Day 1 at Suwannee Spring Reunion

Grandpa’s Cough Medicine at the 2017 Suwanee Spring Reunion – photo by Brian Paul Swenk

Brian Paul Swenk will be posting daily updates from this year’s Suwannee Spring Reunion festival.

There’s no better way to start the music festival season than with Suwannee Spring Reunion near Live Oak, Florida. Whether you’ve been coming for 20 years, as a lot of the festival goers proudly proclaim, or it’s your first time, people tend to describe the Spirit of the Suwannee Music Park with the same phrase, “It’s the best festival grounds I’ve ever seen.” The tall pines and oaks with their hanging moss lazily drooping down provide a natural shade canopy around most all of the park.

The first day of the festival got off to an energetic start with a strong bluegrass showing from Bobby Miller and the Virgina Daredevils. The Asheville based band, led by mandolin player Bobby Miller, with Griff Martin on guitar, Billy Gillmore on banjo, and Greg “Stig” Stiglets on bass, blazed through some bluegrass standards like Dear Old Dixie before surprising the crowd with their version of the Cuban folk song El Cumbanchero. I spoke with Bobby after their set and asked him about how he found the unique song. “I went to the oldest recording I could find of it, which was Desi Arnaz,” says Bobby. “I believe it was Arnaz that introduced the song into the American music lexicon. I tried to learn as much of the big band feel of it as I could, and then later when I heard the Don Reno version of it I realized we both probably learned it from Arnaz, but we’re both interpreting it quite differently.”

Bobby Miller (mandolin), Griff Martin (guitar), and Billy Gilmore (banjo) at the 2017 Suwanee Spring Reunion - photo by Brian Paul Swenk

Bobby’s first trip to the Spirit of the Suwannee music park was in 1998 to see a rock band with some friends and quickly linked up with the festival promoters and has been playing off and on ever since. “As soon as I set foot on this property each year it feels like a family reunion for everyone,” says Bobby.

There was a definitive common connection for all the bluegrass acts on Thursday, and that’s the beautiful town of Asheville, NC. Bobby Miller and his band have been bluegrass stalwarts there for over a decade, and the next act on stage, Grandpa’s Cough Medicine, just relocated there from Jacksonville, FL.

Grandpa’s Cough Medicine is quickly becoming a force in the bluegrass festival world with their self-proclaimed “outlaw bluegrass” style. “There’s a lot of the traditional elements that we respect, like the instrumentations,” says guitarist and band leader Brett Bass, “but the lyrical content of our songs puts us into the ‘outlaw’ category. That’s where we deviate from typical bluegrass bands.” Mixing their original songs with instrumental standards such as Clinch Mountain Backstep, and Daybreak in Dixie, the band performs much of its show at near supersonic tempos. “The speed is what drew me to bluegrass,” says Bass. “As a teenage metalhead the speed was very appealing to me.” If you think Bass is alone in that musical journey, you couldn’t be more wrong. The amount of great bluegrass pickers that were metalheads in the ’80s and early ’90s would amaze you. The love of speed, intensity, and precision easily crosses many genres.

Grandpa's Cough Medicine at the 2017 Suwanee Spring Reunion - photo by Brian Paul Swenk

Grandpa’s Cough Medicine just gave up one of their most uncommon attributes—being a powerhouse bluegrass trio—as they’ve added a fourth member, Brett’s wife Christina who just started playing bass 2 months ago.  Yes, you read that right. 2 months in and she’s performing on a professional level at breakneck speeds.

The night ended with festival favorites Grass Is Dead, which as you can probably guess, is a group that plays the music of the Grateful Dead in traditional bluegrass style. Led by Billy Gilmore (who you might guess at this point also has Asheville, NC roots) the band was a perfect choice to close the night out as the crowd was soaking up two of its favorite musical styles at once: The Dead and bluegrass music.

  • Jose Mature

    Actually, El Cumbanchero is of Puerto Rican origin, having been composed by Rafael Hernandez Marin, born in Aquidilla, Puerto Rico. He supposedly “borrowed” a lot from Cuban music traditions, however, thus the mis-attribution, sometimes. The Four Amigos, a popular Puerto Rican group from years ago, had much success with it. Here is a link of them performing it on The Bill Dana Show in 1964, with vocals. Of particular note is Miguel Alcaide, the lead guitarist. Completely self taught, his technique and blazing instrumental breaks are absolutely amazing.:

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8MEvtK9srno