24th anual Milan Bluegrass Festival report

Rhonda Vincent & The Rage at the 2021 Milan Bluegrass Festival – photo © Bill Warren

The 24th Milan Bluegrass Festival in Milan, MI is in the books. It was a good one. Lots of old friends getting back together and lots of people making new friends. Campground owner and festival promoter, Mark Gaynier, his family, and staff, began greeting festival goers on Sunday. He has added a number of new sites along with new sewer and 50 amp service on many sites. The comfort and enjoyment of the festival for guests and performers is of great importance to Mark.

Wednesday evening saw several festival attendees get up on stage to help the sound crew finish setting up. It made for a nice, impromptu show.

Blake Williams brought his humor, storytelling, and knowledge of the bands and bluegrass music to the MC mic. He is one of the best and a fixture at Milan.

Thursday brought the stage to life for a large crowd. Deeper Shade of Blue from North Carolina kicked off the show. I think it was their first time playing in Michigan. They offer great traditional music along with their own original music. Make a point of seeing them when they are in your area

Fast Track is one of the new bands that features a group of well-seasoned musicians. They are all award winners either individually, or with former bands. Everyone enjoys hearing their familiar tunes and some new ones.

Then along came Donna Ulisse and the Poor Mountain Boys. Donna is a singer, songwriter, and story teller. She wraps you around her finger within minutes. She is a past IBMA Songwriter of the Year and is comfortable singing hard driving bluegrass and heart wrenching traditional country music .Donna and her husband, Rick Stanley, host songwriting workshops at their home in the Nashville, Tennessee area. Go to one of the workshops if you are an aspiring songwriter.

Joe Mullins and the Radio Ramblers are Milan favorites. The band has welcomed Jeff Parker on mandolin and vocals. Joe and the band have received many accolades including IBMA Entertainer of the Year. Joe and his son Daniel have been busy during the pandemic putting together a project called Industrial Strength Bluegrass. It is the history of bluegrass music in southwestern Ohio. Joe has also rebranded his fall and spring festivals from the Southern Ohio Indoor Music Festival – SOIMF – to Industrial Strength Bluegrass. Make plans to be there.

Sammy Shelor and the Lonesome River band closed out the Thursday show. This is one of the bands that there is little left to be said about. There was a wonderful moment during the band’s evening set. A curly headed little boy was watching the show, and he picked up a stick and started drumming on the stage railing. Sammy came to the edge of the stage and played with the boy. He went back to his mic at the end of the song and said that the boy “has it.” He was in perfect time with the song. Sammy made a little boy’s day. He is probably between two and three years old.

Friday saw the Tennessee Bluegrass Band make its Milan debut. This is a freshly minted band of youngsters with – as our editor referred to Tim Laughlin – the “old guy.” They play great traditional bluegrass music. Sonny Osborne speaks highly of these youngsters. That tells me that this band is one to see.

Dave Adkins is one of the in-demand performers at Milan. He brings great energy and yard spinning to the stage. Fans flock around him to hear his stories and get a big hug! When Dave says, “I love you, buddy,” he means it from his heart. He is one to see.

The Amanda Cook Band has blossomed into one of the “must see” bangroupsds. She is a powerful singer and has her own sound. She did sing an old country tune with the Malpass Brothers that brought the audience to its feet. Remember her name. You will see it more and more.

The Malpass Brothers have been completely accepted into the bluegrass family. They give an audience a trip down the traditional country memory lane. They play Hank Sr., Haggard, Jones, and everyone in between. Taylor plays up a dry, confused joke teller that has everyone rolling around laughing. His Gretsch guitar playing is nothing short of special.

Jimmy Fortune closed out the Friday show with a nearly two hour set of top flight music. He is part of the rich history of country music. He came to prominence with the Statler Brothers, but has been one of the best song writers before, during, and after that part of his career. He is a humble Christian man. Try to ee his show as well.

The Southeast Michigan Bluegrass Music Association made the first of its Hall of Honor inductions on Friday afternoon. Sandy and the late Dick Neff were inducted. They have been stalwart fans and volunteers at many festivals.

The final day of the show was kicked off by Larry Stephenson. He is in the 33rd year of leading his band. Congratulations Larry! He played with the likes of Bill Harrell and the Bluegrass Cardinals in his younger days. His distinctive tenor voice is instantly recognizable in those old recordings. Larry makes himself available to his fans almost all of the time he is at a festival. This makes him a favorite wherever he plays.

High Fidelity is one of the newer bands on the circuit. Lead singer Jeremy Stevens brings his experience with the Chuck Wagon Gang to the band. They do a few tunes in that style. This is a high energy band that will makes waves far into the future.

Breaking Grass is a brash, breath of fresh air in bluegrass. They burst onto the stage bringing fun and laughter with them. They put a smile on everyone’s face. They do a medley of old rock standards that has everyone dancing and singing along.

Rhonda Vincent has become part of the foundation of the Milan festival. She is one of the hardest working artists in our business. Every person who wants a picture or an autograph – or just a quick chat – gets it. Rhonda is eagerly awaiting the birth of her first grandchild. It is an exciting time for her!

Festival publicist, Kimberly Williams, always celebrates her birthday either during the festival or on her way home. Rhonda, the Rage, and Breaking Grass sang Happy Birthday to her while promoter Mark Gaynier presented her with a birthday cake.

Steve Thomas and the Time Machine closed out the festival. Steve has been a sideman in both country and bluegrass music for nearly 40 years. He is making the jump to leading his own band. He does original music along with some old standard. See him if you can.

2022 will be the 25th year of the Milan Bluegrass Festival. It is being called “5 for 25.” The stage show will start on Tuesday evening, August 2ndand run thru Saturday, August 6th. There will be a big celebration of bluegrass music. Many special things are being planned.

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