The first time Grammy-winning Americana/bluegrass act Steep Canyon Rangers played the Spirit of the Suwannee Music Park in Live Oak, Florida, the group was adorned in full suits and encircling a lone microphone.
“It was probably around 2004,” Rangers singer-banjoist Graham Sharp tells Rolling Stone backstage at the recent Suwannee Spring Reunion festival. “We’ve been able to trace our band and its evolution through this festival, from being a traditional bluegrass band to being whatever the hell we are now — this place is a natural home for that.”
Sandwiched between Interstates 10 and 75 in the rural horse country of North Florida, Suwannee has played host to countless festivals and gatherings over the decades. Thousands of music lovers descend upon the park to camp out beneath ancient live oak trees covered in Spanish moss.
“You’ll go walking through the campground at night, into these dark woods, and you’ll come across a fireside jam of just amazing music,” Sharp says. “Then, you’ll stumble onto the next one. You wake up in in the morning and think, ‘Where was that?’ I couldn’t find it again if I had to, but it was somewhere back in there, and it was amazing.”
Each March, the Spring Reunion brings together some of the biggest names in bluegrass, Americana, and folk music, this unofficial kickoff to the outdoor festival season. To bookend the year, a similar event, Suwannee Roots Revival, occurs in October.
“The way they light this place up at night, it’s like some big mushroom dream,” Jerry Douglas, who hit the stage with the Earls of Leicester, says. “This place is fun, and the crowd here is with you — they always let you know they’re with you.”
Aside from the Rangers and Earls, the Spring Reunion showcased marquee acts Sierra Hull, Sam Bush, Leftover Salmon, Jim Lauderdale, Donna the Buffalo, Jon Stickley Trio, Verlon Thompson, and a highly-anticipated collaborative set by the Infamous Stringdusters and Molly Tuttle. Past Spring Reunions have featured artists from Del McCoury Band and John Prine to Greensky Bluegrass and Billy Strings.
“Not all stages are created equal, and it can be challenging at times to hear well as a performer. [But] the stage at Suwannee has the intimacy of a playing a beautiful theater,” says Hull, nodding to the natural bowl setting of the amphitheater.
There’s a deep sense of family and fellowship that’s permeated Suwannee as far back as anyone can remember. Peter Rowan, the 80-year-old bluegrass legend, is a Suwannee staple and points out that icons like Bill Monroe, the Stanley Brothers, and Jim & Jesse all played in the shade of the live oaks going back to the 1950s.
“This has always been a bluegrass park,” Rowan says. “When I first started playing here over 30 years ago, I remember hearing the tree frogs through the night. And there was an owl that nested near the amphitheater, where each time we’d play, it’d fly across in front of the stage.”
When asked just why bluegrass has had such a foothold in this seemingly desolate landscape of Florida for so many years, Rowan points to the Stanley Brothers. In the late 1950s, Carter and Ralph Stanley moved to Live Oak, ultimately headlining the WNER Suwannee River Jamboree radio program from 1958 to 1962.
“The Stanleys lived here and worked for a contractor who supported them to play bluegrass on the radio,” Rowan says. “The contractor specialized in prefabricated homes, where you could buy the parts and put ’em up, which was a big thing here in Florida.”
Rowan also recalled the times playing at Suwannee with fiddle great Vassar Clements, who died in 2005. Clements, a native of the Florida Panhandle, viewed Suwannee as his musical home base.
“There’s this unique, communal spirit here, where it’s homelike for us,” says Sam Bush. “And you find yourself thinking about some of our brethren that aren’t here anymore, but especially Vassar — he ruled this place.”
“Vassar should be here. Tony Rice should be here. Guy Clark should be here,” adds singer-songwriter Shawn Camp. “I can’t be here without thinking about all those folks.”
Camp, who penned the title track of Willie Nelson’s A Beautiful Time, which recently won the Grammy for Best Country Album, is a mainstay performer at Suwannee — whether as a solo artist or fronting the Earls of Leicester.
Camp initially rolled into Suwannee with the late Guy Clark in 1998. A pillar of American songwriting, Clark took Camp under his wing and Camp would later co-produce Clark’s My Favorite Picture of You, the record that earned Clark his only Grammy, for Best Folk Album in 2014.
“Guy always talked about this place before I ever got here, so I knew [Suwannee] was special to him,” Camp says.
Upon returning to Suwannee each spring, Camp looks forward to joining another songwriting powerhouse, Verlon Thompson, in a tribute set to Clark, with whom Thompson toured for more than 25 years. During a teary-eyed rendition of “Dublin Blues,” a pair of margaritas land at the duo’s feet. “Well, I wished I was in Austin, in a chilly parlor bar,” they sing, “drinkin’ Mad Dog margaritas.”
During the Clark tribute set on the Music Hall stage, Thompson was overwhelmed by emotion talking to the audience about memories with Clark. He stopped to wipe away a tear as Camp continued on with a cover of “Stuff That Works,” the crowd cheering on the moment.
“When you’re a songwriter, hopefully you’ll be a voice for a lot of folks out there listening,” Thompson says. “And there are nights where it’s a very spiritual thing, where you feed off the folks and they feed off of you — we need each other, and we give that to each other.”