Suwannee Spring Reunion closes out in style

Peter Rowan performs at the 2017 Suwannee Spring Reunion Festival (3/25/17) – photo by Brian Paul Swenk

The final day of Suwannee Spring Reunion featured Peter Rowan, Jim Lauderdale, and Sara Watkins.

There are some musicians that have a presence that’s just as entertaining as their music, and Peter Rowan is definitely one of them. With his laid-back California swagger and Cheshire Cat-like perma-grin, Rowan took the stage Saturday night with the confidence of someone who’s participated in the bluegrass world from nearly every angle. At 74, Rowan is understandably slower in both tempos and stage banter, but the legendary personality that made so many of his songs bluegrass standards still shines through with a bemused ease.

Rowan’s iconic song, Midnight Moonlight, has become a campfire classic usually played at fairly quick tempos, but as Rowan galloped through the song at a leisurely pace Saturday night, you realize how much of a true soul singer he is. His voice bounces around the melody, bending notes up and down just enough to make the version unique and deep, but never too busy or forced. Few, if any, singers ever come close to putting so much soul into his vocal melodies.

While many of the songs were played at slower tempos than we are used to hearing them, the young energy of both Chris Henry on mandolin and Mike Witcher on dobro (brother and equal musical talent of Gabe Witcher) kept a palatable level of bluegrass excitement to the set. Their version of Monroe’s Can’t You Hear Me Callin’ was not the typical up-tempo version we know, but it always maintained that certain on-top-of-the-beat push that Bill Monroe created. While Rowan has developed his own style, it’s always easy to recognize the indelible print that his tenure with Mr. Monroe and The Blue Grass Boys left with him.

The Rev. Jeff Mosier stepped out to bring some 5-string energy to the show with the Monroe classic, I’ve Gotta Travel On.

It wouldn’t be a Peter Rowan show without the story of the “Bluegrass Breakdown [their bus] living up to its name near Horse Cave, KY,” when Bill Monroe walked up to Rowan and sang the first lines of Walls of Time. Tried and true, the hauntingly beautiful song is one of the most iconic slower tempo bluegrass songs we’ve ever had.

Bobby Miller, Brett Bass, Jim Lauderdale, and Mark Schimick at the 2017 Suwannee Spring Reunion (3/25/17) - photo by Brian Paul Swenk

Earlier in the day, everyone’s favorite troubadour, Jim Lauderdale, played his bluegrass set on the main stage, under the looming Spirit of the Suwannee sign.

After his set, I asked Jim if he had any new bluegrass albums coming our way, and his answer was, let’s just say, very unexpected. 

Jim Lauderdale: “Actually an old bluegrass album that I recorded in 1979. I went to Nashville to hang out for about five months, and my goals were to hang out with George Jones and Roland White. I was really into the Kentucky Colonels with Roland and Clarence at that time. I had gotten out of college and went to Nashville, and I never got to hang out with George Jones, but I got to hang out with Roland.

Bluegrass Today: “Were you much of a bluegrasser back then?”

JL: “Oh yeah! My goal back then, even a few years before that when I was still in high school, was to make bluegrass records. I was a banjo player, but I just didn’t have it together to make that happen. Then Roland and I got to be pals ,and sang a lot together and harmonized well together since I’d heard so many of their records and was in tune with what they were doing, so we did this record. It had Marty Stuart playing guitar on it, Johnny Warren is on fiddle, Terry Smith is on bass, Gene Wooten is on dobro, and Stan Brown is playing banjo. So we recorded it in Earl Scruggs’ basement, which was called ‘Scruggs Sound’ back then. Earl would come down sometimes and bring coffee on a silver tray for us! I mean it was surreal! I had written a few songs for the record and then some of the songs were older, but about half the record is duets without banjo, and the other half is straight-on bluegrass. But then I couldn’t get a deal for it. I tried taking it around when I had some mixes of it on cassette tapes. I’d mail them to the bluegrass labels, but it was a catch-22 because I wasn’t an established artist on the circuit — even though Roland was involved, it was still mostly a duet record. So anyway, it was real discouraging. Then I moved up to New York and started doing more country, and thought ‘Well, that was my bluegrass career.’ And it wasn’t until I started recorded with Ralph Stanley that I started doing bluegrass albums again.”

BT:  “Wow! That was a big gap of time!”

JL:  “Yes, a huge gap!  And then last summer Roland was sitting in with me at The Station Inn, and as he was leaving the stage he said to me, ‘Oh, by the way, remember those tapes we lost? Well my wife just found them in a box’”

BT: “When will the album come out?”

JL: “I have another album coming out soon this year, so I’ll probably wait until 2018 for that album. But I’m also overdue for an all-new bluegrass album as well”

BT: “How long have you been playing this festival?”

JL: “I think I started coming here around ‘99 or 2000.”

BT: “This festival seems really important to the people that come every year. They say it feels like a homecoming or a family reunion.”

JL: “Yeah, I think so. And this is more of an intimate year. There’s one less stage and I think it works even better.”

BT: “Thanks for talking with me and giving us such a scoop!”

JL: “No problem. That’s your Bluegrass Today exclusive!”

Sara Watkins on stage with Jordan McConnell, Leonard Podolak, and Lydia Garrison at the 2017 Suwannee Spring Reunion (3/25/17) - photo by Brian Paul Swenk

Between Jim Lauderdale and Peter Rowan, the festival audience was treated to a set by multi-talented and multi-instrumentalist Sara Watkins. Last July, Sara released her solo album Young In All The Wrong Ways. “I’ve been touring around that a lot,” says Sara.

“We toured all fall and went to the UK for a few weeks; we’ll be continuing that promotion through this summer. But I’m really glad to back here to do a solo show.” I asked her how she’s describing her music these days, and she said, “I’m not really. Everyone comes from somewhere, and I came from bluegrass; and that’ll always be a part of what I do with the fiddle tunes in my set, but mostly I’m a singer/songwriter at this point.”

Her set did feature some of her new solo songs as well as diving back into her Nickel Creek days with Destination, from the 2014 album A Dotted Line. She showed those bluegrass roots as she brought up her friends from the band Turtle Duhks featuring Jordan McConnell (guitar), Leonard Podolak (banjo), Lydia Garrison (fiddle) as they ripped through Billy In The Lowground, Hold Whatcha Got, and John Hartford’s classic, Long Hot Summer Days.

From the festival attendees to the musicians on stage, the common theme of the weekend was how much the Suwannee Spring Reunion felt like an actual family reunion. There’s a unique aspect to this event in that people come to meet their friends—sometimes for the only time of the year—as much as they come for the great music. So many music festivals have a physical element that you agree to suffer through for the sake of the music: long distances between camps and stages, blazing sunshine, overbearing temperatures, and very little sleep. The Suwannee Spring Reunion had little, if any, of those issues.

It’s a beautifully run event that keeps family and friends coming back year after year.