A bountiful Harvest

Roots music festival connects the old with the new

They say the third time is the charm, and organizers of the Harvest Festival in Fairburn are sure hoping there's some truth to that old adage as they prepare for the event for the third straight year. This year's lineup includes a virtual cross-section of American roots music, with such bluegrass luminaries as Tony Rice, Peter Rowan, John Cowan and fiddler extraordinaire Vassar Clements joining up-and-coming Americana acts such as Donna the Buffalo, Blueground Undergrass and Acoustic Syndicate. Thematically, all the music is linked by the focus on acoustic playing, but this commonality belies the tremendous diversity of sounds that will be heard during the three-day festival. T-Dawg Productions founder Thomas Helland is first and foremost a fan, and he decided to put his organizational talents to work by putting together a festival featuring the type of music he liked.
"I noticed a void in the Atlanta music scene for festivals featuring Americana and was at a place where I could do something about it professionally," he explains. Helland describes the musical potpourri as " ... not traditional bluegrass, but something a bit more eccentric. These bands appreciate the many roots of American music; they just apply their own twist or interpretation on it."
Since the demise of the Grateful Dead, there has been a marked change in the demographic audience at the various bluegrass and acoustic music festivals around the country. People who once followed the Dead now focus their enthusiasm on a number of other acts such as Phish and Leftover Salmon, and in response to the late Jerry Garcia's obvious love of bluegrass, they have become some of the most appreciative and loyal fans of the genre.
Some observers have criticized the influx of the "hippie jam band" mentality into the bluegrass scene, but others see it as yet another branch from the music's roots. As Helland sees it, "even the jam bands are rooted in tradition. They love the music and are good at it. I think the Harvest Festival focuses more on the shared experience, and if a jam breaks out, well, it will be a good one." Many of the acts on the schedule have played together before in various incarnations, with the best-known local connection being Col. Bruce Hampton's Zambiland Orchestra. Hampton is performing with his newest project, the Code Talkers, so in all likelihood there will be plenty of jamming throughout the weekend.
One particular performer seems to symbolize the crossover between the old and the new at Harvest Fest more than any other artist. Vassar Clements is scheduled to perform all three days at the festival and is also expected to sit in with several acts. His connection with the jam bands is well-known, having been one of the principal players on the seminal Old and in the Way record from the early '70s, which featured Garcia and a cast of great pickers having a blast with a collection of old bluegrass standards. In addition to that record, Clements has released several critically acclaimed recordings of bluegrass, jazz and western swing throughout the years and has earned the respect of both fans and musicians across several generations.
"Bluegrass is my first love," Clements says of his genre-hopping tendencies, "but I like playing all types of music."
As a veteran of these festivals, Clements is aware that as the music continues to grow and develop, perhaps the only consistent thread running through them is the fans. "These festivals remind me of playing in the '70s with the Dead," he says. "I actually see a lot of the same faces I did back then." The jamming was as much a part of the festivals back then as it is now, and Clements is looking forward to having the opportunity to reconnect with some old friends. "I will be playing Friday with Colonel Bruce and the Code Talkers. We have played together a lot in the past around Atlanta and Athens, so it will just be a jam session. We can sort of look at each other and know what to do."
In addition, Clements will be playing Saturday with Tony Rice and Peter Rowan. If that's not enough, on Sunday, he'll also join the Good Medicine Gospel Show with Jeff Mosier. He's looking forward to the wide array of acts that will play throughout the weekend, but even Clements acknowledges that the multi-performer format does have its downside. "The tiring part is waiting around to play," he says. "It's fun to hear other people, but I hardly ever sit down, so my feet hurt unless I wear my tennis shoes."
The Harvest Festival will be at Atlanta's Back Porch in Fairburn on Oct. 6-8. For a current schedule of musical performances, directions, ticket information and suggested guidelines, go to the website at www.harvestfest2000.com.