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Folk 'family' unites for 15th year

The Will McLean Music Festival brings together Florida's musicians in the same spirit as its namesake.

LOGAN NEILL
Published March 15, 2004

Holding her 3-year-old daughter's hands in her own, Tori Markham clapped along to the spirited melody coming from Don Webster's banjo.

"Wheeee!" exclaimed Rachel when the final notes sounded. "Play it again."

The Bradenton musician was more than happy to oblige his young fan, who had stopped by his campsite Sunday at the Will McLean Music Festival.

Whether it came from the stage or behind a pickup truck parked beneath towering oak trees, music provided plenty of magic at this year's 15th annual event.

More than three dozen acts were on hand to entertain Saturday and Sunday at the Sertoma Youth Ranch, north of the Pasco-Hernando county line.

"This is the Florida music family reunion," said Margaret Longhill, longtime director of the Will McLean Foundation, the not-for-profit organization that stages the annual music festival.

"People who come here know there's a spirit here that they aren't going to find many other places."

Longhill said that near-perfect spring weather helped contribute to the large turnout that came to listen to prominent Florida folk music artists such as Jeanie Fitchen, Jon Semmes and the Florida Friends, Bobby Hicks and Mindy Simmons, who entertained audiences with original songs and some old favorites.

However, the thread that seemed to bind every performer was the deep appreciation for the life and work of McLean, considered the patriarch of homegrown Florida music.

McLean, who died in 1990, was known as Florida's Black Hat Troubadour and authored more than 500 songs and poems celebrating the beauty and lore of his native state.

Songs such as Hold Back The Waters, Osceola's Last Words and Wild Hog are well-known among folk music enthusiasts.

One didn't have to look far at the festival to find musicians and singers who were touched by McLean's inspiration.

"Will was a creative and imaginative songwriter," said longtime friend and musician Red Henry, who performed and recorded with McLean during the 1970s and 1980s.

"His music is such that the more times you hear it, the more you found yourself drawn to its beauty."

Henry, who makes his home in Winchester, Va., is a regular performer at the festival. He thinks the event represents what McLean might have envisioned as the perfect way to celebrate his music.

"You used to see Will at all the folk and bluegrass festivals," Henry said. "He was a musician, but he loved listening to anyone play music."

The Will McLean Music Festival offered the perfect setting for players of acoustic instruments. Throughout the weekend, informal workshops were a gathering spot for amateur guitarists, fiddlers and mandolinists to catch a tip from the pros.

Five stages offered a virtual nonstop string of performances late into the night.

"I come just to relax and camp," said Ted Kapansky, who arrived at the festival Friday night. "People are friendly, and I like going to sleep hearing the music."

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