SPRING LAKE — There will be some down-home pickin' and strummin' and plenty of singing about Florida's beauty and folklore as the 27th annual Will McLean Music Festival gets underway today at the Sertoma Youth Ranch.
What started out as a memorial for McLean — the late, great father of Florida folk who died in 1990 — has evolved into a three-day festival featuring more than 70 acoustic musicians across the state.
The genre is decidedly folk. But this year's lineup promises a blend of Americana — country, bluegrass, soul and maybe even a touch of jazz.
Among those performing: Mindy Simmons, Passerine, Grant Peeples, Frank Julian, Jordan Cherkinsky, Amy Carol Webb, Brian Smalley, Still Friends, and Whitey Markle and the Swamprooters.
The event has lost none of its down-home charm for festival founder Margaret Longhill, a friend of McLean who was part of a group that wanted to "save a little bit of Florida."
Longhill coordinated the festival up until three years ago and now enjoys the backseat stance that gives her the opportunity to take it all in.
"I barely know where middle C is on the piano, but I just appreciate these musicians. There are some wonderful, talented musicians that write songs about Florida, and there's still a lot of people that try to appreciate the land, the water and the creatures of the earth," said Longhill, 94, adding that one of her favorite parts of the festival is the campfire song circles that bring amateur and seasoned professionals together for some intimate jam sessions under the stars.
This year, Longhill will be an honored guest, taking center stage for a series of short interviews between musical acts Saturday night, said current event coordinator Lynn Wodjenski.
"She's been the driving force behind the festival for all these years, and she has a lot of interesting stories to tell," Wodjenski said.
After moving to Florida in the late 1970s, Longhill, a Tennessee native and former English teacher, came to appreciate Florida's sunshine and flowers, the white sandy beaches of the Panhandle and the place in Dunnellon where she now resides — where the Withlacoochee and Rainbow rivers meet.
"You can't imagine how beautiful it is," she said.
Saving beauty in song is at the root of the festival for Longhill, who is looking forward to hearing the top three winners of the annual songwriter contest she started some years back to keep Florida folk alive.
Among them will be Lauren Nicole Heintz, who was named winner of the 2016 Will McLean Song Contest for her song, Florida Born and Bred.
Heintz, 60, who lives in Winter Park, has performed at the festival for three years and will debut some tunes from her new CD, Where I Belong, which was released in January.
She said she is excited about the win and the rising success of an encore career as a musician after stints in the Air Force and later as software engineer in Silicon Valley.
"To win the Will McLean contest is a great resume item. It helps sell myself to other venues around the country," said Heintz, who counts Jim Croce, Gordon Lightfoot, Carole King and the Beatles as influences.
"The Will McLean festival is one of the meeting places for Florida folk family," she said. "We have a lot of great festivals here in Florida, and I think it's the best in the state — maybe even the whole country."
Contact Michele Miller at [email protected] Follow @MicheleMiller52.