Pickin’ and grinnin’ (and prayin’)

Although the roster for last fall’s Lake Eden Arts Festival was nothing to sneeze at, the spring L.E.A.F. lineup digs even deeper into the cracks and crevices of different musical traditions: Western swing, gospel, Cajun, country, R&B, bluegrass and world music are all represented by first-class international acts. One group — the London/Kyoto-based Eastwhistle — even combines Celtic influences with Japanese traditional music.

With that in mind (and also because it’s impossible to cover everyone), we chose to bring you a glimpse of three acts that seemed to exemplify the quality and diversity to be found at Black Mountain’s Camp Rockmont on Memorial Day weekend.

The first time I saw L.E.A.F. headliners BR5-49 play live, it was in a seedy Birmingham, Ala., punk club called The Nick. Dressed in vintage suits and string ties, the band looked as out-of-place among the slackers and skinheads as if Junior Samples himself were selling cars on the riser. But as soon as the music began — a fertile mix of clip-clop rhythms, high harmonies, pedal steel and a fuzzed-out Gretsch rumble — the crowd forgot about their demographic differences and began to boogie down.

That was two years ago. In the meantime, BR5-49, an alt-country combo stationed behind enemy lines in Music City, has operated as a sort of Radio Free Nashville for those less-than-enamored with the faux glitz and glamour that passes for country music nowadays. Springing from a honky-tonk club on the once-seedy Lower Broadway, BR5-49 worked the tip jars and mined the classics — Lefty Frizzell, Ray Price, even the occasional nod to alt-country godfather Gram Parsons. Soon, a following sprang up, then a record deal and a massive promotional push. Suddenly, the Little Band That Could turned into the Little Band That Did.

BR5-49, with their down-home costumes and their aw-shucks presence, just might be classified by some as a novelty act — but one listen to their finely tuned country-with-an-edge sound proves otherwise.

Another L.E.A.F. group, Lloyd Cannady and the Flying Clouds, are a “soul gospel” group from the tiny town of Plum Branch, S.C., where times do change, but they change very … very … slowly. And thank goodness, because Cannady and the Clouds have a sound that hearkens to the grand old days of gospel — back when Sam Cooke and Marvin Gaye were still testifying to congregations lucky enough to catch them. Something of an expert himself in the qualities of soul, Cannady can look proudly back over his group’s almost 40 years of singing the Lord’s praises.

“We’ve played all over America,” he says, calling from his home early one morning. “We’ve got two buses we travel in, and though everybody works during the week, pretty much every weekend we’re gone singing somewhere.”

Cannady makes it clear right away, though, that he’s not interested in talking about the past, saying, “I’m more excited about what we’re doing right now than I ever have been. We’re better than we’ve ever been.” After 10 albums on the Nashville label HSE, the Clouds began releasing their own albums, until they recently decided to sign with the Asheville-based Happyland Records.

The soul-gospel form is dying out, it seems (newer artists are using more synthesizers and other technological wizardry to augment and gloss over their music), but both Happyland and Cannady are dedicated to preserving the classic sounds of African-American gospel as it used to be. And, while their just-released greatest hits CD, Get Your Soul Right (Happyland, 1997) is an excellent way to listen to them in your living room, their power is undoubtedly best experienced live.

Another force to experience at L.E.A.F. is Ralph Lewis, the Don of the local Lewis-family bluegrass empire (and one of his virtuoso sons is named Don, to boot). The patriarch certainly doesn’t have to worry about becoming a novelty act in the way that a newer group like BR5-49 might. Playing guitar in Bill Monroe’s legendary Bluegrass Boys (Lewis also plays mandolin and banjo) automatically excludes you from that worrisome fate. By the mid-’60s, he already had formed his internationally renowned Piney Mtn. Boys, a group that has gone on to become one of the most celebrated acts in bluegrass.

The Piney Mtn. Boys first turned into a family affair when Mr. Monroe — how can you write about the man and not use a little proper respect? — began bringing Lewis’ sons, Don and Marty, onstage to perform when the boys were only 6 or 7 years old. “They really grew up onstage,” Lewis says, in a phone interview from his home in Madison County. “I think they’re pretty comfortable doing what they do.”

And then some. Don Lewis plays what seems like a gazillion instruments, including one helluva banjo. But the sounds he can coax from a fiddle — often while simultaneously clog dancing — are nothing short of gloriously mindboggling. Marty’s equally dazzling on guitar, and both sons sing up a mountain storm. At the L.E.A.F performance, Lewis and sons will be joined by Richard Foulk on drums and •••SOMEBODY–GETTING NAME••• on bass (this particular incarnation is known in some circles as Ralph Lewis & LaTwang).

When asked to describe their sound, Lewis doesn’t mince words. “We’re pretty much close to the roots,” he explains. “We’re a classic, family-style band in the manner of the Stanleys and the Osbornes.” In the late ’70s, the Lewises even played in a special family-style mountain-music presentation for the Smithsonian Institute.

For now, the group’s busy working on a new, as yet unnamed CD, slated for release in June (also, their L.E.A.F. performance will be recorded for an upcoming live album). And rumor has it that Ralph Lewis will be playing electric guitar on this special occasion.

In among this alt-country and gospel and bluegrass, you can count on hearing bands like the hot ‘n’ spicy File and the bluesed-up, loungey Mambo Brothers — guaranteeing that no L.E.A.F. guest should leave musically unsatisfied.

The Scoop

Directions and ticket prices:

L.E.A.F. falls May 22-24 at Black Mountain’s Camp Rockmont. From the west, take I-40 to Exit 59 (Swannanoa), turn left off the exit, right at the light, left at the next light, right at the stop sign, then go 1.6 miles to the light, and turn left on Lake Eden Road.

From the East, take I-40 to Exit 65 (Black Mountain), drive straight through town (about 2.5 miles), turn right at the light by the Ice Service Store, turn left at the stop sign, go 1.6 miles to the second light, turn right onto Lake Eden Road, and then go 1.5 miles to the main gate.

Advance weekend passes are $65 for adults and $50 for youths. Gate prices are $70 for adults, $55 for youths. Day passes (available at the gate only) are $18 for adults and $13 for the kids ($25 for adults and $20 for the little ones on Saturday night). No outside alcohol may be brought into the festival, but beer, wine and food will be sold. No pets are allowed. Limited camping and bunkhouse lodging are available.

Scheduled Performers:

Headliner performances are: BR5-49 on May 23, 10 p.m.; File on May 23, 8:30 p.m.; and the Mambo Brothers on May 22, 10 p.m.

Lloyd Cannady and the Flying Clouds play May 24 at 11 a.m., and Ralph Lewis and the Piney Mtn. Boys play May 23 at 11 a.m. and 4 p.m.

Other performers include: Eastwhistle, Crucial Smith, Nedy Aravalo, Footloose, Double Indemnity, Thrice Told, The Bob Willoughby Trio, Billy Jonas & The Bucket Brigade, Mike Henderson, Dudley Culp, Beth Molaro, The Fancy Feet Cloggers, Marshall Ballew, Dick Tarrier, Greg Dearth, Vollie McKenzie & Bruce Lang, Kelly Davis, Don Pedi, Liliana DiCastro, John Cooley, Leslie Tucker, Rosario Corelli, Billy Miller, Carol Mallett, Jim Wolfe, Brad Leftwich & The Humdingers, Barbara Groh and Jim Nave.

L.E.A.F. also features a host of arts-and-crafts displays, demonstrations and workshops, plus poetry performances, healing-arts booths and kids’ programs.

Call 686-8742 for tickets and info on lodging and all L.E.A.F. activities, or e-mail info@theleaf.com. Visit the L.E.A.F. Website at http://www.theLEAF.com.

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