17 miles south of Naples on U.S. 41 East, Naples, FL
It was a beautiful evening to soak in the acoustic rhythms of bluegrass music on Saturday night — the sky was clear and starry, while the air was slightly cool and breezy. No one could’ve asked for better conditions — except maybe to lose the pesky mosquitoes.
But other than the insects, a staple at Collier Seminole State Park, there was very little to complain about for the first ever Jammin’ in the Hammock bluegrass festival.
The two-day concert, which was held Saturday and Sunday at the park, turned in a great crowd for its first run.
Festival organizer Rosemary Rengers estimated 2,700 came to the festival, many reserving spots for the sold-out campsites.
Jammin’ in the Hammock featured eight bluegrass bands. Some of the bands were local, while others journeyed from states like Kentucky and South Carolina.
One such out-of-state band was crowd favorite The Doerfel Family of New York.
The Doerfel Family band’s core is made up of five teenage siblings who arrange music and play the acoustic instruments. In addition to the core of the band, some of the younger siblings also made stage appearances to sing or just stand and wave to an enthusiastic crowd.
With 10 kids and the Doerfel parents on hand, it was hard not to look around and see at least one of the redheaded or strawberry-blond Doerfels hanging around at the festival.
The Doerfel Family’s irreverent and goofy humor, which tickled the crowd, helps dispel the myth that bluegrass music is only for an older crowd. During a rendition of the famous “Dueling Banjos,” one of the Doerfel boys broke into a riff of Lynyrd Skynyrd’s “Sweet Home Alabama” to the roar of the crowd.
Another band at the festival was The Fleas, a local group that got their start playing at the Flamingo Island Flea Market in Bonita Springs.
The Fleas and other local bands like the Flat Mountain String Band are part of a growing number of bluegrass bands that are forming in the southwest Florida area.
Part of the growth of bluegrass music is due to the migration of bluegrass enthusiasts, said Herb Washington, the President of Southwest Florida Bluegrass Association.
“In the southwest Florida region, we’re really blessed with some really talented performers,” said Washington. “Part of it is a lot of people who play bluegrass get to be my age then come down to Florida.”
Terry West, a guitarist with the Flat Mountain String Band, admits that no one in the band was actually born in Florida.
But part of the growing popularity can be attributed to popular venues that feature bluegrass music.
According to West, the two hotspots for bluegrass music in this area are The Bean coffee shop in Naples and the flea market in Bonita Springs.
Jammin’ in the Hammock is not the only bluegrass festival of its kind. Many music festivals across the country are run through state parks, allowing patrons and band members to camp out at night and enjoy the music during the day.
According to Glenn Taylor, a guitarist for the Bluegrass Stagecoach Band, a group of loyal bluegrass fans follow festivals from state to state. These most loyal fans, called “jammers,” play a string instrument and enjoy playing along or “jamming” with the bands between sets.
The relationship between the jammers and the band members forms a unique community.
“We’ve become a family,” said Taylor. “You go from festival to festival and it’s the same folks.” The informal jam sessions are part of the charm of a bluegrass festival.
Herb Washburn, the President of the Southwest Florida Bluegrass Association, pointed out that even loyal rock ‘n’ roll fans don’t bring instruments and jam with the band.
To give the jammers their chance to play, the festival staged an open mike jam session on Saturday night and a Sunday morning gospel sing and jam.
These jam sessions were one of the opportunities for the jammers to perform alongside the professional musicians.
The Saturday night jam session spilled into early Sunday morning hours.
The Sunday morning gospel sing and jam was a chance for the audience to sing along with well-known gospel hymns like “Amazing Grace” and “How Great Thou Art” with a folksy flare.
But it wasn’t just the diehard jammers that turned out of for Jammin’ in the Hammock.
A large number of patrons also attended the festival out of a sense curiosity.
“What we were most happy about is that we had a significant number of local people,” said Rengers. “Not only had some of them never been to a bluegrass festival, they had never been to our park.”
With carts to drive around the less mobile patrons and activities for children, the bluegrass festival was able to appeal to a wide range of attendees.
Festival organizers received rave compliments for how well the festival ran on its first try.
“There are festivals that have been around for years and years that don’t run as smoothly as this one,” said Karen Batten of The Fleas.
But with the date set for the next year’s Jammin’ in the Hammock, festival organizers are already planning on how to make the next one bigger and better.
“We’re taking advice from the band people. And we’re taking surveys,” said Rengers.
Rengers said she hopes to better accommodate the jammers for the next festival and bring in even more locals.
The next Jammin’ in the Hammock bluegrass festival is set for Feb. 13 through Feb. 15, 2009, at the Collier Seminole State Park in Naples.
It’s not too early to reserve a campsite for next year. Just don’t forget the bug spray for the unforgiving mosquitoes.