We’ve pulled in to the Spirit of Suwannee Music Park and Campground for the night, passing through on our way to South Florida Folk Festival. This is a special place in my heart. I grew up here as a musician playing festivals like Magfest, Springfest and eventually large gatherings like Hulaween. Emily and I had our wedding party here. It’s got a vibe, probably from being ancient Indian grounds of course, but also something ethereal with all the Spanish moss and live oaks, the tea-stained Suwannee River flowing through it.
Right now it’s the off season, and there’s a noticeably stark contrast. We’re in the music hall, party because I forgot to grab our leftovers for an “easy dinner”, our norm for long days of travel with five to six hours of driving. Tonight is the warm up before Elvis Night, and all the country classics of the 60’s and 70’s are greasing the gears of these of these excitable old diaphragms. The Elvis Karaoke Competition, we learned, is a rather big deal around these parts, running for the last 14 years here at the park. Normally when I’m here in town performing at a festival, it’s loads of young and middle aged folks changing the entire face of the 800+ acres. Tonight, it’s all locals, mainly above 60 years of age who live in the rural surrounding area. It’s packed, and I just saw a ranch hand looking man on stage singing one of Elvis’ country hits, while two women stuck a few dollars in his back pockets and smack his ass while several dancers engaged in their steps without acknowledgement. The host has a black Elvis costume, rhinestone trim, tight long sleeves and pants with a big shiny belt and black cowboy boots, with a thick, black wig. He’s been doing Elvis 40 years, he knows his stuff.
We’re seated at the bar, and one of the waitresses yelled over our shoulder at the bartender “Big momma! I need another sweet Jesus at Kathleen’s table.” The table behind us has a sweet old couple, the husband a veteran from a war long ago, and the wife has her huge binder stuffed full of Karaoke cds (you remember these bulky pages of sleeves) assumingely in case they don’t have the songs she’s planning to sing on the machine on stage.
The air is thick with elderly, still vibrant energy. Every song has different couples smiling at each other, standing to take to their dancing, which 95% of is VERY impressive. You can tell they’ve been doing it since before they were my age, dancing in clubs each Friday and Saturday instead of staying home to Netflix or drink their faces off. This is rural America from a few generations ago, continuing their traditions as if no time had lapsed. We stick out like sore thumbs. The beer is cheap, the food is shit. But it’s an amazing night, and we’ve only been here 30 minutes. I wish we could stay for the big competition tomorrow, but in many ways I feel as though we already saw it.