Old Jams, New Jams, Blackberry Jams, and Blues
***This article is part of a new series, Traditions in Music City, which will focus on the many and diverse musical traditions happening around Nashville. Instead of a critical focus, they will seek to communicate the history and sense of community in an event.***
On Saturday, June 22, 2019, the sleepy village of Leiper’s Fork saw its 16th annual Blackberry Jam Music Festival. With the previous night’s harsh weather and morning rain, it was uncertain whether the event would proceed, and attendance was low for the first couple of hours. However, the small group of hands-on, dedicated volunteers and performers and their love for making music and benefitting their community showed out and made it clear that a little rain couldn’t halt their parade.
Beginning with the Viva! NashVegas radio show, the festival segued into the children’s program. Though clearly for kids, the children’s program was enjoyable for people of all ages. For those uninterested in singing about cows and roly polys, the program was scheduled at noon, so it was the perfect time to check out the food truck offerings, which included trucks specializing in barbeque, burgers, ice cream, coffee, and a stand serving cotton candy.
By 1:00, the festival had picked up many more attendees, and the children’s program had the lively performers Farmer Jason and Roger Day to amp up the younger audiences for the day’s remaining performances. Though aimed at children, their performances transcended generational lines and were certainly fun for the whole family. “Ode to a Toad” (Farmer Jason) and “Roly Poly” (Roger Day) were hits with everyone. Giri and Uma Peters performed very well between Farmer Jason and Roger Day with Uma on clawhammer and gourd banjos and Giri on fiddle and guitar. The sibling duo is a prime example of how the small, yet high quality festival allows young, early-career musicians to perform in the same setting as critically acclaimed musicians with extensive accolades.
In addition to these emerging talents (who already have a recorded album and are actively touring), the stage was graced by a Grammy winner (Lee Roy Parnell), CMA award winners (Parnell, Lockwood Barr) and members of the Library of Congress “Americana Women: Roots Musicians – Women’s Tales and Tunes” MusicBox Project (Jackie Merritt and Resa Gibbs of the M.S.G. Acoustic Blues Trio), not to mention Farmer Jason and Roger Day, who both have a lengthy list of accolades when it comes to children’s music.
After the children’s program, Tray and Jo Ann Eppes kicked off the rest of the show with some bluesy original songs. Seasoned veterans of the Blackberry Jam stage, they make the yearly trip to Leiper’s Fork all the way from their home in Central Virginia where Tray runs a pottery studio, in addition to making music on the road.
The next performer to grace the stage was Lockwood Barr. According to Music Row Magazine, the 2016 CMA Emerging Artist award winner “has the goods”, and I believe them. Barr’s music ranges from soft and sweet to fierce and emphatic (think Underwood’s Before He Cheats), and often writes from a personal place about tough subjects like suicide, and it is easy to connect with her and her music as an audience member. To a young adult audience, bluegrass and country is often considered old hat, but Barr’s vocals and visual branding seems to make the music more relatable to a wider audience without sacrificing what makes her music bluegrass.
Reckless Johnny Wales and the Hip Replacements (in which “Hip” can be read as either a noun or an adjective) provided a refrain from the gentler blues of the Eppes duo and the softer vocals of Lockwood Bar. The next group, Heavy Drunk and the Hurricane, was lacking six members of its nine-strong group, but still rocked the stage with both beautiful vocal harmonies and. Their simple yet emotional rendition of “Georgia On My Mind” provided a soulful contrast to some of the more robust blues of the festival.
Next on the program was Carol and Dale, owners of the Boyd Mill Farm and the hosts of the Blackberry Jam. The lovely Boyd Mill Farm has always been the venue for the festival. Carol Warren and Dale Whitehead founded the festival in 2003. The venue, though outdoors, had a unique intimacy that made the connection between performer and audience easygoing. Carol and Dale’s performance was delightfully upbeat, likely because the bass (Carol is a bassist) was more prominent. Unfortunately, Carol and Dale’s performance was cut a little short due to impending rain, so we were instructed to return to our vehicles until it passed. Though many people chose to leave at this time, when the festivities started up again, it seemed that there were more people than before.
Baillie and the Boys (Kathy Baillie, Michael Bonagura, and Alan LeBoeuf) were the next performers, and the combination of Kathy’s light but powerful vocals and the ominous sky created an electric atmosphere to usher in the evening. Baillie and the Boys played a more straightforward country set and typically sang in a three-part harmony, with songs like “The Road that Led Me to You” and “She Deserves You”.
Freddie and Francine followed their act with an excellent acoustic duo. Though some have described them as a pop band, their style seems difficult to pin down, and their website would argue the same. Primarily branding themselves as “folk,” Freddy and Francine’s vocals and stage presence represent a unique blend of folk and country and maybe even pop, but rather than pigeonhole them I would say they have a certain je ne sais quois that sets them apart.
Beyond quality music and food trucks, the festival has been dedicated to giving back to the community. From the beginning, the festival donated proceeds to an assortment of
charities, but since 2009, all proceeds from the festival have been donated to the Hard Bargain Association, an organization dedicated to rehabilitating existing homes and building new, affordable homes in the historically African-American Hard Bargain neighborhood in Franklin, TN. Last year, the festival donated $8,000 to the Hard Bargain Association, and it will be exciting to see the outcome for this year.
Perhaps one of my favorite performances of the day was that of the M.S.G. Blues Trio, who travelled to the festival from the D.C. area. Comprised of Jackie Merritt, Miles Spicer, and Resa Gibbs, this group emphasized audience participation. As dusk set in, their performance was on the porch of the house at Boyd Mill Farm, and the audience was able to move closer and experience their music in an even more personal setting. Audience favorites were “Glory Glory, Hallelujah” and “Mean Church People”, the latter being a playful jab at churchgoers with a holier-than-thou mentality. The final performance was by Lee Roy Parnell, whose clear vocals, Texas twang, and slide guitar playing rounded out the evening.
If you haven’t been to the Blackberry Jam Festival before, I would highly recommend doing so. The music is phenomenal, the atmosphere is friendly and fun, and it is place where you can truly feel like part of the Middle Tennessee music community. The festival is every fourth Saturday in June, so keep it in mind!