The Spirit of The Suwannee Music Park celebrated its fourth annual Suwannee Spring Reunion on March 17th-20th. The event was much anticipated as this was the first time the festival could resume after its cancellation due to Covid-19 in 2020. Music lovers gleefully made their journey to the enchanted forest to experience four days of Americana music, community, and to immerse themselves in the beauty of Live Oak Florida. The festival featured several of the performers from the 2020 schedule, as well as amazingly talented additions. Suwannee Spring Reunion was a reviving occasion that reunited veteran festival attendees as well as newcomers to enjoy the endless beauty and peace that is found at The Spirit of The Suwannee.
The Spirit Of The Suwannee Music Park spans several hundred acres in Live Oak, Florida and includes every amenity imagined. Whether you require upgraded camping or if all you need is your tent and your guitar then the campground has a plentiful selection of upgraded camping sites for tents and RVs, cabins, as well as primitive camping which was included with general admission tickets. Spirit of the Suwannee also features a general store, recently renovated bathhouses, golf cart rentals, a restaurant, and a breathtaking treehouse. The venue is an adventurer’s dream and offers all the comforts of a resort.
The festival kicked off Thursday afternoon at the amphitheater stage with festival favorite The Grass is Dead. The band has a long history of propagating the music of The Grateful Dead in a progressive bluegrass fashion. Everyone was delighted to see the return of festival staple Jim Lauderdale, complete with a full band complete with a new radiant female backup vocalist who brought new energy to the group and charmed everyone. That evening, music lovers excitedly made their way back to the amphitheater stage for Sierra Hull. This was especially gratifying because I have been following Sierra Hull since she was a child and have watched her reach adulthood as a virtuoso on both mandolin and guitar. Her backing band was also sensational. Hull was met with much applause while performing the Del McCoury classic I Feel The Blues Moving In as well as a cleverly imagined rendition of Collective Soul’s Shine Sierra and her band were set to perform at Spring Reunion back in 2020, this performance was definitely worth the wait.
Later in the evening, Yonder Mountain String Band took the stage. This was my first time attending one of their sets since the tragic death of former member Jeff Austin in 2019. They did not disappoint. Violinist Allie Kral was on fire. I was impressed with the variety of the set. There was a great mix of their old catalog as well as songs from more recent records. The ensemble also threw us a curveball with a delightful version of King Harvest’s Dancing in The Moonlight. Their set was nearly overwhelming in a positive way and left me feeling nostalgic and reflecting on many years of appreciation for the group.
By Friday, most of the campers are settled in, and the music can be heard in any direction you go. One of my favorite aspects of Suwannee Spring Reunion is the use of multiple stages. The amphitheater will always be the one I love the most, but the tent stage is also a wonderful place to be in the middle of the day. The tent is massive and there was plenty of room to enjoy a gorgeous performance by Nikki Talley and Jason Sharp in the shade. It has been too long since I had heard Nikki’s powerful voice fill the concert area and feel the tastefully played guitar solos by Jason. It was also a moment of pure glee to witness their preschool-age daughter dancing and smiling to her parent’s music. One of the best parts of their performances is when Nikki picks up her claw hammer banjo and treats audiences to a few old-time tunes that were passed down to her by her mother, Annie. When I hear Nikki and Jason, I feel as though I’ve been transported to the deep roots of the Appalachian mountains.
By Friday night, I couldn’t be more excited for Greensky Bluegrass. The first time I heard the group was at Spirit of The Suwannee Music Park many years ago, when they were much lesser-known. Since then, Greensky Bluegrass has progressed to playing sold-out shows all over the country and has built an expansive fan base from all over the world. The threat of rain loomed over the night sky. I had not seen Greensky Bluegrass in such a long time, I had to try to catch as much of their set as possible. I hiked back down to the amphitheater, completely unprepared for rain. Not only that, but I probably could have used the shower anyway. Partially through the set, the sky completely bottomed out and the audience gleefully whooped and hollered as we were completely drenched. My friends and I huddled at the edge of the merch tent, our heads sheltered but our toes out in the rain. The band continued to play as long as possible until flashes of lightning could be seen in the distance, and they were forced to stop for everyone’s safety. The festival staff did a fantastic job of ushering folks out of the concert area and back to the safety of their camps.
The showers continued through most of the night, but this did not hinder any fun to be had. Musicians of all skill levels packed into any shelter they could find to make music in the campground. Some were seen playing ankle-deep in thick mud, but playing the splinters off their instruments.
Weather conditions improved by Saturday and festival patrons were met with a day of music by legendary singer-songwriter Verlon Thompson, sets by Town Mountain, and Sloppy Joe. I couldn’t miss The Jon Stickley Trio and my heart was warmed to see their violinist Lyndsay Pruett back on stage playing her heart out while recovering from De Quervain’s tenosynovitis which is a form of tendonitis that may affect the thumb. The trio has been creating beautiful instrumental music for years and it was so rewarding to see them back on stage inciting happiness with their gifts.
Saturday evening, Grammy award-winning group Trampled By Turtles put on an unforgettable show in the amphitheater. Occasional showers drifted in, but for the most part, the sets were uninterrupted. Donna the Buffalo performed their traditional Saturday evening set, as the Suwannee family danced in the puddles and sang along to songs that have woven themselves into the traditions of the festival.
Sunday was bittersweet. It’s the last day of the festival to explore the vendors, visit with friends from afar and nourish yourself with music. It’s a day of remembrance for those in the Suwannee family who have passed away over the years. Affectionately called Vassar Sunday in memory of Vassar Clements who was one of the great fiddle players who ever lived, and is part of the long deep history of music festivals at Spirit of the Suwannee Music Park. Saturday afternoon I enjoyed a set by Rev. Jeff Mosier and friends featuring Verlon Thompson. Many are aware of Thompson’s songwriting gift, but I was reminded of how skilled of a guitar player he is. It was so endearing to see the love and interaction between the musicians. Another set I was happy to see was by Free Range Strange. I love this band because they are reminiscent of the jug bands from the 1960s and inspire so much dancing and fun.
The best set on Sunday was by songwriting master Peter Rowan. He took his place on the stage with his Eastman guitar and amp. The sun beamed down through the canopy, and a cool breeze could be felt throughout the amphitheater. Rowan smiled and calmly said, This July 4th I will be 80 years old The crowd cheered in bliss. The songsmith’s performance was almost a meditative experience. While I listened to Rowan’s voice smoothly sing Raglan Road I felt the tears behind my eyelids pooling quickly. But I allowed myself to experience that emotion and was grateful to be standing under the beautiful live oak trees, surrounded by those who also have a great love for the harmony that comes from Spring Reunion. Midway through the set, he performed his classic Panama Red which segued into a charming version of Elizabeth Cotton’s Freight Train.
Suwannee Spring Reunion was a therapeutic experience that rekindled the light inside many who attended. This festival is so much more than a festival because it truly is a reunion for people who have a hunger for acoustic music performed in nature. It had been two years since the festival family had been able to make the pilgrimage to the Spirit of The Suwannee which left a substantial void in many of us. Because there is so much love involved in the execution of this event, that emptiness was filled with an energy that had been so long missed. Special thanks to festival director Beth Judy, Randy Judy, and all the staff and volunteers for executing a magnificent music festival that will live in the hearts and dreams of many. Suwannee Spring Reunion’s sister festival Suwannee Roots Revival will commence in mid-October 2022 at Spirit of The Suwannee Music Park. Get your tickets in advance at www.suwanneerootsrevival.com