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Spirit Of Suwannee Music Park in Live Oak, Florida.

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Mixing Music & Nature : Spirit Of The Suwannee Music Park

President/CEO Discusses Unique Area, Education Initiatives & Balance Of Physics & Art Within Hidden Heart Of Florida

Tents Along Suwannee River At Spirit Of The Suwannee Music Park & Campground. [Courtesy: Spirit Of The Suwannee Music Park & Campground]

Melding the texture of music and nature is always a cultural shift. However doing it within one of the untapped hidden gem areas within the heart of Florida can be a truly brilliant undertaking. Carrying on the tradition of his mother and father, President & CEO of Spirit Of The Suwannee Music Park James Cornett continues to enhance their legacy of education and fun along the banks of the Suwannee River. Cornett sat down to talk to The Buzz about vision, thinking outside the box and the continuing importance of education leading into many of their events like the upcoming annual Suwannee River Jam.

The Buzz: Could you talk about the history of the Suwannee Valley area but also the music performed here at Spirit Of Suwannee Music Park and how it is so integral for them to come together.

James Cornett: My family's been in the bluegrass music business for-- I think our festival in [Lexington]  Kentucky (Festival Of The Bluegrass] is on its 43rd year or thereabouts this year. Mom & Dad when they were in their early 50s came to Florida for a family reunion in this area. They had it in mind to develop a camping/music facility here in Florida. So beginning 35 years ago, they tried to manage a public facility being operated by the development authority. It didn't work out so they ultimately mothballed the facility. Mom found out about this spot and hopped the fence. They walked through and this place was in really bad shape because it had not been kept up while it was closed. Trees were down…that sort of thing. Ultimately, they sold themselves to the community that they could probably do something better than what was happening and lease the park from the county for a number of years. They bought it in about 1998. Their goal initially with this division in terms of the statement for the county was to create economic stimulus and a recreational opportunity. These were their two objectives. Of course, they were not successful at that. They did a fantastic job of finding the site and developing the property but weren't successful getting the guests to come in. And now [ironically] we count in excess of 600,000 guests a year coming through the doors. The recreational opportunity is far beyond what their original expectations were. So it's a perfect example of public/private partnership working out for the best.

The Buzz: Now, what was the turning point? You were saying at some point it seemed to just click. Was it when the park itself was redone geographically? Or was it when the music started being done in a sort of very logical way marrying the camping with the aspect of engagement of the performers?

JC: Well, I don't know that I know the answer to that. The facility's been a major project of my family's from basically the start when mom and dad founded it. What I mean by that is, for the most part, they were sending family money from other resources to subsidize the Spirit of Suwannee. And it's really only the last 10 years or so that the park's been standing completely on its own and profitable. The majority of our business is music-driven at this point. Having said that though, we're located four miles from Interstates 10 and 75. There's a substantial amount of potential that I've guessed is driving by us every day that we need to, frankly, focus on a little more. Because, while the music is a highlight, what takes place at the Spirit of Suwannee-- we've got 800 acres overlooking the historic Suwannee River -- it's a beautiful park every day of the year.

Music Performers At Spirit Of The Suwannee Music Park & Campground. [Photo Credit: Bob Peevey]

The Buzz: Can you describe a little bit the vibe and energy of the place and what people can experience.

JC: Our forefathers of the development authority and community leaders did a superb job of selecting the site. It's the highest point on the Suwannee River. You’ve got a great view of the river. Flooding is entirely unlikely because of the height of the river. So you got this pristine river. A lot of people have heard of the Suwannee River but haven't really seen it. This part of the river [is also] very unspoiled thanks to very little development. And it's a clean waterway. People don't throw their trash down into it to any great extent. And in addition to that, you got the full amenity package of a major camping resort which includes hundreds of campsites, a general store, a music hall, a craft village and a few outposts. I'm sure I'm leaving something out. Oh…18-hole disc golf course, which is very highly rated by the people who play it.

The Buzz: How do you modulate that between  this big space where you can hold 25,000 people at a time to a fully working campground?

JC:  A lot of people think it works magically. The truth is [thought is that] it is a little difficult because you have to be able to staff and manage for those larger events. On an off week, your staff is still there and need to be compensated, yet your guest count is lower. There has to be paid careful attention to it. But we seemingly manage to pull it off, and I guess one of the intentions is to continue to grow. We have lots of open dates still on our calendar. Even though we're quite busy there is room for more events and more types of events.

The Buzz: And the guests can also go swimming. I mean, the water's beautiful. There's that kind of feeling. I mean, there's all these different things they can do right there in the campground too without ever having to leave really.

JC: Well, I tried to get a playground. You got the swimming pool. We do have a beach on the river. Earlier [in the season] we got a bat house which it's pretty good educational opportunity for people. It is a very large bat house that holds tens of thousands of bats. People go out at dusk and watch them fly. One of the beauties of the bat house…when I first got here 25 years ago, you couldn’t go outside at dusk or the mosquitoes would push you back inside. And it's just not really that much of a concern anymore. I haven't been able to scientifically document it, but the bats eat a lot of the mosquitoes (laughing) and it's not a problem at all for us to deal with [really anymore].

The Buzz: Can you talk about the educational aspect? Because with something like the bat house, that teaches about the ecology, and how the whole place can work. You do that with ecology but also with music, from what I'm told. I mean, can you talk a little bit about the importance of that, and sort of mentoring element?

James Cornett: It is a pretty neat history. So our show in Kentucky is 40-plus years old. Mom & Dad, as well as my son, and the rest of the family…my nephew's actually running that show now…they have developed a music camp up there for many, many years…and they include kids who would go there and learn from some pros at camp, and then perform live on main stage. We’ve taken some leave from that and developed that here at the park. I don't know how many years it's been here, but it's at least 10 years…and we do it 3-4 times a year. There are 100-plus students per camp. And these camps…they're free. There's no charge. Some people do make contributions to help cover the costs, but there's no mandatory fee. And the instructors donate their time. But they're not just learning how to pick an instrument. They're getting out and socializing with other kids and adults. There's just lots more to learn than just music. It’s that [whole] social scene.

Treehouse On The Spirit Of The Suwannee Music Park & Campground. [Courtesy: Spirit Of The Suwannee Music Park & Campground] 

The Buzz: And you have elements like the Treehouse Master's Camp. That makes the park all the more unique in many ways too.

JC: The Treehouse Guys is the name of the program that built the one at that park. Michael Garnier is one of their head treehouse visionaries/engineers, I'm not real sure of the right term. (laughing) It is more of a work of art than anything else. At any rate, Michael had built our first tree house, which overlooks the main stage, I think about 18 years ago. And when he was here constructing that one, he picked out a tree to build it in the future. When the opportunity for the reality TV show came along, he called me and asked me if I wanted to build another treehouse. We set a deal and now we have probably one of the nicest treehouses. Both of them are very nice. There’s lots that can be learned from that…from maintaining trees to physics and art.

The Buzz: It seems like you do have a real love for this park in all of its facets because of what it can do. Can you talk about what still engages you and challenges you about it?

JC: Well, I'm pushing 55 and staying up until 3 or 4 in the morning for 3 or 4 nights in a row for the Suwannee Music Jam. It  is a little harder for me to do than it was 25 years ago. That's one of the challenges of it. But whenever we talk about, well, what else might you do? If you could choose anything else in the world that you wanted to do, what would it be? And there is nothing. You can’t find anything better than running a music park that overlooks the historic Suwannee River.


Tim Wassberg

A graduate of New York University's Tisch School Of The Arts with degrees in Film/TV Production & Film Criticism, Tim has written for magazines such as Moviemaker, Moving Pictures, Conde Nast Traveler UK and Casino Player. He enjoys traveling and distinct craft beers among other things.

Spirit Of The Suwannee Music Park & Campground

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Spirit Of The Suwannee Music Park & Campground, which is the Suwannee River’s finest 800+ acre camping resort located in North Florida with full hook up and water/ electric RV sites, tent sites, cabins, and primitive camping located on the grounds plus a luxury Tree House that can be rented.

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