It's just his nature to care

Published March 9, 2007

Dale Crider has often been heralded as the melodic voice of Florida's conscience. He has spent the better part of the past four decades as a clarion of justice to creatures that have no voice of their own.

Long before Jimmy Buffett latched himself to a cause, Crider sang of the perils of the Florida manatee. He has tunefully admonished the state's environmental agencies for forsaking natural treasures to appease developers and the tourist trade. And he continues to thoughtfully remind folks of the preciousness of wild things - even the ones they don't particularly care for - and how their quality of life would quickly erode without them.

It's music with a message. And a mission, says Crider. He credits the late Will McLean, his close friend of more than 25 years, with inspiring him to write about what impassions him.

"Will believed that music reached people in a way that no other form of communication could," Crider said by phone from his home on Newnan's Lake in Alachua County. "Through his songs, you find a Florida that few people even knew once existed. He gave you a romantic connection that you weren't going to find anywhere else And it may be the only way we'll be able to pass it on."

As he has for 17 years, Crider will be among the headliners at this weekend's Will McLean Music Festival. It's an honor that the 66-year-old folk singer holds dear.

"Whenever I go, I'm reminded of how much Will would have appreciated the sentiment," Crider said. "As a songwriter he appreciated the craft and what it took to write an original song. To know that he still inspires others would have brought him great pride."

Crider, who first met McLean at the 1963 White Springs Folk Festival, said "Florida's Black Hat Troubadour" cut an impressive figure.

"He drove up in a big black hearse and stepped out and was surrounded by a throng of admirers," Crider recalled. "When he was on the stage, you could hear a pin drop."

At the time, Crider was working as a biologist for the Florida Game and Fresh Water Fish Commission. On weekends he would grab his guitar and head for any place where folk musicians would gather. His frequent encounters with McLean soon made them fast friends.

Through the 1960s and '70s, McLean would inspire others to write Florida songs as well. Along with Crider, troubadours Gamble Rogers, Jim Ballew and Don Grooms would emerge as stars of the Sunshine State's burgeoning music scene.

By 1975, Crider had amassed enough original songs to record an album. He asked McLean if he could also use a couple of his.

"Most of my music is done in bluegrass style," Crider said. "Will was a bit surprised to hear Hold Back the Waters and Wild Hog done in faster time than he did them. But in the end he was okay with it."

At the urging of his agency bosses, Crider went on to assume a role as an environmental spokesman for the state. He performed at schools and fairs and made the rounds of afternoon TV talk and variety shows throughout Florida. He and his former wife, Linda, recorded several albums of original music and collaborated on a well-received book and tape compilation, Water Songs.

Throughout the last years of his life, McLean's struggle with personal problems pulled him further from his music. Crider tried to keep him encouraged, but it was a tough bid.

"I would invite him to stay with me so that he could get some rest and hopefully get inspired to write, but it never lasted very long," Crider said. "Will was very stubborn when it came to doing what was best for himself."

McLean's death in 1990 and the subsequent passing of Rogers, Ballew and Grooms in the 1990s left Crider the lone survivor of Florida folk music's first generation. Though retired from the state job for 11 years, Crider has continued to be an environmental activist and an adviser with several watchdog groups.

Two years ago, Crider completed work on Watersongs and Waterways, a 20-song compilation distributed by his Web site, anhingaroost.net. The collection, which has many of Crider's well-known songs, includes Appalachicola Doin' Time, which was chosen as the title track for an award-winning environmental film by WUFT-TV.

"I feel honored when people tell that my music has helped them to better appreciate the beauty of our state," Crider said. "There's still plenty of work left to be done, and plenty of songs that need to be written."

Logan Neill can be reached at lneill@sptimes.com or 352 848-1435.

If you go

Will McLean Music Festival

When: 1 to 10 p.m. today, 10 a.m. to 11 p.m. Saturday and 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Sunday.

Where: Sertoma Youth Ranch, in southeast Hernando County, south of Spring Lake on Myers Road.

Admission: $15 today, $18 Saturday and $15 Sunday. Weekend gate admission is $30. Children under 12 admitted for free.

Information: (352) 465-7208 or visit www.willmclean.com.