Lake and Sumter Style Magazine
12:04 am EDT
Wed, July 15, 2020

Meet the Folkers

Brace yourself for good folk, good music, and good times.

Being raised near Nashville ignited John French’s affinity for country music, a beloved genre in the city’s rich music scene.

He began writing song lyrics at age 13 and became a self-taught guitar player at age 16. He later merged those two passions and began performing his unique brand of music that he refers to as “Americana”—a blend of old country, bluegrass, and folk.

Six years ago, he teamed up with fellow Eustis resident Paul Smithson, a vocalist and mandolin player. Today, the duo performs at venues throughout Florida under the name Smithson and French.

“There’s a very strong culture of folk music in Florida that many people are not aware of,” says John, who released his first CD, titled “All Roads,” in 2011. “I love being able to keep folk music alive and influencing a new generation of musicians.”

That’s what John hopes to accomplish when he and Paul perform at the 20th annual Lake County Folk Festival, which will be held Oct. 14-15 in downtown Eustis. More than 165 folk musicians—including solo artists and bands—will showcase their musical talents.

“This is a great event because many of the performers are songwriters, meaning spectators will hear lots of unique and original music,” says John, who has played in the festival for 10 consecutive years. “It’s also a great family-oriented event because the performers have a friendly stage presence and are warm and approachable.”

Those who attend the Lake County Folk Festival will be enthralled with the sounds of acoustic guitars, soft melodies, pounding percussions, twangy bluegrass, and traditional Celtic music. The festival features nine stages with continuous live music by some of Florida’s most popular folk musicians. In addition, attendees can bring their instruments and perform alongside a lead band at one of two jam tents.

“Since many of the stages are indoors, people can remain in one venue if they choose because the acts change every 30 minutes,” says Kathy Wallace, co-organizer of the event. “In other words, they never have to move and can still enjoy a good variety of music.”

This year’s lineup of award-winning musicians includes Eustis residents Ken and Leigh Skeen, a husband-wife duo who sing songs about environmental issues. Ken’s entries in the songwriting category took first, second, and third place at the 1992 Will McLean Music Festival.

Other performers include Gail Carson, who was nominated for Americana Songwriter of the Year for the Josie Music Awards in Nashville, and Rachel Grubb, a top 10 finalist in the Will McLean Best New Florida Song contest in 2016 and 2017.

“People appreciate being able to see live performers up close and personal,” Kathy says. “Our primary goals for this event are to preserve folk music and get people motivated to learn folk music.”

To achieve those goals, event organizers have arranged numerous instructional workshops where festivalgoers receive hands-on learning with instruments associated with folk music. Songwriting and vocal harmony workshops also will be available, as well as vendors representing businesses and nonprofit organizations.

“People really appreciate the educational component of our festival,” Kathy says. “What’s more, they can also enjoy beautiful Ferran Park and Lake Eustis and will be within a short walking distance to the many wonderful restaurants and shops located downtown.”

Local folk singer and guitarist Jeff Friberg started the Lake County Folk Festival in 1997 at Uncle Donald’s Farm in Lady Lake. Back then, the event lasted one day and attracted several hundred spectators. After three years, the event moved to downtown Eustis and grew exponentially. Although last year’s festival was canceled due to Hurricane Matthew, the 2015 event drew 7,000 people.

“Festivals like this are instrumental in helping children develop a passion for music,” John says. “For me, it’s encouraging to know the traditions of folk music will continue.”

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The event’s nine stages will be set up in the following locations:

The Historic State Theatre

Bay Street Brewery and Bistro

The Alice McClelland Bandshell

Barnwood BBQ and Country Kitchen

The Lake Eustis Museum of Art

Wine Cellars: Uncorked

Valentina’s Sandwich Factory

1884 Restaurant and Bar

Tillie’s Tavern and Grill