by Ashley D Feller
photos by Benjamin Landsman
At last spring has arrived! Although the festival had a few damp moments the wonderful music continued on and made for a unforgettable experience. Spirit of the Suwannee Music park is the host to the 19th annual Suwannee Springfest. Each year droves of music lovers head to what is considered to be one of the greatest natural beauties of the south. The festival features four stages, all cleverly placed throughout the festival grounds. There is also a craft barn for instructional workshops like songwriting, fiddle, guitar, banjo and much more for aspiring musicians.
Veteran festival goers will always tell you the reason they continue to come to springfest isn’t solely for the awesome stage performances but it is also for reuniting with their festival family. Each year everyone meticulously crafted their “festival home” Colorful lights adorn the trees elaborate tapestry’s sway in the breeze, there were even easter baskets hanging in the trees! Everyone’s personal touch goes beautifully with the natural vista the park has to offer. Some of the more traditional staple campsites are Bamitown, Poohville, Sloonerville, and Camp Caruso. Not to mention the two campsites which host all night and sometimes all day jam sessions, Slopryland and The Bill Monroe Shrine. Its a festival tradition to try to find the best campfire jams after the festival stages have ended for the night. You can definitely find it at one of the two jam hosting campsites.
The festival started at four o’clock on Thursday. It was a little overcast but flecks of sunshine still rained down through the spanish moss. Shinyrib’s kicked off the festival and got everyone dancing right away. It was such a treat to see Kevin Russell formerly of The Gourds bringing a new flavor and opening a different door for more fans. Next up was the long time favorite Dread Clampitt of Grayton Beach Fl. Dread Clampitt has a long history with the festival and never fail to engage their audience with songs about living at the beach, redneck coozies, and an array of inventive instrumentals.
The moment many had been waiting for was for two music legends to take the stage. David Grisman and Del Mcoury. Both music icons but in two completely different directions! It was such a joy to see the two old friends banter with each other while playing songs that are typically not in their respective repertoires. One tune that got everyone laughing and confused was the timeless, “I’m my own Grandpa” penned by Dwight Latham.
On Friday, The Nikki Talley trio took the indoor stage at the music hall. She played several of her homemade songs from her recently debuted cd Out from the Harbor. She was later joined by festival staple Lyndsay Pruett of John Stickley Trio , Back from the Brink, Taylor Martin’s Acoustic Band and and a few others. One of the most unique new groups was The Shook Twins. They were met with much applause while playing John Hartford’s “Get no Better” The Shook Twins are definitely their own brand and they will hopefully do much more here in the south.
The highlights of Saturday night included Shovels and Rope, the reunion of Hot Rize/The Trail Blazers, The Larry Keel Experience in which Keller Williams made a guest appearance and of course Lucinda Williams who included the vivacious Jim Launderdale. The last set of the night was The Travelin McCoury’s featuring Keller Williams. Their set included an array of Keller’s well known tunes as well as The Grateful Dead’s “Candy Man” Towards the end of the set Jeff Austin (formerly of YMB) joined them.
On Sunday Ralph Roddenbery completely owned the Porch stage. Ralph’s songs feel good! They speak to people from various walks of life. His voice is distinct, unmistakable, and never fails to “leave a mark” on his audiences. At last it was time for The Blind Boys of Alabama to take the amphitheater stage! The sounds of soul driven spirituals filled the concert area and there was much rejoicing. Hands clapped and the crowd kicked up the sand in joy! A truly spiritual experience was had by all .
There are so many admirable things to be said about the iconic Verlon Thompson. For one, he’s Guy Clark’s right hand man, secondly he’s a prolific songwriter, and thirdly his dedication to his fans. Having suffered a hip injury he still played his set without fail and it was awesome. He made a point to play his fan’s request and to add to the intimacy told the stories behind the song. It is no doubt, Verlon Thompson is a class act.
The onstage music isn’t the only great music to be heard while at the fest. By night the campgrounds are a picker’s paradise. All musicians are encouraged to bring any acoustic instrument and join in the late night jam sessions. There are two campsites that are on the festival map that welcome pickers to play music around the fire. First is The Bill Monroe Shrine hosted by Quarter Moon and the 2nd is Slopryland which always bleeds into neighboring Camp Caruso. Don’t be surprised to see members of Sloppyjoe and Ralph Roddenbery Band jamming together till the wee hours of the morning. Its not uncommon to catch Jeb and Tara of Donna The Buffalo playing with Jim Lauderdale on stage and off. Veteran festival attendees will often tell you this is where the magic really happens. Astonishingly talented musicians come out of the woodwork and provide some of the best campfire music to ever be heard. One of the most reputable musicians is Lyndsay Pruett. She played the fiddle with many of the on stage bands this weekend and has done this for the past several years. Lyndsay is well versed in many styles of music and it is always exciting to see her in her full element crafting some of the most creative and colorful fiddle solos. We asked her what it was like to play at Springfest, “Well, what’s interesting for me is the way the people I jam with has somewhat solidified, making it a kind of picking reunion every festival. I used to go and wander from camp to camp, plopping down in front of any jam that was happening. but now I am more stationary and let the musicians find us.”
Spirit of the Suwannee Music Park is host to many other festival’s but Springfest is different. It has its own flavor that is savored by its family. The people make this festival, the musicians, the artists, the staff. Many children grow up at this festival and its really a wonderful thing. If you would like an intimate four days of unforgettable music, and experiences Springfest should be on your festival agenda.