By Julie Hauserman • Special to the Times
I wasn't a big bluegrass fan when I went to my first Suwannee Springfest music festival in North Florida. The only bluegrass I knew was hillbilly music that sounded like the same monotonous string song over and over.
Wow, was I wrong. Twelve years later, I am among the thousands who flock to Springfest each year to hear an outstanding, eclectic lineup of musicians — not just bluegrass. Musicians travel from all over the world to play in the tiny town of Live Oak, along the Suwannee River.
The music is so good, and such a value, you almost don't want to tell anybody about it.
I've seen a 14-year-old Tampa Bay area mandolin prodigy kick out a tune by funk legend Prince; a young Canadian band segue improbably from an Afro-Cuban-French-Canadian pop tune into a smoking rendition of Led Zeppelin's Whole Lotta Love; a North Florida string band play acoustic arrangements of Pink Floyd's The Wall. I've danced myself sweaty while a Miami House of God steel guitar band whips the crowd into a gospel frenzy at 1 a.m.
Favorite of fans, bands alike
Founders Beth and Randy Judy search the country for good talent and choose a mix of genres that go under the umbrella of "Americana" music. The lineup is a fusion of alt-country, funk, folk, traditional string bands, blues, gospel and jazz. The energy is young, fresh and frequently surprising.
Based in Jacksonville, the Judys put on two festivals at Live Oak every year — Suwannee Springfest annually in March and Magnolia Fest every October. Both festivals take place at the 700-acre private Spirit of the Suwannee Music Park — a destination in itself. It has primitive camping, 600 RV spots, cabins, canoes for rent, a restaurant, stores and a riverfront beach.
Suwannee Music Park has a unique stage — a natural amphitheater filled with live oak trees. Concertgoers hang dozens of hammocks there during the weekend. The informal rule is that you can get in anyone's hammock and relax, but you have to climb out when the owner returns. I have spent hours lying there, listening to music, visiting with friends and gazing up into the Spanish moss in the trees. More than once, I've seen an owl swoop out and check out the crowd.
"There's something about the atmosphere here," says Jim Lauderdale, a longtime Americana music performer from Nashville who won this year's Grammy for Bluegrass Album of the Year (Bluegrass Diaries). "It's one of my favorite places in the world to play."
The festival draws up to 7,500 people but the park rarely feels crowded because it is so expansive. Many travelers come early and vacation for a week.
"When people come to a music festival, they don't have to go anywhere for three or four days. It makes you feel good, and feeling good is not as common as it ought to be," says Jeb Puryear, lead guitarist for the Ithaca, N.Y., band Donna the Buffalo, a Suwannee fest favorite that sets progressive lyrics against danceable funk, Cajun and jams.
"This is in the top three festivals we do, and we do a lot of festivals," Puryear said. "Music reflects the power of living, and people that are really living, they really love music."
Long, music-filled days and nights
Your day at Suwannee Springfest might start with a bike ride, or a swim in the coffee-colored river. You might grab a hammock for the morning's music. But rest up, because pacing is key. There are four days and four stages, with music from about 10 a.m. through 2 a.m. And the music at the informal campground stages lasts beyond dawn.
Talk to any musician who plays here and they will tell you how much they value the synergistic musical community that has grown up in Live Oak. In this little place out in the woods, musical sparks create new alliances and styles that go across the world when the tour buses roll out onto the interstate.
"Coming here, we get inspired. It is so open to different styles," says 32-year-old Leonard Podolak, founder of the Canadian band the Duhks, which fuses Afro-Cuban percussion with traditional folk, gospel and Celtic music.
The Suwannee fest has been good to the Duhks: After their debut here, they got a record deal, an international tour and a Grammy nomination in 2006.
"Every festival, we're painting a picture, and all the bands are a different part of the palette," Beth Judy says. "There are some colors we use all the time and some we use once in a while."
Many of the young performers at Suwannee are what I call "bluegrass babies." They are the children of bluegrass players, the ones toddling at the foot of the stage and playing shaky fiddle for spare change. Now grown, they are moving the music forward.
Josh Pinkham was 12 the first time I saw him play at Suwannee; now he's an 18-year-old pro. Like everybody else, I was blown away by the mandolin prodigy from Odessa who seems to have come into the world hardwired with inventive, soulful jazz licks.
"The great thing about this place is that when the festival is over for the night, people don't leave and go home," his father, Jeff Pinkham, says. "You can walk 80 steps into a campground where everybody's picking."
And so it is one Thursday night at last year's Magnolia Fest, after the stages close for the evening. I am at the campsite of Dread Clampitt, a talented band from North Florida's Walton County who learned the Beatles' White Album entirely by ear and perform it on acoustic guitar, mandolin, fiddle and upright bass.
Their leader, mandolin player Balder Saunders, comes from North Florida Cracker stock. He writes from place, the way traditional bluegrass pickers have always done. He may be singing about pine trees and shrimp boats, but his arrangements are influenced by John Coltrane and Louis Armstrong. Call it "jazz-grass."
Visiting Suwannee is like "going to college and going to a (music) seminar," Saunders says.
Dread Clampitt's campsite is shoulder-to-shoulder string players, with fingers and bows flying. Music and campfire sparks waft up through the trees.
It sounds even better out here in the woods under the stars than it does on the stage. And the best part? I've got three more days here and nothing to do but listen.
Julie Hauserman, a former St. Petersburg Times reporter, is a freelance writer based in Tallahassee.