2017 Silver Dollar City Bluegrass and BBQ: Rhonda Vincent and the Rage (and so much more)
It's that time of year again!!!
Yes folks, it is that time of year again, the annual Bluegrass and BBQ festival in good ol' Silver Dollar City! People from around the country come to our little corner of the world and spend a day, week or entire month here eating pulled pork, slabs of ribs, roast corn and listening to some of the best bluegrass this side of Kentucky.
Folks, it jes' don' get no better'n that!
Fist things first...
First off, we need to state (for the record) what one requires to play Bluegrass: a guitar, a fiddle and a banjo. While most bands will include all three of these, some will choose two of them to make that sweet music I and others like me love. These three instruments are instrumental (hah! Get that?) in what is needed to provide the sound that is traditional Bluegrass music. With only these instruments one can produce the music that will fill the soul, force the toe to tap and the heart to alternately soar and weep.
Of course, they ain't the only ones most bands use, although they are the focal point. We can add any of the following, or even all of them to round out the sound that is Bluegrass. The next that needs to be included is a baseline sound so step up bass fiddle! That big ol' sound that emanates from the body of the bass provides the tempo from which all other instruments revolve during the songs. Of course, if'n yain't got that ya kin jes toot 'cross the mouth of a jug and get a good tempo from that.
From there you need a dobro. This unique guitar-like instrument provides an alternate sound for the listener and is my favorite in the mix. Somewhat sounding like a cross between a steel guitar and a slide guitar, the sound produced is easy to distinguish and blends well with the other band instruments.
Then there is that other stringed instrument, the Mandolin. Tuned higher than any of the others, this is another of those unique to Bluegrass sounds which are rarely if ever found outside the genre. Rare indeed is a Bluegrass band which does not include a Mandolin.
When brought together these comprise the sound that is Bluegrass. Even if one does not sing one can be Bluegrass as there are countless instrument-only songs which are fun to listen to and play. But the voice is the tie that binds in Bluegrass. Commonly called a "High Lonesome" sound, Bluegrass vocals are unique. Sometimes steady, sometimes quavering, always filled with a hurt and lonesomeness few other genres of music can hope to match, a true Bluegrass voice is something to behold.
I began this article as a means to teach others what Bluegrass is, what instruments comprise the bands and to share my favorite music with any readers which might find it. What I did not expect to learn myself is something that was hiding in plain sight, evident to any that love the music yet hidden from those of us who are not able to attend the shows as much as we might like: just how much of a family this genre really is.
When I say family, I mean it in a literal sense as well as a metaphorical sense. Literally, many of these groups are made up of family members and sometimes entire families. One group was led by the parents and included a 24 year old son, a 21 year old son, a 19 year old daughter, a 17 year old son, a 13 year old daughter and an 11 year old son. I am learning that in this world of Bluegrass, there are groups that everyone knows and there are lesser known groups like this who travel around whenever they can.
And this leads to the metaphorical families. Every group out there, famous or not, are included in this extended family. They all know one another, help one another, appear with one another, play jokes on one another. They go to the same festivals, stay in the same motels, dine together. They loan themselves to one another to play together, share music and basically display every nuance that makes a family a family.
Then there are the fans of these groups. They too travel to these same festivals and know the performers by name, and the performers know the fans by name as well. I stood outside the Opera House at SDC after the Rhonda Vincent shows and watched in amazement as she and her band stood for as long as it took for every fan to get a picture, buy a CD, shake hands, get a hug, a picture, a moment with them. Smiling all the way, they never once begged off or left until the final person walked away with a smile and a wave. It took me back to my younger days at the Country Music shows I worked, watching Marty Robbins, Porter Wagoner, and Loretta Lynn as they selflessly gave of themselves to their fans.
Here I will mention a few of the people I have met during this month as a means to let you know some of the people who follow Bluegrass. Hailing from Alaska to Florida, Texas to Wisconsin, New York to California these fans have traveled to little ol' Branson just to watch their favorite bands, find the newcomers and visit amongst themselves whenever they are not listening to the music. People like the Bluegrass Gals, a group of nine or ten ladies led by Norma Jean, Audrey and Flo from across the area who come together here for the better part of a month just to see their favorites. They are a hoot, let me tell you and are they ever dedicated, sitting in the exact same seats in every venue they attend, seeing three shows a day of their chosen group that day then filling in the holes between shows with other artists. Then there is a man named Dean and his wife who I see every day, as he begins each and every morning by marching in the Opening Ceremony as a member of the Veteran Parade whose job it is to hoist the flag, lead the Pledge of Allegiance, and sing our National Anthem. And then there is John who came here to fish for trout in the morning, and listen to bluegrass the rest of the day. Each day I get a fishing report, including what they were feeding on. A couple of days ago he let me know a 19 inch Rainbow he caught had a third of a hot dog in its stomach! Here I was fooling around with flies when they preferred hot dogs! Who knew?
And then there is Nancy and her husband who had an opportunity a few years ago to give back to one of their favorite groups, Nothin' Fancy when the band's bus broke down in their home town on a weekend and they were able to contact a mechanic they knew, arranged to get the bus fixed and on the road again. On a Sunday no less!
I will miss these and others I have come to know at the end of this festival as a large percentage of them will either go home or continue to travel as it might be a year before I see them once more. They have become more than mere patrons of the park: they have become friends.
During this month long adventure that is discovering groups here at SDC, I have constantly had my eyes opened to more and more talented Bluegrass musicians. While I had heard of Rhonda and several other prominent groups, most I had not. Well, I have definitely heard of them now!
The first group I encountered which was new to me was Flatt Lonesome. A young (the eldest is only 26!) group which includes three siblings have won various awards including 2017 IBMA Female Vocalist of the Year Charli Robertson, who has as haunting a voice as I have ever heard. After hearing this group I realized A) Bluegrass is in good hands in some young people and B) there are some really good groups out there today.
Other groups which I found great to listen to that first week were Driven, Frank Solivan and Dirty Kitchen, Joe Mullins and Radio Ramblers, Lonesome Road and the Kody Norris Show. Kody Norris is a fun throwback to an earlier era which included Porter Wagoner and other country groups wearing those glittering suits full of designs and rhinestones, quick moving music and fun banter between the members.
Rhonda Vincent and the Rage start week two off, having arrived on Sunday. Rhonda is a multiple time award winner and is termed the Queen of Bluegrass, a title well earned. Of course, she is a gracious person who well understands what it means to speak with her public and offers virtually everyone in her band the opportunity to showcase their skills be it playing or singing.
Following Rhonda in the Opera House were the Kruger Brothers, a trio from of all places Switzerland! Yes, it was through these gentlemen I learned that Bluegrass, while American in nature is not limited to America in appeal. These gentlemen are phenominal pickers, remaining seating in chairs and visiting with the crowd between songs. Others I saw this week included the Moron Brothers, Po Ramblin' Boys, Special Consensus and the Farnum Family.
I also watched a group named Bull Harman and Bull's Eye which I enjoyed, and later learned something about a member of that group which I will elaborate more on later.
On Sunday of that week I watched another family group, one that performs right here in Branson on a regular basis: the Petersens. Comprised entirely of siblings (with a single exception) these kids are just so talented! Singing, playing, and possessing an easy sibling banter that leaves one laughing, they are fun to watch and a joy to listen to. If you are in Branson be sure to check them out at the IMAX Friday, Saturday and Sunday at 5:00 PM. And if you are lucky, you just might get to hear Ellen sing "Blue", a song written for Patsy Cline yet unperformed by her due to her untimely death; later LeAnn Rimes took it and started her career with it. When I heard LeAnn sing it I felt as though no one but she and Patsy could do that song justice: well, I was wrong. Ellen does more than justice to it, it could easily have been written for her! Oh, does that little lady have a voice!!
I have to speak more here on the Po Ramblin' Boys. These guys are a hoot! Dressed in suits from days past they embody the old time Bluegrass and Country sound I grew up with. Featuring some quick pickin' and talkin' they are one of the best groups I have seen this month. Check them out if you get a chance.
This week brought another of the headliner groups to the Opera House, Doyle Lawson and Quicksilver. Multi-award winners and featuring some talented performers, they are fun to watch and one of the reasons people come to SDC during this month.
Michael Feagan and the Fiddlegrass Band features a legend in Bluegrass, Michale Feagan. Having once played with Bluegrass legend Bill Monroe he is a fiddler extraordinaire. Other groups this week included Donna Ulise and the Poor Mountain Boys, the Lonesome River Band, Claybank, Possum Trot (gotta love that name!) and the Larry Stephenson Band. There was some fun byplay including Larry this week, as he "crashed" the set of the Grascals as they appeared in the Opera House, wandering on stage as they played. Well, they repaid the honor. As I walked by where Larry was playing I saw four people running around the outside of the theater, trying to get in. When I looked closer I saw it was the Grascals. We spoke briefly and they asked me to help them get inside to "crash Larry's set like he crashed ours". Of course, I obliged by leading them around the theater exterior and opened the backstage door, allowing them entrance. Once I went inside to where the seats were I saw them peeking their heads out, grinning like a possum. Larry didn't know what to make of them at first then realized who they were and what was going on. At the end of his song they opened the curtains center stage and waved to the crowd as Larry introduced them. Folks, that is only one example of how these people get along, playing jokes and helping one another time and again. Like I said, a family.
Now I want to speak more on the group I touched on earlier when mentioning Bull Harman. Their name is #Mashtag and they are made up of five young artists who literally have played together a very short time yet have a sound unmatched by more experienced artists in my opinion. Fresh, talented and fun, they flat tore up the stage. I received a text from someone inside at their first set telling me I had to get over there and quick! When I did, I knew I was seeing some of the most talented people yet to perform this year. Led by "doghouse" base player Wyatt Harman (son of Bull Harman) and including fiddle player Maddie Denton (award winning fiddle player), mandolin player Zion Napier, banjo player Jared Lindsey and guitar player/lead singer Zack Topp this group is something to behold. Their first time playing together was in September 2016 at a showcase for the IBMA, then two more showcases for the same venue. Following that they played together in February 2017 in Nashville for three more showcases, this time for the SPBGMA ceremony, which they promptly won. Yes, they won over many other groups who have played together longer. So, leading into the Bluegrass and BBQ at SDC this month, they have played together a grand total of six (6)times!
And they have a sound you will not soon forget, my friends. Look for them when they come your way; I promise you will not be disappointed.
The final week of Bluegrass and BBQ begins Tuesday, May 23 and concludes Monday May 29. Featuring more bands than you can shake a stick at including Nothin' Fancy, Alan Bibey and Grasstowne, Blue Highway, the Lindsey Family (remember Jared in #Mashtag? Yep, that family.) and Michael Cleveland and Flamekeeper. Let's talk a bit about Michael: ten time (yes, I said TEN TIME) Fiddler of the year; blind; deaf in one ear. But oh my can this fella play!! I have NEVER heard a fiddle played like this ol' boy can play. Take a peek at him as he plays with the Po' Ramblin' Boys earlier in this hub.
Then we have the KSMO Youth In Bluegrass Band Contest on Saturday May 27, filled with a ton of good, young talent looking to make a dent in the business. These may be as young as middle or high school students or they might be a tad older but all are talented and hungry.
The Sunday before Memorial Day, May 28 will see Ricky Skaggs and Kentucky Thunder perform at Silver Dollar City in the Echo Hollow Amphitheatre. This venue holds 4,000 in seating and another 1,000 or so in SRO. Rest assured, this will be a packed house on this evening! So come on down and enjoy our final week of Bluegrass and BBQ!
Now this band Nothin' Fancy has been a joy to watch and listen to as each set of theirs includes a different group of songs, no repeats. And their final show was something to behold as they pulled out all the stops on the last number they were playing. A Bluegrass staple, the Orange Blossum Special was NEVER played like this with the band members walking off stage to allow the fiddle player to play, of all things, some classical music for us hillbillies. So he played portions of three classical songs as a couple of the other members of the band danced across the stage, flitting along like nothing I've ever seen to our immense enjoyment before gathering back onstage and finishing the song with a vengeance. Oh yeah, the lead singer had his hair in dog ears too. We laughed like I have never seen and they left to a standing room only standing ovation.
Then I went over to catch the Lindsey family. Totaling eleven children, this musical family is wonderful. To me there is nothing like family harmonies and I have never heard such harmony before. Singing John Denver, yodeling and even some Gospel a capella they are truly amongst the most talented family I have ever heard.
Here I have to give kudos to the mastermind behind SDC'c Bluegrass and BBQ: D.A. Callaway. D.A. has been hailed as both IBMA and SPBGMA "Bluegrass Promoter Of The Year" multiple times and SDC has been honored by the IBMA as the "Bluegrass Event Of The Year". Not too bad for a little ol' city with 28 residents!
I also have to give kudos to two groups who are playing virtually every day this month at SDC: the Sons of the Silver Dollar and Horse Creek. The Sons are three gentlemen who form a trio singing songs in a karaoke style environment, with prerecorded music backing them. Horse Creek is an old time country/bluegrass group filled with people I work with at other times of the year in various environments. Butch emcees, sings lead and plays guitar; Larry plays mandolin and is another who played with Bill Monroe years ago. Incidentally, he also gave me the backstory to one of my favorite Bluegrass tunes, Jerusalem Ridge. I love it when I can learn about something I love! Steve plays the base and worked with me during the It's A Wonderful Life musical during Christmas, as did Lisa who plays fiddle.
SDC also features the Homestead Pickers, a collection of true old timers who play instruments, tell stories and jokes, and start the day off right.
So in the words of the Beverly Hillbilly's "Y'all come back now, y'hear!" See you soon!