17 miles south of Naples on U.S. 41 East, Naples, FL
NAPLES — You can listen to symphonies at the Phil. You can catch bigtime rock ’n roll bands at Germain Arena. You can hear cocktail piano all over town.
But to get in touch with your inner hillbilly this weekend, the place to go is Collier-Seminole State Park for the third annual Jammin’ in the Hammock bluegrass festival.
With five different bands playing both Saturday and Sunday, and countless impromptu jam sessions at picnic tables and around the RVs that the bands travel in, the twanging strings of bluegrass music were everywhere at the park Saturday.
The tight schedule of one-hour sets made it possible to hear a wide variety of bands in a short time.
Just past Royal Palm Hammock and the State Road 92 turnoff to Goodland on U.S. 41 East, Collier-Seminole has kept a lower profile than some of the area’s other parks and natural attractions. It is perhaps best known as the home of the walking dredge that made construction of the Tamiami Trail through the Everglades possible.
That lack of recognition, volunteer festival coordinator Rosemary Rengers said, was the spark for the bluegrass festival.
“We wanted something to bring people into the park to find out how nice it is,” she said.
Unlike the Seafood Festival in Everglades City, during which the tiny town disappears for the weekend, the bluegrass festival really did offer a chance to see the serene and pristine landscapes of Collier-Seminole State Park.
“And this year,” Rengers said, “we’re trying to give local bands an opportunity, and local people a chance to hear them.”
That said, she added that headliners the Wilson Family Band traveled down from Folkston, Ga., and bands performing at Jammin’ in the Hammock play concerts and festivals all over the eastern states.
With dad Robert Wilson on guitar and mom, Melissa, playing mandolin, the Wilson Family Band increasingly features the younger generation’s contributions. Son Clint, a 19-year-old college sophomore, played banjo and sang, as well as taking a turn on mandolin and guitar, and writing some of the band’s songs.
His sister, Katie, in eighth grade, also writes songs, and played some nice fiddle and sang lead on some of the numbers. The one non-Wilson in the band, Bruce Sheridan, broke with bluegrass tradition by playing a bass guitar instead of the customary stand-up bass fiddle.
The cool breeze had many in the crowd opting to sit out in the bright sun, rather than under the shade of the big tent, and some wet areas of grass remained from Friday’s downpour. Folding chairs were a must.
“The weather looks great to me,” said Dick Tholen, down from Tennessee with his wife for some kayaking and some bluegrass. “Back home, there’s snow on the ground.”
“We were under the tent, but we came out here because it’s warm,” said Camille Soneson of Marco Island. “I love this music. Bluegrass just makes you feel good – it’s toe-tapping.”
That’s what it’s all about, said Bob Shea, guitarist and frontman of the Bugtussel Ramblers, a Naples-based bluegrass band, after they came off stage.
“What everyone comes here for is to leave their woes behind,” he said. “What’s really beautiful is the interaction between the players and the audience.”
As if to make Shea’s point, over by the Blackwater River, Ronnie Retherford from Enterprise, Ala., was showing off his homemade cigar box guitar to all comers.
On stage, Retherford plays a beautiful “f-style” Eastman mandolin for Pure and Simple Bluegrass, but he gave passersby a chance to play his simple four-stringed creation, and seemed determined to convince them they, too, could build a fretted folk instrument.
“You just get you a stick of wood and a cigar box,” he said, puffing on a cigar of his own.
In the musicians’ parking lot at Collier-Seminole State Park, Bobby Martin, the banjo player for Swinging Bridge, offered a swig of Crown Royal to a perfect stranger, after allowing, “I think I could use a little eye-opener myself.”
You know bluegrass is friendly, feel-good music.
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The festival continues Sunday from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m., beginning with a “Bluegrass Gospel Sing and Jam” at 10 a.m. Then Frontline, a Southwest Florida-based band, will take the stage for the first of two sets, with all the other bands back for more.
Admission is $15, with all proceeds going to preservation efforts in Collier-Seminole State Park.