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Music

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The Ocoee Parking Lot Bluegrass Jam

For the past 22 years, some of the best bluegrass music in Central Florida has come from this strip-mall parking lot

Photo: Photos by Rob Bartlett, License: N/A

Photos by Rob Bartlett

Every Friday night, a crowd of musicians gathers in this nondescript parking lot for an informal bluegrass jam.

Photo: N/A, License: N/A

Photos by Rob Bartlett

Orange Blossom Special: Jack Lewis and his wife, Judie, started the Ocoee bluegrass jam 22 years ago.


The streetlights serve as the spotlights, and a row of classic cars acts as the backdrop as 72-year-old Jack Lewis sits perched on the tailgate of his pickup truck, plucking a banjo.

Every Friday night for the past 22 years, Lewis has sat in the same spot in this Ocoee parking lot, near the intersection of Route 50 and Maguire Road. And, just as it has for all of those years, a crowd builds around him as he plays – musicians with banjos and fiddles and guitars and mandolins and upright basses join him, spectators in folding chairs settle in for a show, curious passers-by stop to watch the unusual scene.

At Lewis' side is his 73-year-old wife, Judie. As he plays, she lends her vocals to a gang chorus on "Ruby (Are You Mad at Your Man)." It wasn't that long ago that she kept rhythm on many Friday nights on her standup fiddle. She says she's getting too old for that now, but she and Jack organize this weekly bluegrass jam – reportedly Florida's longest-running one – and she won't let her age stop her from coming out, even though it did insist that she stop playing fiddle.

In the halo surrounding these musicians, there's an equally devoted audience, sometimes 60 to 70 strong: a diverse array of older folks, families, the occasional stragglers who wander over from the nearby ice-cream stand that serves as the landmark to orient newcomers seeking out the event.

"Just head west on State Route 50 until you see the Twistee Treat," Jack Lewis tells people when asked for directions. "Don't worry. You'll see us."

If you don't see them, you'll probably hear them – when the group is in full swing, it's a complete bluegrass concert set right in the midst of this sprawling suburban strip mall.

The original flyer for this Friday night jam, which officially started in 1990, features a sketch of a guitar and a banjo crossed at their necks. A hastily scrawled message called out for anyone who wanted to play to show up at the Piggly Wiggly supermarket parking lot. That humble flyer was the beginning of something big for Jack and Judie Lewis. They'd played at theme parks, birthday parties, political gatherings – basically, anywhere they were invited to play. But the jam opened a whole new chapter in their lives, allowing them to stay intimately connected to the music that they love and the tradition that speaks to them.

Lewis has been active in the Florida bluegrass community for 37 years. Though it's true that you're more likely to stumble across a field of yellow wildflowers in Central Florida than the sea-green groundcover the music gets its name from, bluegrass music permeates our region. It's found in RV parks, spoil islands, fire stations and – occasionally – humble expanses of flattened blacktop.

 

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