Noah Wall’s beautiful and amazing voice fills the valley with the wonderful sounds of a song that tells of heartbreak and hard times. Hundreds of people gaze at the girl from North Carolina and sway to the beat of her song. The song lyrics written by her, Noah sings as the lead vocalist and fiddle player for “The Barefoot Movement”, who have come to the Kickapoo Valley to once again perform for “Larryfest”.
Larryfest-2015 marked the 18th year of the Bluegrass Music gathering in the Sebranek family’s sugar camp, also known as Bohemian Glen. It’s just up the way a little bit on 24-Valley Road, not far from where County Highway P winds along Weister Creek. The idyllic valley setting has become a haven for lovers of good music and good times.
The first such gathering held in 1998 was billed as the Bohemian Glen Music Festival and featured “Old Time Fiddle, Polka, Waltz and Folk Rock” music. That one-day event was free to the public with a free-will donation accepted. Some of the musical groups featured in that initial festival were String Ties (which has become the “House Band” of Larryfest), Go Away, The Original Chinquapin Hunters, and the In-Laws (which has been another constant yet ever-changing group of the Sebranek family musicians playing together for the festival).
In 1999, the second year of the gathering, the band RPM would play for the gathering and become yet another nearly constant musical presence over the years at Larryfest. The Nob Hill Boys, one of the best Bluegrass bands in the Midwest, was featured at the festival that year. The Nob Hill Boys played Bluegrass songs with a strong Southern feel that would become an integral part of the music played at the festival over the years.
“Larryfest” had become the official name of the festival by 2000. Named after Larry Sebranek, the bluegrass festival became a yearly family gathering with several hundred friends thrown in for good measure. A “$10 Donation” was requested at the third festival, which by that time had become a two-day event with free camping & parking and sweet corn (if available). That 3rd festival featured the music of “Runaway” and “Whipperwill’s Secret”.
We, my lovely wife Carolyn and I, attended our first Larryfest in 2002. We were lured to the festival by out niece Caron, nephew Jon and their many friends who were attending the festival by that time. They were camping at the festival site, arranged for our getting tickets and even carried our lawn chairs up to the Larryfest grounds. We sat on the hillside in the shade of the trees and listened to the wonderful music. In the evening, when the lights were turned on, our position in the woods was dubbed “The Enchanted Forest” by one of the bands playing. That name for the wooded hillside has stuck to this day. The band, “Heartsfield”, headlined that festival, bringing their “southern & country rock” to the Kickapoo Valley glen.
By the following year, 2003, the Larryfest organizers were charging a $25 admission price for the two-day festival. As Larryfest grew and expanded, the Sebranek family had to reorganize into a non-profit business organization to run the event. The Kickapoo Valley Acoustic Music Association (KVAMA) was created to oversee the festival, seek out community sponsors to help with the event and sponsor songwriting and talent seeking arms to feed into the festival. KVAMA also turned around profits from the event to make annual donations to the Ambulance Squad and Fire Department in La Farge and other area needs. That year, 2003, “The Wilders”, a group from Kansas City, took the festival by storm and a Tennessee Bluegrass band, Mountain Heart, also was featured. By that time we were pretty much hooked on the great music and good times had at Larryfest.
Food has always been a part of the experience of Larryfest. Whether it is the previously mentioned free sweet corn or the many options of the food venders on the grounds, a full stomach always is part of the weekend. The menu has offered a variety of foods over the years, but the famous “Ohbe Burger”, “Queen Anne’s Apples”, B-B-Q’d chicken sandwiches, fresh-cut French fries, hummus wraps and Shrimp-On-A-Stick always seem to tickle our taste buds.
But, Larryfest hasn’t always been sunshine and moonbeams either. In both 2007 and again in 2010, torrential rains led to flooding in 24-Valley, Weister Creek and the neighboring Kickapoo River. Despite the treacherous and unforgiving weather, especially for those camping on the Larryfest grounds, the shows went on as best they could in both of those years.
As the search for the best talent to play at Larryfest kept expanding nation wide, groups with multiple Grammy Awards, Bands of the Year recognition, and nationally known recognition appeared in the little valley off County Highway P. It came to be a given that Larryfest would have the best to offer every year. Over the years, some of those acclaimed groups included “Blue Highway” from Tennessee, “Finders” from Iowa, “Special Consensus”, and the “Bluegrass Brothers”.
By 2011, Larryfest ticket prices had increased to $75 ($65 if purchased in advance and by that time, most tickets were sold long before the event), and the Friday crowd was introduced to “Pert Near Sandstone” from Minnesota and the band’s fantastic clogger, Andy Lambert, pounding out rhythm with his whirling feet. The featured band on Saturday that year was the “Walker Brothers Bluegrass Band” from Florida, another outstanding group of musicians. My favorite memory from the 2012 Larryfest was the amazing guitar playing of Richard Smith from London, England. How he ended up in the Kickapoo Valley is a whole ‘nother story in itself. “The Freighthoppers” from North Carolina brought energy and spirit to the 2013 festival and we first heard that wonderful music from “The Barefoot Movement” that year as well. So, I’m back to where we started, listening a few weeks ago to the wonderful songs of that group led by the amazing voice of Noah Wall.
During that second weekend of August, this part of the Kickapoo Valley has become a destination for lovers of good music and good times. Larryfest draws in the best musicians from all over the country and beyond for the now three-day gathering. That kind of talent doesn’t come free and it now costs a C-note to attend. But considering the great music, the good times and the FREE sweet corn (if you can get there in time to get any), that price might be a steal. The Sebraneks and their many cousins and friends still try to offer a wonderful time in their little music-filled glen. Let’s hope that the good music and good times continue to roll through the hills up on Weister Creek.