Magnolia Festival at Spirit of the Suwannee Music Park is a celebration of the South. It’s not necessarily billed as such, but all that is good about our complicated slice of the planet is on full display, with minimal attention to the nasty bits. The South cannot be reduced to a few words, yet there are some things that earn their cliche status honestly. We love football. We cherish family. Our music is best served authentically.
Those are not universals. Plenty of folks eschew honest music in the South. Football isn’t a topic of conversation for everyone. And our families are just as messed up as anyone else’s in the world. Still, Southerners value those things, or at least cannot escape them.
My father is in his seventies. He probably has a ton of football games, family dinners, and music festivals left in him; but that could also be my own optimism for a long future full of conversations and experiences like the ones that organically came about during Mag Fest 2015.
The reality is, he can’t make the walk from camp to the venue all that easily. And he hates those damn golf carts. He’s right. They truly are the semi trucks of music festivals. But the spirit of my father, the passion for people and experiences, the wisdom of a life lived hard but true, those things come out in spades when it’s just the two of us wandering the grounds of Spirit of the Suwannee Music Park. We made sure to see Grandpa’s Cough Medicine, got to film our friends, This Frontier Needs Heroes, during their outstanding, buzz-worthy set, and fell in love with Lindsay Pruett’s fiddle playing. Together.
On the way back to camp Saturday night we found ourselves talking about SEC football legend Peyton Manning. No spring chicken himself at thirty-nine years of age, Manning was one of the great Southern signal callers of all time. His only blemish is that he never, in four years of excellence, one of the great quarterbacks in college and NFL history, ever beat the Florida Gators.
Those same Gators had a huge game on Saturday night of Mag Fest. Playing rival LSU, without the Gator starting quarterback, a couple of Southern boys had decisions to make. The Avett Brothers’ headlining set was going to conflict with the second half at the very best. Hell, we are in the woods. Only folks with satellite dishes were getting the game. And a satellite dish, no offense to the folks who sport them, is the last thing this author takes into the woods for a roots music festival, even one he is covering.
Dad was understandably exhausted. He had worked hard all week, emceed a benefit auction early Friday evening, driven the hour plus from Ocala to Live Oak, and then watched a day of incredible music in the sun.
So he went to bed leaving me to cheer on the boys from old Florida, and no one could blame him. I was about done myself, but them Gata Boys had a big contest and ‘our’ Avett boys were playing the main Meadow Stage in a couple of hours. There was plenty of music between walking back to camp with Dad and catching The Avetts, so I made my way back to the venue.
A couple of families, clearly good friends united by music and sports, discussing both with a tinge of Southern comfort, were crowded around an RV’s television — one eye on Florida versus LSU, and most of their energies focused on what to expect from the Avetts. Then, I showed up.
That’s what you do at Suwannee. Just walk up and introduce yourself- announce your intentions and make new family. This group was characteristically welcoming and insistent that I have a drink despite repeated denials.
At about sip number two of a delightful rye whiskey, someone noticed the media pass hanging from my neck. A pleasant barrage of curiosity endured from that moment until I eventually bowed out and made my way to The Meadow.
“Jason! You gotta quote us, Jason!”
“What’s your favorite band right now?! Oh, come on, you gotta have a favorite! You holdin’ out on us?”
“Jason! What’s the quote gonna be?!”
Jamie, a former college football player with a fondness for Lucero, was the leader of the curiosity brigade. The journalist part of me wanted to stay and see how things were going to go for this delightful clan. The music fan side of me won the world’s least contentious tug-o-war, and I left them after expressing much gratitude for their hospitality.
The Avetts are rightfully well-loved for their high energy live show. This was no different — two hours of the boys dancing around, belting out beloved lyrics. Half of which, as one concert-goer put it, are “things we are all thinking.”
Still, there is something lost in the larger scale of an Avett show these days. The boys acknowledged it in their excellent, Rick Rubin produced and now-standard, “I and Love and You”. The greatly self-aware artists do. Acknowledgement does not equal change.
There is a scene in the autobiographical film Pure Country where country legend George Strait’s character has made it big. He’s playing huge arenas. There are video screens, pyrotechnics, and pulsing lights. Conflicted by the fact that people are loving his show, but the music itself is not coming through, almost as if no one is paying attention, he stops playing. And no one notices. The crowd keeps screaming his name and belting out lyrics that have since ceased.
Saturday night’s show felt like The Avetts could have done the same. There was a moment where the band took a break, and their new fiddle player gave us a brief, low-impact solo. A spotlight on her, and no other accompaniment. Her performance was fine. But the crowd lost its mind as if Mick Jagger strolled up to suddenly provide harmony.
The show was beautifully orchestrated and illustrative of how wonderful the experience at Suwannee can be. No one is overly critical at Mag Fest because the talent is so good and the event so perfectly well done. Yet, there is much more to the magic of Magnolia Festival.
I couldn’t help but think of Dad and that he was not able to stay up long enough to enjoy the stories of the night. My pretentious nitpicking aside, The Avetts were fantastic. Many of my friends and loved ones, some of whom had to work, others could not afford a trip, were missing out on an experience that has few rivals.
The stories were coming to an end. Life beckoned on the other side of sunrise Sunday.
On the way back to camp, in the pitch black of late Saturday night, a chorus of “Jason!” rang out across the dusty path home. I don’t understand how they saw me, but my friends from earlier recognized the swinging of my press pass, or the swagger in my walk, or, more likely, my stocky frame wrestling with the sugar sand that paved the path to bed.
Jamie and the squad were piled into a golf cart on a search for Brad, who was jamming at “Hallelujah Corner.” I met Brad earlier in the night. Like an cool apparition he stepped out of the ether and introduced himself. It was his rye whiskey I was swillin’. Brad is a musician, and he could be found throughout the weekend sitting in with other talented folks either at camp or on stage. “Hallelujah Corner,” Brad confided, is just what he calls some bad ass jam session deep in the woods. Brad knows how to get there, but he wasn’t exactly forthcoming with the details when I asked.
This is the stuff of writing legend. A golf cart ride with folks who had been drinking for a few hours, after I’d grown a little tight myself, could go horribly wrong. Or, it could also be an amazing story about Brad and Seth Avett playing mandolin with their toes.
So we set off in our governored chariot, on a search for the mythical “Hallelujah Corner.” I half-heartedly tried to explain the realities of said futile quest, but to to no avail. We are headed to Hallelujah, come hell or high dust.
Jamie and the Hardy Boys and Girls, with the somewhat reasonably intoxicated Bretton at the helm, began our quest for heaven by driving toward the venue.
“Jason! You gotta quote us, Jason!” Jamie was relentless with his entreaties.
“Have you thought of a quote yet?”
While the other seven explorers were crashing the beach at the Bill Monroe Shrine, one guy hung back with me. His name escapes me so fully that bothering with a pseudonym seems unfair — a fact that seems doubly unfair considering he gifted me a flash, earnest discussion about Lucero and Jason Isbell and bands that must be discovered.
Ponce de Leon and them returned in a herd of confusion two minutes later, ready to ramble to the next possible spot for “Hallelujah Corner.”
After a stop-over in Slopry Land (also, definitively, not called anything other than Slopry Land, by anyone, ever), we made a circle, and it was time to reload on booze back at camp. This is the tipping point.
The really wild story begins here, right? I can grab another couple of brews, and head back out on our four wheeled magic carpet for all kinds of shenanigans.
But my seventy-plus-year-old father had four hours of sleep in him by now. He would be up early, and I wanted to make coffee and breakfast in the morning before he headed home and I went back to see the Jags play.
Those are the good bits. The collecting of wood to build the fire. The realization that you forgot plates. The making of friends with the neighbors, so that you can borrow a couple of said omission. That’s what makes a festival like Mag Fest so memorable.
I expressed gratitude for the booze, the laughs, and the adventure, and went separate ways from Jamie and the crew. Ten years ago the night would have gone a different direction. They probably had a lot more fun that night. Laughs were flowing, poor decisions were pretty innocuous.
Again, that’s Suwannee; and that’s Mag Fest. It is a choose your own adventure weekend. My adventure included all kinds of people and experiences. But the adventure that will leave an indelible mark was that next morning. Dad and I built a fire and broke down camp. I fired up some coffee and scrambled eggs, and fried some thick cut bacon. Dad talked about life. Things got heavy. That’s the good stuff; and that’s where Magnolia Fest and Spirit of the Suwannee stand above the rest.
The Avetts, Lake Street Dive, Grandpa’s Cough Medicine- those are wonderful experiences. As Jason Isbell puts it so perfectly, “A man is a product of all the people that he ever loved.” My father – philanthropist, public servant, father, husband, gentle, flawed soul, has contributed to the product that is me more so than anyone else to this point of my life. Spirit of the Suwannee Music Park, with its multitude of wonderful experiences, has served for several years as a further galvanizing experience for us- a vehicle for the good bits. Here’s to many more. Next up, Suwannee Springfest in March.
My Dad, The Avett Brothers, and the Road to ‘Hallelujah Corner’: A Story From Magnolia Festival by Jason Earle.
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