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A folksy welcome to spring

Looking for a way to officially acknowledge the arrival of the Vernal Equinox?

Okay purists, so it's a day early; still the third annual Will McLean Day Music Festival at Rainbow Springs from 10 a.m. to 10 p.m. on March 19 is as about as good a way to say goodbye to winter as I have found.

My one worry is that if I keep writing about the thing I will eventually contribute to the destruction of what is, for me, the best part of the festival _ its intimacy.

With an entire beautiful state park including a crystal-clear bubbling spring, artificial waterfall, great facilities and beautiful walking trails at their disposal, only a few hundred people have attended the first two festivals in honor of the late Will McLean, who wrote more than 3,000 folk songs, most of them about Florida.

That makes for a comfortable day in the open with minimal distraction and 12 solid hours of folk music produced by the top acts in the state. Storytelling, songwriting and autoharp workshops, craft demonstrations, Cracker foods and watercolor art displays _ all within hearing of the music _ contribute to the realization that the park in Marion County (just north of Dunnellon on U.S. 41) is almost tailor-made for this type of outing.

A gently sloping open area faces the stage with the spring as backdrop and creates naturally beautiful acoustics unusual in just about all outdoor venues.

A central feature is the songwriting contest for best Florida song. This year's contest of 48 entries is being judged by folk legend Pete Seeger, who was a friend of McLean.

Featured acts include Simple Gifts, Boomslang, Bob Dampman, Dennis Devine, Glenn Geiger and Mary Ann DiNella, Mark and Linda Fackledy, Jeannie Fitchen, Doug Gauss (the songwriter leading the campaign to substitute a Will McLean song for Old Folks at Home as the Florida State Song), Stan Geberer, Don Grooms, Charlie Groth and Jan Milner, Chuck Hardwicke, Bobby Hicks, Ed Hoovler, the Johnson Family, Lance and Barbi Lazonby, Ron and Bari Litschauer, Grant Livingston, Whitey Markle, Lisa Martin, Wayne Martin, Sam Pacetti, Lee Paulet, Robin Plitt, John and Mem Semmes, SouthWind, Mark Smith, Frank and Ann Thomas and Ray and Gabe Valla.

Will McLean, who died in 1990, was born in Chipley and is generally credited with being Florida's premiere songwriter.

A character who provided not only reams of music but hours of storytelling material about his antics, his pranks and his kindnesses as well, McLean left a legacy of Floridiana that his longtime friend and associate Margaret Longhill is trying to keep alive through the festival, songwriting contests and a book on which she is working.

Rainbow Springs has excellent toilet facilities, although seating and the amount of under-roof shelter are limited, making lawn chairs and an umbrella a good idea. A little sunscreen wouldn't hurt and a jacket or sweater can come in handy. The walk back to the parking area at night can be long and dark, and it is suggested that you carry a flashlight.

Advance tickets through the Will McLean Foundation, 9264 N Santos Drive, Citrus Springs, FL 334434, are $10. Tickets at the gate will be $12. There will be $1 discounts for students and seniors.

See you there.