Young pickers reign at HoustonFest 2016

Amber Collins soars above the crowd at HoustonFest 2016 as she sings the National Anthem from a Galax Fire Department ladder truck (June 11, 2016) - photo by Ernest WhiteFelts Park in Galax, VA was the setting for the 2016 HoustonFest, the 5th annual celebration of the life and music of Houston Caldwell, a promising young banjo picker who died tragically in 2010 at 18 years of age. By the spring of 2011, his family and friends had gotten together with regional firefighters to organize an annual music festival in his honor. Caldwell was in the process of joining the Galax fire department when he passed, and they had taken him to their hearts.

In addition to showcasing other outstanding young bluegrass and old time artists, HoustonFest distributes a number of scholarship awards to further the education opportunities of teen musicians in southwest Virginia and northwestern North Carolina.

And the theme of young pickers was everywhere at Felts Park, the home of the Old Fiddlers Convention in August since 1935. The Galax community has clearly embraced this event, with teens everywhere you look, many carrying instrument cases for the classic “see and be seen” teen strut around the park. Other than the top billed acts, much of the stage show also incorporated young artists with performances from The Church Sisters, Galax’s own Loose Strings, Fiddling’ Carson Peters, ShadowGrass, Gravel Road and several others.

While the main stage was dedicated to marquee entertainers, three additional tented stages offered a mixture of workshops and mini-concerts, often pairing experienced pros like Sammy Shelor or Blue Highway with notable teen pickers, or bringing old time bands in for a dance fest.

Presley Barker, Carson Peters, and Kitty Amaral perform with Ricky Skaggs at Houstonfest 2016 - photo by Keith BrownEven the headliners would bring out some of the teen and pre-teen artists to play a song or two with them on stage. On Saturday we saw Blue Highway introduce a hot young mandolinist, and Ricky Skaggs brought both Carson Peters and local favorite Kitty Amaral out to play a triple fiddle rendition of Bill Monroe’s Wheel Hoss, also assisted by 12 year old Presley Barker on guitar. Without fail, these were the most raucously received numbers on each set.

It was hard to tell whether it was simply the proven show business tradition of enthusiasm for young entertainers, or a genuine response to the striking abilities of these hot teen pickers. Or perhaps HoustonFest’s stated message of the celebration and promotion of talented adolescent grassers has brought out an audience eager to see these special kids.

The point is plainly that it works. Helping developing artists meet each other, build their skills, and be showcased to a wider audience are laudable goals, and HoustonFest has been successful in achieving them. The cooperation with civic and professional groups (like the firefighters) has helped it reinforce a genuine community vibe, with several thousand locals and visitors assembled at the park for a fine weekend of great acoustic music.

An interesting side note is that the organizers prepared a small stage set just in front of the main stage at Felts Park which was used to feature the scholarship winners in between the headline acts. It provided a fine way to showcase these talented youngsters and keep the show moving while the stage was reset between bands.

The festival also served as the official kickoff of the Crooked Road Mountains of Music Homecoming, a ten-day traveling festival with concerts, food, and craft events scheduled across southwestern Virginia through June 18.

Scholarships were awarded this year to the following young musicians:

  • Kitty Amaral
  • Presley Barker
  • Anissa Burnett
  • Kathleen Burnett
  • Tanner Henson
  • Macy Henson
  • Addison (Addie) Levy
  • Taylon Hope Miller
  • Luke Morris
  • Brittany Osborne
  • Liam Purcell
  • Jonah Riddle
  • Grayson Riddle
  • Clay Russell

Congratulations to Debbie Robinson and her her team of volunteers for their hard work on HoustonFest each year. And thanks to Emily Edmonds Miller and Keith Brown for the photographs.

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About the Author

John Lawless

John had served as primary author and editor for The Bluegrass Blog from its launch in 2006 until being folded into Bluegrass Today in September of 2011. He continues in that capacity here, managing a strong team of columnists and correspondents.