Spring Pickin Bluegrass Festival Review

April 30-May 3, 2015

Millmont, PA

by Elise Olmstead

photos by Appalachian Jamwich Photography

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There’s something about the spring air that sends everyone into a state of utter bliss. Maybe it’s the feeling of warm grass under your feet, the sound of birds chirping happily in the trees, and the smell of food cooking on a grill. For music fans in particular, spring marks the beginning of festival season, and there’s nothing better than the sweet sounds of a banjo while you dance in the sunshine. Spring Pickin’ Bluegrass Festival was the perfect way for us to start off our festival season right.


Sunsational Family Campground hosted the festival this year, and we found the venue perfectly accommodating as well as perfectly named. The land was full of sun and families of all kinds! Children dressed in flower crowns and tie-dye ran happily around the property as plenty of craft vendors sold their jewelry, clothes, and art. There was plenty of space for those with RVs and campers as well as lots of dry, flat ground for tent camping in GA. For those who like to fish, Penn’s Creek was accessible from the property and a welcome retreat for my fly-fishing husband who stole away Shady Grove Wraps’ Billy Robel for some trout-hunting fun.
The lineup boasted plenty of bluegrass and “new-grass” fun for pickin’ fans young and old, and featured some of our favorites such as headliners Larry Keel Experience and Rumpke Mountain Boys. Members of the band Cabinet also played in performances like Pappy & Friends, Garcia Grass, and many surprise sit-ins. There were traditional gathered-round-the-microphone acts like Hillbilly Gypsies and Uncle Jake the 18 Wheel Gang, as well as more progressive performances from Grand Ole Ditch, Rumpke, and Backwoods Experiment.


When we rolled in on Friday, we were greeted by a light drizzle, but that didn’t slow anyone down from enjoying some music and good times. We caught up with vendor friends and festival family and ate some snacks as we eased into the pickin’ spirit. Uncle Jake and the 18 Wheel Gang reminded me of old-timey railroad workers gathering in a saloon to play their music after a long day, and I liked the unique set-up of the lead singer sitting on a drum box that he played with pedals attached to his feet. Grand Ole Ditch, who we featured in the April issue of the magazine, rocked the audience with their powerhouse instrumentals, mixing the sounds of dobro, mandolin, fiddle, and beautiful vocal harmonies for a unique experience. By the time Blind Owl Band took the stage, a party had erupted and everyone was on their feet for the high-energy tunes. Hillbilly Gypsies followed, captivating the audience with the raw elegance of their music, including an acapella solo performance of “Angel Band”.

Will Lee and Larry Keel.

Will Lee and Larry Keel.

By the time Larry Keel took the headlining spot, the moonshine was flowing and the crowd was shouting “Get Weird!” to which Larry happily obliged. Larry’s signature flat-pickin, Will Lee’s skillful guitar and Jenny Keel’s sultry stand up bass had the whole audience dance their worries away in the neon glow of the lights in the night.


Saturday the weather is gorgeous and children in sundresses and shorts are seen thoroughly enjoying themselves all over the venue. Adults are rejoicing as well, setting their camp chairs up in the main field and lounging on blankets with their dogs. My afternoon starts with the friendly, traditional tunes of David and Valerie Mayfield, who sing sing-a-longs like “Rocky Top” as I doodle in a notebook in the sun. The Highland Hill Boys from Baltimore follow, and their fun tunes are accentuated by funny banter and jokes such as “I got a box of animal crackers the other day that said ‘Don’t eat if seal is broken’ and wouldn’t you know…” Hickory Project was a delight, made unique by a female lead that played the jazz flute and even a ukulele on one song.

Josh Daniel-Mark Shimick Project

Josh Daniel-Mark Shimick Project

The Josh Daniel-Mark Shimick Project was a show of great musicianship, as we’ve known Mark from formerly playing in Larry Keel and Natural Bridge, and being the “greatest mandolin player you’ve never heard of”. They played songs such as “How Can it Grow Wrong if it Grows Wild” and “Hey Pocky Way” and touched audience members with their insightful lyrics. As sunlight started to dim the crowd filled in, gathered under a beautiful pink and blue sky. Lights were starting to glow, people were slapping wine bags and a sense of overwhelming joy filled the air. When I asked one patron why he loves Spring Pickin, he said it was “the people and the vibe.”

Pappy of Pappy and Friends.

Pappy of Pappy and Friends.

Backwoods Experiment played some “tweener” sets before and after Pappy & Friends, putting us in a great mood with covers like Ween’s “Voodoo Lady” and Grateful Dead’s “China Cat Sunflower.” Pappy & Friends included Gordon Stone from Gordon Stone Band and Mike Santosusso on upright bass, and you could almost see smoke coming from their fingers as they furiously played a smokin’ set including songs with double banjos. The headliner of the evening, Rumpke Mountain Boys, played bluegrass with a rock n roll twist, with electric effects being run through their instruments, as well as some mellow tunes with David Grisman sitting in.

As the main stage shut down, people were just starting to get weird and wild and the night was far from over. We all migrated to the late night tent for some music from Mama Corn and Backwoods Experiment, peppered with sit-ins including some mandolin from Mark Shimick. People gathered around a bonfire and music continued until early morning hours, but Taco and I retreated to our tent, tuckered out from so much fun at the first festival of the season.


We took our time in the morning, making sure to say goodbye to old friends and new ones we made. Our neighbor said he was sad that it had to end, but if every weekend was so much fun, then maybe it wouldn’t be so special anymore. Our time was filled with so much good food, good music, and good family fun, I felt full and happy as we slowly pulled out of the campground and waved our goodbyes. We can’t wait until next year and we hope you’ll join us for what will surely continue to be the best way to bring in Spring, Spring Pickin Bluegrass Festival.