Farmpark Bluegrass Festival
We pull off the narrow rural road into a drive flanked by two Frick Eclipse steam powered tractors. It’s early Wednesday afternoon and there’s not much going on yet. Throughout the afternoon and evening RVs will form a trickle into the camping area, but the real crowd will begin on Thursday as bluegrass loving RVers arrive for the festival that starts at noon. The farm park is located atop a gentle hill with a lovely grove of oak trees off the summit where there are dozen of shaded RV sites with electric and water hookups. On the hill above is a large meadow where more rigs can set up. The performance shed sports a tin roof, open sides, and a shiny hardwood stage. The speakers look like first class equipment. Backed benches are raked upward from the stage providing seats for perhaps a thousand people.
Scattered around the grounds are buildings and equipment from a rural age now sadly gone. A general store, Esso gasoline station, shoe repair shop, and a lovely old white church form a small village. Down the way are a sugar press and a boiling shack where a visiting family is making molasses in the evaporator. We stop to chat, sharing our experience with maple syrup and theirs making sorghum syrup. We purchase a couple of pints, even though we prefer maple. A large shed contains steam rollers, a gold crusher, a variety of steam powered tractors, a printing press, and more ‚Äì all in working order. Around the grounds are log buildings and working areas, including a saw mill, and even a still, in which they distill water these days. Over five hundred electric and water hookups are available for RVers. What a site for a bluegrass festival.
After our walk around the grounds and a quick trip Big K, I pulled out my banjo for a few minutes of pickin’ before dinner. Two guys walked into the campsite and we chatted till after dark, grabbed a quick bite, and picked with them until bedtime.
Thursday ‚Äì We begin our day with a trek around the Farmpark grounds. Its main claim to fame is the Southeast Thresher’s Reunion held annually on Fourth of July weekend. Tens of thousands of participants come each year for this rally of early farm equipment users and collectors. The farm park began in the early seventies and has grown like topsy through the years. Early farm buildings, equipment and crafts create a delightful venue for an autumn bluegrass festival. This is also the site for Doyle Lawson’s Mother’s Day festival held each May.
Today’s bands are The Anita Fisher Band, David Parmley and Continental Divide, Larry Sparks, IIIrd Tyme Out, and a very good local band called A Deeper Shade of Blue. The audience is sparse, perhaps because this is the first year of the autumn festival, it’s Thursday, and a harsh early season cold snap is coming for the weekend. It’s interesting to me that, particularly in their afternoon sets, all the bands play a much heavier portion of gospel music than we’ve heard in other settings. Larry Sparks, particularly, takes time for an extended testimony, a confession of faith that never emerged in his performance at Grey Fox, where we had heard him in July. Southern festivals have a somewhat different flavor than northern ones, particularly in their emphasis on outspoken religiosity. They share a heavy emphasis on family orientation, shared experience, jamming and picking, and meeting and greeting. Most festivals we attend, as one might expect, have a heavy local and regional representation. In Florida the crowds are more geographically diverse, but equally conservative in their world view. This group was most receptive to the high level of gospel music. People we chatted with around the grounds often expressed their deep Christian faith. Our companion for the weekend, a retired Episcopalian minister, loves the music, but not the theology. Evening performances were, unsurprisingly, more urbane and much more energetic. Local mandolin player Alan Perdue doing a very capable guest stint with IIIrd Tyme Out brought down the house.
Friday ‚Äì The day dawns bright and chilly. The forecast calls for the temperatures to rise to near sixty and frost warnings tell us that tonight will be downright cold in the performance shed. More rigs stream into the campgrounds during the day, but there is still plenty of room everywhere. Shortly after Honi Deaton and Dream take the stage at noon, while folks are just starting to get moving, the master of ceremonies tells us that there’s a scheduling glitch. Apparently J.D. Crowe thinks he’s scheduled for Saturday and won’t arrive today. The schedule going to be stretched. I trundle the pizza box with my Earle Scruggs signed banjo head in it back to the trailer. Later we’re told that while the schedule is changed, the lineup will all appear today. Back to the trailer to carry the pizza disguised Remo head back.
Honi Deaton, Ray’s daughter-in-law, fronts a solid band with Jeff Deaton as retiring as his father is forward and blatant. Honi’s songs are love and loss. The band’s attempts at humor should be lost as they come across as staged, wooden, and unfunny. This is too bad, because the band is engaging. They’re a really good band to use as an opening act. Friend Bob finds Honi charming, exactly the right word for her. The band provides good support. They can come through with some really tight singing, particularly well shown in their a cappella gospel quintet used as an encore in their evening set. Just a lovely way to end their performance.
Randy Waller doesn’t deserve to carry the Country Gentlemen name along with him. He has a pleasant voice and his banjo player is really interesting to watch and hear. Waller’s constant mugging and demands for attention take away from the music, which is often well-presented and lively. All this is sad, because he has a lovely smile and a resonant baritone voice that presents Country Gentlemen songs, as well as others, well. He comes across as a country performer stuck by inheritance in bluegrass music. All this brings up the question of performing sons and daughters. Where would James Monroe, Jamie Hartford, Hank Williams, Jr. (sorry, I know he doesn’t belong in this piece on bluegrass, but I just can’t resist), Randy Scruggs, Ralph Stanley, Jr. and Randy Waller, not to mention Roseanne Cash and Johnny’s brother, be without continuing the "tradition" of their landmark parents? Perhaps they’d all be better off finding their own sound and pursuing that under assumed names.
The Bluegrass Brothers present a highly energetic and engaging program. In the end, though, they’re a solid cover band. Blue Moon Rising raises some other issues. This band gets lots of play on XM radio and was nominated for an emerging artist award at IBMA this year. This band has a couple of very good songs, particularly "This Old Martin Guitar," but in performance comes across as merely competent. We’ve seen them twice now, once at Strawberry Park in late June and now here, and they sound good, but never raise the level of their performance to light up an audience.
Today’s headliner is J.D. Crowe and the New South. For me, this is the third time I’ve heard J.D. Crowe play, twice with his group and once with the supergroup Longview. The first time, two years ago, I mistook his understated performance as past his prime or even what’s the big deal? J.D. Crowe simply belongs near the very top of the pantheon of great banjo players. His playing suggests ease on breaks, which are generally short and designed to complement the bands great ensemble work. It’s in his faultless backup that Crow’s greatness really appears. Using every inch of his banjo head and neck, moving away from the mic to keep from overpowering the other instrumentalists, moving to the center to fill in baritone harmonies ‚Äì each note and move show his taste. Later, when he graciously signs my banjo head right under Earle’s signature, he says that backup is the hardest part of banjo playing as it must come from the inside and be immediately responsive to what the rest of the band is doing. He suggests that good backup just can’t be taught. The professionalism of his band is emphasized by their tight performance even though the temperature has dropped into the low forties by the time we head back to our trailer.
Saturday – Saturday is one of those clear, crisp fall days those of us from New England look forward to. However, when the evening temperatures fall into the mid-thirties, it takes a real fan to stay until the end. About fifty die-hards lasted until the final note of the final set from Carolina Road Band led by Lorraine Jordan. The day opens with an all gospel program from the Churchmen. Other bands include Audie Blaylock and Red Line, Alecia Nugent, and Ronnie Reno and the Reno Tradition. This varied lineup provides listeners with plenty to chew on in the way of contrasts.
Reno stands as an interesting contrast to yesterday’s Randy Waller sets. Reno, also the son of one of the greats, refers several times to his father and plays some of his music while never seeming to ride his coat tails. His remarkable banjo player, Mike Scott, seldom breaks into Reno-style riffs, preferring a more restrained and elegant style that well suits his personality. The Reno band is classy and effective.
Alecia Nugent comes across as all flash and show, managing to sound more country than bluegrass and not raise much in the way of excitement.
Audie Blaylock and Redline sets a standard which few other bands can match. At Denton he appears with Mike Cleveland playing mandolin and Patrick McAvinue, a seventeen year old scarecrow with a huge grin and even larger talent, on the fiddle. In their second set they set the house on fire with both Lee Highway Blues and Orange Blossom Special. The combination of cooperation and competition in their breaks brought down the house. They announce at Denton that they will be forming a unified band and touring together starting after the first of the year.
On the whole, the Denton Farmpark Bluegrass Festival, although sparse in numbers is a great success. Perhaps some of the attendance problem came from the difficulty of finding information about this festival on the Internet. I’m told they have committed to two additional years, which should give them time to establish themselves. The venue and time of year are nearly ideal for great bluegrass and this festival provides a seasonal balance to Doyle Lawson’s Mother’s Day event. Give this one a try next year.