist Luther Dickenson  who has played with The Black Crowes and Phil Lesh among others Luther Dickenson with his Brother Cody Dickenson on washboard. The Dunks from Calgary Canada a beautiful folk grass band told a story of why they loved Magnolia Festival that they played the festival in 2003 for only a plane ticket and a rental car and that performance started there magical journey in the music business because that performance got them a record label and thats why they love the festival so much.  Another musician that performed was grammy award winning Terrence Simmien who was the inspiration and winner for best zydeco record of the year at the Grammys.  Terrance Simean also performed on the soundtrack to Disney’s The Princess and the Frog. Also Grammy Award winner Marcia Ball performed and also brought Terrance out to perform with her being they are both great New Orleans musicians.

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     Highlights from Saturday include Tim Reynolds  best known for his work with Dave Matthews  Actor/singer  Lyle Lovett’s performance was loaded with  memorable hits such as “Pony on the boat” and “She’s no lady, she’s my wife”   One of the most memorable moments of Lovett’s  performance was learning  how gracious he was to his band mates and taking stage time to cast the spot light on their own music careers.     Rodney Crowell was also quite a hit at the festival playing songs from his vast catalog  of songs.  Being known for being married to Roseanne cash for such a long time he sure has turned that to good fortune.  Tornado Rider and the solo project Rashadicus the Cello Goblin also performed and this set is quite a site to see.  The children loved the cello goblin and followed him around like the pied piper  Bela and Abigail Washburn playing a medley of tunes from both careers as long as tunes off there self titled new album that had just hit #1 on the bluegrass charts.  Also the most delightful part about seeing them live was humorous banter of the newlyweds talking about life touring on the road and there brand new baby boy Juno who was named after Abbigails late Grandma June.  Keller williams also performed with his band More than a Little. The band made up of Keller performing with two back up singers who told me at Summer Camp Music Festival they have learned so much touring around with him and are just so lucky to do it every night.

Sunday was the closing party started with the great packed Sloppy Joe Set mentioned earlier followed by some SUnday Gospel performed by The Lee Boys and they brought the soul to the festival that is for sure.  Followed by The Lee boys was the always fashionable Jim Lauderdale wearing a very dazzling blue ensemble.  Followed by Jim was the Some More creole music with the  New Orleans Suspects closing out the Ampitheater stage was Donna and the Buffalo playing positive zydeco tunes with a mix of there hit positive friction and cosmic evolution.

Bean Spence, who did the cover art of the festival, was doing plenty of live painting and vending during the festival including the painting of the magnolia festival mascot The Quarter Moon.  Another great vendor at the festival was the Wormtown trading company selling a variety of festival type trinkets and their own festival.

Another festival high point  are the food vendors. There was  everything from Maine lobsters to New Orleans po’ boys to  great veggie vendors to fabulous festival food. I had a great big turkey leg but the aroma of all the sweet festy foods was quite mesmerizing and attracted many to none other than the funnel cake booth.

You will fall in love with this magical place and want to come back. Good news is you can even when festival season isn’t in full swing!  The park is  open all year round for canoe and kayak trips , horse trail rides, quiet camping, and day hikes.

     So gather  your friends and create your dream camp. You only have a few months to prepare for Magnolia’s sister festival in March 2015 Suwannee Springfest.