Reporting from the road

From the accounts I receive on the road, and speaking with promoters of traditional style bluegrass festivals daily on the phone, the logistics of running a successful event can be a nightmare even in the best of times. Festivals can take many years, not to mention personal fortune, to become truly successful – and most really never do.

With these thoughts in mind I wheeled the old blue “courtesy van” (our beat up old tour vehicle) through the blooming cotton fields around Statesboro, GA towards the 2nd Annual Kiss My Grass Swampgrass Festival. Exhausted after a week at IBMA, shows in SC and GA, a great but well-short-of-sold-out show in Tampa, and generally  frustrated with the music business as a whole, I wondered what I would find when we arrived on Friday. My mind was immediately put at ease, and a smile came across my face as we pulled into the driveway of the beautiful Miller Music Park. There were already an abundance of motor homes set up, tents being staked into the ground, and the day parking area was full of life.

Let’s take a moment, back up a bit and explore why my excitement at seeing a couple hundred people here was justified. Many folks remember Larry Gillis as one half of the explosive, tremendously popular Gillis Brothers act which achieved a large cult following in the 1990’s. Their music was a hard, raw, and with a mindblowing sound reminiscent of the Stanley Brothers, yet truly all their own. Larry now heads up his own successful band, and has, I feel, one of the few strictly traditional sounding bands with mass appeal to both bluegrass and jam band fans alike. Surely among the few distinctive banjo stylists (there is no doubt from the first note who is on the five string banjo), his shows are part high energy traditional bluegrass, and part wild stage jamming that would make some Yonder Mountain fans blush. He composes banjo pieces that are unique, with minor chords and interesting chord changes, all played at a frenzied pace, and performed in a stage show that is on the brink of rock and roll entertainment, yet undeniably traditional bluegrass. It is in your face and defiant in a beautiful way.

Larry now takes on the task of promoter and has done what so few have been able to: build a great festival starting from nothing, and in short order. When Larry and I were discussing the logistics of the first festival last year, he had a vision which centered around a weekend of highlighting nothing but more traditional sounding bands, and showcasing young talent that haven’t had the breaks their skills might deserve. The first festival was thrown together in just 4 weeks and the turnout was small; only a handful of folks even were aware of the event. We somehow all knew that this year with abundant time to plan it could be memorable. Larry’s idea of a traditional style festival, which welcomed all types of music fans to be exposed to the roots of the music in a safe family friendly environment, were obviously well received this year.

The festival, still a work in progress after moving to its new permanent home, was on a huge beautiful site with stately old trees, cotton fields, and wonderful South Georgia charm. It offered a beautiful main stage in a shaded spot, more than enough space to park 800 or more motorhomes, and well over an acre of day parking.

The site had a home like feeling and Larry, his wife Kristy, his band and extended family and friends, worked to make it fun, affordable, and safe. All went off without a hitch and with a weekend ticket price of only $40 it was also a tremendous value. In one of the most intelligent moves of the festival planning, The Gillis family concentrated on getting bands who are fairly new to the scene and have been under-heard, nationally touring acts who are just getting their first breaks, regional bands, and a comeback kid in Sammy Adkins (former long-time member of The Clinch Mountain Boys). With this formula, Larry was able to feature the sort of lineup that a festival needs to ensure attendance, without having to sell the farm to pay the talent.

The music was already in full swing when we arrived on Friday, with the unmistakable voice of the great and immensely popular Evan Carl gently moving the stage shows along as MC. With our group (Travers Chandler and Avery County) performing just one set, we were able to enjoy some terrific stage entertainment with the rest of the enthusiastic crowd which was very robust for a Friday.

Sammy Adkins closed the show on Friday with his singing partner Danny Davis, a dead ringer for Red Allen when he sings lead, and is also the dad of Ramblers Choice mandolinist Chris Davis. Though the rest of his band was a pickup group, Sammy’s voice was in great form as he soulfully performed a mix of originals and Stanley classics, and kept the crowd in the show with his humble soft spoken MC work. As the show ended and a large camp fire began behind the concessions, the attendees were treated to a great jam between the stage performers, featuring  Sammy Adkins doing what he actually does best: singing classic country songs of heartbreak. To watch the emotion as he sang was quite an experience.

Saturday gave way to even more great Georgia fall weather. The skies were clear, the temps were comfortably in the high 70’s, and more and more folks began finding their way through the gates. It was a trend that would continue later into the night as the crowds became as large as any I have seen at a Southeastern festival. Cars were still piling in as one of the most entertaining and talented young bands exploded onto the stage with a show that can only be compared to a cross between Jerry Lee Lewis, The Johnson Mountain Boys, and Jimmy Martin.

Lonesome Will Mullins and Surefire is fronted by one of the most colorful people you will ever meet in Will Mullins. Surefire is a group overflowing with talent, featuring Robby Norris on the mandolin, Chris “Slick” Mullins on bass, John Bryant on guitar and Tom Issacs on banjo and fiddle. Tom has mastered a style of banjo playing that is tasteful and hard driving, blending the influences of Ralph Stanley, Richard Underwood, and Allen Shelton. The crowd was really warmed as Will left them with a colorful and delightful clawhammer version of Cindy.

What happened next to close the show was something you can only see at a bluegrass festival, and makes for lifelong memories. Already slightly depressed that we would have to follow Larry Gillis and his group, he “reassured” me by telling me he had set up something really special for his show.

I was a tad curious when his band was brought out and started performing without Larry!! Everyone looked perplexed, including Larry’s band, when all of a sudden one could see the flash of blue lights in the dark Georgia night. Larry was escorted to the stage, fully handcuffed, carrying a whiskey jug and being escorted by a rather large deputy with an equally large rifle. Larry explained to a howling audience that his deputy cousin had arrested him for making moonshine, and that he was being allowed to perform this last set before being whisked to jail. He then launched into an incredibly energetic performance under the watchful eye of his deputy cousin.

When the third encore was concluded, he was escorted off the stage in handcuffs. It was a funny and entertaining program that delighted the sizable crowd in attendance. While a lot of audiences may not care for corny entertainment, this was definitely an enjoyable show for everyone. How were we to follow that??

I decided to fight fire with fire. Literally. Never one to be out done when it comes to entertaining, we came up with something special. I never use set lists, and in our usual fashion we blazed through about 5 or 6 songs without taking a breath, opening with a faster than normal Deep Elum Blues, and an off-the-cuff version of David Allan Coes’ You Never Even Called Me By My Name.

We peppered the set with more standards than usual, along with our original material, and I shared my love for Bill Monroe with the crowd, celebrating his centennial by performing a solo version of My Last Days On Earth. It was a powerful experience as the crowd showed their respect for Bill with a hushed silence. I am sure I performed it poorly, but a moment was shared between me and the audience I won’t soon forget.

After performing a Gospel number, I took a moment to speak of the early days of country and bluegrass music, its similarities with early rock and roll, and how it could be demonstrated in Bill Monroe’s music. With just two numbers to go, I grabbed another mandolin and we launched into Bluegrass Stomp.

Rocking along after the banjo break, I stopped playing as Lonesome Will Mullins entered from stage right still dressed in his bright blue suit. The band kept playing as Will and I talked with the crowd. A microphone was placed at stage left and folks had gathered around the stage in anticipation that something was going to happen. As Will and I ran and jumped off the stage, the band kept right on digging in as I grabbed the mic and told the crowd we were going to do bluegrass Jerry Lee style.

Will laid the mandolin down on the ground and put it up in flames. Running back to the stage I grabbed my other mandolin and began playing the last verse to Bluegrass Stomp while Lonesome Will played along in the crowd, flaming mandolin and all. As soon as the tune was over we gave no time for reaction as Eddie Gill (our long time guitarist) launched into Ruby. It was definitely the most memorable night of my career.

This crowd was excited and they gave us their appreciation after a show that I would not have attempted in most traditional bluegrass venues! What a night of memories! Truly what the heart and soul of this pure American artform is all about.

The weekend ended with a grand finale onstage, as Larry promised even bigger and better things next year before bidding the crowd goodnight.

After the lights were out and the attendees had retired to bed, you could really feel the end of summer and the countless fun of the festival season.

Larry and I discussed what he had in mind for the 3rd annual festival, and I was rewarded with an appearance at the festival as long as it ran, plus a hint or two about what was to come. Looking to grow slowly, he suggested he might secure one more bigger name to the lineup along with ourselves, and that he hoped to get back to the roots by extending the accessibility of the artists in the form of dinners, jam sessions, and workshops. A beautiful stage has been built for workshops in another area of the park, and the plans are in place to extend electrical hookups and provide shower facilities.

Having known Larry a long time, I can personally attest to his commitment to bluegrass and traditional country music. Through months of hard work, sweat, planning, setbacks, and I would imagine even a few tears, he has built the foundation for a successful bluegrass event in tough economic times.

Larry Gillis is a simple country boy, from a humble background, who built a successful life with his bare hands and the integrity given to him from his mother and father. It is with the wisdom acquired from this way of life that Larry, along with his family, have been able to offer a tremendous value in bluegrass festival entertainment, growing it beyond the expectations of anyone.

The Kiss My Grass Swampfest will happen again the third weekend of October 2012.

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About the Author

Travers Chandler

A Virginian by both birth and choice, Travers is an adamant proponent and performer of traditional bluegrass music. Based now in Galax, he manages his own group, Travers Chandler & Avery County, with whom he plays mandolin and sings. They record and tour with an eye towards keeping the sounds of Bill Monroe, The Stanley Brothers, Red Allen and Charlie Moore alive into a new century. Travers is also at work on a detailed biography of Charlie Moore, who he finds an especially under appreciated bluegrass artist.