Music News & Reviews

Rich Copley: Southland Jamboree becomes a crowd and artist favorite

As Newtown played to more than 800 people, Rowan Doherty, 4, danced along at the Southland Jamboree on June 4. The weekly summer showcase of bluegrass music, in its eighth year, is presented in a field next to Collins Bowling Center on Southland Drive.
As Newtown played to more than 800 people, Rowan Doherty, 4, danced along at the Southland Jamboree on June 4. The weekly summer showcase of bluegrass music, in its eighth year, is presented in a field next to Collins Bowling Center on Southland Drive. Lexington Herald-Leader

The show was over, but the music hadn't stopped at Southland Jamboree.

While headliners Newtown met their public next to the small wooden stage in the field adjacent to Collins Bowling Center on Southland Drive, a few jam sessions popped up in the lingering crowd. The age range for this impromptu sextet, which later becomes a group of seven, was 27 to 75. A guitar player called out tunes including Salty Dog, and banjo player Russell Waddell, 27, took a sip from his can of Pabst Blue Ribbon.

"This is one of the best parts of it," said John Godsey, one of a couple of dozen folks hanging out to watch the show. "A lot of the people that come play after the show are good enough to be on the main stage."

Some of them have been there.

In its eighth year, Southland Jamboree has become a destination for Lexington-area bluegrass music lovers to hear prominent regional and even national acts, and then watch or join in a jam session afterward. Last week's edition featured a bona fide bluegrass music superstar: five-time and reigning International Bluegrass Music Association female vocalist of the year Dale Ann Bradley.

She was playing the Jamboree for the fourth time.

"We love it," Bradley said before the show. "It's one of our favorite places to play every year — a bluegrass show in a field next to a bowling alley. It's perfect, and this is a crowd that really knows their music."

The Jamboree was conceived to fill several voids.

In 2004, the newly formed Southland Association was looking to establish a signature event in the Southland neighborhood, one of Lexington's first commercial districts outside downtown. The district is past its glory days but still home to establishments such as Good Foods Market & Café, Old Kentucky Chocolates, the bowling alley and several music shops.

"We wanted something that would reinvigorate Southland," said Phil Wyant, former owner of Perspectives paint and wallpaper shop.

About the same time, they got a call from Michael Johnathon, founder and host of Woodsongs Old-Time Radio Hour, a weekly folk-music showcase.

"He was talking about how there was no regular venue for bluegrass music in Lexington," Wyant recalls of a meeting with Johnathon. "So his idea was to create a venue. It sounded great, but I didn't know anything about bluegrass music."

Billy Sherrow, one of his fellow Southland Association board members, did. He plays in the bluegrass band Second Time Around. In fact, he said he thought he had seen the template for an event at Good Ol' Days BBQ in Versailles. For a brief period, the restaurant would have a band in to play an hour or so, followed by a jam session.

"It was honestly one of the best things I had ever been to," says Sherrow, a lawyer whose office is across Southland Drive from the bowling alley.

Deciding to go with the bluegrass idea, the association went looking for a place to hold the show. "Phil found the only empty patch of grass left on Southland Drive," Sherrow says.

Because the shows were scheduled through the summer, they concluded it would not be practical to hold them in a parking lot, because of the heat.

"I expected it to be in a parking lot," first-time Jamboree-goer Lee Ann Cox said before Tuesday night's show, "but this is really nice."

She and her friends, including Jamboree regular Mary Beth Griffith, arrived with dinner and snacks to enjoy with the music, as did Emily Beauregard and Will Martin, who were dining on sushi from Good Foods before the show.

"We just moved here from Louisville and used to go to Waterfront Wednesdays," Beauregard said, referring to a summer concert series in a park on the city's riverfront. "So this is kind of like that."

During the past few weeks, the Jamboree has attracted a number of Lexington newcomers looking to get a taste of the Bluegrass through bluegrass music.

"We were wanting to get to know the area, and this seemed like something we had to check out," said Colin Doherty, who just moved to Lexington from Los Angeles to work for Bullhorn Creative. As he took in the music of Newtown, his 4-year-old daughter, Rowan, and 1-year-old son, Tiber, danced in front of the stage.

The Southland Jamboree is familiar territory to Newtown frontwoman Kati Penn, who was the first artist to play the Jamboree. She has seen it grow.

"This is the biggest crowd I've ever seen out here," she said of the 800-plus people who turned out for Newtown on June 4.

The Jamboree has expanded its audience since it started. Sherrow estimated 150 people came to the first event.

While the concert series itself has grown, the logistics have remained fairly simple: Acts play on essentially the same stage, built from donated wood, that the Jamboree has always used. (It had to be rebuilt partially a few years ago after a garbage truck accidentally backed into it.) The sound is handled by the organizers, so acts just have to play. Sherrow and Wyant say the entire budget is $10,000 to $12,000 a year, drawn from donations, sponsorships, concessions, and a modest contribution from the Lexington-Fayette Urban County Government.

"We've never really needed the city government's money as much as we needed their support," Sherrow said.

The Jamboree was launched during Teresa Isaac's administration as mayor, and the organizers say she helped clear some legal and zoning hurdles for the event.

Even though there now are a few more bluegrass events and venues in Lexington, including Willie's Locally Known music hall and the weekly Red Barn Radio show, the Jamboree holds its own and is growing. Being free definitely helps, Sherrow says.

There is occasional talk about whether the Jamboree is outgrowing its location, though Wyant says there really aren't any other spots in Southland that could handle it.

That's fine with concert goer Godsey, who was enjoying the after-show jam, including a performance of Rocky Top.

"I hope it doesn't expand too much," he says. "This is a kind of atmosphere you don't get anywhere else."


Southland Jamboree

What: Series of weekly bluegrass music concerts

When: 7 p.m. Tuesdays through Labor Day week

Where: Field next to Collins Bowling Center, 205 Southland Dr.

Admission: Free

Remaining 2013 lineup

June 18: Driving Rain

June 25: Mountain Connection

July 2: The Velvet Blue

July 9: Stone Cold Grass

July 16: Jeff Clair and Half Past Lonesome

July 23: Laurel River Line

July 30: Dean Osborne

Aug. 6: Sons of Bluegrass

Aug. 13: Custom Made Bluegrass

Aug. 20: Second Time Around

Aug. 27: Michael Cleveland

Sept. 3: to be announced

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