This past weekend my family and I attended the Bluegrass & BBQ Festival at Silver Dollar City in Branson, MO. It’s a wonderful event that’s organized by DA Callaway, who has been part of the theme park’s staff for nearly 42 years. Over the years the event has featured many of the national touring bands in Bluegrass music such as Doyle Lawson & Quicksilver, Rhonda Vincent and the Rage, The Karl Shiflett & Big Country Show, Flatt Lonesome and many more. This was my third year to be able to attend the festival. I had intially been planning on covering the whole weekend for this month’s blog post, but there was one aspect of it that I personally felt deserved more than just a paragraph.
On Saturday May 26, the KSMU Bluegrass in Youth Band Contest was held inside of the Opera House, a large theater located within the theme park. Started in 2002, this competition was designed in order to showcase youth participation in Bluegrass music and help them develop relationships within the music community. Several past competitiors have gone on to perform with national touring acts, one being John Meyer who has toured with The Band of Ruhks and is currently on the road with Jimmy Fortune. 18 different bands participated in the contest with musicians from various places within the U.S.
The competition is an all day event (as I quickly figured out) with two rounds taking place. The only difference between these two rounds is that they consist of a different judging panel and different song selections by each of the bands. Bands are scored based on instrumental & vocal ability, professionalism & audience response. In order to be eligible, all band members must be 21 years of age or younger. Parents are allowed to be part of the group but the focus of the act has to be on the young musicians. As far as instrumentation is concerned, only acoustic instruments are allowed and each band is required to perform around a single microphone. Each band is given about 6 minutes of alloted time to perform each round, which allows them to play about 2-3 songs at the most. There are five places within the competition, with first prize being $1500.
This ended up being a very close competition with Kentucky Just Us from Greensburg, KY and Dixie Jubilee, a very talented contemporary family group from Woodstock, GA tied for second place. I want to take a moment to specifically mention the group that took fourth place. Now you might be wondering why I hadn’t mentioned a third place winner. The reason for that is there wasn’t one. That Dalton Gang from Lockwood, MO was only one point behind the second place winners making just a two point stretch between first & fourth place.
Now with that being said, I’d like to talk about why I enjoyed this particular band so much. These girls & guys had everything I like to hear within a contemporary bluegrass band, tight knit vocal harmony, solid rhythm and timing, and tasteful instrumental solos. I would specifically like to mention Cheyenne Dalton. As a mandolin player myself, I enjoyed her agressiveness on the instrument along with her clean tone. You can tell that she’s put in the hours listening to and studying the mandolin greats. Also on this note, I would like to say how much it pleased me to see so many female musicians playing lead instruments in this competition. I’ve always felt that Bluegrass Music needed more lead female instrumentalists. I’ve predicted that we will see more of them come forward within the next few years. This contest certainly confirmed it.
First place was taken by The Russell Clan, a family group from Guthrie, OK. I found them to be interesting on terms of song selection and choice of instrumentation. Several members played fiddle and Adelyn Russell even played Cello. They also did some really unique song covers such as the Michael Martin Murphey song “Carolina In The Pines.” While they stuck fairly close to Murphey’s arrangement, they completely made it their own from a vocal standpoint. It was a really neat thing to hear.
There were several bands that I enjoyed greatly that didn’t place, but in my opinion should have. One that immediately comes to mind is Southern Flavor, who has members from various places in the country, but likes to say they’re from Bluegrass Country USA. I must admit upfront, I’m just a tad bit biased here as the group’s mandolin player, Cody Gressett is a regular member of The Karl Shiflett & Big Country Show, the band that I represent exclusively as their booking agent. Nevertheless, I was very impressed with their overall sound and stage presence. From the minute they hit the stage and took off on Bill Monroe’s classic theme “Watermelon On The Vine,” I knew I was listening to greatness. I was struck by the band’s strong vocal harmonies. Cody and the group’s guitarist, Jake Patty had a particularly great blend when it came to duo numbers such as “Why Did You Wander” and “Columbus Stockade Blues.” I was also impressed by their quartet harmony on “Wicked Path of Sin.” I encouraged them to make a studio recording when I got to talk to them afterwards. I hope they’ll eventually do that as I feel it would be a well received product within the Bluegrass/Acoustic market.
Another band that I enjoyed a whole lot was Resonating Grace, a family group from Greenbrier, AR. I was already aware of them as I had discovered a YouTube video of the family playing in the contest two years ago. In that particular clip, they were performing a cover of “I Don’t Care (Just As Long As You Love Me)” as it was recorded by Doyle Lawson. I don’t particularly enjoy hearing other people doing his material and I don’t include much of it in my own performances as I feel no one can touch his sound; however, I was blown away by Resonating Grace’s cover of it. I was particularly knocked out by Silas Grace’s fiddle break because he played it almost exactly how Mike Hartgrove played it on the recording. Besides other fiddlers who have played in Doyle’s band, I have not heard anyone that’s come close to what he did. Silas is the sole exception. I’ve been keeping up with the group since that time and I was happy to finally see them in person and get to meet a few of them as well. They delivered 4 strong songs in their competition rounds, including a really cool grassed up cover of “Top of the World” by the Carpenters. I knew from watching them on YouTube how solid they all were on their instruments, but hearing them in person made that fact even clearer for me. It’s obvious that they’re a family unit based on how dialed in they are with each other on stage.
On a humorous note, there was a group in the contest called Paul Family Bluegrass from Trout Creek, MI. I kiddingly said at one point that they forgot to text me and let me know that I needed to be there with my mandolin! They were really fun to listen to though. Interestingly enough, they were the only band in the competition with a Dobro player. Austin Paul did a great job on both the Dobro and his vocals. I hope I get the opportunity to play some music with them one day.
Overall, I really enjoyed the contest. Like I said earlier, I’ve been to the festival itself for a few years, but had never been able to see the competition until this year. I hope to do it again in the near future!