Wednesday, April 15, 2015

HoustonFest 2015 in Galax, VA - May 1 & 2

Houston Caldwell was eighteen years old, but already well known in the bluegrass world, a young,enthusiastic, talented man, just barely out of boyhood. He had just returned from basic training in the Army, was a valued member of the Galax Fire Department, when he rode his motorcycle to Wilkesboro to attend the 2010 Merlefest banjo contest. On the way home, he was killed in an accident. We didn't know Houston, but we met his family at IBMA Fan Fest that September, where Kids on Bluegrass and many of his performer friends presented a moving tribute to him on Saturday morning. The first HoustonFest was held the following spring, on the weekend after Merlefest, and has grown each year since, becoming a major celebration dedicated to young people in bluegrass. It's one of the most exciting festivals we attend, filled with an upbeat celebration of Houston Caldwell's life through encouraging young bluegrass and old-time musicians, presenting  some of the most popular and exciting bands in bluegrass, many of whose members were Houston's friends. It's an event that's not only enjoyable, but inspiring, truly a "Celebration of Song & Service."

Kenneth, Hayden & Tess Caldwell

This year, in addition to the strongest lineup that HoustonFest has had since its inception, the event will be theme-based, celebrating the famed Bristol sessions of 1927, where Johnny Cash said, "The single-most important event in the history of country music," took place. During a ground breaking series of recording sessions held in July 1927 in Bristol, seventeen performers including Earnest Stoneman, the Carter Family, and Jimmie Rodgers recorded seventy-six songs, which became recognized as crucial to the development of country music as a commercial enterprise. Grammy winner and well-known record producer Carl Jackson has put together a tribute of the Bristol sessions including eighteen of the original songs in a CD called Orthophonic Joy performed by many of today's top bluegrass and country musicians. Many of those musicians will appear at HoustonFest this year, with two hour-long sets being devoted to this new recording. Many of these artists will present their own sets, too. It's an exciting concept generating the strongest lineup ever seen at HoustonFest.

Carl Jackson

The fields of Felts Park in Galax provide plenty of space for several stages offering special opportunities during the two days of HoustonFest. Camp Houston includes several areas dedicated to young people's picking and jamming.  Kids can come to try out instruments at the Petting Zoo and get a little very early instruction as an enticement to learn to play an instrument. The Banjo Stage, the Firehouse Stage, and the Camp Houston Youth Stage all feature young people's bands, workshops, and opportunities to jam during both days. Look at the performance schedule here for more detailed information. Space limits my opportunity to feature all the young bands and performers making presentations on these stages, but I can promise they'll keep attendees busy.

On the Main Stage
Marty Stuart & the Fabulous Superlatives

Marty Stuart has had a long and important career in country music, but his roots and heart are still deep in bluegrass. His stage show is one of the most entertaining there is, and it will be a treat to have him do a set of his own as well as a song in the Orthophonic Joy set on Friday.

Doyle Lawson & Quicksilver

Bluegrass Hall of Famer and member of key bands (the Country Gentlemen, The New South, Doyle Lawson & Quicksilver), Doyle Lawson remains a top performer as well as an iconic figure.

The Steep Canyon Rangers

Larry Cordle

"Cord" has been a standout as a singer/songwriter in both country and bluegrass music. He's a prime person to bring to this venue to celebrate the commercial advent of country music from before a time when it was broken into narrow segments.

Sierra Hull

Sierra Hull, longtime friend of Houston Caldwell and a regular performer, workshop participant, and jammer (below) at HoustonFest is a favorite here. 

Sierra (on fiddle) jamming in the field

for a more clear view, click the link above

There are a few hidden gems lying within this schedule, particularly two Workshops hosted by Virginia State Historian John Lohman on Saturday afternoon. "Saturday Night and Sunday Morn" features Doyle Lawson, Jesse McReynolds and the Chuck Wagon Gang discussing and (I suspect) demonstrating the importance of gospel music in traditional country and bluegrass music. The other workshop is one that's held each year as a few of Houston's friends who are now professional musicians get together on the Camp Houston Stage to reminisce about the Houston Caldwell they knew and remember, and to pick a little. 

The Jeff Little Trio

It's rare these days to find bluegrass, old-time, and country music at the same festival. The tendency to segment music into small, discreet genres has marginalized old-time and traditional country music, placing progressive bluegrass out of bounds, too. At HoustonFest you'll find all of these as well as jazz and swing.  Look for the Jeff Little Trio and The Harris Brothers for changes of pace.

The Harris Brothers

The HoustonFest Scene
The Church Sisters Sing
The National Anthem

Along Vendors Row

The Camp Houston Youth Stage

Audience at the Youth Stage

 The Main Stage

The Details

Tickets for this two day festival are $30.00. They may be ordered online here. There are limited camping available on site as well as plenty of campgrounds and motels in the Galax area. 

How to Get to Felts Park in Galax
place your locaction in the o space and hit return for a personalized map

Felts Park in Galax has a long and storied history as the home of the Old Fiddler's Convention, held annually in August, for the past 80 years. Now, HoustonFest has enlarged and expanded that reputation, combining history with youth, innovation with tradition. This event packs more into a two day period than any other festival we attend. It's impossible to highlight the wonderful things that happen here, to capture the inspiration that Houston Caldwell's short life and tragic passing has engendered. For aspiring young musicians, it has become a mecca in their efforts. For fans who wish to be on the inside of recognizing up-and-comers, HoustonFest is a must attend weekend. 

Houston Caldwell

Tuesday, April 14, 2015

Big Lick Bluegrass Festival - Oakboro, NC - Review

Jeff Branch, the promoter of the Big Lick Bluegrass Festival in Oakboro, NC, the first outdoor festival of the festival season in North Carolina, has patiently and carefully built his festival, improving the site, the quality of sound, and the lineup. This year's festival shows that he has succeeded in his efforts and that he still has room in terms of space and quality to continue his festival's advancement. Nevertheless, there wasn't a clunker in the lineup, and despite all the efforts of the weatherman to suppress attendance, there wasn't a drop of water for three days, and Friday offered the first opportunity in months to sit outside on a warm, pleasant evening enjoying first rate bluegrass. Sound by Blue Ridge Sound was superb and the lighting on the portable stage was about as good as LED lights can get. Founder John Holder has built several teams to run sound on busy weekends, each of which does a fine job and is provided with first rate equipment. The results show.

Thursday - Open Mic

We went over to the Big Lick site to catch a few of the Open Mic bands after setting up camp in the Uwharrie National Forest Arrowhead Campround. After a couple of months hearing local bands and open mics in Florida, we had forgotten how impressive even inexperienced North Carolina bluegrass bands are. We were most impressed by The Charlottetown Collective, playing its first ever gig. If they continue to develop, they will demand serious attention in the not too distant future. Brandon Henson on banjo is a real standout. A young, local band, whose name I've lost, also showed promise.

Stonewashed Bluegrass

 Charlottetowne Collective

Brandon Henson & Jim Fraley

The Renaissance Bluegrass Band
The Stonewall Band
Chelsea Rhodes, Sarah Fowler & Kelly Smith

Aaron Hollman

James Hathcock

Bethel University is a small (enrollment just over 6000), church related college founded in 1842 located in McKenzie, Tennessee. The college has initiated a strong performing arts component called Renaissance in their college activities which supports a range of majors in music as well as music related technology and business. The Renaissance Bluegrass Band is an active component of this program. Directed by Stephen Mougin, who was on tour with the Sam Bush Band this weekend, the Renaissance Bluegrass band has become strong enough to send two bands to Big Lick where their skill, youth, enthusiasm, and personal magnetism was met with well-deserved appreciation from the audience. Unsurprisingly, their program was heavy on gospel bluegrass, but their secular material was strong and enjoyable, too. The Renaissance band showed vast improvement in poise, musicality, and performance over last year. The division into two bands meant fewer (if there were any) repeat songs while providing seasoning for all members. I'm certain they'll be back at Big Lick next year. 

Renaissance Bluegrass - College Drive

College Drive has benefited from an additional year of working together, which shows across the board. Nicole Brand, is a standout as a singer, fiddler and band emcee. She exhibits the kind of personal magnetism you look for in a band along with playing the most difficult bluegrass instrument of them all.

Nicole Brand

Jay Kaczov

Corey Kirkland

Sydni York

Matthew Jones

College Drive - Redwood Hill - Video

Deeper Shade of Blue

Deeper Shade of Blue is a regional bluegrass band out of Monroe, NC which demonstrates in spades the dilemma of too many excellent bands. The band is filled with members who have professional road esperience, but who, for a variety of reasons, are not committed to full time touring. They are an excellent band, representative of many North Carolina bands. Father/son duo Jim Fraley on banjo and Jason Fraley on mandolin are both excellent. Frank Poindexter is an uncle of Tony Rice who toured with the Larry Rice band. Troy Pope is a fine tenor singer and rhythm guitarist. Matt Love played with Darin & Brooke Aldridge for a couple of years. Deeper Shade of Blue is a fine band at any level.

Jason Fraley & Matt Love

Jim Fraley

Troy Pope

Frank Poindexter

Deeper Shade of Blue - Pretty Sights & Pretty Sounds - Video

 The Spinney Brothers

The Spinney Brothers, the Annapolis Valley of Nova Scotia's current gift to the U.S., played four sets over two days, one of which was a last minute substitution for the ailing James King. Their music represents a good mixture of traditional music in both country and bluegrass genres mixed with traditional sounding new bluegrass songs by the likes of Tom T and Miss Dixie Hall and Mark "Brink" Brinkman. They are always professional and thoroughly prepared. They were well-received at Big Lick and have experienced increased popularity since being signed by Mountain Fever records. They've been nominated for several IBMA awards.

Rick Spinney

Alan Spinney

Gary Dalrymple

Terry Poirier

Ace Sound Man - Scotty Bolen

The Darrell Webb Band

The Darrell Webb Band hit the stage with high energy and enthusiasm, retaining it through its entire set before leaving the stage hot and elated at their reception and performance. Darrell Webb has been in the consciousness of bluegrass fans for over two decades and almost always been an impressive performer. The most recent shows we've seen have featured Darrell with young bands of impressive young pickers. Cory Hensly has been with him for several years. The others are new, and have been playing with him at his full time gig in the Knoxville area.  Andy Ruff was impressive on Dobro and has a fine baritone voice to complement Darrell's high tenor. Cody Hill did a fine job on banjo. I've never seen Darrell's sister Becky before, and she was fine on bass and vocals. It was good to see Darrel and his band doing so well.

Darrell Webb

Andy Ruff

Cory Hensley

Becky Webb

Cody Hill

The Bass Mountain Boys

During the eighties and nineties the Bass Mountain Boys were a major touring band. After the death of John Maness, they disbanded, but recently they've begun appearing on a limited basis. All the members have commitments to other bands or careers, but if you get a chance to see this band, jump at it! Johnny Ridge, who could only appear on their evening set, remains a force of nature on fiddle, guitar, and vocals. Mike Aldridge is a fine mandolin player and comic foil, and Steve Dilling remains the king of band emcees. Mike Street is a strong singer and bass player, and Mike Wilson has a good lead voice. Keep an eye on fifteen year old Nathan Aldridge,  who played fiddle on the first set and rhythm guitar on the second. He'll be a terrific addition to some band on fiddle.

Johnny Ridge

Steve Dilling

Mike Aldridge

Mike Wilson

Mike Street

Nathan Aldridge

Bass Mountain Boys (Reunion Band)
Old Time Train Medley - Video

Joe Mullins Warming Up

Joe Mullins & the Radio Ramblers

Joe Mullins has the best band he's had since I've been watching him. Joe Mullins & the Radio Ramblers have added Dwayne Sparks as lead singer a couple of years ago. His addition has added the necessary high quality vocals. Randy Barnes came on providing his always reliable bass beat. Now the pieces have fallen into place with fiddler Jason Barie added, and getting the opportunity to shine of fiddle after some years of mostly background work. Mike Terry, solidly reliable on vocals and mandolin is the only remaining member of the Radio Ramblers. Meanwhile, the band appears to be having more fun than they ever have, both on and off-stage. Good show.

Jason Barie & Joe Mullins

Mike Terry

Dwayne Sparks

Jason Barie

Sound Guys - Luke Gallegos & Scotty Bolen

Sherry Boyd - Emcee

Junior Sisk & Ramblers Choice

Junior Sisk is a shy, unassuming mountain guy who finds himself doing lots of things as a band leader that don't come naturally to him as a person. Nevertheless, as the leader and main meal ticket of Junior Sisk & Ramblers Choice, he has become good at most of the tasks required of a first rate band leader. In the past couple of years the band has gone through several band changes and come through them stronger than before. Most recently, Kameron Keller has joined the band on bass, with a rock solid bass beat driving the band, and on the way to being a key member of the vocal trio. Jamie Harper, on fiddle, can also sing, as well as help out on emceeing responsibilities and humorous bits. Junior is the go to man when seeking a high lonesome voice. as well as being one of the finest rhythm guitar players in bluegrass music.

Junior Sisk

Jamie Harper

Kameron Keller

Jason Davis

Jonathan Dillon

We had a fine time at the Big Lick Bluegrass Festival, and look forward to next year's event. If you haven't been there yet, you should check it out.

Promoter Jeff Branch

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