12th annual Winter Bluegrass Jubilee report

Authentic Unlimited at the 2024 Winter Bluegrass Jubilee – photo © G. Nicholas Hancock

The 12th annual Winter Bluegrass Jubilee, a fundraising event for the Young Appalachian Musicians (YAM) organization based in Pickens, SC, was held this past Saturday in the 830-seat auditorium at the Pickens High School Fine Arts Center.

Billed as “A day to celebrate our kids, community, and bluegrass music,” the festival ran from 12:00 noon until 6:30 p.m. and featured 45-minute performances by four young bands, which consisted of former YAM students. The Jubilee ended with sets by award-winning songwriter and vocalist Shannon Slaughter from Alabama, and Authentic Unlimited, the 2023 IBMA Vocal Group of the Year and New Artist of the Year.

YAM co-directors Betty McDaniel and Pauline Blackston both said this was the best-attended and best Jubilee they’ve had. By 6:30 p.m. the auditorium was full.

“It was filled with magical moments from beginning to the end,” Mrs. McDaniel said. “One of those was the finale when the Sweet Potato Pie Kids (the current YAM performing band) and YAM alumni bands played on stage with our headliners. And then we had 100 of the 400 current YAM students on stage playing Little Liza Jane.”

The music kicked off with Bluegrass and Company, three Pickens County youngsters who have gone through the YAM program. Elijah Ellenburg, 16, plays banjo and upright bass; Malachi Ellenburg, 13, plays fiddle and mandolin and sings lead and harmonies; Alyssa White, a junior in high school, plays guitar and mandolin. All three are now instructors in the YAM program. James McDowell, banjoist with Carson Peters & Iron Mountain, assisted Bluegrass and Company on Saturday playing mandolin.

Creekwater Collective took the stage next, and their set featured some dazzling instrumental playing on guitar, mandolin, and banjo. This band shares two lead guitarists, and three of the five members are lead and harmony vocalists. Lilly Anne Svrlinga, 13, plays lead and rhythm guitar; JonPaul Sepulveda, 15, plays lead guitar and mandolin and sings leads; Ayden Chappel, 14, primarily plays banjo but he also plays guitar and bass; Judson Stone, 12, is also a multi-instrumentalist but in the Collective he holds down the mandolin position and lead vocals. The band is rounded out with Judson’s dad, Jacob Stone on bass.

 The Sweet Potato Pie Kids are seven current YAM students who have auditioned for and made the cut for the YAM representative band. 

The Wilder Flower consists of former YAM students and are an all-girl ensemble on banjo, guitar, and fiddle from Pickens, SC and Brevard, NC. They met each other in 2021 at the South Carolina Fiddling Championship. Madeline Dierauf, from Brevard, won the fiddling championship that year; Molly Johnson, 17, won first place in the banjo competition; and Danielle Yother placed first in guitar.

Both Authentic Unlimited and Shannon Slaughter and the County Clare Band wowed the audience with their vocals and instrumentation. It is easy to see why Authentic Unlimited was the IBMA 2023 Vocal Group of the Year, and probably will be strong contenders for that title in 2024. Shannon Slaughter, Ron Inscore, Trevor Watson, and Cliff Bailey as the County Clare Band can hold their own with any Nashville vocal group. Slaughter always manages to mix fresh original material with time-honored traditional bluegrass and country favorites, and he did so Saturday in Pickens.

YAM was founded in 2008 at Holly Springs Elementary School by Ed and Betty McDaniel. The year before, they had visited Helen White of Sparta, NC to learn about the Junior Appalachian Musicians program that she had started in 1999 to teach old time and bluegrass banjo, fiddle, mandolin, and guitar to her students at Sparta Elementary School. 

YAM was modeled after JAM and is affiliated with JAM. In its first year, YAM had 32 third though fifth graders in their program. Today, there are approximately 400 students in the after-school program in Pickens County and the surrounding area. The program provides instruments and instructors for interested students and last year gave out more than 55 one-hundred-dollar scholarships to youngsters for additional music lessons and instrument purchases.

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About the Author

Nicholas Hancock

Nicholas Hancock is a former newspaper writer and editor who also played rhythm guitar in The Bluegrass Gentlemen from 1968 through mid-1974. Today, he is retired and enjoying his hobby of photographing bluegrass and other music events.