Live Oak — Bluegrass Among The Evergreens

By Gary Reid

Way down upon the Suwannee River…as Stephen Foster’s “Old Folks At Home” goes, lays the community of Live Oak in Suwannee County, Florida. No doubt named for the evergreen southern oaks that populate the area, it is, in many respects, a sleepy little town that is situated in the northern part of the state, only one county away from the border with Georgia. Its origins date back to the days before the Civil War, when the area was a popular gathering spot for railroad workers. By the 1880s, Live Oak assumed the position as the county seat and began a period of brisk growth. Today, the town has a permanent population of about 7,000 residents. But a transient group of some 500,000 people visit the area every year—many of them lovers of bluegrass, old-time, folk, Americana, country, gospel music, and more!

The Spirit of the Suwannee - Bluegrass Unlimited

The Spirit of the Suwannee Campground - Live Oak, Florida. Photo: Frank Serio

What is it that brings these masses of temporary inhabitants to Live Oak every year? Mostly it’s a series of events that take place at the Spirit of the Suwannee Campground located just north of town. Annual Spring and Fall bluegrass festivals that started in 1986 were soon augmented with larger Americana happenings such as MagnoliaFest and SpringFest; they caused the area to become well-known to legions of loyal music fans.

Live Oak has a rich musical history that far precedes the contemporary happenings of today. Next year marks the sixtieth anniversary of the launching of the Suwannee River Jamboree, the country music program that started the love affair with country and bluegrass music in the north Florida region that continues to this day.

The two men most responsible for conceiving the idea for the Jamboree were Aubrey Fowler (1911-1999) and Norman Protsman (1921-2009). Fowler was a very civic minded resident of Live Oak. Over the years, he served as president of the Kiwanis Club, president of the Florida Council of Farmer Cooperatives, secretary of the Jaycees, was a member of the Suwannee County Chamber of Commerce, and was a charter member of the Suwannee River Arts and Crafts Guild board of directors. Protsman, an Ohio native, moved to Live Oak in 1950 and became the manager of the local radio station, WNER, which had gone on the air the previous year; he later bought the station in January of 1953. Like Fowler, he, too, had deep roots in business and community, having served as the president of the Florida Association of Broadcasters and was a member of Rotary and Shriners clubs. As a World War II veteran, he was stationed in England as a member of the 493rd Bomb Group.

It was Fowler’s and Protsman’s concern for the vitality of the community that the Jamboree was originated. Protsman noted not long after the show’s start, “Our original purpose was to bring people to Live Oak and to give them a good wholesome show similar to the very successful Grand Ole Opry and Renfro Valley Barn Dance. Country music is one of the major fields of music in the United States today and we feel that we are in a perfect location for the development of a nationally known show.” Development of the show lay between Fowler, Protsman, and Clarence Parker, a WNER employee with the on-air persona, “Cousin Clare.”

The first performance of the Jamboree took place in November of 1952 in the auditorium of the local high school. About 250 people attended that first program, which featured 16 performers and lasted for an hour and a half. Initially, the program was scheduled as a monthly event, but it was so well received that it quickly went to a bi-weekly format and then weekly.

To promote the Jamboree, a half-hour portion of each program was recorded and sent out to surrounding radio stations. By May of 1954, 14 stations were carrying the preview edition of the show.

The program soon outgrew the high school auditorium by October of 1953 and had moved to one of the tobacco warehouses in town, Suwannee Warehouse #1, which was located at 502 Irvin Ave. NW. The new location afforded seating for 1,200 patrons. In 1954, at the tobacco festival held in July and August, the event was moved outdoors to the Suwannee High School football stadium. Local folk music performer Tony Russ reported an audience of 5,200 for his show. By now, the cast consisted of forty individuals assembled in a half-dozen or so bands.

There was Cousin Clare Parker, billed as the “funniest man in the [Suwannee] Valley.” He also acted as master of ceremonies. As part of his comic character, he dressed in baggy pants, an old shirt, and a big floppy hat. He had a daily program on WNER called Western Airs And Sunshine Time, where he spun popular country music records of the day. People who saw him at the Jamboree or heard him on the radio were clueless to the fact that the zany haphazard Cousin Clare was in real life the soft-spoken and reserved Clarence Parker. Helping out with the comedy was Betty Ann Thomas, a “young lady with a winsome smile, a song, red hair, and a timely remark that’ll keep you howling with laughter.” She originally auditioned to be a singer, but wound up performing comedy as “Bertha Lou,” a Live Oak version of Minnie Pearl. She recalled, “We would meet up during the week and rehearse and then do the show on Saturday night.”

There was Claude Bedenbaugh and his Florida Orange Pickers, a blind banjo picker who ran a music store in nearby Lake City. His group also sported fiddle, guitar, bass, and a lap steel guitar. The Melody Rangers, who had a Saturday morning program on WNER, consisted of Leroy McDaniel on steel guitar, Al Winburn on electric guitar, Neal McLeon on rhythm guitar, Al Land on fiddle, and Robin Shiver on electric bass. The Suwannee River Playboys featured Arnold “Red” Brim on steel guitar, his cousin Johnnie Bonds on bass, Neal McLeod on guitar, Danny Parsons on piano, Dan Herring on guitar and his brothers Lem and Cecil Herring. Gospel music was represented by A.B. Taylor and the Norris Sisters. Taylor was a gifted composer with more than a hundred gospel songs to his credit. On the program, he directed the family harmonies of the Norris girls. Serving up old-time songs and “numbers that have been popular since pioneer days” were members of the Norris family, popularly known as the White Springs Ramblers.

The program sported several soloists as well. One of the most popular was nine-year-old Little Benny Cox. Touted as a “little bundle of smiles,” one of his popular songs was his version of “Just Married,” a 1953 release by Faron Young that was written by West Coast performer Tommy Collins. At the other end of the spectrum was 73-year-old Uncle Frank Noegel, an old-time five-string banjo player who was affectionately known as the “dean of the show.” Last but not least was the “piano percolator” Paul Coffee who delighted fans with old songs and new.

The year 1955 was another year of growth for the Jamboree. In addition to the regular cast of performers, guest artists such as Smiley Burnette, the sidekick of Gene Autry in western films, and Opry stars Radio Dot & Smokey began making appearances. Other recent star guests included Lew Childre and Grandpa and Ramona Jones. A full-time manager, Jack Henderson, was hired to oversee the program. A popular performer over Nashville’s WLAC in the late 1940s, he also served as the Jamboree’s master of ceremonies. The program played a large part in Live Oak’s tobacco festival for 1955. As was done the previous year, four outdoor performances were presented on the athletic field of the local high school. The July 16 show gave the program its first solid taste of bluegrass when Jim & Jesse and the Virginia Boys were the guest performers. This no doubt set the stage for the duo’s permanent membership on the Jamboree, starting on November 5. Also joining at the same time was Hylo Brown. Their affiliation coincided with the third anniversary of the show’s debut. The event was slated to be filmed for the purpose of pitching the show to New York advertising agencies in hopes of finding a sponsor for a weekly television program. Unfortunately, a last-minute cancellation dashed these hopes.

Jim and Jesse moved to Live Oak fresh from Wheeling, W.Va., where they had a spot on the World’s Original WWVA Jamboree. Once in Florida, they became headliners on the Jamboree. Jesse picked up additional work as a DJ at WNER. In time, the group came to have television shows in four different markets: WCTV-TV in Tallahassee, WEAR-TV in Pensacola, WTVY-TV in Dothan, Ala., and WSAV-TV in Savannah, Ga. During much of their time in Live Oak, the band included fiddler Joe Meadows, fresh from his stint with the Stanley Brothers, and multi-instrumentalist Don McHan.

By 1956, the Jamboree was averaging 800 to 1,000 attendees per show. A thirty-minute segment of the program was still being syndicated to 15 stations, including WDLP-FM in Panama City, Fla., who aired the program from 10-10:30 on Saturday evenings. Regulars on the program, in addition to Jim & Jesse, included H.M. & Sandy Flowers, Cousin Clare Parker, J.T. Pollards & Sundown Drifters, Broward Barr, Cumbess Family, Carolyne Gaskins, Dianne Welborn and Uncle Frank Noegels. Guest artists appeared on the program. Some, such as Georgie Riddle from WRHC in Jacksonville and gospel favorites the Masters Family, were fairly local while others, such as Reno & Smiley, were special treats for the Jamboree fans.

By now, the Jamboree had done much to establish Live Oak as a venue for country music. So much so that popular country singer Carl Smith drew a crowd of 12,000 when he appeared in town at the high school football stadium.

The beginning of 1957 started off as another banner year for the Jamboree. Jim & Jesse continued to headline with a supporting cast that featured Carolyn Gaskins, Town and Country Playboys, Diane Weldon, Uncle Frank Noegles, and comedian Chick Stripling. By June, however, things took a turn for the worse. It was tobacco season and the warehouses that had housed the show for the last four years were needed for tobacco sales. A decision was made to take the show on the road until tobacco season was over. Unfortunately, in the show’s absence from Live Oak, interest waned and it ceased operation.

For a year and a half, Live Oak was without its Suwannee River Jamboree. Aubrey Fowler was determined to change that. In September of 1958, Carter Stanley ventured to Live Oak, presumably at Fowler’s invitation. A postcard from Carter to his old picking buddy Pee Wee Lambert stated that he was in Florida for business and vacation. Six weeks later, the Stanley Brothers and the Clinch Mountain Boys were the new headliners of the reactivated Jamboree. For most of the last 12 years, the Stanley Brothers had used Bristol, Va., as a base of operations. With the effects of Elvis and rock’n’roll taking their toll and feeling that they had “played out” the Bristol area, Carter and Ralph decided it was time to make a move. Bandmembers Al Elliott, Paul Mullins, and Bill Napier traveled south with them.

The return of the show was met with much anticipation. An editorial in the Suwannee Democrat noted: “Those who are familiar with the show can remember when the town was filled on Saturday nights as people came from all over just to see a Jamboree performance. It is our wish that such a success may again be enjoyed…many feel that the location is ideal for such a show to join the ranks of the very, very successful…there are no limits to the development of a nationally famed country music show here.”

Performers on the new program included, in addition to the Stanley Brothers, Edwina “Sandy” Flowers, Leroy McDaniel & the Melody Rangers, Cheryl Thompson who went on to become Miss Nevada in 1963, Claude Bedenbaugh, Gordon Jackson, The Cheerleaders, Red Brim, Johnnie Bonds, Uncle Frank Noegel, the Suwannee River Girls, Opal Jean Kiff, and the Easy Drifters. The new show was featured in Live Oak’s agricultural coliseum, a 2,000 seat venue that was dedicated in November of 1956.

Efforts were made to keep the Jamboree involved in the community. In December of 1958, a Christmas edition of the program was held at the Suwannee High School auditorium, complete with a visit from Santa Claus. Ralph Stanley observed, “The more happy children around, the better the Christmas, and we hope there will be hundreds of children present for the show next Saturday night.” Live Oak business leaders were exposed to the music of the Stanley Brothers at a Rotary Club meeting. Aubrey Fowler noted the Stanleys’ value to the community: “Using their popular appeal as a spring board, the group has been praising Live Oak and the Suwannee River Country to their listeners and telling the world about this part of the State and Nation.” Ralph Stanley gave a special rendition of “Wildwood Flower.” At least one of the Jamboree performances was used as a fundraiser for the Florida Sheriffs Boys Ranch, an organization dedicated to working with troubled teens.

In March of 1959, the Stanley Brothers became spokesmen for the Jim Walter Corporation of Tampa, Fla., makers of prefabricated shell homes. Jim Walter sponsored television programs by the Stanleys in Jacksonville, Orlando, Tallahassee, Ft. Meyers, and Tampa. They also syndicated 15-minute radio programs to stations throughout the South East. The television coverage greatly increased Carter and Ralph’s exposure, which spilled over to the Suwannee River Jamboree. In fact, plans were made to televise a half-hour portion of the Jamboree. Unfortunately, this never materialized. By mid-1959, audiences were averaging around 300 people per show—a healthy number, but still way below the show’s 1956 heyday of 1,000 attendees.

The studios of WNER in Live Oak became a de facto recording studio for the Stanley Brothers when they needed to send some masters to Starday Records in Nashville. They did at least three sessions there, producing a total of 12 masters that were released. William M. “Bill” Savitz (1929-1992) was an engineer at WNER, and he oversaw the recording process. He recalled, “We’d cut a session and it’d take about four hours. It was laid back, relaxed. They knew what they were doing. It was simple, straight. There was no stereo or any mixing to do with it. It was two mics right into the board and then into the recorder.” His assistant was William R. “Bill” Slaughter, a local high school student who had an afternoon shift at the station as a disc jockey. He recalled that the station went off the air at 6 p.m. and the group would congregate there at around 6:30 for a session. Everyone would gather around a single microphone that was fed to a Magnacord tape recorder. As each member would take their respective instrumental breaks, they would step up to the microphone, do their part, and then step out of the way for the next member. In essence, they were “mixing” the music on the fly.

Some of the tunes recorded at WNER were “Choo Choo Comin’,” “Highway Of Regret,” “Ridin’ That Midnight Train,” and a session of four gospel songs: “A Few More Seasons,” “Where We’ll Never Die,” “In Heaven We’ll Never Grow Old,” and a re-make of their very first record, “Mother No Longer Awaits Me At Home.” Bandmembers on the sessions included Bill Napier on mandolin and lead guitar, Chubby Anthony and/or Ralph Mayo on fiddle, and Al Elliott or Johnnie Bonds on bass. When the group’s regular bass player at the time, Johnnie Bonds, wasn’t available for the session of gospel songs, Bill Slaughter found himself doing duty as a temporary Clinch Mountain Boy.

By the early part of 1960, the makeup of the Suwannee River Jamboree consisted of a practically new roster of talent. Cousin Clare Parker was still at the helm, but new recruits included Frank Evans, Willie Matthis, Terry Nichols, and “other regulars.” Guest artists included Little Eller Long, a country comedian who had been popular on the Renfro Valley Barn Dance, Herb and Kay Adams, who were part of the Ernie Lee Show over WTVT-TV, Tampa, and the Country Cloggers, an exhibition square dance group with four young couples ranging in age from 16 to 19.

Unfortunately, the new lineup of talent and extra features weren’t enough to keep the show going. By December of 1960, the Jamboree had once again closed its doors. But the Jamboree was the show that just wouldn’t die. In 1963, Carter and Ralph Stanley got together with local residents B.W. and Gladys Deese to re-open the show. The Deeses built a new barn on their property just south of town on U.S. 129. The revamped program featured a number of the same performers: the Stanley Brothers, LeRoy McDaniel and Johnnie Bonds, Uncle Oscar Swails, and a host of others. Newcomers included Dean and Marie Bence, a husband/wife duo from Jacksonville who performed on mandolin and guitar.

The 1963-’64 season included guest artists Bill Monroe, Ernest Tubb, the Masters Family, the Lewis Family, the Louvins, as well as several novelty acts such as the Live Oak Beatles and Stonewall Turnipseed (Leroy McDaniel). Ads for the programs stressed the family friendly atmosphere. Indeed, Mrs. Deese and daughter Sam served up hot dogs and other refreshments for the attendees. Sam was a pre-teen during the early days of the “New Barn” and was a classmate of Carter’s oldest daughter, Doris. She has fond memories of riding the bus to Jacksonville with Bill Monroe!

Fast forward to 1979. Suwannee County undertook the building of a new community park located several miles north of Live Oak on U.S. 129. By 1984, the park that was less than five years old and had already closed, and the county was anxious to unload it. Enter Bob and Jean Cornett. In 1974, the couple started the Festival Of The Bluegrass in Lexington, Ky., an event that would later win the International Bluegrass Music Association’s award for Bluegrass Event Of The Year. The husband and wife team were also bestowed with a Distinguished Achievement award. In 1985, the Cornetts signed a 16-year lease for the property with an option to buy. They wasted no time in starting to make a return on their investment. On April 11 and 12, 1986, they staged their first Spirit Of The Suwannee Bluegrass Festival. An advertisement for one of the early festivals extolled the virtues of the park: “Our beautiful 500-acre park [is situated] here along the Suwannee River in north Florida. Bring your fishing gear, because the Suwannee, one of the cleanest rivers in the world, has excellent fishing. And bring your walking gear, because we have many miles of trails where you can enjoy nature.”

Significantly, the first festival featured two of the bluegrass performers who figured most prominently in Live Oak’s country music history: Ralph Stanley and Jim & Jesse. Other headliners included the Lost & Found, Orange Blossom Bluegrass, the New Coon Creek Girls, and others. A fall festival took place in October and included contemporary artists such as Tony Rice and Doyle Lawson.

Starting with the 1988-’89 winter season, the park began featuring regular Saturday night concerts. Top names in the business were frequently booked: the Country Gentlemen, Seldom Scene, Jim & Jesse, Chuck Wagon Gang, the Lewis Family, as well as regionally popular groups, the Boys From Indiana and Paul Adkins.

In the 1990s, in addition to the Cornetts’ own regularly scheduled events, the Spirit Of The Suwannee became home to events that were partnered with other promoters. The year 1996 saw the first MagnoliaFest, the brainchild of the Jacksonville Beach duo of Randy and Beth Judy. It added a new dimension to the park’s activities by featuring a “flavorful, rich blend of new and traditional folk, bluegrass, newgrass, roots rock, alternative country, singer/songwriter, rhythm & blues, Cajun, and Celtic music, plus a few things that defy description.”

The Judys also launched Springfest, a similar event dedicated to featuring the “world’s finest performers in new and traditional folk, roots rock, bluegrass & newgrass, singer/songwriter, acoustic blues, Cajun/Zydeco, and other forms of American roots music.” Over the years, top name performers have included Doc Watson, Ralph Stanley, Tony Rice, Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, former Byrds Chris Hillman & Roger McGuinn, and Earl Scruggs. A 2007 documentary called Music Farmers: Sowing The Seeds Of Americana highlighted Béla Fleck, Derek Trucks, Guy Clark, the late Vassar Clements, Peter Rowan, The Waybacks, and others. Significantly, the film was shown on 175 PBS stations nationwide. The event has grown to have more than 7,000 attendees.

Other events over the years have included a Chubby Wise benefit festival, a Lonesome River Band festival that ran for two years, and the Limerock Music Festival.

With all of the activities taking place at the Spirit Of The Suwannee, yearly attendance averages 500,000 people. The Cornetts feel the growth has come from “taking care of the customer.” For their own special productions and partnered events, Florida Monthly magazine cited the Spirit Of The Suwannee as the Best Live Music Venue For Florida for 2009, displacing Disney as the top spot. Indeed, the park has become a valuable asset to the community, employing 70 full-time employees and as many as 500 part-timers during big events and bringing a significant amount of tourist money to the area. The town of Live Oak honored the Cornetts for their activities.

Clearly Live Oak has had a long and colorful involvement with bluegrass, country, folk, and other forms of traditional music. Just as the leaves of the live oaks are ever green, the music of Live Oak is ever playing. For sixty years, locals and visitors have been treated to vast array of topnotch talent, from the Suwannee River Jamboree and bluegrass greats Jim & Jesse and the Stanley Brothers to the old Jamboree Barn and the Cornetts and their Spirit Of The Suwannee. Stephen Foster’s “Old Folks At Home” might have lamented, When will I hear de banjo strumming…, but for over half a century, the strings around Live Oak have rung out loud and clear.

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