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Festival for folks offers great yarns and music

Keeping in mind that it might be the last chance you get for a while, think about taking this weekend to walk the sandy shaded soil of the Sertoma Youth Ranch north of Dade City, listen to some of the finest folk and acoustic musicians in Florida and enjoy peace _ a commodity that will probably soon be in short supply.

I'm talking about the annual Will McLean Music Festival, the event that always lets you know spring is right around the corner and makes you glad it is.

This will be the 12th year in a row that I have attended the festival and, even in times of personal tragedy and through an instance or two of pretty wet weather, I have never had anything but a great time.

Time for the annual disclaimer. I began acting as master of ceremonies for some festival events a few years back _ mostly, I think, because the people with talent got tired of watching me stand around and do nothing, and I do get a paycheck for my appearances, which I immediately hand over to a charitable organization, so I have no financial interest in the success or failure of the event, which is overseen by the nonprofit Will McLean Foundation.

But I and a lot of regular attendees and performers would be heartbroken if it stopped. We remember the day that Don Grooms was singing Wild Birds, and a wild bird flew under the roof of the stage, circled his head twice and flew away.

We remember the time Jeannie Fitchen was speaking about the beauty of Rainbow Springs when a rainbow suddenly formed behind her, and we remember the time the train showed up at exactly the right time to provide sound effects for the last verse of a duo singing John Henry. The festival moved, for one year, to the Withlacoochee Backwaters campground in 1996 but a year later found what seems to be a permanent home at the Sertoma Youth Ranch, which offers perfect stage locations and close-in camping for both musicians and fans.

I have to admit I was a little disappointed at that move, because it meant I didn't get travel money for covering the event any more, but I fell in love with the new venue and, a year or two later when my joints and a few other body parts decided my camping days were pretty much over, I came to really enjoy the fact that it is only 10 miles from my home.

The event takes place Saturday and Sunday, with admission at the gate being $20 for both days, $12 for Saturday only (which includes evening performances) and $10 for Sunday only.

For the $20, you get two days and one evening of continuous folk music and storytelling performances on three stages, along with various workshops and demonstrations at other locations.

Old favorites include Mary Ann DiNella, the New Sand Mountain Wildcats, White Markle and the Swamprooters, Ken Skeens and Leigh Goldsmith, Bobby Hicks, Frank and Ann Thomas, Boomslang, Jak Kelly, Mindy Simmons, Steve Blackwell & Friends, Jeannie Fitchen, the Ashley Gang, Sue Grooms, Southwind, Okefenokee Joe, Shanna, Amy Carol Webb, Ron & Bari Litchschauer, Jon Semmes and the Florida Friends, Grant Livingston, Val C. Wisecracker, Devine & Laroche, Chuck Hardwicke, Pete & Pete (Hennings and Price) and others.

I dropped by the campground Wednesday, ostensibly to pick up a copy of the program, actually to see if there were any early arrivals, and found there were six musicians there, and a jam session already in progress.

The scheduled events at this and any other folk festival are a big part of the event, but if you have the stamina (or, as I do, sneak a mid-afternoon nap in the back of the van), what happens at night around the campfire is magic.

A few years back, I sat and heard my friend Dennis Devine jam with Dr. Glenn Geiger, a University of South Florida professor; and Boomslang, who is a land use attorney; and watched as Jim Billie, who was then Seminole tribal chairman, walked out of the fog to join them.

When you sit on a log in front of a fire with gators grunting in the background and hear a doctor, a lawyer and an Indian chief sing in harmony, you're having an evening to remember, and somewhere at some time this weekend, something as fascinating will be happening at the Will McLean festival.

Come and see if I am wrong.