A report from Bluegrass & BBQ in Branson

Doyle Lawson and Josh Swift at Bluegrass & BBQ – photo by Martha Bohner

Those of us who live and work within the bluegrass world can easily forget the sense of awe and wonder that accompanies first discovering the music. Finding a community of like-minded people is always a cause for enthusiasm, be it a church, social group, or any other interest-based fraternity, and bluegrass folks tend to be so welcoming and receptive to newcomers that you may feel you found a club that you didn’t know you belonged in.

We’re delighted to share this piece from long time Gannett writer Linda Leicht, who had spent her entire career writing and editing for newspapers in Missouri. Now Opinion Page editor at the Springfield News-Leader, she shared her impressions after visiting the Bluegrass & BBQ Festival which is continuing this month at Silver Dollar City in Branson, MO, and interviewing a number of the scheduled entertainers.

It nicely captures the variety found in contemporary bluegrass, and what an eye-opener it is to dig into it a little.

If you love bluegrass, you cannot miss the buffet at Silver Dollar City’s Bluegrass & BBQ Festival.

True, you can get anything from barbecued ribs to nachos at the 1800s-themed park, but it is the wide range of music on the menu that makes this festival special. The month-long festival includes a lineup of 60 bluegrass groups on a variety of stages, large and small. The performers also range from the established — like Rhonda Vincent and Ricky Skaggs — to brand new, traditional and progressive.

Doyle Lawson & Quicksilver have taken the stage at the festival in the Ozarks for more years than Doyle can remember. The 74-year-old grew up listening to his family singing Gospel and Bill Monroe on the Grand Ole Opry, deciding early on that he would enter the music field playing the mandolin like his musical hero. He accomplished that at the age of 11. At 14, Jimmy Martin took an interest in the youngster, and he learned the banjo, joining the Country Gentlemen as a banjo player when he was only 18.

So, it is no surprise that DLQ brings a traditional bluegrass sound to the stage. With his signature hand-stitched jacket and cowboy hat, Doyle fills the largest venue at Silver Dollar City, even for a morning show. The strong male harmonies carry the music, especially during the much anticipated a cappella version of Over in the Glory Land at the conclusion of the show. No one can get that rich, low harmony, combined with a complicated timing, quite the same way.

But Doyle is quick to add that “tradition” is constantly changing, even in bluegrass.

“I got to hear the pioneers,” he recalls. “But what I vividly remember was how innovative and accepting of changes that they were.” He remembers a snare drum playing for Jimmy Martin in 1963, and his mandolin player picking up the electric guitar. “A musician missed a whole lot by being closed-minded. There’s a whole big world of music you need to embrace.”

Another group that embraces both traditional bluegrass and progressive innovation is High Fidelity. This quartet — two men and two women — sing old-time tunes, especially Gospel numbers, that had the early morning audience tapping their toes and bobbing their heads in time. When their twin banjos number came on, the crowd broke into cheers.

Lead singer Jeremy Stephens is a young man who has played with all kinds of musicians in Nashville, including The Chuck Wagon Gang and singer-comedian Ray Stevens, but his heart is in 1950s bluegrass. “I heard it at a very early age,” he says. “It captivated me then and it has never ceased to.” 

Wife and fiddle player Corrina Rose Logsdon also grew up on traditional bluegrass. “It’s my first love in music,” she says. But she is quick to add that all in the group have been working musicians, playing a variety of musical styles with different people and groups. In fact, standing bass player Vickie Vaughn performs on mandolin with country musician Patty Loveless.

Traditional bluegrass, however, has turned out to be High Fidelity’s sweet spot. “It seems like this is where our strong suits lie,” says Corrina.

Cane Mill Road has found its strong suit is progressive bluegrass, and they are proving to be right. The four young men, ranging from 15 to 20, will soon release their second CD, primarily featuring their original songs. 

Their influences range from Dave Grohl of the Foo Fighters to the late great Doc Watson. Describing their music isn’t easy, but 20-year-old Casey Lewis offers this: “Americana, bluegrass, acoustic grass, folk explosion, country swing.” Still, 15-year-old Liam Purcell compares their sound to a “new American String Band.”

It doesn’t matter how you describe their music because the audience in the Red Gold Heritage Hall simply loved it. With barbecue being served in the hall, the music even stopped the sound of eating as the audience turned to hear this unique group, with its blend of blues, jazz and rock, all wrapped up in a bluegrass ribbon.

“It’s amazing,” one woman said to her dining partner. “They have so much talent and they just make it look effortless.”

Not all progressive bluegrass musicians are that young. Ray Cardwell and Tennessee Moon will be performing at the festival May 24-25, the second year for Cardwell, who is a native of the area. He will bring his progressive version of “true Americana music.”

Cardwell comes to bluegrass honestly. His dad started The Cardwell Family bluegrass band in 1968, when Ray was only 5 years old. He left the family band when he was about 18, “the hardest thing” he ever did, and went on to earn a living as a musician playing every genre, from rockabilly to reggae, until family and a new baby sent him in a direction that would change his life. He studied classical music at the historically black Lincoln University, getting the opportunity to sing in Carnegie Hall and the Lincoln Center. Then he taught band and choir for 14 years.

Returning to bluegrass and moving to Nashville has given Ray a new lease on his musical life, and he is now releasing his second CD, Time to Drive. He brings all his musical experience with him to create a new version of his own musical history, but he still honors the bluegrass tradition. And he looks forward to hearing the other bands at Bluegrass and BBQ back in his old stomping grounds.

“”We have an explosion of young kids,” he says. “They are really excited about playing this music, and they don’t know who Bill Monroe is.”

Anyone who visits Silver Dollar City in Branson, MO, will tell you that the best part of the park is the hospitality. There are amazing rides, yummy treats, old-time performers and much more, but it is the genuine welcome that brings folks back.

The musicians performing there for the Bluegrass & BBQ Festival echo the same sentiments.

Doyle Lawson calls it “one of the highlights” of his year. “It’s a great place, it really is. I’ve always enjoyed coming here.”

There are a few reasons for that reaction. One, says Doyle, is the opportunity to perform for fans and people who have never heard of him or even know much about bluegrass. “You get a chance to, hopefully, impress them and gain new fans,” he says. The other is the professionalism of the Silver Dollar City staff. “The crew and production value is probably unmatched,” he says. 

High Fidelity echoed that opinion. The group has performed at Bluegrass & BBQ for three years. “Everyone here is so thoughtful and positive,” says fiddle player Corrina Rose Logsdon. “It makes you want to come here.” 

Even the young members of Cane Mill Road are impressed. “I’ve been really impressed by the sound crew,” says bass player Eliot Smith. “And it’s been really welcoming. That makes it conducive to playing.”

Everyone also made it a point to mention D.A. Callaway, who books all the bands for each of the music festivals at Silver Dollar City. “He is passionate and he has worked his tail off,” says Ray Cardwell, an Ozarks native now living in Nashville. “He is adamant about keeping it fresh. It’s very impressive.”

To learn more about the Bluegrass & BBQ Festival at Silver Dollar City in Branson, MO, visit www.silverdollarcity.com