When Don Fisher cooked up the idea for a barbecue-and-bluegrass fundraiser in Venice, he envisioned a community picnic with world-class entertainment and food.
The Suncoast BBQ & Bluegrass Bash will serve up a heaping helping of both Saturday at the Venice Airport festival grounds. The free event drew an estimated 10,000 people last year and raised thousands for the Suncoast Foundation for Handicapped Children.
“It started out as a big family picnic and we are keeping it that way,” Fisher said of the event, which is in its fifth year.
This year, two of the top bands in bluegrass will take the stage and the event has been crowned the Florida state barbecue and chili cookoff, with winners in both categories advancing to national competitions.
The Boxcars played to a huge crowd last year’s bluegrass concert. This year, they will team up with Balsam Range, their good friends and Mountain Home Recording label-mates.
Both bands play a more contemporary blend of bluegrass, and have racked up a slew of awards from the International Bluegrass Music Association. They’re two of the hottest bands in the genre these days.
Adam Steffey described The Boxcars as a “nuevo-traditional” band, in a 2013 interview. The Boxcars take new material and perform it in the traditional vein of the legends they grew up listening to, including the Stanley Brothers, Flatt and Scruggs and J.D. Crowe and the New South.
“We take original songs and approach them in a contemporary traditional way,” Steffey said.
Bluegrass music crowned The Boxcars the top instrumental band for the past three years, and it’s easy to see why. Steffey won his record 10th mandolin player of the year award last fall and Ron Stewart is perennially nominated as bluegrass’ best picker on both banjo and fiddle. The band also features guitarist Jeremy Garrett, who writes a lot of the band’s original material; John Bowman (fiddle and banjo) and Harold Mixon on bass.
“It’s Just a Road,” the band’s latest release, was nominated for a bluegrass Grammy award in 2013.
“The Boxcars are our house band now,” Fisher said of the popular group.
Balsam Range, a Western North Carolina-based band, dazzled an appreciative crowd in mid-March at Mixon Fruit Farms in Bradenton. The band performed an energetic stage show, playing an eclectic blend of material ranging from the Osborne Brothers’ “Ruby” to the Allman Brothers’ “One Way Out.”
Balsam Range won IBMA’s Album of the Year award in 2013 for “Papertown,” a tribute to Canton, N.C., the Haywood County town where all five band members live. “Trains I Missed,” the title track of the previous album, was named IBMA song of the year in 2011 and the band was twice nominated as Emerging Artist of the Year.
“We came together for the fun of it and it took off from there,” Buddy Melton, fiddle player and lead singer said in a recent interview. Veteran musicians Tim Surrett on bass, Caleb Smith on guitar, Marc Pruett on banjo and Darren Nicholson on mandolin bring energy and drive to the band’s original material.
Both bands will play a set at the free show on Saturday, then will join forces for a rare hourlong “Appalachian Mountain Reunion” show to wrap up the event.
The free festival started out small, with modest goal of attracting 1,200 to 1,500 people, but Fisher said about 5,000 people showed up for the first event in 2010. Weather permitting, he said he is expecting a crowd at least as big as last year.
Fisher knows how to throw a party. As a restaurateur in Ohio, he helped launch the popular “Taste of Cincinnati” event in the 1970s. He also was a longtime organizer of the offshore Powerboat Grand Prix event when it started in Sarasota.
He sees the Suncoast BBQ & Bluegrass Bash as an opportunity to showcase South County as a niche tourism hot spot, rivaling Sarasota and Bradenton to the north.
Can Venice become a top national destination for barbecuing and bluegrass music?
“I am going to prove it can,” Fisher said.
Vicki Dean is the day news editor for the Herald-Tribune Media Group. She writes about bluegrass music every chance she gets.