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
Published: February 20, 2013
To get a better idea of how treasured bluegrass is in Florida, you can trek out to MagnoliaFest, Palatka Bluegrass Festival, Florida State Bluegrass Festival or dozens of nearby events where visitors can catch casual jam sessions, regionally loved acts like Grandpa's Cough Medicine and big-bill performances by imported icons like Emmylou Harris. Large crowds assemble and camp out for days in these overnight bonded-by-bluegrass communities. Fast approaching is the Fort Christmas Bluegrass Festival, which takes place March 16-17. You'll find Jack and Judie there, too – their band, Moonlite Express, performs there every year, just as they've appeared at similar festivals for the past quarter of a century. And they've turned out as fans for even longer than that.
When they were younger, Jack was a raving diehard fan of the music, and Judie was just along for the ride. She'd knit or read magazines while Jack chased the sound all over the state. That changed, though, when a family from Kentucky appeared at the Ocoee Parking Lot Bluegrass Jam one Friday night. The daughter played the lead on several songs on the upright bass. It was something Judie hadn't seen before, and it inspired her. So Jack taught her to play, she joined Moonlite Express, and she grew into a capable backbone for the group.
When the sessions first started out, Jack Lewis says, Moonlite Express acted as the core of the group, never missing a Friday night.
"A lot of people didn't know how to pick good, and they'd come up and stand around the fringes," he says. "We'd just more or less kind of keep it running, you know? We'd sing a song or two and encourage people to play and sing, and there's some good pickers, bad pickers, but it was all meant to have a good time."
As time has gone by, though, the jam has gained a reputation. It's received so much attention that people have traveled from different states, and even other countries, to pick along with the Moonlite Express and the crew of regulars. Lewis doesn't operate a website, and the jam isn't advertised, so people have to find out about it through word of mouth. Or, perhaps, from the more than 100 high-quality videos found on the YouTube account run by a user named "vivatones66." The videos capture the magnetism and energy of the event and have amassed 136,911 views at the time of this writing. The jam is also well-documented on niche bluegrass sites that track similar events around the world, and it's easily discoverable by a quick Google search. But, as Lewis points out, the jam's been around longer than Google and much longer than YouTube. Its staying power is due mostly to its reputation, and the level of talent on certain nights is baffling, even to Jack.
"If you go out there enough, you'll see some banjo players out there that put me to shame," Lewis says. "But, they're a lot younger than me, and they remind me of me when I was their age. It doesn't bother me – I mean, we're all just out there to have fun."
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