Notes from the Road – Gamble Rogers 2009 From Friday, May 1 to Sunday, May 3 we gathered at the St. Johns County Fairgrounds in Elkton, FL, west of St. Augustine for three days of music celebrating to life of one of our own, the late, great Gamble Rogers. I hope you are familiar with Gamble’s life and work. If not, here’s a little bit about him. Florida Times Union columnist, Ron Johnson, wrote in his Friday edition: The son and grandson of influential architects, Gamble Rogers was described as both a "modern troubadour" and the "resurrection of Will Rogers and Mark Twain". Rogers was a master performer--enchanting an audience with Travis-style guitar finger picking and relating downright rib-tickling tales about the inhabitants of the fictitious Oklawaha County. The Atlanta Constitution called Rogers, "an American treasure worthy of inclusion in the Smithsonian". Rogers was just hitting his peak when he died, on October 10, 1991, trying to save a man from drowning. The recreational area in Flagler County, where the accident occurred, was later renamed, "The Gamble Rogers Memorial Park". Gamble was universally revered and loved by his fellow musicians and fans alike. Gamble never met a stranger and his gracious assistance to young up and coming artists is legendary. Known for many philosophical witticisms like “the Lord gives me grace, but the devil gives me style”, “sorry is as sorry does” and “life’s what happens to you while you’re making other plans” Gamble was the perfect blend of master storyteller and musician. Many songs have been written honoring Gamble, but my personal favorite was written by my friend Steve Gillette who I think fully captured his spirit: I remember Gamble Rogers, He was a gentleman with a guitar, He’s gone on a little further now, A little deeper in the stars, He went down into the water, To help to save a drowning man, And he left this world, Holding out his hand. It’s been my great privilege to participate in this gathering for many years now and have been looking forward to this second edition in the new location at the St. Johns County Fairgrounds. Friday, May 1 You may recall that I’ve been having trouble with my car battery when I hook up my camper lights to the car. Or, maybe you don’t. For you it doesn’t really matter. As for me, I unfortunately did not remember it until Friday morning when I was preparing to load up. Shoot! Off to Costco I went to get a new battery. While I was there I also picked up one of those portable jump start units – handy looking thing. I didn’t have time (or rather didn’t want to take the time) to install the new battery (in an Expedition its not as easy as it should be), but at least I’d have the new battery and the jump start unit in case I got stranded. Back home I loaded up my gear, my Samplers for presales of the new CD and some things I might need if called to Tallahassee for the arrival of the new granddaughter (yeah, the little bugger is still stuck in there despite continual warnings of imminent commencement of the birthing journey). Off I went and was surprised to arrive at the fairgrounds nearly ½ hour before I expected. All was in order. I was issued my artist’s pass and given directions to my campsite. I drew a wonderful spot – right next to Larry Mangum. That wasn’t what made it so wonderful, though it was clearly a bonus. Rather it was the shade from the big oak that would protect my roof from the broiling sun most of the day. Bill & Eli Perras thought it looked pretty good too and, though without access to power or water, they elected to join us there under the oaks. We were soon engaged in a songswap over at Larry’s with Charlie Simmons, Jack (oops, can’t remember), Bill & Eli, Jen Weidley, Chuck & Pat Spano, Grant Peeples and probably others that at this writing two days later I can’t recall. I introduced Grant to the wonders of Gorilla Snot (it’s a real product, I’m not making it up) – a pine resin product that helps you keep your grip on your guitar pick in sweaty or other conditions adverse to guitar pickers. I believe it changed Grant’s life, though probably not as much as some of you might have hoped. The weather Friday was magnificent – cool in the shade and breezy, crystal clear and springtime fresh. The songswap would have gone longer, but Larry started serving some red wine which at that afternoon hour brought on the drowsies in some. Me, I had to go check my CD’s in at the product table and circulate among the other arrivals so I put away the guitar and set off. In truth, I figured on finding someone who was camped over close to where the fish fry was to take place at 6 p.m. Succeeded too, as Al Scortino, reliable for such as this, had parked his Casita within spittin’ distance of where the line would form. So, with a beer in hand (that vendor opened early and was doing a brisk trade) I ambled over and infiltrated the Ashley Gang crowd. Sure enough, we got some of the first fish out of the oil and feasted our fill. The evening schedule featured some of my real favorites. My good friend Jack Williams started things off with his usual stellar set that left folks hollering for more and all the guitar pickers considering another line of endeavor. He was followed by Tracy Grammer and The Rowan Brothers with wonderful performances. Then our own one man band sensation, Ben Prestage, came on to prove that all that caterwauling about how good he is actually sells him short. He’s a serious showstopper. Those guitar pickers in the crowd that had managed to recover from the humiliation of watching the mastery of Jack Williams were beset with a new wave of discouragement regarding their own abilities and I’m sure many a guitar came close to violent disposal or cheap sale. Once the main stage wrapped up I discovered one significant negative to my beautiful campsite. Turns out the evening contra dance that often doesn’t end until people are too exhausted to stand was taking place on the Pickers Stage with 100 feet of my rolling abode. Not to worry – I was running my AC unit and I came equipped with foam ear plugs for just such a situation. The campsite songswaps were more active and widespread than I can recall in recent years. It was terrific. I started over with Jerry Mincey’s crowd, then filtered down to the Mayhaws’ area where I found Lis Williams and Lolly Rogers (Gamble’s daughter). Lis sang some harmonies with me on Banks of the Old St. John’s which was fun. She was not camping and soon made her preparations to head out. She had a tin cup of Irish Whiskey that some provided her and that she hadn’t finished. Knowing exactly where it would be most welcome she blessed me with its care and disposal, swearing me to faithfully return the cup to its owner when its contents were expended. A fine and bonnie Lass she is! I next found myself at the rough camping segment of the Ashley Gang – Al, of course, long since absent and gone back to the Casita to enjoy AC and deep slumber. David Russell and his lovely bride Ann were there, David kind of sitting right in the middle of things adding accompaniment to whatever was being played. Since we had played it at Folk Alliance together back in February (check back at those Notes for the background on that) he joined me very capably on This Old House. Glenn Smith and his far better half were there with a tune or two. Larry Mangum slide in from the dark at some point. Soon Jack Williams showed up to trade licks and an encyclopedic recall of a vast catalog of old tunes with Russell. Grant Peeples was in there too, begging more Gorilla Snot. He took to putting a gob of it on the bill of his cap so it would be handy whenever he needed it. Of course, all of the Ashley Gang was there, Michelle, Norm and the couple Garfinkle (Al in abstentia of course already sawing logs). Again, I know there were many more that I’m overlooking and please pardon me for the omissions. By a little after 1 a.m. I realized that I was exhausted and stumbled my way through the campground lights back to my traveling bedroom. I’ve been carrying my cell phone waiting for the stork to call, but nothing yet. Tomorrow I’m on the Old Town Stage. G’night. Saturday, May 2 I woke up way too early, but I think I got enough sleep to survive anyway. I stumbled over to the artists’ hospitality area for some coffee and breakfast. All kinds of folks were wandering through and really don’t remember everyone I ended up chatting with while I was there. The hospitality for the artists at Gamble Rogers is always first rate and gracious, just like the festival’s namesake. I spent a fair part of the morning in the camper restringing the guitar, making a set list, practicing, working on some new tunes, etc. And, of course, I kept checking to see if there was any baby alert – nothing. I went on back over to the hospitality area for some lunch, chatted a while with the Dean of Florida folk, Frank Thomas, and numerous others filtering through. I also ran into my old friend Bob Higgenbotham who plays the festival every year – we only live about 45 miles apart (he in Winter Haven), yet we see each other more often at Gamble than anywhere else these days. That’s a large part of the joy of these gatherings is connecting again with so many great folks. I got to be part of a terrific line-up on the Old Town Stage. Magda Hiller had drawn a good crowd over and I got to enjoy her set. What a great, great performer she is! She had Jack Schwade with her which added another layer to the high luster of her show. Charlie Robertson, who was to play after me, was doing a quick stand in as emcee and asked me what I wanted said as my introduction. “Aw Charlie,” I says, “just make some lie up that’ll make me sound good.” So, Charlie hops up on the stage and hollers “Please welcome one of the truly great Florida songwriters, Doug Spears.” Now, I ask you, since I told him to lie . . . hummmph! I gave ‘em 6 good ‘uns – This Old House, State of Dreams, On the Other Side, Marker 26, A Mothers’ Tears and Yellow Butter Moon. I also told them about the new CD (I love bragging about the stellar line-up I’ve got on there) and afterwards several folks grabbed me to buy the pre-sales sampler. I stuck by to hear Charlie’s set – he is just one of those amazing songwriters who can see every little thing from every possible perspective and picks the one that should be obvious, but which you hadn’t considered to write about. It just knocks your socks off. He also is given to unpredictable commentary that makes you laugh until you hurt. You shouldn’t miss any chance to hear Charlie perform. Next I hustled back to the camper, dropped the guitar, etc. there and headed over to the Big Top. Missy Raines (my bass player on 8 tracks on the new CD - brag, brag, brag) has rolled in with her exciting band, Missy Raines and The New Hip, for their two mainstage performances. Husband, Ben Surratt, was hustling about running their sound and I took a seat at the railing right behind him. I let him get everything settled during their first couple of tunes then leaned forward, tapped him on the shoulder and handed him a cold beer I just acquired from that busy vendor on my way in. It seemed one of the more welcome hellos he’d had! At his invitation I circled around at sat at the board with him for the show and thoroughly enjoyed Missy’s set. What a GREAT band – I mean top to bottom superb surrounding Missy’s incomparable bass. Their album, Inside Out, just released on Compass Records, is terrific CD that I highly recommend to everyone. However, I have to admit that for me seeing Missy play is so wonderful I close me eyes when I listen to the CD so I can imagine her groovin’ around through the tunes. Just how much she loves what she does shouts out from every twist, turn and hop and the sounds she produces from that big stand up bass are not to be believed unless you hear her while seeing it with your own eyes. After they finished I went around backstage for a hug and a hello. Ben’s beer had already drawn jealous glances from the band and I feared that my failure to bring a whole tray might put me in jeopardy, but Missy fended them off for me. By this time, with a beer or two in my gullet, I began to feel a bit peckish. Over at the hospitality hut I sat and chatted with Ben and Missy a bit about life in general and the progress of the CD project. Then the more serious hunger began setting in. They weren’t yet ready to lay out the supper spread yet so I wandered back over to the Big Top looking for Jason Thomas (my producer and fiddler for Gatorbone and Claire Lynch) who was to have arrived to warm up with Gatorbone for their 7 pm set and bring me some material from the CD. To my dismay I found that Jason was stuck in a major traffic back up on I-95 and would not be making it for the show – shoot! So, I hooked up with Lis & Lon Williamson and Lolly Rogers for a little supper. Then I settled in for the excellent Saturday evening line-up. My absolute favorites, Gatorbone kicked it into gear at 7 pm. They were sans Jason Thomas (who ended up turning back in the face of hours of backup on I-95), but they still rocked! There is no finer singer than Lis Williamson, nor a better rhythm gypsy jazz guitar player. And, if you lined up 25 guitar players and had them perform the same licks I could pick Gabe Valla out blindfolded. The tone he creates is so clean and crystal clear that it can’t be confused with any other, truly one of a kind. Lis and Lon sent goosebumps through the crowd with their duo performance of Love Hurts – WOW! And, Kurt Johnson is a stellar addition to the group on pedal steel and keyboards. The rest of the night had a high bar set by Gatorbone!! Willy Claflin came next with his recreation of Gamble’s signature music and stories. He ain’t Gamble, but he’s close! It was a fitting and well received presentation for this crowd. Jesse Winchester alone on stage is a treat for any lover of the pure craft of songwriting. His songs have been recorded by everyone in the business and have been sung, hummed and enjoyed by every one of us, whether we knew it at the time or not. His easy going, homespun Memphis manner is deadly and the audience was charmed from the first note. Next, my bass player (I love saying that!), Missy Raines and The New Hip laid another stellar set on the crowd to close the night. Call it “jazz-grass” or whatever you like – this group is HOT! Stop, Drop & Wiggle, Basket of Singing Birds and Inside Out seemed like crowd favorites. This is a group that makes you move. The musicianship and arrangements are stunning. Back out in the campground the song circles and jams were in full swing. I started out right at my own camper with Ron & Bari Litschauer, Stan Geberer, Jeannie Fitchen (Ned lending moral support) and Clyde and Lorelli Walker (though Clyde elected to assume the position of listener and star gazer in the background). Ken Buchanan brought a couple of chairs over and sat to enjoy the show. John Alison soon joined us with his tasteful backing and beautiful OM and then Jack Williams ambled in to add his signature licks to the mix. Several others migrated in whose names I don’t know and for a while there it got to be a pretty sizeable jam. However, the Roadside Revue folks and the Walkers needed to head home to the Walker abode in St. Augustine and things broke up at the camper around 1:30 or so. I had played enough, but felt like listening some more so I wandered the grounds with a little refreshment in hand. I sat at the Ashley Gang area for a bit and listened to David Russell, Michelle, Carly Bak and others swap tunes and licks. Over at the Mayhaws settlement a HUGE crowd had gathered. As I pushed into a spot where I could lean and watch Grant Peeples was holding court. Jack Williams was in there as well. Dale Crider and Rod MacDonald were in the mix and many, many more. Starting to droop I began the wander back, stopped by Jerry Mincey’s fire and chatted a bit, then meandered on back to the bunk on wheels - 3:30 is late enough for me! ZZZZZZZZZZZZZ . . . . Sunday, May 3 As you might guess, I slept in a bit waking just in time for lunch . . . barely. I headed over for a burger and a hot dog at the hospitality area (and a LOT of coffee). I wasn’t to play until 3:40 on the Florida Stage, but I had plenty of cleaning up and departure preparations to take care of, so I got busy. As I cleaned and organized I ran into one and another friends and began the goodbyes. Sunday was a good bit warmer, more like the usual Gamble weather we’ve had for the past few years, but the breeze kept blowing which helped a bit. Before I knew it 3:00 was upon me. I headed on over to hear Charlie Robertson who preceded me on the Florida Stage as I got ready for my set. I started off with Banks of the Old St. Johns, Heminway’s Hurricane and State of Dreams, then by prearrangement Ron & Bari Litschauer and Stan Geberer joined me and we rocked ‘em with Teppintine, Withlacoochee Dreamer, There’s Always a Middle and Steam Train. I love playing with those guys and they add so much to the performance. When we were finished Rod MacDonald closed the Florida Stage and another Gamble Rogers Festival was in the can. I went and collected my CD $$ and product from the sales area and quickly loaded and hooked up to the rolling behemoth. Many more goodbyes were exchanged. However, with the afternoon heat I was glad to get into the airconditioned car and I was off for the run home. See you next year Mr. Rogers!