Festival Review By Ashley Feller
Photos by Tom Wickstrom
The Third Annual Suwannee Spring Reunion was a magical four days of music, art, dancing and camping. Happy campers from miles around flooded Spirit of the Suwannee Music Park with positive energy and the love of music and community. Although this festival is in its third year it is becoming a much loved event by those who enjoy the majestic live oak trees, and now consider it a bi-annual home during Spring Reunion’s sister festival in October Suwannee Roots Revival. The lineup this year featured the best of Americana, and bluegrass music. Each live performance I attended was stellar! Suwannee Spring Reunion is one of the best live events in the state of Florida and it continues to blossom!
Suwannee Spring Reunion kicked off on the second day of spring with Sloppy Joe on the amphitheater stage. The Wisconsin Band celebrated its 20th year performing at Spirit of the Suwannee. Not only has Sloppy Joe been a staple at Suwannee for 20 years but they have also been the hosts of Slopryland. An elaborately crafted campsite which invites novice and seasoned musicians to join impromptu jam sessions in the camp. Sloppy Joe’s band members are known to swap a washboard for a bass, a mandolin for a guitar, banjo, fiddle, and musical saw! The band brings a great dose of Wisconsin down to the sweet sunny south and has become a long time festival favorite among many.
The next set was on the porch stage featuring singer songwriter Nikki Talley with her husband and musical partner Jason Sharp. Talley’s songs are strong, powerful and are rich with mountain charm. Sharp’s accompanying lead guitar blends perfectly into the reverie created by Talley’s hearty melodies. Not only is Nikki a gifted songwriter but she carries on the tradition of the clawhammer banjo which was taught to her by her mother. Nikki, Jason, their baby girl Eva Rose and Nikki’s mother are about to embark on a western tour with each set featuring music by the family matriarch Annie Talley.
Saturday at noon I hustled down to the amphitheater stage to catch The Sean Camp Band. Camp is a grammy award winning songwriter and is the creator of numerous hits for country stars such as Garth Brooks, Josh Turner, Brooks and Dunn and also Blake Shelton. It was an extra special set to see him with a full band this time. The set featured his recent original songs some of which were co-written by bandmate Lauren Mascitti.
Later in the afternoon the music hall filled with music lovers for a set of original songs by Nikki Talley and Ralph Roddenbery. The two songwriters are on their own journeys but played together for an extra magical suwannee moment. Roddenbery and Talley have both become parents in recent years and it was especially sweet to hear songs inspired by their families. It was also a blessing to have enjoyed the songs in a quiet intimate venue. The music hall at Spirit of the Suwannee is one of its best amenities. It features a full bar, the sos cafe, comfortable table seating, and restrooms! It is air conditioned and is a great place to catch your breath and enjoy more intimate songwriter sets.
Friday evening was an endless buffett of fantastic live music. Beginning at 8pm The Steep Canyon Rangers played an energetic set complete with beautiful four part harmonies. This is a band that has many facets. It’s always fun to guess if their set will be more on the traditional end of bluegrass or will it be more of a progressive style? This set was the perfect combination of both. Next up was Billy Strings on the amphitheater stage. Strings is currently one of the most dynamic flatpicking guitar players in the Bluegrass community. With influences such as Doc Watson it was apparent that Billy Strings will only continue to shine. There were quite a few moments during the set where I caught myself thinking “Did I really just hear that?” As I stood in amazement at the music he and his band were making. It was impressive to see the band merge in and out of psychedelic acoustic mayhem and hard driving bluegrass.
Closing out the evening was the Jon Stickley Trio. The primarily progressive instrumental group put on an amazing show! The virtuosity between the three is unbelievable. There were many times I had to count to be sure there were still only three musicians on stage because the music they were playing was quite symphonic.
Saturday was another busy day of exploring the park and enjoying the sets on all five of the festival stages. One of the most interesting is the Music Farmer Stage. This is a chance to attend workshops presented by the festival performers. There are a variety of workshops to attend. Some include mandolin, guitar, banjo, fiddle, an open jam and also songwriting. This is the place to visit for a hands on learning experience. There is something for everyone is a great outlet for fresh inspiration.
In the evening Jim Lauderdale performed with Donna The Buffalo on the Porch Stage . This was the perfect opportunity to dance! My favorite part of the set was Jim Lauderdale performing several songs that will soon be George Strait hits. Donna the Buffalo was indeed the perfect backing band for Lauderale and brought an intense energy to the porch stage. They brought just the right mix of zydeco, and country to every song and it was captivating to see how they performed together with such finesse.
Finally it was time for the legendary Marty Stuart. This was one of the best performances I have ever seen at any festival. The part I enjoyed most about his set was the many instances he took to showcase his band. The vocal harmony amongst the fabulous Superlatives was astoundingly perfect. The set was a great blend of bluegrass and some of Stuart’s country hits. He also shared a little Florida history by recounting the story of the fiddling national anthem “Orange Blossom Special” which was written by Ervin T. Rouse who lived in the Everglades.
Sunday was the most bittersweet time of the festival. It is traditional to celebrate and remember the dearly departed of the Suwannee family. Vassar Sunday was a day to celebrate the legendary fiddle player Vassar Clements, who was known for performing with Old and in the way and was a regular joy at Suwannee festivals for many years. This day is also to remember Sue Cunningham and Guy Clark who are both part of the long history of festivals created by festival director Beth Judy and Randy Judy. All the music on the porch and amphitheater stage was sublime and Donna the Buffalo peacefully brought the event to a close. Suwannee Spring Reunion was a labor of love by an extremely talented team of music lovers and creative spirits. It is a healing experience and is unique to many other festivals that also occur in Spirit of the Suwannee Music park. This was an ideal festival for anyone who loves nature, and craves a four day escape to explore all the goodness an event like this can offer.Spirit of the Suwannee Music park is proud to announce Spring Reunion’s Sister Festival in October! For tickets please visit SuwanneeRootsRevival.com Tickets are available on the festival website and upgraded camping reservations can be made through Spirit of the Suwannee Park office.
Suwannee Spring Reunion was once again a huge success and a fabulous time for all. Special thanks to festival director Beth Judy and her team for once again producing one of the best music festivals there is. It will be exciting to see this festival grow with families who will keep sowing the seeds of bluegrass for many years to come.