SPRING LAKE — The ability to weave verse and melody into eloquent musical visions made Will McLean an instant hero to fellow Florida singer and songwriter Dale Crider, who first met McLean at the 1963 White Springs Folk Festival.
At the time, Crider was a new transplant to the Sunshine State, a young biologist with the Florida Game and Fresh Water Fish Commission who on weekends would grab his guitar and head for any place where folk musicians gathered.
His first encounter with the man everyone called "Florida's Black Hat Troubadour" was memorable in that McLean, who wasn't well known beyond the state's borders, cut such an impressive figure. Arriving at the festival in a vintage black hearse, McLean stepped out and was immediately surrounded by a throng of admirers.
But it was McLean's onstage delivery of songs such as Hold Back the Waters, Osceola's Last Words and Florida Sand that really caught Crider's attention.
"When Will was on the stage, you could hear a pin drop," said Crider, whose own music celebrates many of the ideals McLean championed. "His songs were articulate and emotional, unlike anything I had ever heard."
McLean, who died in 1990, served as a powerful inspiration for Crider and others to write Florida songs as well. Troubadours such as Gamble Rogers, Jim Ballew and Don Grooms would emerge as stars of the Sunshine State's burgeoning music scene.
That tradition continues this weekend with the 25th staging of the Will McLean Music Festival at the Sertoma Youth Ranch in southeast Hernando County. The event will feature more than 60 singers, songwriters and musicians who share a link to McLean's legacy.
Will McLean Foundation president Margaret Longhill said that even though McLean probably would have been embarrassed to have a festival named in his honor, he would have loved the concept of the gathering, which centers around a shared musical experience. "Will truly enjoyed listening to other people sing," Longhill said. "I think he would have been pleased to hear some of the great new Florida songs that are presented every year and that there are so many young musicians who share his vision of Florida."
Crider, who has performed at every festival and is set to take the stage Sunday, agreed, saying that McLean was always proud when others considered his songs worthy of being spread around. "I think it shows how much impact those songs continue to have on anyone who loves real Florida," he said. "To me, it's wonderful to know that Will left such a legacy."
Logan Neill can be reached at [email protected] or (352) 848-1435.