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Monday, August 7, 2017

Friends, Fans and Family at the Milan Bluegrass Festival.

Chasin' Steel from Marquette Michigan
It's already been a long year of music festivals--Charlotte, Folk-In-The-Woods, Forestville, Marshall--with more yet to come.  Just got back from a bluegrass festival that holds a special place in my heart.  My motto has always been "the People, the Places, and the Music" and no one place captures the quintessential essence of that sentiment more than this annual gathering of friends, fans and families at the KC Campground for the 20th Milan Bluegrass Festival. This festival boasts all the big-name acts as well as plenty of local and regional bands covering the spectrum of bluegrass today.  This year even included a set from Country music legend Gene Watson.  But there is so much more that this festival has to offer than just the best in bluegrass music.

The Ol Hippie Camp in the Rustic Area
The site of the festival is the KC Campground.   This well maintained and professionally run operation boasts ample camping, plenty of shade, a swimming pond and play area for the kids and some delicious food options.  The "Snack Shack" can feed that burger-and-fry craving, the "Ice Cream Shack" does booming business keeping the crowd cooled off with delicious treats, and the staff in the main office serves up some killer renditions of soup beans and cornbread.  The non-profit organization T.H.A.N.K.S. also does a BBQ dinner each night available for a low, low price with all proceeds going to assist children in need.

The first class stage is comfortable for the performers and allow the crowd to see and hear everything (thanks in large part to sound man Jimmy Kittle who works tirelessly to tweak the sound to perfection).  Emcee, bluegrass legend Blake Williams, runs a tight ship, getting bands on and off stage promptly and keeping the crowd's energy at maximum with his wit and humor.  

Owner and Festival Promoter Mark Gaynier prides himself on a smooth running festival.  His employees are some of the hardest working (and happiest) you will find.  A small army of young workers keeps things rolling, the food hot and fresh, and the garbage picked up.  There were ample picnic tables and fire rings for all the campsites.  Ice was available at reasonable rates all weekend, and the camp store stocked not only a small selection of staple items, but those hard-to-find-but-essential items for camping--be it RV accessories, mosquito coils or sunscreen, they had what you needed (or would go find it!).  I have been recommending KC Campground to my friends for years.  It's a great place to take the family for a weekend or a vacation (even when there's not a bluegrass music festival).

The Becky Buller Band Rocking the Ear Trumpet Labs Mic
The Music at the Milan Bluegrass Festival is first rate as well.  Unlike past years, when the festival started with local bands on Thursday and built to the "A List" bands on Saturday, Mark mixes things up, offering a taste of something for everyone's taste each day.  This year, the festival kicked off with fiddle phenom Michael Cleveland and his award-winning band, Flamekeeper.  Despite the high temperatures and oppressive humidity, the band set a finger blurring, mind-blowing pace and whipped the crowd into a frenzy with  their hard-driving take on traditional bluegrass.  Summer Brooke and the Mountain Faith Band followed with a set of mixed contemporary songs and gospel influenced original material that was equally energetic and entertaining.  The ever-popular Nothin' Fancy brought their unique brand music and entertainment to keep thing going.   Fiddler-of the Year nominee Becky Buller (with Banjo-Player-Of-The-Year nominee Ned Luberecki) hit the stage next with the best "single mic" performance of the year (thanks in no small part to Ear Trumpet Labs).  Becky graciously did a live piece on the Ol' Hippie Bluegrass Show (streaming "live from the RV" on WorldWide Bluegrass).  As has become a tradition, there was discussion of the festival, upcoming gigs and pimento cheese.  Becky even judged the first-annual "Pimento Cheese Off To the Death", with host Jerry Eicher's traditional pimento cheese narrowly edging out the SeMiBluegrass entry to take the crown.  The evening was capped off with a high-energy set from crowd favorite The Lonesome River Band who helped celebrate 20 years of the festival with an inspired set of classic LRB Tunes.  Original band member Sammy Shelor was all over the stage and smiling ear-to-ear during the set with guitarist/vocalist Brandon Rickman not only singing and playing his heart out, but even managing one of his infamous on-the-fly string changes.

Jonah and Jake of Chasin Steel having a little fun
My very first exposure to Bluegrass music was through the band Chasin' Steel, who made the long drive from Marquette to kick off the second day of the festival with their edgy set of traditional and contemporary covers as well as hard-driving, high-energy originals.  They had the crowd up and dancing with several of their numbers.  Rising stars Breaking Grass followed and kept the energy high with their own brand of edgy, modern-yet-classic bluegrass.  Joe Mullins and the Radio Ramblers brought two sets of traditional bluegrass music polished to a high luster, followed by the amazing vocal harmonies an killer breaks of Flatt LonesomeRussell Moore and IIIrd Tyme out capped the evening, filling the trees of the campground with his lush, rich vocals and the ripping bluegrass sounds of the band.  The jams picked up in the campground soon after, with several of them stretching into the first peeks of daylight--another time-honored bluegrass tradition that is making a strong comeback at the Milan Bluegrass Festival.

Rhonda and Gene sharing a laugh on stage
Saturday brought the best weather, biggest crowds and biggest bands to the stage.  Kicking off the day was Volume Five and their lightning-fast instrumentals and thunderous vocal harmonies.  Family act the Trinity River Band came next.  After a year on the road, they returned even more polished and put on one heck of an entertaining show.   The Grascals followed with their new, sleeker lineup.  Personally, I like their new sound, and Kristen Scott Benson stands out now not for her banjo picking (with is stellar) but for her vocal contributions.  I hope she continues sing her heart out on stage! Rhonda Vincent brought the Martha White Express to Milan to cap off the first set with a set of crowd favorites.  As hard as it is to believe, the bands' second sets were even more powerful and entertaining than the first.  After a break to switch the stage from an acoustic to electric set-up, country music legend Gene Watson capped the evening with a full two-hour set of his classic country hits.

SEMBA Hall of Honor
Foremost, festivals are an essential part of my life due to the people I have grown to know through live, local music.    This festival is also home of the Southeast Michigan Bluegrass Music Association, dedicated to not only promoting, but preserving the bluegrass heritage in the area.  Each year they induct new members into their "Hall of Honor" at the festival. This year's inductees included the original owners of the campground, the original promoters and Bill and Pam Warren, who's tireless efforts keep the association running.  

Milan holds a special place in my heart for the community we have built there.  When you camp at the Milan Bluegrass Festival, you are not a friend, or a fan, you are FAMILY.  There is a spirit of mutual respect, sharing and tolerance that is so absent from modern life and so powerful in this setting, that this single weekend restores my spirit, faith in humanity, and re-energizes me for yet another year.  For the past three years, we have set up the "SeMiBluegrass Jam Tent" in the grassy, "rustic" camping area of the campground and invite all to drop by and pick a few.  We're easy to find, with the Ol' Hippie Bluegrass Show's teepee as a landmark to find us.  There are kids just learning to play standing side-by-side with veteran jammers.  Fiddlin' Dixie dropped by with a couple students who sang a few songs.  Chasin' Steel dropped in for a couple hours before heading back to Marquette.  Each year, those who jam come back, and those new to the jam promise to return.

Long time campers in the area, the White sisters--granddaughters of Hall-of-Fame 2017 inductee Bob White are fixtures at the campgroud jams.  This year, Jerry Eicher asked them to do a couple songs for his "Jam in the RV" session on the Ol Hippie Bluegrass show (video embedded below).  They chose to do three songs that magically captured the essence of Milan and why it holds a special place in my heart.  Not 100% sure of the song titles, but they performed the following:  Summers up in Milan is a reworded cover of a (Gillian Welch?) song that speaks to the memories of KC Campground and the Milan Bluegrass Festival in their youth and why this was so special to them.  They followed with a cover of Michigan and Again by the Accidentals--a song of what draws people to Michigan, and keeps a bit of their heart when they leave.  They closed with Summer Flowers, a melancholy song written by their father.  As his daughters sing it in perfect sister harmony, you can not help but feel the human connection that binds their family together though the music and memories that they shared.  It is a connection that all of us at the Milan Bluegrass Festival feel; and what keeps us coming back year after year.

The 2018 Milan Bluegrass Festival is scheduled for August 2-4, 2018.  Make a point of attending.  And come pick a song or two with us at SeMiBluegrass.  Many more photos from the event in this gallery and on www.facebook.com/SeMiBluegrass.    Please follow us here, and on facebook.  Please share freely and tag your friends. 

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