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Southern Ohio 'grass fest flies by

Roberts Center, Wilmington, Ohio, March 24, 2017

Reviewed by Devin Adams

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The spring 2017 edition of the Southern Ohio Indoor Music Festival kicked off as few likely have in the past, not with a great bluegrass band, but a great bluegrass orchestra. Opening the show were roughly 40 students from the Centerville, Ohio High School Orchestra known as Alternative Strings.

For many years, Alternative Strings have branched out from classical music into other areas perhaps not necessarily performed by orchestras such as jazz, pop, folk and bluegrass. Alternative Strings along with their instructor and several other established musicians, entertained with selections from artists such as Sierra Hull to Tony Rice. One or more students typically featured in each number whether it was a mandolin or fiddle break or even an a capella gospel tune. In an atmosphere usually dominated by tradition, Alternative Strings not only entertained, but also provided a memorable opening to the festival.

Husband and wife duo Heidi and Ryan stepped up to the stage, and the lack of a banjo picker did not slow them down at all due to Ryan's incredible lead guitar chops and Heidi's beautiful accented voice. Along with their band, Heidi and Ryan kept the music exciting and fresh. The Somerset, Ky. hold faith very close to their hearts, resulting in a beautiful mountain gospel sound. Heidi and Ryan set off on Doyle Lawson's "Fire Down Yonder" to close, which, unlike Lawson's version, featured full instrumentation and a foot-stomping beat.

Sideline exploded onto the stage and burned through four songs at the speed of light before ever stopping to catch a breath. Lead by veteran banjo picker Steve Dilling, these boys showed that they were there to bring energy. Each member was featured at some point. Skip Cherryholmes was all over the stage seemingly unable to keep still while picking his guitar like he was mad at it.

Sideline put to work early and often the youngest member of the band, Nathan Aldridge, who on fiddle nearly sawed the strings clean off the instrument. Then, in what seemed like no time at all, the set ended and in dire need of a cool drink and new set of strings Sideline made way for Flatt Lonesome.

Flatt Lonesome opened its set the same way they opened its award winning "Runaway Train" release, with "You'll Pay." What followed were no less than some of the best vocal harmonies, not just at the festival, but perhaps anywhere. While most of the lead singing was handled by Buddy Robertson, the air filled with magic when his two sisters, Kelsi and Charli, joined in during the chorus. Occasionally Buddy would take a harmony role, and one of the Robertson sisters would command lead singing beautifully.

Finally, the presenting band of entire festival, Joe Mullins and the Radio Ramblers took the stage. If only one word were used to describe, Mullins it would be class. Mullins is a veteran of the bluegrass and radio worlds, and it showed with every word sung and string picked. The Radio Ramblers have a rare ability to pick and present moving songs that tell great stories whether it be "Some Kind of War" or the gospel number "All Dressed Up." Vocally, the Radio Ramblers were unique among the lineup as they gathered around a condenser mic harkening back to days gone by. Mullins and the Radio Ramblers finished their set accompanied by Alternative Strings on several songs thus bookending the afternoon performances.

Just like that, five hours flew by at the Southern Ohio Indoor Music Festival in what kicked off a full weekend of pickin' and grinnin' for not just the bands, but the audience as well. An hour-long break followed the Radio Ramblers set where everyone stops to get a bite to each, a swallow to drink and a chance to stretch their legs. Then before you know it, everyone gets back together and does it all over again after supper.