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EXCLUSIVE: Spirit Of The Suwannee Owner, James Cornett, Talks About The Magic Venue

The Spirit Of The Suwannee Music Park is one of the most beloved places in the world for music fans and nature lovers alike. Home to dozens of music festivals like Hulaween, Wanee, Roots Revival, Spring Reunion, Bear Creek, Springfest, MagnoliaFest, and literally dozens more, Spirit Of The Suwannee Park has seen some of the most incredible performers from every genre imaginable grace its hallowed land. Add to that the hundred and hundreds of acres full of prime camping spots, trails, white sand beaches, chapels and churches, play grounds, a top-shelf disc golf course, and even an in-house Elvis impersonator, the Park has something for literally everyone.

The owner of the park, James Cornett, is the son of the park’s founders and a man well aware of the legacy he helps maintain, taking every step possible to ensure his parents’ legacy lives on. With the park open year round for vacationers and music fans alike, Cornett hears from folks daily about the important relationships forged in the park and the ongoing impact it has on its many guests. We caught up with James Cornett as he prepares for the park’s incredible one-two music festival punch in October—first the bluegrass-Americana Suwannee Roots Revival followed by The String Cheese Incident’s annual Hulaween. Enjoy!


Live For Live Music: Let’s start at the beginning. When your parents first told you about their intent to found Spirit Of The Suwannee Park some thirty-odd years back, what was your reaction?

James Cornett: Well, at the time, I was peddling commercial real estate in Kentucky. I was doing pretty well at it, I suppose. As a sideline, I was helping with the Festival of the Bluegrass, which my parents founded in Lexington. I wasn’t making any money helping them, but I sure enjoyed it.

L4LM: Your parents had a pretty long run of promoting shows before they founded Suwannee. Do you remember when they first got bitten by the concert promoting bug?

JC: I was twelve when they did their first concert in Lexington, Kentucky. Prior to that, I guess I was eight or nine years old when they started bringing me and my brothers and some of our friends around the country to festivals. After seeing how so many different festivals were being done, they concluded—like a lot of people seem to do—that they could do it better. The first show they produced was a complete flop. They had Doc Watson headlining it, and he played to 200 people. It was not good. Monday morning, their first order of business was to go to the bank to raise enough money to make sure the checks were good. They got stung pretty good there. It was probably the fifth year when they started making a profit.

L4LM: What was the thinking behind setting up a franchise for themselves in Florida?

JC: They had been looking for a campground property for a while. They went down to Florida for a family reunion and heard about the Suwannee property. It was pretty much mothballed. The security guard came and opened it up for them. There were trees down, and the roads and infrastructure we have built up over the years didn’t exist, but they fell in love with it anyway. My parents put on a dog and pony show for the county who were the owners and talked their way into a lease with an option to buy the place. One thing led to another, but they pulled it off. It took a lot of time, effort, and all the money they could raise, but they pulled it off.

The Cornetts sat down for a long-form interview detailing how they founded The Spirit Of The Suwannee and much, much more. Watch the clip below and learn some of the amazing history behind one of America’s most beloved music venues.

L4LM: Your parents created something that has become a beloved place for so many music fans across the country. Do you ever feel the weight of that love and the responsibility to maintain and build on what they started?

JC: Yes. See, until recent times, the place really hasn’t been profitable. It’s taken all the time, energy, and resources that my parents, my uncle, my entire family, and many friends really, that we could muster to keep it going. Now that we’re starting to build ourselves up, and we don’t have to worry about making payroll next week. We are very proud of it and what we’ve built here together. If you keep pushing you eventually get the snow ball to the top of the mountain and then it gets a lot easier going back down the other side.

L4LM: You mentioned your uncle. Is that the same one the Uncle Charles Porch Stage is named for?

JC: Yes.

L4LM: Can you tell us a little bit about him?

JC: He started out with nothing. No real formal education, but he managed to get into the real estate business and create some pretty substantial wealth. He was living in a mansion overlooking the Chesapeake Bay on a large Southern plantation like a scene from Gone With The Wind. Then he started coming down and visiting Suwannee. He kept coming back more and more and eventually moved down here. My Uncle Charles left that life up there on the Chesapeake Bay and all those business opportunities to be down here at the Spirit of Suwannee. He preferred living in a single-wide trailer here over a mansion up there. I think that speaks pretty well to the power of the Spirit of The Suwannee.

L4LM: Most folks who come to the Suwannee for concerts tend to stay near the stages. Exactly how big is the park?

JC: It depends on how you count it—call it around 800 acres. If you count everything we own in the area, it is approaching a thousand acres. The way the stages are positioned and the way camping surrounds them is a real positive. We can easily camp many thousands of people near the stages, and most of it is shaded with frankly beautiful camping—big live oaks draped with Spanish moss.

L4LM: I assume the first stage built was the most beloved—the Amphitheater—right?

JC: Yes, but that was before my time. I didn’t move down here until 1995. The amphitheater was built long before that. It’s been expanded a couple of times over the years. The main stage—we call it the Jam Stage—out in the big field was built for the Suwannee River Jam about twenty-five years ago. The tree-lined amphitheater was built by mom and her army of friends and volunteers. Between the love that built it and the trees and hammocks that surround it, there is a very special feeling in the air.

L4LM: When the events in the park need to go big, you have a giant field and a platform that can easily handle one of those massive main stages. How many folks can you fit out there?

JC: Well, we’re gonna cap it at twenty-thousand for October’s Suwannee Hulaween. I think with a little tweaking we can hold more than that, but I don’t want to push the envelope.

When The Allman Brothers Band needed a place to host a festival of their own, the late Butch Trucks knew exactly where he thought it should go—The Spirit Of The Suwannee Music Park. Thus, the Wanee Music Festival was born. Check out this spirited take on “Jessica,” with guitarist Warren Haynes and Derek Trucks sharing an unforgettable jam.

L4LM: Since this is America, with 800 acres how tempting is it to build something really gigantic?

JC: I think at some point it will come to that. When you’re a promoter and you are limited to twenty thousand, but you could sell thirty thousand, or forty or even fifty thousand, it’s awful tempting to want more space. There is a pretty obvious spot here in the park we have been looking at. It could happen.

L4LM: Your venue has its roots in bluegrass and Americana, but it seems like you’ve welcomed any and every type of music to the park. Is there anything that doesn’t sound better outdoors?

JC:  I think you can do pretty much anything on our stages. Everything sounds better under the sun and the stars. And not to sound too business focused, but when you diversify the music, you diversify the audience. You’re not gonna get the same group of people coming every single weekend. Folks need to live their lives and earn a living. So, having a different audience coming in of a different demographic is pretty important. We have our overhead every day. Obviously, it spikes during shows, but we still have a core staff that has to be here every day. Ideally, we want to have something different for our guests to enjoy all year long.

L4LM: Having permanent stages and so many support buildings on site make this perfect place for promoters of events for all sizes. What would you say is the most attractive part for outside promoters?

JC: A lot of large festivals are held on farms and in open fields. There’s minimal shade and little to no infrastructure on site already. It can get pretty expensive to bring everything in and do it all yourself. Here, just for starters, you have a thousand improved campsites, meaning the sites have electric and water service. Most of our sites are shaded, even the primitive ones. We can camp twenty-thousand people here easily. Most of those folks are in shaded spots, and none of them are that far from the music. We have six permanent shower houses so folks have a place to get cleaned up, and several permanent bathrooms so folks aren’t dependent on porta pots. Then, and this may be the most important point, we have paved roads. When you have inclement weather, things function much better than just in an open field. And, of course, we’re four miles away from I-75 and I-10 and connected by major highways. So, our location is perfectly situated to major population centers. Finally, we’ve been doing this for thirty years. There is an element of expertise with our staff and volunteers that just can’t be beat.

We have built up relationships with the local community and every one of them knows what we may need and how they can help. The Spirit of the Suwannee operates as more of a “Turn Key” operation for promoters as opposed to setting up their own shop and doing everything themselves on a farm.

The Bear Creek Music Festival brought legends of funk together with those who followed in their footsteps for some incredible performances. Check out this insane version of the Grateful Dead‘s “Sugaree” with Anders Osborne, The Meters’ George Porter Jr., Stanton Moore from Galactic and Billy Iuso.

L4LM: The park is a go-to vacation spot as well with all the trails and beaches and so on. Aren’t you open for business year round?

JC: The Spirit of the Suwannee is open year round, 365 days a year, and that is definitely something we want to improve upon. Take today for example—we’re in the last week of August on a Wednesday, and we are pretty slow. But come this weekend, for Labor Day, we’ll have four or five thousand people here. We’ll be doing fireworks on Saturday night, and we have live music on Friday and Saturday night in the Music Hall.

L4LM: There’s a restaurant and an indoor music venue on site as well in the Spirit Of The Suwannee Music Hall. Is that just so you can get a good bite to eat when the festival food vendors are gone?

JC: Mom and Dad put that in. It’s one of the first projects they tackled after they bought the place, and we’ve added on to it a couple of times over the years. You pretty much have to have a place on-site for meals. We’re not open every day, but it’s a definite customer service point.

Donna The Buffalo has logged more hours on the Suwannee stages than any other artists as the defacto host band of spring and fall Americana/bluegrass festivals for twenty-plus year. The band sums up their love of the park and their Herd with the tune, “I Love My Tribe,” which you can watch below.

L4LM: It’s been said that the Spirit of Elvis never left the Music Hall building. Is it true his spirit haunts the place?

JC: I think you’re talking about Teddy Mac, our in-house Karaoke host and Elvis impersonator. I’d have to check, but I think Teddy has been here for over twenty years. That is a hell of a run when you think about it. He does Karaoke every Thursday and three or four times a year he does a full Elvis show. He’s pretty good at it too. The cafe is open year-round on the weekends, and we get a lot of the area residents out to have themselves some fun besides all the campers and vacationers here to just relax. .We generally don’t host Karaoke performances during festivals, of course, but we always have a crowd in here, and everyone has a good time.

 

Leftover Salmon‘s Vince Herman and Drew Emmitt brought Larry and Jenny Keel, The Jon Stickley Trio, Brett Bass from Grandpa’s Cough Medicine, and the Rev. Jeff Mosier together for a wild “Clusterpluck” of a party earlier this year at Suwannee. Check out thirty-minute minute jam featuring “Midnight Rider”, “Amos Moses”, “Sailing Shoes”, and “Holy Ghost Building” below!

L4LM: In a park this size, there have to be some special places and some hidden treasures out there. Any favorite spots you want to share?

JC: Hm, one of my staff, Matt Spencer, and I just took a ride down past the bra and panty tree. Does that count?

L4LM: There is an underwear tree?

JC: Actually, it is way more than that now. There’s easily ten of them there now.

L4LM: So, basically an underwear forest.

JC: Exactly! Then we have the Johnny Dame Spring—it’s pretty hidden—with natural spring water right from the Earth that’s crystal clear. We also have Apache Wells, which is a waterfall. It doesn’t run all the time, but when it does it’s gorgeous. There is Resse Lake. It doesn’t get any prettier than that cypress-lined spring-fed lake. Oh, and everyone loves the “Bat House.” The bats take off the sky darkens, and they get out and eat bad bugs. That’s why we don’t have many mosquitoes in Suwannee. That’s just the sights though. There is plenty of nature to enjoy—tons of trails for hiking and horseback riding.

I have an older brother who is an avid horseback rider. He tours the country with his horses, and he has ridden practically every state. He swears that the park and the Suwannee River Water Management, which owns thousands of acres, that adjoin us is the best place in the country to ride. You can ride for literally days without riding on the same trail. There are around twelve miles here in the park, but if you go to the Water Management trails, there are thousands of acres, and you can just go practically forever.

L4LM: There is a Stephen Foster quote on a sign that greets everyone as they arrive. Is this the actual Suwannee River he was writing about?

JC: Way Down Upon the Suwannee River. The name of the song is “Old Folks at Home” by Stephen Foster. It used to be Florida’s state song. The Suwannee River, because of his song, is famous worldwide. They taught us that song in grade school, which is more years ago than I want to remember. It runs right through the property. The park fronts about three miles along the Suwannee River.

L4LM: Including that awesome white sand beach. It contrasts with the dark water of the river. It’s safe for swimming isn’t?

JC: It is. We don’t necessarily encourage it. The water is dark, and some people have a little trouble with that. Plenty of people do swim in it. There is a concentration of tannic acid coming out of the swamp. It’s a natural process that colors the water and makes it so dark. It’s not like the water is unsafe at all though, but when the water level is high, the river can be treacherous. You have to respect it.

L4LM: Now, the park itself hosts a few events a year and outside promoters do a few a year as well, like Silver Wrapper and Purple Hat Productions do with Hulaween. How do you decide what events to take on yourself?

JC: For the most part, I prefer to have outside promoters take on these events. It is a lot less of a workload on our staff. Plus, you get a lot of really good, really different energy and vision when you bring in outside brain trusts. Some stuff though, if we feel it is something that should be done, we will do it if it makes sense.

Take the Suwannee River Jam. It’s the country music festival we have here the first weekend in May. I had a couple of promoters take that on, and they failed. But I wanted to keep that going, so we picked it up. Our next show is the Suwannee Roots Revival, in the second week of October. It’s a Roots, Americana, Bluegrass oriented show. It’s akin to the one my parents started in Kentucky, so it is a great fit for the Park. We also do Suwannee Lights—a drive through Christmas Lights program throughout the month of December. We feature regional performance acts during most weekends, and a lot of our shows are fun, family-oriented events.

The String Cheese Incident has made Suwannee the home of their Hulaween Festival for the last few years. The event has grown to the largest in park history and has seen many performances fans count among Cheeese’s best. Give a listen to this fun take of “On The Road.”

L4LM: Have you ever gotten lost in the park?

JC: In fact, I have. It has been awhile. It was many moons back, and I was out on a golf cart. Let’s just say I was gone long enough for Mom and Dad to get worried. Mom sent Dad out to find me. I even suspect there may have been a cocktail involved. [Chuckles] But that was probably just a contributing factor. It was a week after I got here and the directional signs and arrows we have up everywhere today didn’t exist back then.

L4LM: What sort of music do you listen to yourself?

JC: I frequently listen to what sells the most tickets. [Laughs]

L4LM: What do you think of all these late-night picking party’s that go on? Do you ever get out and see some of the shenanigans that go on out in the hinterlands?

JC: I do, though not as much as I used to. I grew up with that stuff. I don’t pick, but I do enjoy the music. Then there is just the fellowship of the circle. You get to really know your guests that way. They don’t know who I am most times—I’m just there enjoying the music right alongside them.

L4LM: That is the point of the place, in the end, right?

JC: The Spirit of the Suwannee draws folks here from all over the world.  We come together to make great music, enjoy good times, and to build a great community.  That’s what living is all about. That’s what Mom and Dad envisioned and their legacy lives on.