This report is a contribution from C.J. Lewandowski, mandolinist and vocalist with the Po’ Ramblin’ Boys. He helped as MC for the SamJam 16 festival, and shares his experience there for the sake of our readers.
As the festival Tee’s stated, it was indeed Bluegrass:30 in Piketon, Ohio over Labor Day weekend with the inaugural happenings at SamJam ’16, the brain child of good friends, promoters, and Rag Heads, Sammy Karr and Rick Greene. Held at Pike County Fairgrounds, the event was a success from the start. Needless to say, Sammy and Rick were nervous about attendance, but camping ran out before the festival even started. Ticket sales were gaining ground every day, and the fair grounds were set up perfectly for a high class bluegrass party, complete with natural amphitheater, Soundwave Sound, PawPaw Stage and Lighting, a Beer Garden, a dozen food vendors, an audience tent for shade, and anything else you could imagine. Sammy and Rick’s vision was to please folks and treat them like family. That’s a great mindset to have a bluegrass family party. It was destined for success.
A vision that started in a barn, as a jam session, became a reality. Sam’s parties turned into a top notch bluegrass festival that otherwise takes 20 years to establish. The bluegrass community, Pike County Chamber of Commerce, Pike County Convention and Visitors Bureau, Pike County Fair Board, plus numerous sponsors and volunteers made this barn party dream a full fledged festival that was second to none. One fan of the weekend festival stated in an email:
“I will have to admit, this was a great venue that was created. I could not believe how orderly everything – and everyone – was during the whole time. The performers were the best I have seen in a long time. As we were driving back to Lancaster, I told my husband that I cannot wait until next year for the event.”
Friday’s kickoff shown a great crowd with acts such as Turning Ground, Nightflyer, Adkins & Loudermilk, The Grascals and Blue Mafia. The quality of music was top notch, and the crowd ate up every minute of it. Blue Mafia closed the night with a peak at their new upcoming album on Pinecastle Records, The Hanging Tree. Their brand of grass was the perfect way to rock the newborn festival to sleep. When I say rock, I mean they ROCKED IT!
Saturday was another day jam-packed with big names. Sammy’s own Barn Lizards, Flatt Lonesome, Sideline, Wildfire, and Blue Highway. The crowd was so glad to see our buddy, Wayne Taylor, back on stage singing tracks off of Blue Highway’s newest project. Many other special moments happened as well. Flatt Lonesome brought in special guest, Alecia Nugent to sing a good ole Haggard number. Sideline made a huge splash, but took it to Tsunami level when Dave Evans joined them for 99 Years. Dave plumb tore the crowd up. Of course he had a standing ovation and encore. Emcee for the weekend, Jamie Johnson, then got up with Dave and Sideline and cut Roving Gambler. Jamie singing for the first time in 18 months, or so, after his departure from The Grascals.
The night ended with a knock down, drag out blast of a time with The SteelDrivers pouring on the soul thicker than molasses. A scheduled 90 minute set packed the beautiful natural amphitheater, and turned into quite a bit longer than an hour and a half!
Sunday’s events kicked off with the Bluegrass Statesman, Joe Mullins, along with his Radio Ramblers, doing a full Gospel set. Showcasing his newest Gospel material on Rebel Records, the beautiful breeze carried the Spirit, and the sunlight warmed the hearts of everyone in the audience. What a perfect way to start a Sunday morning show. The most touching moment, though, came when Pike County Sheriffs lined the front of the stage. While people waved mini American flags, Joe began to thank the great service men and women, Pike County Sheriffs Department, and all other police officers, and a fallen hometown soldier that gave his life in 2014 defending our freedoms. Not a dry eye on the grounds as The Radio Ramblers sang The Last Parade for Sargent Justin Helton and his family. Powerful… just powerful.
The last day had no slack in the lineup with the likes of IIIrd Tyme, Doyle Lawson, Balsam Range, Lonesome River Band, and Shenandoah. Russell remarked ” The RagHeads finally have their own festival,” then chuckled and went into The Dream. The song’s author, Bill Castle, wiped a tear from his eye as the boys sang their hearts out. The stellar combo of talent kept the crowd wanting more with every set.
Years of hopes and dreams were finally a reality for the first SamJam! When asked about how he thought the weekend faired, Rick Greene said:
“We could not be more pleased with the results of the first SamJam. We knew we had a great geographic location, an extraordinary facility and a supportive community, all prerequisites for a quality bluegrass festival. The feedback we’ve received has been overwhelming and we believe we are on our way to reaching our goal of making this one of the country’s top bluegrass festivals.
Sammy and I have been friends for years and when we decided to do this project together there were a couple of things we understood together. One, is that if we were going to do this festival, we were going to do it all out, do it the right way and create something we could be proud of and southern Ohio could be proud of. Second, we were friends first and business partners second and that would never change. Those things have stayed true throughout the process and will continue to stay true.
Since Monday, I’ve had calls from Steve Dilling, Russell Moore, Mark Newton from Graves Mtn festival, Rick Hayes from Nightflyer, Jamie Johnson, Alecia Nugent… on and on from bluegrass people about how well they were treated, how the atmosphere of the festival was excellent, and how much they wanted to be involved in the future. That speaks volumes of our staff, back stage people, and Emcees.”
If you did not attend SamJam ’16, mark it down on your calendar for next year as a festival not to be missed. The dedication to the music and festival experience is a 12 on 1-10 scale. Heart and soul make up our music, Sammy and Rick have poured both into this event and it shows. One of the most successful first years for a festival in the 51 year history of the market. There’s a feeling that the Pike County Ohio Courthouse clock will be ringing Bluegrass:30 for many, many years to come.
Congrats to Sammy Karr, Rick Greene, all the volunteers, sponsors, entertainers, attendees, community, and anyone else who showed support for a successful first year festival. This is a festival that could be used as a role model, in every perspective, to festivals all over the world. Long Live SamJam!
photos courtesy of Jenny Buckler