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Bluegrass On The Plains, For The Love Of State And Music

Bluegrass-On-The-Plains-page4Bluegrass On The Plains
For The Love Of State And Music
By Casey L. Penn

“Alabama has never been a hotbed for bluegrass.” This from the man who is effectively turning up the heat through his annual bluegrass festival in Auburn. “I don’t want an average festival,” says Mathan Holt, owner and promoter of Bluegrass On The Plains hosted each May on his 100-acre RV Park. “I want to put on as good a festival as there is in the United States. I want to preserve bluegrass music, and I feel like I have the venue and the location to do that.”

One of the fastest growing festivals in the southern United States, Bluegrass On The Plains is gaining fame for its stellar lineup, sun-shaded seating/stage area, full-power RV lots, and a bathhouse fit for bluegrass royalty. “I’m so impressed with what Holt has done to grow a new major bluegrass festival,” says SiriusXM’s Bluegrass Junction broadcaster Chris Jones (Chris Jones & The Night Drivers). “He comes at the festival from the perspective of both a musician and a shrewd businessman. In just a few short years, it’s already a premier bluegrass event.” (Incidentally, the bathhouse with heated floors, laundry room, piped-in music, and air conditioning, has been voted “Best Bath in Bluegrass.” The festival itself earned the 2013 International Bluegrass Music Association’s Festival Of The Year Momentum Award.)

Last year’s event featured 20 acts, among them Ricky Skaggs, Claire Lynch, Doyle Lawson & Quicksilver, Blue Highway, The Isaacs, Jones & his Night Drivers, and Rhonda Vincent, who has become a mainstay of the experience. “We are thrilled to be part of Holt’s festival,” says Vincent, who appreciates the park’s southern hospitality and family atmosphere. “It’s the first festival that I know of having restrooms with marble floors. The facility is five-star, and the entertainment is a who’s who, but it’s the people that make the place special.”

The 2016 festival looks to be just as competitive, with a lineup that includes Vincent, Daryle Singletary, Mountain Faith, Balsam Range, Marty Raybon, Kenny & Amanda Smith, Volume Five, The Grascals, and featured artists Jerry Douglas & The Earls Of Leicester. It’s a full seven days of music, music, music, with comfort and extras built into the experience. There are free workshops aplenty (fiddle, mandolin, vocal, bass, guitar, and more), open stage time early in the week, and performances by Kids On Bluegrass. Also early in the week, there is a Bluegrass Scramble and, since 2014, the festival’s exclusive Bluegrass Idol Competition.

Sponsored by Mountain Fever Records together with Bluegrass On The Plains, the Bluegrass Idol Competition promises a sizable carrot to young bands looking to gain a jump-start. The 2015 winner, BlueRoad, received a prize valued at $6,000. It included cash, a spot in Saturday night’s show, a free stay at the event, and more. (Hailing from Georgia, BlueRoad members include John Hicks, Dylan Smith, Greg Fleming, Hayden Bramlett, Josh Hollifield, and Matt Southern.)

On Wednesday evening and throughout the day on Thursday, Friday, and Saturday, the main acts take the stage. Most bands play an early set as well as a later set. These build up to the festival’s featured artists. After all of this excitement, there is more music to come during Sunday’s gospel show.

Holt’s festival features a select group of art and food vendors and pleasant surprises most every night of the week. (In 2015, there were fireworks, surprise guests on stage, and more.) All the while, staff members and volunteers are everywhere looking after musical guests and patrons alike. “I never walked to my car one time that a ride in a golf cart was not offered,” says Alabama resident Larry Combs, 65, who has attended bluegrass festivals for more than forty years. “That’s pretty nice for us old hippies.” Having started “festing” at age 19 in the cold and mud of Ralph Stanley’s Old Home Place (McClure, Va.), Combs truly appreciates the cleanliness and comfort of Holt’s facilities.

However, it’s the special touches—and the man behind all the fun—that have made the biggest impression on this die-hard bluegrass fan. “Mathan welcomed me and told me if I had a problem, he would fix it. He didn’t say, ‘If I can, I will fix it,’” Combs recalls of his first meeting Holt. “He said, ‘I will fix it.’ I had never met him before. When I was leaving, he told me he hoped I had a good time and would come back next year. I think you have the answer to that.”    Holt has a long history in bluegrass. The native Alabamian grew up near Auburn in the small town of Loachapoka. Like many families at the time, Holt’s family listened to the Grand Ole Opry and watched television shows featuring artists like Flatt & Scruggs, Porter Wagoner, and the Wilburn Brothers. “When there’d be a special guest who played banjo, fiddle, or guitar, I just loved it,” remembers Holt, who became a huge fan of tight harmonies and a “wearisome, lonesome sound.”

Helping to solidify his early devotion to dramatic harmony was his father, who taught Stamps Baxter singing schools in area churches. “When I was four or five years old, Dad would stand me up to the microphone to sing,” recalls Holt, who by 12 was a regular part of his father’s gospel quartet, The Kingsmen. By his teen years, Holt was playing the guitar and, along with some pickin’ friends, had started his own bluegrass band, the Saugahatchee Syrup Soppers. The boys perfected their musical chops and hopped aboard the bluegrass festival circuit. Many years and stage appearances later (with recordings achieved under the guidance of producer Carl Jackson), Holt decided to come off the road. Committed to his young family, he left the music scene to work in construction and development in the Auburn area.

While he enjoyed his business—and still does—during those many years away from playing bluegrass, Holt remained connected. In other words, he kept his SiriusXM dial set to Bluegrass Junction and his nose in his Bluegrass Unlimited. By 2011, he was ready to get involved once again on a large scale. But first, there was this business of football, Holt’s other great passion.

The Auburn University football fans (of which Holt is one) inspired the development of University Station RV Resort. “During football season, fans came to Auburn in RVs,” Holt explains. “But they really had no accommodations other than just parking in a field. I hoped my idea would develop into something people needed and wanted.”

Holt’s investment in prime real estate paid off to the point that he was able to keep building and renting additional lots each year. By 2006, he was beginning to see some off-season potential in his park. “I began to think that maybe, just maybe, with the way the lots were going, we could have a bluegrass festival here,” he recalled. The rest, as they say, is history.

He had the venue, the central location, the long-held connections to the bluegrass community, and the willingness to work. The pieces began to fall into place and, by 2012, he and wife Jill were attending other festivals, spreading the word about their own and preparing their property down to the last detail (including the bathhouse). The inaugural festival was held during Memorial Day Weekend in 2012. Artists that first year included The Dillards, Carl Jackson with Larry Cordle and Jerry Salley, Marty Raybon, Little Roy & Lizzy, and many more.

In the first year of the event, attendance was respectable—more than 1,500 attendees. That number has multiplied exponentially each year, reaching 7,000 in 2015. As for how big things might get, Holt shared a goal rather than a number. “I want to introduce as many people as I can to this music. I want to accommodate every fan any way I can,” he says. “I know full well I cannot do it alone.”

So, for help with everything from set up and takedown to hospitality, safety, and parking, Holt credits his wife, staff, and volunteers for helping him maintain a superior level of support for guests. The number of volunteers has grown to triple digits and includes many, many Auburn football fans. “Our buddies that stay here with us during football season started calling us,” says Holt. “They wanted to help. Mind you, many of them knew nothing about bluegrass until we started the festival. Now, they love it.

“We have people everywhere. When an RV pulls up here, we have an escort to carry them to their lot. We have a system that starts at our welcome center—the orange and blue caboose. We have information packets for each guest and hardly any backup. If you reserve it, it’s ready for you. If you come in and you haven’t reserved, we have lanes ready for that, too.”

For the bands, as well, Holt goes above and beyond by providing a hospitality house for their use throughout their stay. “Some of the festivals I went to, you were lucky if you got a bottle of water,” he recalls of his own gigging days. “I realized early on that your bands can help advertise your festival as well as anybody else. I want our bands to be taken care of. We have air conditioning, rooms for napping, and real food—not just snacks. We may have BBQ ribs, chicken, fried fish, and veggies. It’s something I want to do personally for the bands. I’m fortunate to be in a position to do it, and the bands appreciate it.”

Booking the bands has become a ceremony of sorts for Holt. He puts himself in a quiet room, cuts off the phones, and thinks about the coming year. “There are a couple of my buddies that will be here, but overall, I don’t have a preconceived notion. I want to book artists that people will travel to see, and I’m not scared to book the bigger bands.”

Holt has no fear of smaller bands either and works toward a mix of established groups with talented but relatively young bands. “One of my goals is to encourage younger kids that sing and play—to give them a boost,” he says “When I run across a band that fits the bill, I take note and try to work them in. A good example is Williamson Branch who performed in 2015. The first time I saw them perform, I knew that people were going to love them. There are many bands I want to get here, but I have to rotate them around a little bit. The exception is Rhonda [Vincent],” says Holt. “She will be here every time we have a festival. Everybody loves her, she draws a good crowd, and she puts on a good show.”

The young festival already features some beloved traditions. Case in point, the nightly All-Star Jam, which from year one has become an anticipated source of entertainment for fans and artists alike. “It’s exciting and impromptu and people love it,” says Holt, who adapted the idea from his singing school days with his father. “At the end of each school, Dad would form a group and have a concert. Many festivals have a finale, but that’s not the same as picking the super singers and pickers and getting them all up there. They allow me to instruct them, and whatever song comes to mind, these fine pickers jump right on it.”

Another growing and heartfelt tradition comes around on Sunday, when things wind down with a sermon followed by a free-to-the-public gospel show. “It isn’t a watered down group of performers, either,” says attendee Combs, who enjoyed 2015’s professional Sunday lineup that included Larry Cordle with Carl Jackson and Jerry Salley, as well as Doyle Lawson, Volume Five, and many more groups.

As Bluegrass On The Plains grows into a tradition in and of itself, Holt continues working to grow the event and to preserve and share the music that he loves. Volume Five bandleader Glen Harrell shares his appreciation for Holt and his mission. “Mathan told me years ago, he wanted to one day put on a great bluegrass festival,” he recalls of his friend and fellow Alabama native. “He has done that. This is one festival where everything you think a band or a fan might need or want, he has already thought of it. As an artist myself, I find his a fun, relaxing festival—one of my favorites to play. I think a lot of Mathan, Jill, and the whole family,” he says before adding one minor complaint of these otherwise-kindred spirits. “Mathan and Jill are Auburn Tiger fans. A Crimson Tide fan myself, I still believe that one day they will see the light and start supporting the crimson color. Roll Tide!”

Meanwhile, there remains in central Alabama plenty of shared love for the color bluegrass. The next Bluegrass On The Plains is scheduled for May 30-June 5, 2016 at University Station RV Resort on the outskirts of Auburn along Highway 14.