Suwannee Spring Reunion: A Festival Turned Reunion in the Spirit of Community

Photo by Frank Serio

Suwannee Spring Reunion, Patrick Hinely
Photo by Patrick Hinely

When Beth and Randy Judy stepped into the music festival business over 20 years ago, they hoped to build more than a just brand. They wanted to create a community. The Spirit of the Suwannee Music Park is home to generations of families who have gathered year after year to experience that shared connection to the music and the commitment to the notion of something bigger than ourselves.

“That was intentional from the beginning. We wanted an event that was like a lot of other events but we wanted a real community,” says Beth Judy. “When you have a community, you have a family.”

The 3rd annual Suwannee Spring Reunion held March 21-24 is a renewal of the commitment that draws festival veterans to the stage for four blissful days of live music, friendship and live music from such beloved veteran artists Donna the Buffalo, Jim Lauderdale, Verlon Thompson, the Larry Keel Experience, Steep Canyon Rangers, The Grass is Dead, Billy Strings,  Rev. Jeff Mosier, Quartermoon, Jon Stickley Trio, Habanero Honeys, Nikki Talley, Town Mountain, The Mammals and more.

“The name says it. If you look at the lineup, you’ll see the names of a lot of people who have played over the years. We have some great new headliners who haven’t performed before but not many,” she says of artists like Marty Stuart who will play the music park for the first time while bands Pigeon Kings and TKO are new to this lineup but have members that have performed with other groups. “It’s a reunion of artists who love the festival and who the people that attend love. It’s a pretty stellar group of people.”

Suwannee Spring Reunion, David Lee Gypsyshooter
Photo by David Lee Gypsyshooter

The Spirit of the Suwannee Music Park is located in Live Oak just 30 minutes south of the Georgia State line. Park amenities include canoeing and kayaking, a general store, full-service restaurant, free showers, indoor restrooms, and water stations. Upgraded camping, including RV hookups and cabin rentals and golf cart rentals are available. Reservations may be made by calling the Park office at (386) 364-1683.

Many moons since the Judy staged their first MagnoliaFest dedicated to the spirit of the Grateful Dead, those kids who grew up coming to the early festivals are continuing the tradition by bringing their own children out to the park to share in the experience. It’s a testament to longevity but also the nurturing spirit of the event itself. The Judys have cultivated a vibrant community of artists and gatherers who have become part of each other’s chosen families. It’s a connection that extends beyond shared biology.

“It’s really funny because I get young 20-somethings and 30-somethings coming up to me and showing me their addition. The original people who came as parents and grandparents brought their kids or their parents. We’ve been doing it long enough now there are five generations of people who have attended the festival,” she says. “A lot of our families are biological but we also have families of choice, people who have met there and bonded and go other places together and do other things.”

For those congregating each spring beneath the majestic cypress and towering oaks, Suwannee Spring Reunion is more than just music with kid’s activities, wellness workshops, artists and makers and epic campfire pickin’ parties.

Suwannee Spring Reunion, Patrick Hinely
Photo by Patrick Finely

“We don’t consider just the music on the stage the festival. We have these campground stages where the bands host places where people go and jam but there are countless other campgrounds where people go and jam. That music has always been promoted as an experience by the people going that is as important as the schedule that’s posted every day. Part of that comes from my belief that music is healing,” remarks Judy.

There’s definitely something spiritual about the festival grounds. It’s in the air. It’s in the crisp, sweet tea-colored waters of the Suwannee River. It whispers in the wind and the moss swaying from the trees. It unfolds in Grateful pose during sunrise yoga. It’s in the laughter of children splashing along the river banks. It’s the rhythm of the beating drums under a blanket of stars. It’s everywhere.

For Judy, honoring that spirit means treating the staff and the artists and the vendors and people who bought tickets like family, as a part of it all.

“I have a really strong belief that intention and thought processes are incredibly creative. If you hold that intention and your actions support it through the choices you make, you really don’t have to do a lot else,” she says. “It goes back to my grandmother and the golden rule. We definitely have a golden rule here. I’ve said it lots of time; treat every other people as you would like to be treated. We all fall short sometimes. We’re human and we have emotions. There are the ups and downs of life. But that’s the goal.”

Judy approaches each festival schedule as an artist with a blank canvas. The roster of acts is a sonic palette in varying shades and it’s up to her to present the colors in the best possible light. “I wonder how much of this color am I going to use or where will I put this color?” she says. “For the reunion, it’s a lot of colors that I’ve used before but it’s creating something brand new, a new version of all of those colors. Each artist is a unique painting.”

It’s no secret that 9 pm. on the amphitheater stage is the most coveted time slot and Judy takes great care to ensure that every artist is presented in their best light. Performing on one of the other stages works to their advantage when it’s not competing against a sought after headliner who is sure to draw a huge crowd.

Suwannee Spring Reunion, David Lee Gypsyshooter
Photo by David Lee Gypsyshooter

“Doing that schedule is like giving birth to me. It’s a painful thing because I so much want all of the people to shine. It’s one of the reasons we don’t release our schedule as early as some of the other festivals because I can’t let it go,” she says. “If we have a new band or an emerging band that I want to present, I’m not going to put them on the dance stage at the same time Donna the Buffalo is on or the Steep Canyon Rangers. That means they have to play earlier but they will have the attention of the people who come to see them and have more people checking them out. I like for artists to be able to play more than once.”

While the first set might draw a minimal crowd, word of a hot new band will spread through the park and by the time they take the stage for the second set, attendance will double or even triple. “It’s always gratifying when I look at that second set. There really is like a communication grapevine around the festival grounds of who to check out,” she says. “Spring Reunion doesn’t have as much of that because so many people are already familiar. Suwannee Roots Revival has more of that because I’m trying to add more new people to the lineup.”

As painful as it may be, the care invested in each festival ensures that they all maintain their own identity. Generally, the spring festival is oriented more toward front porch stringed sound of bluegrass and singer-songwriter music. The fall festival is plugged in with a rock and blues vibe. Sometimes, a style overlap is unavoidable.

“When I first started the Roots festival I didn’t know I was going to be doing a spring festival. So I kind of took both and mixed it,” Judy recalls. “Now there is a very large overlap but they are distinctive. Fall is more electric and it always has been.”

In 1996, Randy and Beth Judy launched Magnolia Fest and Springfest but the real estate crash of 2009 and a series of family health complications temporarily sidelined the business. Always self-funded, Judy says she leveraged all of her 401K and other assets from her time in the corporate world to purchase real estate. One week she looked great on paper and was debt free and by the following week, the bottom fell out. Her mother was also diagnosed in 2004 with Alzheimer’s disease and Randy, from whom she is divorced, suffered a series of strokes in 2012 and 2016. She acts as a full-time caretaker to them both.

Both MagnoliaFest and Springfest were purchased by two outside entities who Judy says wound up merging and producing them together and the events were relocated to a new venue. “When they made the choice back in 2016 not to produce it at the park, it would’ve been the 20th anniversary of Magnolia Fest,” she says. “During those years in between, it was very hard. I felt like I lost my children. Randy and I never had any biological kids but we had these festivals and they were like our children. Now I see that the blessing of it was, I had the time and still am able now to produce these two festivals and still take care of my mother. Even though we’re divorced, Randy stays with us and I take care of him, too. It’s all about family.”

Returning to the place where it all began, Judy now maintains a partnership with the park that allows some financial freedom. While she is grateful to share expenses, it’s not about drawing the biggest crowd. She isn’t willing to compromise the integrity of the festivals by bringing in high profile artists just to turn a profit.

“Choices are not based on what the band is going to bring, even though we do want to build our lineup. I consider this kind of a boutique festival. Whereas some of the other festivals are looking at having 20,000 people. Coachella has like 80,000 people and we do want those kinds of events at the park. But for this, we determined a long time ago for this community about 7,000 people keeps the experience intimate. I think all of those other ways of doing it are great. People love the big festivals and there’s a place for them. But there are also a lot of people who prefer something more personal,” says Judy.

“I realized that my mission was to provide a place that makes life better. The definition of that for me was that people felt better when they left and go about their daily life and do better. I’ve had so many people in my life tell me just that I know we’ve been successful with it. I believe that it’s not anything special about me or Randy other than we listened to the suggestions that the universe gave us and we set those intentions. If we hadn’t done it, someone else would have but it’s been a real joy for me to be able to be a part of it all of these years and I feel incredibly blessed to be doing it again. Just being there it feels like coming home.”

About Liza Mitchell