Weekender

Smoked Country Jam is a labor of love

The Lonely Heartstring Band is among perfomers at this weekend’s Smoked Country Jam Bluegrass Festival.
The Lonely Heartstring Band is among perfomers at this weekend’s Smoked Country Jam Bluegrass Festival. Photo provided

Bluegrass festivals — is there anything better? There might be, but right now those other things don’t seem to matter.

Give me 12-14 hours of music for three or four days in a row. Give me sitting in a lawn chair under the hot summer sun with a cooler full of goodness by my side. Give me a few thousand people conjoined for the common cause of loving the music and the culture of a laid back, family friendly festival scene. Give me giant egg rolls, sundresses, late-night pickin’ parties, musical performance competitions, meeting new people and all the rest. Give me the pickin’ and grinnin’ and the celebratory sense of a truly American scene. Give me bluegrass festivals!

We happen to have a killer bluegrass festival right up the road from Centre County. It’s just north of Lock Haven, more specifically in Cross Forks, just outside of Renova. It’s the Smoked Country Jam, now in its 13th year, which kicked off Thursday and runs through Saturday.

“My wife, Teresa, was diagnosed with Systemic Lupus Erythematosus in 2002,” said festival co-founder and co-organizer Ron Kodish, “and we began the festival in 2004, as a benefit for the Lupus Foundation of Pennsylvania.”

So, it’s a great festival that benefits a great cause, which I had the privilege of attending a few years ago when the Hillbilly Gypsies rocked the stage well into the night after a rainy Saturday. The scene the entire weekend was very welcoming. Everyone was in good spirits. I soaked in so much music in that beautiful venue, and I even attended part of a banjo workshop led by my friend and fellow picker Mark Rast. Bluegrass was definitely the right choice for this region, and for Kodish’s family context.

“My son is a bluegrass flat picker,” Kodish said, “and we have always enjoyed the atmosphere of the festivals in which he has played. Bluegrass music is a peaceful, easy feeling music, drawing crowds that are typically there more for the music and camaraderie than the party. The atmosphere is relaxed and people are very friendly. Families feel very welcomed at bluegrass events.”

While bluegrass is the main musical focus, Kodish said the festival “celebrates the diversity of the music, bringing performers to the stages from every branch of the bluegrass tree.”

“Smoked Country Jam always has a mix of bluegrass, old time, folk, Americana and roots music,” he said.

It really is a labor of love for Ron and Teresa Kodish. The festival tops out with a few thousand people each year — an impressive number, particularly for a local festival with mostly local or regional bands and that is designed to raise money for charity.

“Our hope every year is to be able to put on another festival the next year. We have no aspirations to become a mega festival. There are only five or six people deeply involved with the organization of Smoked Country Jam. If we end up with money in the bank at the end of this year’s event, we’ll breathe a sigh of relief and tackle 2018. It is truly a labor of love; love of the music, the people and the cause that keeps us going.”

That might be easier said than done with a festival that is so successful on so many levels, and that features the best music in our region. Getting it started was undoubtedly challenging, but keeping it small won’t be easy. See you at the Smoked Country Jam.

Kevin Briggs is a musician, writer and teacher who performs at venues throughout central Pennsylvania. Contact him at KevinTBriggs@gmail .com.

IF YOU GO

▪ What: Smoked Country Jam Bluegrass Festival

▪ When: through Saturday

▪ Where: Quiet Oaks Campground, 88 Quiet Oaks Campground Lane, Cross Fork

▪ Info: www.smokedcountry jam.com

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