The Ale and The Witch Jam is Magic!

St Petersburg

The Ale & the Witch jam is magic!

In today’s Bluegrass jam climate, there are so many specialty jams popping up. Slow jams for beginners, pro jams for advanced players, B-chord jams for mashers…the list goes on and on. It is harder to find general jams that cater to all levels of players. People tend to push jams in a certain direction, so people attend those jams once and if they don’t fit into what the jam organizers are going for they rarely come back.

In St Petersburg (the town across the bay from Tampa on the western coast) is home to a very special jam that tried to brush off the identifiers and narrow bluegrass level branding. You will find this jam nearly every Wednesday in a courtyard between some upscale establishments in downtown St Pete. The jam is hosted by two of the area’s premier pickers Rob Williams (multi-instrument virtuoso) and Fil Pate (Mandolin Monster). Each of these fine men plays in multiple band formations and dabble in the far reaches of Bluegrass stylings but are without a doubt Bluegrass at heart. These two heavyweights provide the rhythm backbone for the jam allowing players all levels of experience to enjoy a hard-driving Bluegrass jam.

The Ale and the Witch plays host and backdrop for this weekly gathering and provides a high powered Omni mic, speaker system, lighting and sound man for the occasion. They also offer a discount on beverages for the jammers which is a good perk because nothing works up a thirst like Bluegrass jamming. Each week this multi-level courtyard is filled with patrons who love the live Bluegrass music or who just happened to have stumbled across this happy rabble that is held in a very popular section of downtown. In between the high-rise buildings, you can feel the cool bay breeze as the Bluegrass hits ring out into the night.

While Rob and Fil do a great job hosting and promoting this special jam, they are not the only regulars. The usual suspects who seem to take the reins each week are no slouches themselves. If you just happened to pass by and hear these regulars, you would assume that they were or are in a band together with the way they weave in and out of the mic and join together in song. While these guys and gals form an unusually cohesive unit for a jam band, they are in no means a “clique”. Each time you attend this jam you will see a new collection of players added in (all of whom are at different levels of musical development) and each is given chances to take breaks and sing songs…..This is where the magic happens at The Ale and the Witch jam…

People of all skill levels call this jam home. While each musician involved hails from a different area, plays a different style of Bluegrass and is at their own special level of development, each lends their spice to the soup to create a taste that only can be explained by witnessing it firsthand. There are no rivalries or egos, just people making music with one another in front of a live audience in one of the prettiest parts of the town. If you like jams, you owe it to yourself to be a part of the magic of the Ale and the Witch jam!

Justin Mason, Florida Bluegrass Network

#fbn #floridabluegrassnetwork #bluegrass

Heartland Bluegrass Association

Just north of Arcadia, FL on highway 17, after passing cattle grazing on each side you quickly realize you have found yourself in the “Heartland” of the state. All the things Florida is famous for come together in this one area; Orange Groves, cattle ranches, rivers, lakes, and Bluegrass. Craig’s RV Park can be found on the west side of the highway just 7 miles north of town, and at first glance, it seems like any other park tucked away in this scenic part of the state. But as you draw close, you can hear the sounds of Bluegrass music ringing. Craig’s RV boasts two stages (A large pole-barn pavilion covered stage for the winter months and a large air-conditioned concert hall for the summer months), hundreds of RV hookups and a massive property where people can primitive camp.The “season” camping area also features a concession stand with attached bathrooms and showers.

In the early 2000s the park was home to the Southwest Florida Bluegrass Association. They would hold weekend camping and shows at the park and people would come from miles around to enjoy the toe-tapping music. The place would be filled with campers, fans, and pickers for weekends at a time. In 2006, The SWFBA decided to move their organization to Venice, FL and the owners of Craig’s RV were left with a hole they couldn’t see but they could feel while reminiscing on all the friends who had made the trek to Arcadia join in on the Bluegrass fun.

A few years later a jam was organized by Allen and Vicky Wickey, the owners of the park and that old familiar feeling started to come back to the park. Each time they got together more and more pickers and grinners came out to join in, reflecting on how much they had missed getting together here. With the park owner’s encouragement, Dave Cowles and his team of “regulars” formed a 501c3 Non-Profit in 2010 called the Heartland Bluegrass Music Association of Florida, and started holding mini-festivals each 4th weekend of the month ( in December it is the weekend closest to New Years). David and his team started to bring in bands from all reaches of the state to provide the main show. Ultimately, many of the state’s top Bluegrass bands have graced the Heartland stage(s), but the show isn’t the only event.Heartland prides itself on making a full weekend family Bluegrass experience. The weekend of the festival, Heartland members get a $25 full hookup price per night ($7 per for primitive camping) so that they can get together before and after the shows to jam with friends and family. Heartland also hosts multiple jams during the weekend including a slow jam for beginning players. Before the concert, a few of the Heartland Staff hosts workshops for Guitar, Mandolin, Banjo and all the rest of the Bluegrass standard instruments. After the show there is a potluck supper for whoever wishes to partake. Heartland’s goal is to not only bring fans out to see a show but also bring musicians together and foster Bluegrass among the area’s youth. For many years the organization has held fundraisers to help young musicians go to Bluegrass camps to learn or acquire better instruments to learn on. Heartland also donates to other non-profits to help in the growth of young musicians. Just this last year they donated $1000 to Sandy’s Music Girls (an organization that fosters young women who are interested in acoustic music.)

Bluegrass associations have always been the lifeblood of Bluegrass music in the state and The Heartland Bluegrass Association goes far and above just putting on a show in order to foster Bluegrass in and around Arcadia in any way that they can. If you would like to become a member it is only $25 per year for you and your household. Membership Board meetings are held three times a year (April, September, and December) at which you can also volunteer your time to help out.

The next monthly festival is April 27th Featuring Rekindled Grass, The House Jam Band, and The Justin Mason Band.  Click the links below if you would like more information:

https://www.heartlandbluegrass.org/

https://www.facebook.com/HeartlandBluegrassMusicAssn/

Justin Mason, Florida Bluegrass Network

#fbn #floridabluegrassnetwork #bluegrass

Ft Christmas Bluegrass Festival

Ft Christmas

Since 1837, a wooden fort has stood in Christmas Florida. Created as a supply depot for the US Military in its “Seminole War” it now stands as a historical site for which the town was named after. For many years now, this site has hosted a Bluegrass festival and this year’s Ft Christmas Bluegrass Festival was the very best in years. With the day having picture perfect weather, family came out in droves to hear the Bluegrass music and spend time with loved ones. The playground was full of children, the adjacent field full of cards and the crowd was full from the stage to the road.

The Canada Brothers were the first band to take the stage sporting many decades of Bluegrass experience playing with some of the legends of Bluegrass. Clarence, Lester and Marie make up the family portion of the band filling out the lineup was Colton McCormick and Justin Mason. The band played Bluegrass classic and were dressed “to the nines” giving the feel of an old school Bluegrass show.

Taking the stage next was the Freightliners, and they kept the crowd into the music playing Bluegrass hits ranging from Flatt & Scruggs to the Steel Drivers. Doug Buchheister, Bill Miller, Michael McKee, Byron Holton, and Teresa Holton make up the band. Each member can be found most Friday nights at the Ocoee jam, but on stage they took it up another level. The vocals mix so well and the fun they have on stage is palpable. Mixed into the hit songs were a few originals that were so bluegrass you would have sworn they were written by Bill Monore himself.

Third in line was Rekindled Grass. CJ McClellan leads the band, and got some of his closest friends to fill in at the show. Even though CJ admitted certain band members has only heard some of the songs once, you would have never known they were not a seasoned touring band together for years. The vocals were so tight that some people were leaving food lines to come and see who was singing. I have had the good fortune to see some of the band members in other acts and once I saw them warm up knew it was going to be good.

The final band of the day (each band played twice) was the Sandy Back Porch. Sandy and her band are all about entertaining and today was no different. Sandy Holdman, Stan Burns, Mike Heffinger are all skilled musicians and filling in on Fiddle was Sue Tice, once of the best you will ever hear. The band mixed in hits, original music, dancing and comedy which kept smiles on all the fans faces. Sandy even participated in the “Spouse Call” in-between sets (which is similar to a hog call) and nearly came in first…and second!

A picturesque park, perfect weather, well-chosen local bands, record attendance and delicious food all factored into making the Ft. Christmas Bluegrass Festival one to remember!

Justin Mason, Florida Bluegrass Network

#fbn #floridabluegrassnetwork #bluegrass

Ft Christmas

Since 1837, a wooden fort has stood in Christmas Florida. Created as a supply depot for the US Military in its “Seminole War” it now stands as a historical site for which the town was named after. For many years now, this site has hosted a Bluegrass festival and this year’s Ft Christmas Bluegrass Festival was the very best in years. With the day having picture perfect weather, family came out in droves to hear the Bluegrass music and spend time with loved ones. The playground was full of children, the adjacent field full of cards and the crowd was full from the stage to the road.

The Canada Brothers were the first band to take the stage sporting many decades of Bluegrass experience playing with some of the legends of Bluegrass. Clarence, Lester and Marie make up the family portion of the band filling out the lineup was Colton McCormick and Justin Mason. The band played Bluegrass classic and were dressed “to the nines” giving the feel of an old school Bluegrass show.

Taking the stage next was the Freightliners, and they kept the crowd into the music playing Bluegrass hits ranging from Flatt & Scruggs to the Steel Drivers. Doug Buchheister, Bill Miller, Michael McKee, Byron Holton, and Teresa Holton make up the band. Each member can be found most Friday nights at the Ocoee jam, but on stage they took it up another level. The vocals mix so well and the fun they have on stage is palpable. Mixed into the hit songs were a few originals that were so bluegrass you would have sworn they were written by Bill Monore himself.

Third in line was Rekindled Grass. CJ McClellan leads the band, and got some of his closest friends to fill in at the show. Even though CJ admitted certain band members has only heard some of the songs once, you would have never known they were not a seasoned touring band together for years. The vocals were so tight that some people were leaving food lines to come and see who was singing. I have had the good fortune to see some of the band members in other acts and once I saw them warm up knew it was going to be good.

The final band of the day (each band played twice) was the Sandy Back Porch. Sandy and her band are all about entertaining and today was no different. Sandy Holdman, Stan Burns, Mike Heffinger are all skilled musicians and filling in on Fiddle was Sue Tice, once of the best you will ever hear. The band mixed in hits, original music, dancing and comedy which kept smiles on all the fans faces. Sandy even participated in the “Spouse Call” in-between sets (which is similar to a hog call) and nearly came in first…and second!

A picturesque park, perfect weather, well-chosen local bands, record attendance and delicious food all factored into making the Ft. Christmas Bluegrass Festival one to remember!

Don’t Play, Perform

OPINIONS FROM THE ROAD

Bluegrass is such an energetic art form but at the dawn of its creation, it was conveyed in such a stoic manner. Bands would stand on stage, not move more than was necessary, keep very serious expressions while wearing matching suits and ties. At that time, bands and musicians were trying to show the general public that the music was sophisticated regardless of its mountain sounds. It was very structured, it had very defined boundaries and walls. They were very deliberate with their storytelling, careful with their jokes and always tried to keep things as professional as possible so that the music could earn the respect it deserved.


While this was a general practice, there has always been those artists who have chosen to do their own thing. Jimmy Martin and his crass storytelling and clothing, John Hartford with his unique personality, Jim & Jesse with their pop-esq songs and vocals…ech chose to forge their own path and give their audience something different. Bluegrass is steeped in traditions that have been passed down from generations and still today you can find bands who still play like the Bluegrass Boys, Stanley Brothers or the Carter Family. Traditions are great, borrowing from someone’s style is flattering but in the end, if you take the stage as a band…you are there to perform.


There are so many pickers who can play note for note the songs from bygone days. You can pass any jam and hear “Blueridge Mountain Home” done just like Lester Flatt used to sing it and there is nothing “wrong” with that but if you take the stage as _______band….you need to perform the song like you. You need to find what makes you different and convey that to the audience.


When you take the stage in the Bluegrass world you are accepting the responsibility to PERFORM your music with people. Danny Roberts (from Grascals fame amount other things) recently said “Sometimes a person’s first exposure to Bluegrass is to see a local Bluegrass band who isn’t practiced or who don’t put on a show and assume that all Bluegrass bands are that way, and they just are not. “ That is why Danny prefers a person’s first experience hearing Bluegrass to be at a festival. That was you ensure (hopefully) that they are experiencing well-practiced musicians who work hard in their performance. If someone enjoys music and sees a good Bluegrass band perform, we know they are going to be hooked.

There are so many factors that contribute to a good performance:

Skill (obviously…but this is not the “end all be all”)

Look (have some self-respect and at least look good. No need to match or anything but at least look like your taking pride in yourself.)

Song Selection (Play a few hits your way to bring them in, then hit them with the originals. That way they have a baseline for what your sound is)

Communication (Nobody comes to a live show to listen to the radio, they come to Experience the music. You need to be able to keep them interested in between songs. They want to hear your stories and be a part of the song. Don’t go overboard here, there can be too much communication.)

Stage Presence (You don’t need to be dancing around all over the place, but people need to know you are enjoying yourself. Smile, interact with your bandmates, get into the song…do whatever it is to give the audience a reason to look up from their phone. If your miserable, they will know)

In the end, you are up there to perform not play. Anyone can play (ok, well probably most people can) but it takes an artist to perform. If you perform well, people will respond accordingly.

Justin Mason, Florida Bluegrass Network
#fbn #floridabluegrassnetwork #bluegrass

Road to Sertoma

Brooksville

Not too far from I-75 just north of Tampa, you will find a gem hidden in Brooksville. This isn’t a treasure hunt for gold or rubies, this is the Road to Sertoma where a treasure that isn’t as tangible can be found. The path from 75 to the ranch is filled with quaint back roads and farmland views to the point that you are asking yourself “Where can they be having this festival at?” As you make the turn off Meyers road and crest the hill you finally see the grove hidden from the road called The Sertoma Youth Ranch.

For over 40 years, the boy’s ranch has played host to the Sertoma Bluegrass Festival which has hosted the best of the best in Bluegrass music from popular local bands to international touring Bluegrass stars. While many festivals can boast rich histories and packed lineups, not too many can match the charm that you feel at The Sertoma Youth Ranch. It feels like a memory of bygone days before the world sped up. The camping spots are naturally divided by giant Oak trees and the canopy they create give the place its private feel. A tiny creek splits the campground and serves as a landmark for the ranches many paths and footbridges.

During the Bluegrass festival, the ranch becomes home to so many Bluegrass fans that they have had to squeeze extra spots between trees in order to accommodate the sheer number of people wanting to be a part of the family like feel. From Tuesday morning on the constant flow of campers can be seen along the main roads as people find the spots they have had for years and begin to set up for the long week of events. The ranch hands are already in full force making sure the beautiful restroom/shower facilities are immaculate and getting the handful of picking pavilions ready for all-nighters.

This year’s spring festival (as it always does) boasts a lineup filled with some of the most popular acts in Bluegrass. Balsam Range, The Grascals, Larry Stephenson, Nothing Fancy, Don Rigsby…the list goes on and on of very original artists. Alongside the main stage show, Ernie Evans with Evans Media Source (the festival’s longtime Promoter) has planned a ton of side events and activities. Mark “Brink” Brinkman, one of Bluegrass’ most well-known songwriters will be hosting a songwriting workshop. Brink is very insightful and provides aspiring writers with some tips and tricks of the trade. Alligator Alley will be hosting their “Alligator Alley Jam” all weekend which draws in some of the festivals top pickers into the 700 lane for a mashing good time. There will also be Bingo, a Pot Luck dinner and so many other side activities that you will always be able to find something to take up your time (outside of eating delicious food provided by the Ranch Café and specialized gourmet vendor options)

For jammers, it doesn’t get much better that Sertoma’s jam scene. Each year at Sertoma you can find dozens of jams spread around the ranch varying in size and style. This year, Evans Media Source has decided to make that even more of a focus by not only having the Alligator Alley Jam again but also adding in “Musicians at Large”. These musicians will be roaming around the festival all week with the sole purpose of jamming! Royce Burt, Jimmie White, Joey Lazio and a bunch more will be burning it up with pickers all across the park. If you’re a picker wanting to jam at Sertoma and can’t find a jam, walk a dozen more steps and you will surely find one.

This Bluegrass festival season has been an amazing journey winding from the beaches of Islamorada, up to the big lake, through the Everglades, through a dog park, up past the Ocala National Forest down through horse country of Bronson and Dunnellon and landing at the doorstep of The Sertoma Youth Ranch. This is not the end of the road (there are so many great Florida Bluegrass festivals and shows that are held year-round) but the Road to Sertoma has been filled with amazing Bluegrass….time
for another drink from that good well.

Justin Mason, Florida Bluegrass Network

TIME TO JAM!

OPINIONS FROM THE ROAD

Bluegrass music is special in so many ways. The tight-knit community, the festival lifestyle, the accessibility of the bands and the jamming. Anywhere you find festivals, Bluegrass Conventions or shows you will find jamming. Early in the morning until sunrise the next you can find pickers of all walks coming together to share their take on the music. Traditional jams, progressive jams, Grass-Country jams and so many variations on each that finding a new jam is always like unwrapping a new gift.

It has been a tradition since the music started that you can find band musicians, local pickers and people who just enjoy the music all mixing together and having a good time. So many national touring acts have formed just from the simple act of meeting at a jam and finding a common passion and sound. Jams are also a boon to local festivals and associations. If a festival has bountiful jamming then more jammers are likely to come and that means more ticket and camping sales which turns into more money for the Bluegrass Scene. Jamming is so vital to Bluegrass that many “Jam Only” festivals have popped up.  

While jams are innocent and fun, there is an underlying event going on….networking. While it may not be as obvious as “After Hours” drinks with co-workers or large trade conferences, Bluegrass Jams are a place people come together to meet others and be seen. You can have the guitar skills of Norman Blake or the vocal prowess of Russell Moore, but if you don’t have “people” in your corner…your just another person. While this is totally fine if that is your only goal (some people are totally content with going from jam to jam and never doing anything more) if you have aspirations of Bluegrass “Success” you will need to jam well with others and show people your passion first hand.

“It doesn’t matter WHAT you know, it’s all in WHO you know” couldn’t be more fitting for Bluegrass politics and exposure. Promoters and labels look for bands and musicians that are not only good at their trade (not to mention original) but they also must have a following. They must have a network of people who will attend gigs, buy records and also have the ability to add more of a following all the time. The best way to make this happen is to jam! You could beg on social media, you could spend money on adds online but the best way is to jam. Jamming also opens up new gig opportunities all the time. Bands/musicians who are asked to play a show and can’t do so will often suggest a friend/band that they know through jamming.

It is sad to see musicians stop jamming once they join a band. They come to a festival, play a set and then pack up and leave (I understand some may have other gigs) losing the opportunity to share themselves with other jammers who make up such a large portion of the Bluegrass world. I am of the opinion that they lose sight of what got them to that level or maybe they just don’t understand the value. I also know of many players who get “burnt out” on the Band member life, and then find their passion again after a good jam or two. In the end, Jamming is positive at all levels and if it is possible for you to join a jam…why the heck would you not?

Jamming is your Bluegrass Street Cred, Jamming hones your people skills, jamming broadens your musical horizons and best of all…..jamming is fun!

Justin Mason, Florida Bluegrass Network

Saturday March 16th 2019 at The Withlacoochee River Bluegrass Festival

Dunellon

Withlacoochee River Bluegrass Festival Saturday

Each day at a Bluegrass festival is special but Saturdays are what it’s all about. The folks who couldn’t make the weekdays because of work file in with an energy which is palpable. The stage show is almost always the best of the weekend and the jammers are going until all hours to get one last jam or two in.
Saturday at The Withlacoochee River Bluegrass Festival was no different. The pavillion was filled with people trying to catch another show from Sideline and the other great acts who made up Saturday’s show.

Swinging Bridge, who plays all across the state from thier homebase of Venice/Englewood put on such a good show that it had people who were mulling around the vendor area quickly walking over to the stage area to catch some of the hot licks and clean vocals that this experienced band could do with their eyes closed.

Larry Gillis and his “Swampgrass” style added his own flavor to the lineup with a little help from Kody Norris (who has his own touring act (The Kody Norris Show) on guitar which added to that lonesome Stanley sound that Larry does so well. Mountain songs and lighting speed banjo were just what the doctor ordered.

The Po Ramblin Boys took to the stage (which is covered with antique farming equipment) and the tame machine was fired up. The boys in this band give you such an authentic Jimmy Martin esqe show from thier potent vocals, to thier old school stage suits that you feel like your sitting watching JD and Paul back up the King. Traditional Bluegrass fans are always discussing the lack of traditional style bands but The Po Ramblin Boys remind you that the old style is alive and well.

After the show, it was time to jam!

Groups of pickers and grinners could be seen wondering the winding lanes of the campground jumping from jam to jam and mixing into the music that could be heard ringing long after the stage speakers had grown silent. Jams, campfires and conversations could be found around every bend.

Sunday brings the Mike and Mary Robinson Gospel Sing which gives folks the chance to enjoy a nondenominational church service while also being part of that service with thier fellow pickers and singers. Swinging Bridge will be playing thier gospel set afterwords and the festival will come to a close on a high note….specially if JR Davis gets his way!

Justin Mason, Florida Bluegrass Network

Friday March 15th, 2019 at Withlacoochee River Bluegrass Festival

Dunellon

Withlacoochee River Bluegrass Festival Friday

The sun rose on the Robinson ranch to the sounds of fish jumping in the river and birds singing in the trees. Multiple anglers could be found all along the banks trying thier hand at reeling in the big one. With the fish came something even better…more pickers!

RVs, Campers and cars by the dozen rolled into the park starting at about 9am and didnt ever seem to want to stop. The picking reinforcements were greatly needed because the numerous jams the night before had the current allotment of pickers slow to rise.

The stage area was packed with fans ready to catch the days acts. Backwater was back again and did not disappoint. They kept the crowd on thier toes playing Bluegrass hits and playing with a groove that is contagious.

Williamson Branch took the stage and set the bar so high on what it means to be a family band. Most family bands have tight harmonies and sibling chemistry but Williamson Branch takes those traits to the next level and puts on a show people talk about for weeks. Bands in general have “off days” where it seems like they aren’t on point but Kevin and his crew always have thier dail up to 10!

Sideline rolled into the campground in thier signature Swaggerty Farms bus and proceeded to play the hits that have made them one of today’s top touring acts. While ever member of the band adds to the show, Steve Dilling just knows how to bring the fans in. Steve is such a likable character and has a skill at remembering fans he may have not seen for months if not years. Skip Cherryholmes and the rest of the Sideline crew are also great people and spend so much of thier off stage time meeting with fans.

After the show (and during it!) you could find a jam nearly every dozen campers or so. Soggy Bottom, Skeeter Creek, Stringbusters, Johnny Adam’s and so many other jams all cranking out Bluegrass favorites and providing ve ues for people to come together and share laughs and memories. As of typing this there are still at least a handful of jams still going strong.

Tomorrow brings a second helping of Sideline along with The Po Ramblin Boys, state favorites Swinging Bridge, and so much more. Cant wait to see the show, and the second show if you know what I mean.

As a special side note, the jamming tonight was amazing as always but for the Florida Bluegrass Network correspondents in attendance (all of whom are jammers) it was extra special. We got the chance to jam with two of the music’s special people Banjo Legend Mark Johnson and Award Winning Songwriter Brink Brinkman. (We are already enjoying the “perks” of the job!)

Justin Mason, Florida Bluegrass Network

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