CROSS FORK - Bluegrass is sometimes called "mountain music." Considering the setting of this year's Smoked Country Jam Festival, it's a fitting label. The ninth annual Smoked Country Jam Festival will be held June 14 through 16 at the Quiet Oaks Campground.
Ron Kodish and his wife Teresa started Smoked Country Jam in 2004 to raise money for the Lupus Foundation of Pennsylvania, after Teresa was diagnosed with systemic lupus. The festival hosts a three-day silent auction to raise funds. The auction features hundreds of items donated by area merchants, performers and individuals.
Over the past nine years, the festival has raised more than $9,000 for the Lupus Foundation. According to Kodish, all proceeds remain in-state and benefit patient care, education and research.
Ernie Evans and the Florida Bluegrass Band is one of 20 performers who will play at the ninth annual Smoked Country Jam Festival, which will be held June 14 through 16 at the Quiet Oaks Campground, Cross Fork. For more information about the festival and to see a complete list of performers, visit www.smokedcountryjam.com.
From left, Isaac Taylor, banjo; Nate Lee, mandolin; Debi Evans, bass; Ernie Evans, guitar.
Kodish said festival-goers can expect to have a lot to do. "You won't just be sitting around for six or seven hours with nothing to do," Kodish said. "We have a range of activities to fit all interests. We have a range of food and merchandise, festival souvenirs, eight hours of kids' activities and 11 hours of workshops, which covers everything from guitar and banjo lessons, to songwriting and wilderness survival. And then, of course, we have the music."
This year's line-up features 20 national and regional performers, which adds up to more than 36 hours of music over the course of three days. Although bluegrass is the primary focus of the festival, many of the musicians delve into other genres. "We picked bluegrass because it's such a peaceful, easy-feeling music and it draws a great crowd," Kodish said. "Having said that, I don't think festivals can survive with straight bluegrass, especially traditional bluegrass. To attract the people we want to attract, you have to play diverse types of music. So we have a mix of folk, Americana, blues, country, acoustic rock and swing."
Kodish said the idea behind holding the festival in "the wilds" was to show off the natural beauty of central Pennsylvania. "I was born in central Pennsylvania and I've lived here all but one year of my life," Kodish said. "I love where I'm from and I want people to know what we have up here-and what we have is the wilds. It's absolutely gorgeous up there. Plus, what better place to have a bluegrass festival than up on the top of a mountain?"
The majority of festival-goers choose to camp on the Quiet Oak Campground's 100 acres. "The majority of our attendees are folks that have experience with music festivals and like that kind of event," Kodish said. "They're ready to 'rough it.' "
The festival also has attracted many newcomers over the years. "We've got a lot of newbies, people that have never gone to anything like this and now have a chance to do so because of the proximity of our festival to this area," Kodish said. "That's one thing I've really tried to do-get people to come up and check it out, to see what we've got up here. There's the music, but we also have so many activities and it's four-wheeler friendly. We even have pet stations. We try to make the festival as user-friendly as possible so people can come up and just enjoy the heck out of themselves."
Judging by ticket pre-sales, this year's Smoked Country Jam will have the biggest attendance yet. "This is the best pre-sale we've had of any year," Kodish said. "In past years, we probably average between 1,500 and 2,000 people for the three days. I wouldn't be surprised if we doubled that number this year. The response has been that good."
Kodish attributed the festival's growing numbers to word-of-mouth recommendations. "The thing that's really critical is how people feel when they leave the festival. If they've had a great experience, then they'll tell other people about it. So many people this year have told us they're brining three or four friends. It's nice to hear that."
According to Kodish, people come from near and far to attend Smoked Country Jam. "The first three years of our festival, we had a gentleman that traveled all the way from Australia. We have people that come every year from Connecticut, Michigan, Tennessee and North Carolina. We draw a lot of people from out of state as well as folks from right here in Clinton County, Lycoming County and the surrounding area."
The festival also attracts a diverse demographic. "We get young families, old retirees and singles," Kodish said. "All walks of life come through our gate, but everyone has one thing in common and that's the music. This area has really developed a love of bluegrass, and I think that's true of the whole United States. It's a head-bopping, toe-tapping, homegrown kind of music."
This year's festival headliner will be Valerie Smith and Liberty Pike. Smith is the recipient of several International Bluegrass Music Association awards and has performed in New York, London, Berlin, Dublin, Amsterdam, Copenhagen and hundreds of other venues across the world. This will be Smith's fourth year performing at Smoked Country Jam. "She absolutely loves our festival and she's a real spokesperson for bluegrass Americana music," Kodish said.
The festival also features The Hillbilly Gypsies, a West Virginia string band that specializes in a homegrown style of Appalachian bluegrass. "They've been our host band for eight years now," Kodish said. "There are five members in the band and they play around one condenser microphone. It's a real choreography to see them dive in and jump back to get their instruments closer to the mic and to sing. They play a really entertaining show of high energy, old-timey bluegrass from the backhills of West Virginia."
Ernie Evans, who fronts Ernie Evans and the Florida Bluegrass Band, will return to perform at Smoked Country Jam for the third time this year. Evans's group plays bluegrass music with a twist, often incorporating jazz, pop and country influences. Evans said performing at Smoked Country Jam is always an unforgettable experience.
"My music has taken me all over the world and I have played on many stages, but you can't always remember them all. Smoked Country Jam is an experience I never forget," Evans said. "It's an event I can tell you about every time I have performed because good things have happened to me every time. I have made more lifetime friends there than at any other festival. Couple that with a beautiful setting and the best music on the planet, and the math is easy."