Bluegrass and country music performer Marty Raybon is returning this weekend to the same area where his family group won first prize as the best bluegrass band at the Masters Bluegrass Festival more than 40 years ago.
In May 1975, Raybon, his father, Kenny, and brothers, Tim and Ricky, performed as the American Bluegrass Express at the festival at Mistletoe State Park near Winfield, Ga., in Columbia County. The band from Sanford, Fla., left the festival with $500 in first-prize money.
Now four decades later, Raybon will be back in the same area just 30 miles from Winfield as the lead vocalist of the reunited country superstar group Shenandoah.
The band will perform one 90-minute show that begins at 8:30 p.m. Saturday, April 30, at Elijah Clark State Park, 10 miles east of Lincolnton, to conclude The Little Roy & Lizzy Music Festival.
“You blink your eyes and, before you know it, 40 years down the road has passed,” Raybon said in a recent call.
Shenandoah’s long list of hits featuring Raybon on lead vocals includes The Church On Cumberland Road, Two Dozen Roses, Sunday in the South, Ghost in This House, Mama Knows, Janie Baker’s Love Slave and Next to You, Next to Me.
The festival takes place from Thursday, April 28, through Saturday, April 30, with music performances beginning at 11 a.m. each day followed by the featured entertainers performing continuously until about 10 p.m.
Admission costs $35 advance or $40 at the gate for each of the three days, or $85 advance or $90 at the gate for all three days. Fans ages 7 to 13 cost $15 a day. Those 6 or younger get in free. Tickets and detailed festival information can be found at adamsbluegrass.com.
In between that 1975 appearance at Winfield and this weekend near Lincolnton, Raybon and Shenandoah have been in the area several times.
That includes the A Day in the Country festival in 1988, four years after the band was formed, the Post Office nightclub on Washington Road in 1989, the Greater Augusta Arts Council’s Lock N’ Ham Jam in 1992 and at Bell Auditorium in 1993.
“We’re looking forward to coming back to the Augusta area,” Raybon said. “I’ve been lucky to have started in bluegrass music and be accepted by country fans. You find out that you have an extended family who lives all over the country.”
Raybon left Shenandoah in 1997 and returned to his bluegrass roots with a band that included his brother, Tim. He reunited with former Shenandoah band mates Mike McGuire, Stan Munsey and Chris Lucas in 2014.
The big news with Raybon and Shenandoah is that they have been working on a new album with producer Jay DeMarcus, of Rascal Flatts. In fact, the very first song DeMarcus performed on stage with band mates Joe Don Rooney and Gary LeVox was Shenandoah’s The Church On Cumberland Road.
Five songs have been recorded and are being shopped around for a major label contract.
“When Mike (McGuire) and I met with Jay, we wanted to make sure that we kept the lyric content of having songs about everyday life,” Raybon said. “That’s what we’ve had with Two Dozen Roses, Sunday in the South and Next to You, Next to Me.
“We don’t want to compromise what people would expect from us. We ended up listening to 130 new tunes over two days and kept narrowing them down to the five we recorded. We tried to cut them so they sounded like Shenandoah but also didn’t sound dated. Jay has such a great ear for good music that he can hear cigarette smoke.”
Raybon and his family band caught my attention in late July 1977 at the ninth annual Georgia State Bluegrass Festival at Shoal Creek Park near Lavonia, Ga., with host Ed Hurt.
The American Bluegrass Express played all three days of the festival and one night had to follow The Lewis Family, of Lincolnton, in a seemingly impossible situation.
Hundreds of festival fans were packed inside a large building at the festival site because of a heavy rainstorm. The Lewis Family put on its usual high-energy show that ended with the crowd yelling, whistling and begging for more.
After it finally ended its set, the American Bluegrass Band with Raybon took the stage while hundreds of people started streaming out of the building, not caring to stay for this unknown band.
But Raybon and his family poured their hearts and souls into their performance, and an amazing thing happened. The fans realized what great bluegrass music this Florida band was playing and began heading back inside.
The American Bluegrass Express ended its set with a standing ovation. I was so impressed that I ended up giving Raybon and the band their first national media exposure with an article I wrote for Virginia-based Bluegrass Unlimited magazine titled, “These Are Big Boys Here.”
It came from Raybon himself telling me that, although his group had only one album out, it still set up its merchandise table with a draped cloth that had the band’s name on it so fans would see it and say, “These are big boys here.”
BEN BRADFORD AT THE COUNTRY CLUB: This increasingly popular singer returns to the Country Club Dance Hall & Saloon on Saturday, April 30. The show time is 10 p.m. and the doors open at 7. No cover is required until 8:30 p.m.; then it’s $3 for women and $5 for men.
Most country music singers held pretty average jobs before turning to music full time. Not Bradford, who in 2011 earned a bachelor’s degree in biology from Christian Brothers University in Memphis, Tenn.
He worked as an irrigation technician for farms in Arkansas, a lab technician for a diagnostics company in Mississippi by analyzing livestock blood samples, and a wildlife research analyst in Brazil, where he maintained trail camera equipment and trapped and tagged a wild boar.
His love of baseball resulted in his getting an academic and athletic scholarship to Christian Brothers University, where he was a relief pitcher for the baseball team. He also worked a summer job as the bullpen catcher for the Memphis Redbirds AAA team. The team would have him sing on the long trips home.
Although he grew up on his father’s love of classic rock groups such as The Eagles, Led Zeppelin and Van Halen, Bradford, whose real name is Ben Chism, turned more to country music after hearing Kenny Chesney. And he adopted his stage name of Ben Bradford, partly from his brother, Brad, who bought Ben his first guitar (an Ibanez) and taught him about country stars such as Garth Brooks.
Bradford’s new album, Alright, was released in December. It’s available on iTunes, and I’m sure it will be available Saturday night.