Humble Suwannee Springfest has yet to reap the recognition and appreciation that some of the bigger festivals have managed to attain. Being that it's in its 18th year, it can only be attributed to the fact that it still seems so local to us Florida folks. Indeed, it boasts a favorable location: Held outside Live Oak, Florida -- practically on the banks of, yes, the same Suwannee River Stephen Foster once celebrated in song -- it's easily accessible from Jacksonville, Tallahassee, and all points south.
Well, almost all points south. For those of us living at the tip of this sprawling peninsula, it is something of a haul. Still, there are several excellent reasons why the drive is well worthwhile. Here are the top five.
5. Even outrageous toll costs are cheaper than the price of a plane ticket.
Despite the lengthy journey, Suwannee is still in Florida, which means it's fairly accessible. Take the Turnpike, pay your tolls, get on to 75, get off at I-10, and you're practically there. No airplane flight required means you can leave your shoes on... Only if you so desire.
4. It's all about great music.
Musical director Paul Levine has booked the festival the past four years and steadily added a younger element to the musical mix. This year's event, held over four days, paid heed to up-and-coming Americana acts, many of them of the bluegrass persuasion.
As always, Donna the Buffalo held court for the band's faithful, but they also shared the various stages with some other festival veterans as well -- Steep Canyon Rangers, the Sam Bush Band, The Avett Brothers, the Del McCoury Band, Greensky Bluegrass, and Jim Lauderdale, along with relative newcomers like the Town Mountain, Aoife O'Donovan, and the Punch Brothers, in particular.
"That's one of the special things about this festival," Sam Bush later remarked, referencing the musical variety. "It's bluegrass, it's country, it's Americana, it's rock, and practically everything in between."
3. It's a nice crowd, but it's not crowded.
Between 5,000 and 5,500 people attended this past weekend. It was a gathering made up of an eclectic bunch of attendees, a family-friendly crowd of all ages and backgrounds. There were hippies and harbingers of a forward-looking populist approach, young and old alike. Tie-dye is the predominant fashion statement, both in terms of garb and as a staple among the various vendors. Were it not for that, as well as a certain shared enthusiasm, it's easy to imagine that many of those present might be bankers or lawyers. Along with a sizable throng of young people, there were plenty of folks with graying locks, if, in fact, they had any follicles at all.
So much for that age-old adage that youth is wasted on the young. Clearly, that's not the case here. Want to imagine your grandparents getting into a groove? Springfest can make it happen.
2. It all takes place in a superior setting.
Encompassing an expanse of land that includes a sprawling meadow, a naturally shaded amphitheater, a collection of rustic buildings, and an overgrowth of swaying Spanish moss, the environs couldn't be more conducive to magic.
"This is one of the reasons I wanted to play music for a living," Sam Bush, one of several headliners, remarked as he pointed toward the scenic surroundings. The fact that it's the first major festival of the year doesn't hinder interest either.
1. It's got that indescribable something.
There are four main venues -- the Amphitheater and the Meadow Stage being the largest, with smaller shows taking place at the Porch Stage and the indoor Music Hall. The sounds are nonstop. And, unlike many other festivals, few choices have to be made when it comes to which act to see and when. The sets are well planned, so that when one must-see act ends, another begins elsewhere. The lesser-known acts still suffer, of course; as always, the crowd tends to gravitate toward the bigger names, making for sparser crowds in the smaller settings. Still, with lengthy breaks between the bigger acts, there are ample opportunities to catch many of the newer artists as well.
Donna the Buffalo, which has performed at Suwannee Springfest for all of its 18 years and traditionally closes out the festival with an extended set, was asked about the uniqueness of this particular event.
"This is one of our favorite festivals," the band's Jeb Puryear replied. "A lot of festivals are great and have great music, but there's also a certain intangible that adds an extra thing at certain festivals. And this festival definitely has always had that."
"There's something magical about the setting," bandmate Tara Nevin agreed. "It's my favorite festival site, with the live oak and the Spanish moss and the palm trees and the Suwannee River. It looks like this Southern, sultry something. We can list all these different ingredients, and it can all add up into this one thing, but then there's this one X factor. What is that?"
"The good news is that this festival has that certain something." Puryear added. "The bad news is that it's hard to put your finger on it."
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