The first weekend of April signals the beginning of the bluegrass festival season for many of us who are steeped in the North Georgia bluegrass tradition. One important festival for this weekend is the Rocky Top Easter Festival located near Rome, GA. Beth and Alvin Shular along with daughter Crystal have built a great facility in the North Georgia mountains that has gained an outstanding reputation over the last few years.
April 2001 proved to be warm and the weather was great for outdoor jamming as well as the strong stage programs the Shulars had put together. When I arrived a bit before noon, the atmosphere was casual as many visitors relaxed in comfortable rockers enjoying the music that was already in progress.
Around noon, the stage shows began and I can't imagine anyone better at getting a festival off on the right foot than good friends Tom and Aina Barnwell and the Next Band. Jim Lasiter on banjo was in fine form and the incomparable Ed Wade was entertaining as always...by the way Ed, how does one get John Farley to produce a 'one of a kind' personalized guitar? What an honor!
One feature of the Rocky Top Music Park that visitors particularly enjoy is the concessions area. By noon, festival goers' were enjoying the 'vittles' and music from the stage. Alvin and Beth seemed to be everywhere as well playing the role of perfect hosts and soon the music was in full swing. One of my favorite groups of performers for many years has been Curtis Hicks and the Sounds of the Old Strings. Great traditional music from a very knowledgeable group of folks. Next on the program was the Outpost band. The Merrills (Billy and Linda) along with good friends from the Tallapoosa, GA area always provide a great show...and I finally had a chance to visit the Outpost Music Barn a few months ago. Definitely recommended for bluegrass music on a weekend!
This was the first trip to Rocky Top for the Georgia Bound bluegrass group. Many, if not most, of the audience were familiar with Connie, Murray, John, Tracy, and Mike so they knew to expect great shows and they certainly were not disappointed. One special moment for me was when Gene Roberts joined Connie for harmony on a fine bluegrass number...wish my camera had been ready at that time! Later in the program, Gene, Tiny and the boys dedicated one of their signature type numbers to Murray and Connie entitled "Don't Be Ashamed of Mother." Certainly an outstanding moment for any fan of traditional Appalachian/Rural South music.
Later in the day Fontana Sunset did two great sets. The second set was made more special in two ways: 1) Louisa Branscomb - noted North Georgia songwriter and performer, joined the group on stage as the newest member of the group and 2) Mindy Rakestraw brought the resophonic guitar to Fontana Sunset's stage presence AND Mr. Roy Westray - the builder of the custom "dobro" that Mindy plays was in the audience! Certainly a photo for the archives!
Another group that I have enjoyed hails from the southeastern TN area - the Harmoneers. Certainly great pickers and singers and it is good to see Joe Towns back to performing on the banjo. And I can't forget Mark Thrower and his fine group of young pickers that is bringing back some of the old Golden River Grass numbers.
Winding out the evening for me was Broad River. A great set as always for Gerry, Roger, Jim, and Dave. As I made my way back to Columbia, KY through the brightly moonlit night of North Georgia, Tennessee, and South Central Kentucky, I once again understood clearly why the music of North Georgia is so special. My apologies to all those groups and pickers and singers who are not documented. There is such a rich history of music here that it is impossible to capture in a 'snap shot' of one day at one festival. And so, my quest continues....See you at Marietta!
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