Every November and March, a couple thousand bluegrass fans from all across the continent flood the Roberts Centre in Wilmington, OH for one of the top indoor bluegrass festivals in the country: The Southern Ohio Indoor Music Festival.
The festival is held in both the fall and spring in Wilmington. Many guests literally never go outside during the entire festival, as the Roberts Centre includes a Holiday Inn, a Max & Erma’s restaurant, and the Convention Center, all under one roof!
SOIMF prides itself in its all-star lineups, which always seem to get better year to year. This November the festival provided great performances from Rhonda Vincent & the Rage, Russell Moore & IIIrd Tyme Out, The Crowe Brothers, Bobby Osborne & the Rocky Top X-Press, The Spinney Brothers, Michael Cleveland & Flamekeeper, Larry Cordle & Lonesome Standard Time, and the festival’s host group, Joe Mullins & the Radio Ramblers.
Friday proved to be a very memorable day. The festival opened with a fiddle workshop featuring Rhonda Vincent’s fiddler (and son-in-law), Hunter Berry. It was a special treat for the day’s special guests: Alternative Strings. They are an advanced music program at Centerville High School in Centerville, OH, a string section which focuses on playing music which is “Outside the BACH.” They have worked with many bluegrass acts, including Doyle Lawson & Quicksilver, Cherryholmes, Joe Mullins & the Radio Ramblers, and Michael Cleveland & Flamekeeper. Pairing these high school students with Berry, one of today’s top fiddlers, was a highlight for these young musicians.
The festival’s performances were kicked off by The Spinney Brothers (pronounced SPIN-EEE). The band was the festival’s first international group, as they hail from Nova Scotia, Canada. A Canadian accent is evident when they speak, but when they sing, it sounds as if they have lived in Appalachia all their life. Their tight harmonies and efficient picking worked wonders on the traditionally-oriented crowd. They proved to be a surprise hit at the festival. They performed a total of three shows (two on Friday, one on Saturday), although many fans wished they had played more. The group was such a hit, they completely sold out of all of their product on Friday! If the attendees of SOIMF have anything to say about it, The Spinney Brothers will definitely be back.
Another favorite of the festival, as always, was the All American Bluegrass Girl, Rhonda Vincent. Rhonda is a regular at SOIMF, and is usually booked for either the March or November festival. Rhonda has her best band yet, and their show is just like Rhonda: full of energy – you can’t help but have a blast! That is why Rhonda & the Rage represented SOIMF on the television station FOX45 Friday morning, which resulted in an interesting mishap aboard The Martha White Express which we covered last week on Bluegrass Today.
On stage, Rhonda and the rest of the band poked fun at fiddler, Hunter Berry, about the incident. Rhonda said he looked like the Pillsbury doughboy, when he was covered in white, to which Berry informed the audience that Rhonda had been poking his belly all day trying to get him to giggle. Mickey Harris even broke into the George Strait hit The Fireman in honor of Hunter’s accident!
It’s not all fun and games with the Rage, though. One of the true highlights of the weekend was when Rhonda sang her rendition of Beneath Still Waters. To steal a line from my grandpa, the late Paul “Moon” Mullins, “It would bring a tear to a mule’s eye.” It’s the combination of on stage chemistry ,along with flawless picking and singing, which makes Rhonda Vincent & the Rage one of SOIMF’s favorites.
Joe Mullins & the Radio Ramblers were also on the docket Friday. They are considered the festival’s host band, for the festival is put on by Joe and his Classic Country Radio network. He and his wife Tammy work hard all year to ensure that every fan, artist, and volunteer, has a great time. Joe and the Ramblers took the stage both Friday and Saturday. One of Friday’s highlights was when Rhonda Vincent joined the Ramblers to do one from the band’s latest hymn album, We Missed You In Church Last Sunday. Rhonda and Joe do a wonderful version of the old Boys From Indiana song on the record, and it has become quite a hit on Mullins’ radio network. Fans really enjoyed getting to see the pair do the song live.
Bobby Osborne & the Rocky Top X-Press played as well on Friday. The legendary sky-high tenor of Osborne still gives goosebumps, and hearing him do Osborne Brothers classics such as Ruby and Rocky Top will never be out of style. The artists also helped Bobby celebrate his 80th birthday, which is coming up on December 7th. Another treat was Bobby joining Rhonda Vincent on stage to do their version of the Osborne Brothers’ Midnight Angel. The high lonesome harmony of Rhonda and Bobby is purely magical.
The true treasure of Friday night was the Veterans’ Tribute which all of the day’s artists put on to commemorate our nation’s heroes. The evening included a special guest: Ohio’s Attorney General and bluegrass fan, Mike DeWine. The tribute also made special note of the 60th anniversary of Bobby Osborne’s service in Korea.
Saturday featured repeat performances by Joe Mullins & the Radio Ramblers and The Spinney Brothers. Although the Spinney’s product was all gone, there was still a throng of people around their record table with new fans wanting to get acquainted with this great band.
A big part of their show is banjo man, Steve Sutton, who was taught to play the five-string by Raymond Fairchild and played on-and-off with Jimmy Martin for a number of years. Steve has a truly flavorful style, which is purely entertaining. Even in the vendor/food court area, where one can hear but not see the performances, people would stop and listen to the character Sutton brings to the instrument. He is truly a stylist and a joy to watch on stage. They especially let Steve tear loose on Whoa Mule! to close their show. Between the old-school brother harmonies and crackerjack picking of Sutton, The Crowe Brothers really brought a unique show to SOIMF.
Saturday also brought about the most recent edition of Michael Cleveland & Flamekeeper. When attendees marked their calendars in March for this festival, the Flamekeeper they thought they would see, was a lot different than the Flamekeeper they were privileged to see this past Saturday at the Roberts Centre.
It is always hard when an entire band quits, but history has proven that those that can bounce back from it have turned out stronger. That is definitely the case with Michael Cleveland & Flamekeeper.
Charlie Lawson on guitar gives Michael’s group something it had been lacking: a really strong lead vocalist. No one ever doubted that Michael could get a great group of pickers together, because great pickers want to play with him. Now having Lawson in the group really adds another dimension to the band.
Glenn Gibson also helps expands the group sound. In addition to his banjo work, Gibson’s dobro was particularly refreshing and added further depth to the band.
One of the most memorable performances on Saturday was during Michael’s show when the rest of the band left the stage except for he and mandolin man, Ashby Frank. We all knew what was next: Michael Cleveland’s award-winning rendition of Bill Monroe’s classic, Jerusalem Ridge, which the audience knew was recently recorded by Flamekeeper with Jesse Brock on mandolin. Everyone was anxiously awaiting how the piece would turn out.
Ashby Frank is an outstanding mandolin player, but it has to be hard trying to fill the shoes on such an outstanding recording. He did it wonderfully! The audience was pleased to see Ashby stretch the tune in a totally new direction than Brock had with some brilliant, “Thile-ish” breaks. Between Ashby’s masterful picking and Michael’s inspiring fiddling, their duet on the Monroe classic was deeply moving. Michael has done it again, and put together an incredible new slate of talent that is a pleasure to hear and see.
Another favorite of SOIMF appeared on Saturday. Russell Moore & IIIrd Tyme Out have long been a popular group in the Dayton area, going back to their start nearly twenty years ago. Russell and the boys are better than ever!
Performing many songs off their highly acclaimed new album, Prime Tyme, they had the audience in the palm of their hand. Bill Castle’s Big Muddy really resonated with the audience, with its Osborne-esque style. The crowd came unglued when Russell tore into his version of the Osborne hit One Kiss Away From Loneliness. Russell’s singing is as good as its ever been, and was on full display Saturday.
With stellar work by Steve Dilling on banjo, Justin Haynes on fiddle, Edgar Loudermilk on bass, and Wayne Benson on mandolin, their new version of Sugarfoot Rag was a big hit with the audience. All-in-all, IIIrd Tyme Out’s show was what we’ve come to expect: incredible.
The finale was a fantastic show by Larry Cordle & Lonesome Standard Time. This set was highly anticipated, as it was his first show in the Dayton area since the release of his album, Pud Marcum’s Hangin’. He did many numbers from the album which have become local hits over Mullins’ radio network. Shade Tree Mechanic, Hello, My Name Is Coal, Pud Marcum’s Hangin’, and America, Where Have You Gone have all been played heavily on Classic Country Radio, both on Mullins’ bluegrass show, and by country disc jockeys Bucks Braun, Greg Gabbard, and Chubby Howard.
It’s hard not to fall in love with Cordle’s songs. Basing many of them on personal experience, Cordle’s wit, humor, and outlook on life remind everyone of a simpler time, and he went from one hit to another. Cordle has a great group of musicians picking with him, and they compliment his unique songs and singing style quite nicely. Bandit (written from the perspective of a raccoon!), really gave the band a chance to show off, and was a lot of fun for the whole audience. By the end of the show, everyone knew that The Mighty Cord holds his spot for “The King of Cool.”
One thing that really struck me on Saturday was the abundance of Jimmie Rodgers’ numbers. Three different Rodgers’ tunes by three different bands were true highlights of the day for me. The Spinney Brothers’ version of Muleskinner Blues was quite their own. They had performed the song on Friday, but the audience demanded a repeat performance as part of their double encore on Saturday. One aspect of their rendition which the audience loved, was the fine yodeling they added to the song. They really took the “blue yodel” part of Blue Yodel #8 to heart. It was something different, that the audience really enjoyed.
Michael Cleveland & Flamekeeper also did a Rodger’s classic. Performing Jimmie’s first hit, Blue Yodel #1: “T” for Texas, they demonstrated their showmanship. Charlie Lawson’s traditional sky-high singing served the old song well. “T” also proved a chance for everyone to show off instrumentally. They owned the place when Charlie Lawson held a high note long enough for Michael Cleveland to go to town on a fiddle break. Pure entertainment.
The third Rodgers’ song which was showcased on Saturday was Russell Moore & IIIrd Tyme Out’s encore performance of (per Mullins’ request) Blue Yodel #3. The band recorded the song in 1992 on one of their first albums, Puttin’ New Roots Down. Russell’s version sounded just as good as it did nineteen years ago, and brought the crowd to their feet. It was nice to see the audience so receptive to bluegrass versions of songs which are nearly 90 years old. It just goes to show that some songs never die, and classic material done in original ways, can go a long way with an audience.
Mullins and his staff put on another memorable festival. Mark your calendars for March 30 and 31, 2012 for the March SOIMF. The lineup includes some fan favorites such as Larry Sparks, Paul Williams & The Victory Trio, The Moron Brothers, Nothin’ Fancy, The Kenny & Amanda Smith Band, and (as always) Joe Mullins & the Radio Ramblers. The Boxcars, David Davis & the Warrior River Boys, and The Del McCoury Band will all be making their SOIMF debut this coming March. Tickets for March go on sale December 1st, and can purchased online at www.somusicfest.com, by calling 937-372-5804, or by stopping in Mullins’ CD store, the Classic Country Connection, at 23 E. Second St, Xenia, OH 45385. Can’t wait to see you in Wilmington for the next Southern Ohio Indoor Music Festival!