Spring is a time for new beginnings and hope. It provides a bridge from the chill and chromatic bland of winter to the warmth and brilliance that summer offers. In the music community, it’s also a time to, once again, congregate with chosen family, making new memories with a crowd of like-minded people. For my “festival family,” Suwannee Spring Reunion Festival is the ONLY way to slide into spring.
From the moment I stepped foot on the Spirit of Suwannee Music Park’s grounds on March 21st, I knew this was going to be a special one. It had recently rained, bringing new life to the trees and flowers and delivering some crisp weather that promised to save us from the stifling heat of Florida. The stellar forecast, coupled with a uniquely talented and diverse lineup, ensured the approaching hootenanny was going to be one which would leave both hearts and souls forever changed.
Unlike many festivals, the park was already abuzz when I arrived Wednesday morning. Many campsites were already set up, with campers pickin’ at their temporary enclaves. The staff was working hard to ensure everything was in order, generally dotting T’s and crossing I’s. Laughter and music could be heard throughout the park. For these reasons and more, I always love getting to a festival a day or two early. There is so much that goes into putting on such an event; something many of us take for granted. To fully understand and appreciate what goes on behind the scenes, I highly recommend everyone taking this opportunity at least once.
For Suwannee Spring Reunion, they had four stages set up. The Amphitheater is the perfect spot for attendees to relax and enjoy the Spanish moss that has helped make the Spirit of the Suwannee so famous. The Porch stage provides an intimate setting to hear some of the genre’s leading talent. The Music Hall offers a spot for music lovers to escape the natural elements and rest their weary legs for a few moments. And the Music Farmers Stage, located in the Boatright Barn, allowed musicians of every skill level a chance to learn from the best. Hands-on workshops were hosted throughout the weekend, with instruction, stories, and performances by everyone from Roy Book Binder to Rev. Jeff Mosier. There was truly something for everyone.
Thursday afternoon began with a performance by Quartermoon. Scheduled for four performances throughout the weekend, these guys have become a staple at the park’s bluegrass and Americana festivals and are not to be missed.
Nikki Talley @ The Porch Stage
Nikki Talley and Jason Sharp knocked it out of the park once again, with stunning renditions of “The Wild Rose of the Mountain” and “House Carpenter.” The breakout performance of the day came from Billy Strings. The entire crowd had to pick their jaws up off the ground after their Amphitheater performance, leaving us all grateful the schedule included a Friday performance, as well. A family member described them best when she said: “These guys have something interstellar going on. They have a psychedelic element that crosses every generation.”
Next up was The Grass is Dead. The energy and life that these guys bring is unmatched. I look forward to hearing them perform every chance I get. As the saying goes: “All there was left to do was smile, smile, smile!” Closing out Thursday evening was another one of my weekend favorites – Jon Stickley Trio. After my recent interview with the trio, this was the performance I had been waiting for (view full interview here). They exceeded my expectations by leaps and bounds. I was genuinely moved by their performances. Now I understand why these guys (and gal) are so revered by other artists in the community. I also understand why it’s a struggle to pigeonhole them into one genre. Apparently “whale-grass” is Hunter’s favorite genre label. I’m not quite sure what it means, but I feel it is kind of fitting.
While some attendees were still filtering into the park throughout the day on Friday, the music started bright and early that morning. Mill Train’s harmonies and Annie Wenz’s multi-instrumental talents were the perfect way to start this beautiful, yet quite chilly day. Grayson Capps’ sultry voice and stellar guitar licks tugged at every emotion. While he had several performances throughout the weekend, I most enjoyed Friday’s set, where he took us through his latest album, Scarlett Roses.
In the days leading up to the festival, I became increasingly intrigued by Front Country. With a powerful female, Melody Walker, on lead, and a lineup of talent that crosses multiple genres, these guys had it all. Their energy was infectious and I am grateful I was able to catch their entire show. Those of us fortunate enough to call Suwannee our second home are always excited to welcome Grandpa’s Cough Medicine back to the park. The band has undergone some changes over the last year and came out with a renewed energy that was undeniable. Throughout the weekend, attendees were treated to multiple sets from Rev. Jeff Mosier, reminding us how he earned his “Reverend” title. With Mosier, every performance is a family affair, leaving everyone with a sense of enlightenment.
Saturday started off with a magical experience as The Adventures of Annabelle Lyn brought together a heavenly combination of voices on The Porch stage. Ralph Roddenbery also delivered an impressive performance. His butter-like voice and from-the-heart lyrics offered a sincere and emotional experience. Shawn Camp and Verlon Thompson’s “Songs of Guy Clark” was another weekend favorite for me. Trying to sum this set up in words just doesn’t do it justice. Listen to the full set below and tell me what you think. Anyone that truly knows me know that I never miss an opportunity to see Jim Lauderdale. From his musical talents, to his jokes and custom shirts, I love everything about Lauderdale’s performances.
Recorded by: dababe44
With headliners The Infamous Stringdusters, Donna the Buffalo, and Billy Gilmore’s Reunion Jam still in store for us, we all laid out our blankets, positioning ourselves for an extraordinary evening of music. This was my first time seeing the Stringdusters live. After hearing their Spring Reunion sets, it will definitely not be the last. Closing out the night was Billy Gilmore’s Reunion Jam. There was hardly any room left on that stage! It was truly the perfect way to end another gorgeous day at the park.
Sundays are always pretty special at the Suwannee Spring Reunion Festival. Dubbed “Vassar Sunday,” it is a day to honor Vassar Clements. You can feel his presence throughout the weekend, but it is always undeniable as you enjoy the music on Sunday, preparing to head back to reality. Emotions ran high as Big Cosmo, aka Randy Judy, took the stage. Judy, along with his wife Beth, are tirelessly committed to ensuring live music fans have a spiritual experience at the park. If it weren’t for them, the Suwannee Spring Reunion wouldn’t be what it is today. For that, we all owe them a HUGE thank you! As if the heavens were shedding tears for our lost Vassar, periodic bursts of rain left us soaked, yet energized throughout the day.
The true class-act that he is, Verlon Thompson invited his Porch stage audience backstage when the rain started during his set. Really, where else would one get to experience something so unique and intimate? The Donna the Buffalo Sunday set was, as always, one for the record books. Like the earlier set by Rev. Jeff Mosier & Biscuit Tragedy, the set featured sit-ins from a whole host of artists, including Big Cosmo, Jim Lauderdale, and Ralph Roddenberry, to name a few.
As with all my experiences in the park, I was surprised by something new, reminded of a valuable lesson or two, and left with a renewed lease on life. These musical campouts are what feed my soul and, based on the number of others in attendance, I have a really big extended festival family who agrees. Excellent music, superb weather, and a beautiful backdrop; what more can you ask for?
Following this incredible weekend, we took a moment to catch up with some of the artists for their thoughts and insight.
Melody Walker, Front Country
“It’s so great to play festivals that have been going on for a generation or more, because you end up jamming with folks who grew up there, who have been shaped by, and are now shaping the future of the event. Getting to play music at Suwannee, both at our sets and in collaboration with Festival royalty like Grass is Dead, really feels like joining a family, and we can’t wait to come back.”
“All of us from Ralph Roddenbery and the Jones are so grateful to the Suwannee music family and the amazing group of art and music-loving people who make Suwannee Spring Reunion such a beautiful experience. The sound engineers, as well as the stage crews, are exceptional and truly give this festival an edge and elevate the musical experience for both music and art lovers and musicians. Suwanee Spring Reunion 2018 was all that and more, with daily shows for kids by an incredible team of entertainers with activities ranging from juggling to a talent show and a parade for the kids. We loved every minute of it and look forward to watching it grow like a mighty oak tree. The city takes it from me, but the Suwannee gives it back.”
“The most cherished moments are the late-late night, impromptu collaborations in the campground. Some of the most inspired music comes about in the wee hours; unrehearsed. Whether the players happen to be a few of the stage headliners or festival neighbors; old friends reuniting to reinvent a classic or friendly strangers picking a tune together for the first time, the spirit of the place gets to you. It’s language is music and laughter. Between the firelight and the shadows with the Spanish moss above is one of those rare places a person can bear witness to something so ancient, human and good.”