This place dangles some irresistible lures to reel in creatures known for their gloriously big mouths—from bass lunkers to bassists with songs to sing and stories to tell.
The Green Bell Guest House, a sixth-generation, hundred-acre spread in Middle Georgia, features a storied “party barn” and fire pit; sleeping quarters in a magnolia-shaded farmhouse and cabins; and the well-stocked, 100-acre Goose Lake. All of it makes for a rambling and hospitable venue for the Bass and Grass festival, four days of tuneful, distinctly Southern leisure and enrichment. “As in big bass and bluegrass,” clarifies proprietor Jennie Hart Robinson, “with lots of fishing and good eating scheduled around picking and jam sessions, which sometimes greet the dawn.”
The event, which runs October 28-31 this year, also offers two workshops a day for mid-level musicians to refine their technique with professionals such as Rev. Jeff Mosier of Blueground Undergrass; autoharp legend and “character” Gove Scrivenor; fiddler Caroline Pond of Snake Oil Medicine Show, and Steve “Big Daddy” McMurray from Acoustic Syndicate.
“We sit around in a circle and make music together,” says flat-picking guitarist Larry Keel. “There are unspoken rules to that sort of thing that take practice, such as getting the courage to solo and expanding your musical vocabulary. I see progress every year in our students.”
These lessons and all of the late night noodling and riffing culminate in a round-robin showcase that’s recorded on keepsake CDs. This year, Keel also plans to videotape the performance for a television pilot in the works.
“The artists are not shuttled off somewhere else, separate from the students,” Robinson says, explaining that she also rolls out cots in the barn for this informal fish-camp setting. “We have big, family-style breakfasts, and go out in boats for some phenomenal fishing, capped off with a big fish fry. So, in addition to the formal lessons, you get plenty of intimate, coffee-drinking time with Rev. Jeff and the other big names, who are happy to give pointers during your picking on the porch.
The festival started in 2008 when Keel, who owns a Virginia-based company called Fishin’ and Pickin’, met Robinson at the Magnolia Festival in north Florida. “I sing a lot of songs about fishing, and we got this idea to combine these two loves we shared and get other likeminded people together for it,” Keel says. “When I visited Green Bell, I was struck by this family atmosphere that just felt special and right, and it always seems to bring out the best in everybody. Plus, even the smallest fish in that lake feels like a whale!” (His largest catch so far? A 9-pound, two-ounce largemouth bass. “But I know there are bigger ones swimming out there.”)
Besides, adds Robinson, “I live in the middle of nowhere, so I have to bring the party to me,” joking that she resides in a midstate “Bermuda Triangle” with a Fort Valley address and a Perry phone number, just over the line in Macon County—a leafy, isolated complex among the peach and pecan orchards with red-dirt roads that thwart even the most finely-tuned GPS.
Envy whoever gets lost here, though, in the state’s sweaty navel. This earthy, atmospheric conservatory preserves the landscape—in camellias and communion—of Old Georgia.
“My father was in the textile business, and he used to bring clients here to do business the old-fashioned way: over hunting, fishing, and fried chicken and biscuits, all sealed with a handshake,” Robinson says. “For 60-plus years, the name was Malatchie Farms—many people still know it as that—but we wanted a fresh start, so I chose ‘Green Bell’ because of the big camp bell and also because of a wonderful family tradition from my husband’s family of ‘giving someone a bell,’ which means you ring a bell as your friends and family drive away after a visit to ensure peace and love ’til you meet again.”
City folks will realize how far they are from Buckhead when they see the walls and shelves of the comfortable accommodations that are dubbed—with downhome irony—“the shack” and the “dog-trot,” which showcase portraits of prized retrievers and coon dogs; a homemade pecan exhibit; faded photos of Governor Herman Talmadge; caricatures of “Lint Head Shoots” from the 1960s and ’70s; and displays of antlers and other taxidermy trophies, including the head of a growling bear in a bunk room (skittish types might want to sleep elsewhere). The sign over the entrance to the farmhouse directs visitors to “Unload Guns,” and its bar offers the similarly practical advice, “Danger: Men Drinking.” The bookshelves hold musky titles such as Deliverance and yellowed hunting and field guides along with a few, incongruous copies of The New Yorker, which, I suspect, are a flourish from Robinson, who holds a degree in studio art from Kenyon.
A musical heritage
Along with their musical instruments and fishing gear, visitors can bring their dogs to Green Bell, which boasts several chickens and a donkey named Delilah. “A whole repertoire of jokes has accumulated among the musicians about my ‘fine ass,’” Robinson says, rolling her eyes.
Even though Bass and Grass is in its third year, music is hardly new to the farm. In addition to his textile “bidniss,” Robinson’s father, Walter Forbes, was also an RCA recording artist who would bring his Nashville buddies home for song-filled retreats.
“He called them ‘music swarms,’” Robinson says, name-checking accomplished guests such as Cowboy Jack Clement; Fletcher Bright; pianist and arranger Charles Cochran; and Roger Cook, who wrote “I’d Like to Teach the World to Sing.”
Keel still hears their happy echoes.
“Green Bell is truly magical,” he says. “It’s a place where the years of good times and great experiences have left their mark so deeply you can feel them. That’s why I feel so comfortable and inspired every time I come here. We want to share that with other people who love music … and fishin’.”