Way Down in the State of Florida
A week ago Saturday we woke up in New Hampshire with the temperature at six degrees, did our last bit of packing, loaded the cat into her carrier in the back seat, and headed south. Years ago, we would have driven straight through to Myrtle Beach, a drive that takes about 19 hours, but for this trip we scheduled two overnight stops. We spent New Year’s Eve near Allentown, Pennsylvania, and the next night in a dreary motel near Roanoke Rapids, North Carolina. When we left home there were six inches of snow on the ground. It was raining hard on Monday morning, when started out on our last leg, but by the time we got to Ocean Lakes Family Campground in Myrtle Beach, the temperature had reached the mid-60s, the rain had cleared, and soon our trailer was delivered to our site. Years ago we learned that we could store our trailer there, saving two thousand miles of hauling the rig, and eliminating having to shovel snow to keep it clear.
We enjoyed a couple of very pleasant days as we prepared the trailer for a season of camping in the South. Then the temperature plummeted as a massive storm hit the mid-South with deep cold accompanied by more snow than the people who live there are used to. At the beach it rained hard and then the temperatures dropped onto the 20s with high winds. We sat in the trailer with the heat going and watched TV for two days. Then, on Sunday morning, we headed farther south, stopping for the night in Kingsland, Georgia, still in the grip of the winter chill. The next day, we hopped onto I-95 for the nearly 300-mile drive to Okeechobee, Florida, the site of the YeeHaw Music Fest, our first bluegrass festival of 2017.
This version of Florida’s signature bluegrass song, “Orange Blossom Special,” is played by Chubby Wise, one of the co-writers of this frequently covered song.
In the late 1950’s bluegrass music found itself being challenged by the emergence of rock and roll. Elvis Presley and then the Beatles had changed the landscape for traditional country music, and all the top bands were having difficulty. Ralph and Carter Stanley moved south to Live Oak, Florida, where they hosted a live bluegrass radio program sponsored by a company building inexpensive houses for the burgeoning community retiring to Florida. Live Oak, a quiet, now pretty run-down town in north Florida, also became the home of the Spirit of Suwannee Music Park & Campground, home of large country and bluegrass events. In the clip below, the Stanley Brothers sing a wonderful version of Woody Guthrie’s song “Worried Man Blues,” recorded on Pete Seeger’s Rainbow Quest television show produced at WNJU-TV in Newark, NJ, at about the time they were living in Florida.
Florida is a long way from Appalachia, isolated by distance from both the mountains and the industrial development that nurtured the music in its early years. However, by the ’60s and ’70s the state was developing its own vibrant, if small, bluegrass community. The late Tom Henderson and his Bluegrass Parlor did much to help develop this. Jeff Jones writes about the history and legacy of the Bluegrass Parlor on its website. Henderson was co-owner of the Parlor and later became a DJ on WMNF-FM in Tampa, holding that gig from 1971 until his death in 2014; promoted bluegrass shows at the Plant City Historical High School and his church; and sponsored a weekly jam at the Parlor. Among the noted musicians nurtured by the program are Nashville session musician and touring fiddler Aubrey Haynie, fiddler Jason Barie, who plays for Joe Mullins and the Radio Ramblers, banjo player Corey Walker, and Corey’s younger brother Jarrod Walker, heard on mandolin below with the Claire Lynch Band singing Bill Monroe’s song “My Florida Sunshine.”
Here’s a clip featuring the Walker Brothers – Corey on banjo and Jarrod on mandolin – joining together for a rendition of David Grisman’s “EMD” (Eat My Dust).
Tony Rice lived in Crystal River, on Florida’s west coast, for a number of years. Banjo player Mark Johnson, who pioneered what he called the “clawgrass” banjo style, combining clawhammer style with more contemporary banjo sounds and approaches, also lives in Crystal River. Mark won the Steve Martin Prize for Excellence in Banjo and Bluegrass a couple of years ago. Here he is demonstrating his banjo style with Emory Lester on guitar and Kene Hyatt on bass at the studios of the Sarasota Herald-Tribune. Mark’s style is quite unusual and worth listening to.
Florida is such a big, long state that it contains seven sometimes competing bluegrass associations. Major festivals are held at the Rodehever Boys Ranch in Palatka, YeeHaw Music Fest in Okeechobee, the Sertoma Youth Ranch (two a year), and the Florida Bluegrass Classic near Brooksville. There are several smaller events in Withlacoochee, Florida, where an older campground is in the process of rebuilding its infrastructure and has returned to programming bluegrass shows and jams.
Finally, I’ll close with another version of “Orange Blossom Special,” this time played by the Steep Canyon Rangers. Note the blazing fiddle playing of Nicky Sanders and contrast it with the classic bluegrass approach of Chubby Wise. Each is completely idiosyncratic, representing the contrasting fiddle styles of two very different but related approaches to bluegrass.