Rudy’s Bluegrass in the Woods

Rudy’s Bluegrass in the Woods is as comfortable and cozy a site for a bluegrass festival as you will find in the South. Located in rural Anderson, SC, Rudy’s was established by the late Rudy Lowe. It is now owned and managed by his son, Stephen Lowe, a great friend to bluegrass music. The site features an outdoor stage with 5000 covered square feet for the audience, located on 60 acres of rolling South Carolina farm land. For those into the RV-ing lifestyle, Rudy’s can accommodate 90 units with hookups. What makes this an ideal setting for camping is that the stage can be seen (albeit at a distance) and heard from the campsites.

Rudy’s Bluegrass in the Woods 14th annual Autumn Festival was held September 8, 9, and 10th. This may be about as perfect a time of year for a bluegrass festival as you can get in the Palmetto State. The oppressive heat has finally broken, the mosquitos are wrapping up their lifespan, and a nice breeze keeps it all fresh. The leaves haven’t started to turn yet, but the evening temperatures are dropping enough that we know Fall is getting near.

Kicking the festival off on Thursday evening was North Carolina gospel group The Golden Valley Crusaders. Formed in 1970, the current incarnation of GVC includes founding member Butch Cook (vocals, mandolin, guitar), Butch’s nephew Clint Houser (vocals, banjo), Butch’s son-in-law Gary Heavner (bass), and Gary’s son David Heavner (vocals, mandolin, guitar). Clearly influenced by both the primitive and bluegrass traditions, this family band brought a crisp liveliness that infused the crowd during the performance of a comfortably familiar repertoire. A highlight of their set was a Jim Mills-esque version of How Great Thou Art. Golden Valley also performed on Friday afternoon. It is clear that this family band has an ease with each other that lends cohesiveness to their vocals and stage presence.

Joining the Golden Valley Crusaders in the Thursday evening line-up was my favorite local group, the bluegrass heavy weights Curtis Blackwell and the Dixie Bluegrass Boys. Curtis was a Blue Grass Boy with Bill Monroe (“for about two weeks” says Curtis) so it is no surprise that Monroe’s influence was evident in most of their numbers. Curtis’ vocals on tunes such as Muleskinnner Blues were so purely “high and lonesome” that had my back been turned to the stage I would have easily believed that Monroe himself was making an appearance. (What? Stranger things have happened. Okay, maybe not, but work with me here.) On occasion the Dixie Bluegrass Boys ventured to the progressive side with bluegrass takes on golden standards such as Somewhere Over the Rainbow featuring banjo phenom Charles Wood. Incidentally, Charles was performing on a newly acquired pre-war Gibson five string banjo which he graciously allowed me to play back stage. Whew!

One of the reasons that I love this group so much is that my late mentor, teacher, and friend Al Osteen was an original member when they formed in 1965. Al was also Charles’ teacher, so there is a comfortable feeling of familial continuity in style. Joining Curtis and Charles in the current cast of Dixie Bluegrass Boys is Sam Cobb (vocals, bass), another original member of the band, and Curtis’ son Vic Blackwell (vocals, mandolin). These guys are the real deal, burning up Monroe and Jimmy Martin songs while throwing in the whimsical Mockingbird for a quick change of mood.

Closing out the show Thursday night was the unique family band, Goldwing Express. These guys put on one heck of a show. If you haven’t yet seen them, make a point to. From Branson, Missouri, father Bob Baldridge is joined by his sons Paul, Steven, and Shawn whose mother was a member of the Creek Indian Tribe. Typically they play up their heritage with the donning of headdresses, but for this show they stuck with a more traditional bluegrass appearance. This group has a wide ranging repertoire, which makes them a nice complement to a lineup that includes traditional and gospel bands.  Supplementing their bluegrass song set on Thursday were two Conway Twitty numbers, Hello Darlin’ and Lay You Down as well as a patriotic tribute which included a medley of service branch themes and the singing of God Bless America. Interestingly, the group’s name comes from their habit of riding Honda Goldwing motorcycles to performances in the 80s, prompting their mother to dub them the Goldwing Express. Keeping with this tradition, bass player Shawn arrived Thursday on a newly acquired Honda Goldwing. From their comedy routines, led by father Bob, to the heartfelt recognition of veterans at the end of the show, Goldwing Express provided high intensity entertainment.

Friday kicked off with Cane Creek, a local quintet from Anderson, SC. Featuring husband and wife team Mark Harvell (banjo, vocals), and Nan Harvell (guitar, vocals), as well as Jeff Rose (fiddle, vocals), Steve Snelgrove (mandolin, vocals), and Bill Sanders (bass, vocals), this group offered an entertaining mixture of traditional covers and original songs.

Being the “hometown boys” (including Nan), Cane Creek was happily received by the audience. For me, it was nice to see yet another Al Osteen alumnus, Mark, carrying the torch of our mentor forward with smooth three finger picking on banjo. Like most of the other groups, Cane Creek performed two sets, giving them some well-deserved exposure to local bluegrass fans. I hope to see more of this group at regional festivals in the future.

Mike Eades and the Battlecreek Boys appropriately followed Cane Creek as they are also a South Carolina band, out of Walhalla in Oconee county. Mike spent several years working with Bill Napier, and is also influenced by Jimmy Martin and Charlie Moore, as was evident by their song set of traditional bluegrass numbers.

After another set by the Golden Valley Crusaders, it was time for the festival headliners: The Little Roy and Lizzy Show. I first met Lizzy Long a few years ago at IBMA, when she nonchalantly walked into the vender arena with Earl tagging along. (Yes, that Earl. No, I didn’t faint. Okay, I almost fainted. Just a little bit.)

I knew she was a talented young lady but I didn’t really get to see her broad spectrum of skill until the Little Roy and Lizzy Show performed at the Al Osteen Benefit Show in Pickens, SC last December. To paraphrase Little Roy, if you pulled a board off the side of the house, Lizzy could pick it.

She and Little Roy brought every ounce of their famously effusive energy to Rudy’s. Their impact was felt well before their announced presence, with Little Roy sneaking on stage in drag right in the middle of a number being performed by GVC. He also held court in the audience, doing what he does second best – talking. A natural born entertainer, he’s as comfortable having conversation with total strangers as he is on stage with a guitar

One nice variation to this LR &L performance was the more prominent use of the autoharp by both Little Roy and Lizzy. It evoked the spirit of the Carter Family, and was the only time that I saw it used during Thursday and Friday of the festival. Not only does Lizzy continue her excellence as a fiddler, vocalist, and bluegrass banjo picker, she has also blossomed into an accomplished straight man to Little Roy’s antics.

And danged if that woman can’t frail the heck out of a banjo when she wants too! Little Roy and Lizzy played a double set, with only a short intermission to autograph merchandise. Little Roy’s wife, Bonnie, was as professional as ever, ably keeping up with the needs of each member of the band which included brother and sister Al and Lisa Hoyle, and Nathan Stewart. She even found time to give me a tour of their bus! (Thanks Bonnie!)

Rudy’s festival continued on Saturday, but unfortunately I wasn’t able to attend this last day. However, the line-up continued to be first class, with acts such as Last Road, Tugalo Holler, the Packway Handle Band, Wildwood Valley, and closing out with Gerald Smith and Doug Flowers.

It was inspiring to see that this small festival has continued to operate in the current economic climate, when so many others have disappeared from our bluegrass landscape. It is clear that Stephen Lowe cares about putting on a quality event for bluegrassers in the upstate of South Carolina. In addition to good food (Bessie’s canteen which provided homemade desserts and barbeque), and facilities, Stephen made sure that the sound was handled by a consummate professional with David Snyder, who doubled as the emcee on Thursday night. David plays the mandolin and fronts Last Road. His sound set-up and management skills are as good as anyone in the industry.

If you are looking for an intimate bluegrass festival next fall, consider Rudy’s Autumn Fest and let’s keep this one going for many more years. More information is available online.

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About the Author

Reid Toth - Banjo Diva

Reid C. Toth (a.k.a. “Banjo Diva”) is a college professor and budding banjo picker. She previously studied with the late Al Osteen, and is currently under the tutelage of Kristin Scott Benson. Reid has been a regular contributor to the Banjo Newsletter and owns the Banjo Holler web forum.