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Sunday, May 19, 2024

The mission seemed simple enough: In an age of torrent files and Hype Machine, I set out to see if there was any music left uncorrupted by the ongoing wars between corporate America and 20-something hipsters downloading off or blogs or the "OC" soundtrack series.

So at 9 a.m. I packed my hemp backpack full of water and sunscreen and headed to the Suwannee Springfest, a bluegrass music festival held every year near Live Oak.

This would be easy, I thought. Compared with my venture to South by Southwest two years earlier, which consisted of a road trip with my friend's band to Austin, Texas, this would be nothing.

The exact moment I realized how wrong those assumptions had been was when I walked up to the grounds of the Spirit of the Suwannee Music Park.

A barefoot, young man clad in only a tie-dyed skirt greeted me with a smile.

I looked around; no one else was nearby. Was he smiling at me? What is he smiling about? What is this guy's problem?

It seemed to me that Springfest was more like a twilight zone between the surreal Hoggetowne Medieval Faire and the Fernandina Shrimp Festival.

Thoughts began to build: "What am I doing here? I'm too inhibited, too clean. I'm a journalist, a straight man."

I awkwardly made my way to the Meadow Stage where the band greeted the crowd with a lively, "We just got out of jail, so we're happy to be out."

I quickly realized that perhaps purity and a lack of corruption were not the characteristics I should be looking for, surely not in the fans of bluegrass.

During Blueground Undergrass' performance at the Meadow Stage, pine trees shaded concert attendees, which included napping hippies suffering from gender identity and a lack of hygiene habits, toddlers chasing bubbles and middle-aged women in J.C. Penney cut-offs (who surprised me with their incredible ability to balance a Marlboro and a Solo cup while dancing).

Describing them as eclectic would not do them justice.

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Half of the crowd at the Amphitheatre Stage for Guy Clark's show was a sea of straw-brimmed hats and women combining camouflage and India-inspired wrap skirts.

Behind them, among the hammocks, I spotted a presumably 5-year-old, topless girl playing with a hula hoop.

Even so, for all the variance in the crowd, the music did seem pure and simple. The artists all respected one another and watched each other's performances with the fans.

There was a comfortable energy about the place. To the fast tempo of a banjo, they sang songs about Danny O'Keefe and the Grateful Dead, praising the way most people in this part of the world do about Jesus Christ.

These people live for music. They use "jam" and "old-time traditional songs" in the same sentence.

By the time Amy LaVere, a woman with a personality almost as contagious as her voice, began her set, it was starting to rub off on me.

My nails were dirty. I was seriously considering going barefoot myself.

LaVere, who's playing at Bonnaroo Music Festival this summer, talked cordially with the audience between songs on her upright bass. As the crowd laughed along to "Pointless Drinking," I realized how wonderfully out of tune these artists were with the industry.

They just loved music - bluegrass music.

Perhaps that was the common thread among all the listeners. They all had a love to jam that unified them, including the girl with the azure, glittered butterfly wings and a sombrero with the man in a Georgia T-shirt that I overhead saying, "I was into whips and chains, she was into pain."

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