Depending on how you measure its
lifespan, the Natural Life Music Festival
is either a toddler or a teenager. The Metropolitan Park edition of the festival, in Downtown Jacksonville, officially will turn 3 with this year's fest on Sunday, March 16, but the event's roots run far deeper than that number. In the mid-'90s, Ponte Vedra Beach mom and former Hallmark Cards employee Patti Hughes started Natural Life, a female-focused clothing and accessories company;
in 2001, she and several other Beaches-area families started a "Crafternoon" gathering to give local kids the chance to create heartfelt, handmade products.
Even as Natural Life and its adjacent nonprofit Natural Life for Children grew to international success, the grassroots, hyper-local and non-corporate vibe of Crafternoon kept going for 10 years. In 2011, local promoter Tib Miller of Flying Saucer Presents offered to donate his booking services to add a music component to the gathering. And since its official inception in 2011, the Natural Life Music Festival has donated tens of thousands of dollars to the Children's Home Society Buckner Division in San Marco, which traces its history of facilitating stable foster and adopted families back to 1902.
Three years in, the Crafternoon concept still serves as the core of Natural Life Music Festival, and the addition of healthful food vendors, an artisan market and danceable, family-friendly Americana music, the free event has transformed it into one of Northeast Florida's premier cultural touchstones. Mirroring the hard work Miller has done bringing top-tier musicians to the area, 2014's lineup goes above and beyond previous fests, featuring several internationally acclaimed and award-winning artists.
Here's a quick cheat sheet for this year's music fest lineup: it's free admission plus six bands who usually charge admission anywhere from $10 to $40 plus fundraising for a good cause equals must-go. That's an equation everyone understands.
Austin, Texas, native Jarosz is that rarest of acoustic artists: a young mandolin, banjo and guitar player who pays sufficient respect to the past while still pushing the often self-contained Americana art form firmly into the mainstream future. Jarosz's half-traditionalist/half-conservatory-trained background has helped her turn out four excellent albums at the tender age of 22, followed by fawning attention from NPR, The New York Times and the Grammy Awards.
Boston quintet Della Mae packs a variegated punch unmatched in today's indie Americana folkie/rock musical world. Founder Kimber Ludiker plucked Celia Woodsmith, Courtney Hartman, Shelby Means and Jenni Lyn Gardner from various Americana scenes, in which all have earned numerous accolades for their instrumental dexterity. Last year's This World of Can Be was recorded in Johnny Cash's old cabin and earned Della Mae a Grammy nomination. The band also spent 43 days in 2013 traveling through Central Asian countries like Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan with the U.S. State Department's America Music Abroad program.
The Autumn Defense
Longtime members of modern rock royalty Wilco, John Stirratt and Pat Sansone are now bringing their many accomplishments as multi-instrumentalists and audio engineers to their soft-rock side project The Autumn Defense. The band's 2014 album, Fifth, earned descriptions like "played perfectly," "sung nicely" and "flirt[ing] with classic-pop brilliance" from many critics. Some might take those as criticisms, but to a crowd gathered outside on a warm afternoon in Jacksonville, it will seem downright heavenly.
One of two male-female duos anchoring the festival this year, Los Angeles' honeyhoney brings its shimmering West Coast vibe to Florida after a marathon fall and winter touring Europe and the U.S. with fast-rising UK star Jake Bugg. Ben Jaffe and Suzanne Santo's smoldering mix of blues, country, pop and rock was top-notch on two previous trips to Florida — no doubt it'll shine even brighter this time around.
Micah and Lauren Gilliam met at college in the Midwest but found the perfect home for their tender, intricate folk-rock in St. Augustine. Micah plays the guitar, Lauren plays the ukulele, bass and banjolele, and the two artists share majestic blends of harmonies. The WillowWacks sound great live and intricately, densely arranged on record, a duality that's difficult to achieve.
At only 13 years old, homegrown girl Rion Paige doesn't have the life experience necessary to make it as a country singer — or so you might think, but this Jacksonvillian has dealt with arthrogryposis multiplex congenita since childhood, lending gravitas to her buoyant attitude and recent fifth-place finish on Season 3 of Fox's The X Factor. "There is a deeper meaning why Rion and Natural Life have been brought together," says Hughes. "To have her passion and drive at such a young age is truly impressive and inspiring for girls of all ages around the world." o