Whether you want music to invigorate the soul or soothe the savage beast, there’s a good chance that an Ocala/Marion County-area based group can fit the bill. From bluegrass and hip-hop gospel to rock and blues (and everything in between), Ocala provides a nurturing environment for the musically inclined.

The following profiles of two duos and four groups give a good sampling of the kind of music coming from our backyard. Here’s wishing you good reading—and good listening!

‘Full Circle’
Band: Moss Bluff
Current CD: Sharpes Ferry Road

From the name of their group and debut CD, Moss Bluff boasts of its deep Ocala-area roots. Founding members Hugh Price and Travis Knight grew up in Ocala, attending Grace Episcopal School and first began performing at Grace Church. That was followed by the high school band Gypsy Hippo and regular Marion County area gigs.

Much has changed for Price (vocals/guitar) and Knight (vocals/bass), both now 26. With a move to Los Angeles almost three years ago, the duo added drummer Mitch McKinley to the group now known as Moss Bluff. Teaming up with Grammy Award-winning record producer Paul McKenna, the group released its debut CD, Sharpes Ferry Road, in late 2006. There have been two successful national tours and a tour to England this past fall.

Though their music has been influenced by the likes of Jimi Hendrix, Led Zeppelin, Pearl Jam, and Smashing Pumpkins, Moss Bluff has created its own unique sound.

“Through our music, we wanted to make sure that the love for our hometown came through,” says Price, who with Travis co-wrote and co-produced the CD. “All of the songs on Sharpes Ferry Road, whether they’re about love, heartbreak, or loss, are about growing up in Florida.”

The CD’s first single, “Ribbons,” was featured on the soundtrack for the Charles Band horror/comedy movie Evil Bong, starring Tommy Chong. The second single, “The Dancer,” is currently receiving airplay. Hard pressed to pick a favorite, Price finally goes with “Sleepless Mornings,” saying he likes “the country feel to it.”

But it is “Jesus and Mama Always Loved Me” that really brings it home for Moss Bluff. Written by Price, the song features second and fourth graders from Grace Episcopal singing the last verse.

“Getting to visit with our music teacher, Mrs. Whitehouse, and including the students from Grace Episcopal was very important to us,” says Price. “It really makes the CD come full circle to where we began our musical journey.”

‘God’s Message’
Band: Followers Of God
Current CD: Devil We Comin’

An impromptu freestyle rapping session after an Everlasting Word of Faith Ministries service led to a mission via music. It also led to the formation of the group Followers of God (F.O.G.) and even a music studio.

“We decided to take rapping more seriously,” says F.O.G.’s Freddie Lofton II, also known as Ever-Ready. “We decided to spread the ministry of God through rap, hip-hop, and rhythm and blues. We decided to show ourselves as examples of how God changed our lives and use the music to send a positive message to others.”

Under the direction of church pastors Freddie and Ruth Lofton, in addition to Lofton II, the group is comprised of Cory Freeman (Innermost); Terrance Johnson (Rebuker); Aerin Lofton (Amazing); Juan Grimes (Truth) and Corey Graham (Promise Child). Ages for the members range from 19 to 28.

All members of F.O.G. are from Ocala and everyone contributes to the group, from rapping and producing to writing hooks, verses, and choruses. Even the pastors are credited with writing hooks to two songs. All lyrics are scripturally based.

After performing at local regional churches, as well as at the Holy Hip-Hop Awards in North Carolina, the group decided it needed a way to spread its message to a wider audience.

“We decided we wanted to make a CD,” says Lofton, “and then we knew it was something we had to do ourselves. With the help of our church family, we built a studio piece by piece. Then we wrote, performed, and produced the CD.”

Studio 987 is located on the grounds of the Everlasting Word of Faith Ministries, south of Ocala on Highway 441.

With a CD titled Devil We Comin’, there’s no mistaking F.O.G.’s mission. That’s reiterated with songs like “Devil Can’t Stop My Flow” and “Beat the Devil Down.” Their faith in God shines through with “Praise Him” and “Unconditional Love.”

“Our songs focus on a younger audience because we feel it’s so important to get God’s message out to as many young people as possible,” says Lofton. “But we find that people from all age groups like our music and our message. God’s message is for everyone.”

‘Our Mission’
Band: Ordained Praise
Current CD: A New Song (Nueva Cancion)

Fate and faith brought together the members of Ordained Praise.

Joivan Jimenez, originally from Panama, and Gustavo Ortega, who hails from Puerto Rico, grew up with strong Christian values. They met while growing up together in Marion County and sang in the Belleview High School choir. Also from Puerto Rico, Noah Chaparro Jr. was already singing with his family in the church choir when he was only four.

The trio met while working on a school project for a mutual friend, leading to the creation of Ordained Praise. The contemporary Latino Christian group embarked on a musical journey together to deliver a spiritual message. Following a breakthrough performance at the Rev. T.D. Jakes’ MegaFest in Atlanta two years ago, Ordained Praise has since toured internationally.

The group spreads its Christian message with a blend of hip-hop, R&B, and gospel built on strong Latino-based influences. They have been well-received at concerts throughout North, Central, and South America, as well as the Caribbean, Europe, and Australia. Ordained Praise has been honored with an En Sound Award for Best Male Group/Duo.

The multitalented trio has also on occasion departed from its Christian format. This past summer, Ordained Praise sang The National Anthem prior to a game between the New York Yankees and Tampa Bay Devil Rays at Tropicana Field.

“What matters most is our faith and the Christian message we want to share with everyone from all cultures,” says Jimenez, 26. “That’s what we want to do through our music and our lifestyle.”

With respect to their Latino backgrounds, Ordained Praise’s current CD, A New Song (Nueva Cancion), features songs in English and Spanish. Some of the songs, such as “Dreams” and “Deeper” are written collectively by Ordained Praise. Others were written by each of the members individually, such as Ortega’s “God’s Talent” and Chaparro’s “It’s A New Day.” All three lend their vocals and play a variety of instruments, from piano and bass to guitar and keyboards.

“Our goal is to continue to take our music and the Christian message to new audiences,” says Jimenez, who lives in the Ocala area with wife Lucianne and 5-year-old daughter Yessaira. “We feel like we’re just beginning our mission.”

‘A New Sound’
Band: Mark Johnson & Emory Lester
Current CD: Acoustic Rising

Mark Johnson’s banjo music is so unique that it’s trademarked.

Dubbed clawgrass, Johnson has blended elements of bluegrass, traditional folk, and progressive acoustic into his clawhammer style of banjo playing. And thanks to recent national recognition, clawgrass may soon become a more recognizable term in mainstream music circles.

Acoustic Rising, Johnson’s collaborative CD with accomplished mandolin player Emory Lester, was nominated by the International Bluegrass Music Association for 2007 Instrumental Album of the Year. The rest of the nominees included such notable bluegrass artists as Tony Trischka, Ricky Skaggs, Jim VanCleve, and Hunter Berry.

“It truly is an honor to be recognized by the IBMA and to be included with the best of the best in bluegrass music,” says Johnson, who lives in Dunnellon and in his day job is director of Levy County Emergency Management. “It sounds cliché, but I feel like we won just by being nominated.”

“Mark is one of the most innovative musicians to ever play a banjo,” says Lester, 45, who hails from Virginia but currently lives in Ontario. “It’s an honor to play with him and to consider him a great friend.”

While Lester was born into a musical family, New York native Johnson was not.

“The whole music thing just came out of nowhere,” says Johnson. “When I was growing up and heard people like Earl Scruggs playing, I listened to as much of it as I could and still just couldn’t get enough. So I decided I wanted to learn to play the banjo like Earl Scruggs.”

First, Johnson needed to get a banjo. He saved up money from his newspaper route and bought his first banjo for $62.69. Then when his mother saw an ad for banjo lessons, she signed him up.

It was the beginning of what Johnson calls “an incredible experience of repeatedly crossing paths with people who have become famous.” Johnson’s instructor was Jay Ungar, today regarded as one of the most accomplished and extraordinary acoustic musicians. Ungar’s “Ashokan Farewell” was featured in Ken Burns’ PBS series, The Civil War. The series soundtrack won a Grammy and “Ashokan Farewell” was nominated for an Emmy.

When then 15-year-old Johnson told Ungar that he wanted to play the banjo like Scruggs, the instructor had other plans.

“Jay told me that he didn’t teach that kind of banjo playing,” recalls Johnson, who was initially disappointed. “He told me that he would teach me how to play something called clawhammer banjo. I had never heard of that before, but I really wanted to learn to play the banjo, so I stuck around.”

In clawhammer, the melody string is picked downwards with the nail of the index or middle finger, followed by a strum using the same nail and then the shorter fifth string is picked using the thumb.

A move to Crystal River in 1981 led to Johnson’s next fateful encounter with those who could help further his career. While working for the local power utility, Johnson met the Rice Brothers, a family group that was making a name for itself in bluegrass music circles.

“They taught me so much and encouraged me in so many ways,” says Johnson. “Just being around them and playing with them was like being hit by lightning in the same spot every day.”

In 1994, Johnson collaborated with the Rice Brothers and released his debut album, Clawgrass.

“That’s when I really felt like I had created a new sound,” says Johnson. “I felt like as an artist, I had really just begun my journey. And thanks to so many others, I’ve been able to stay on that path.”

‘Guitars & Harmonicas’
Band: Chrome Blind
Current CD: Florida Is Dangerous

The unlikely pairing of a guitar-playing, surfing psychotherapist and a harmonica-playing, environmental lawyer led to the creation of Chrome Blind. Comprised of Dr. Theodore R. De Roche (“Big House Teddy”) and John Henry Hankinson Jr. (sometimes known as “Large Guy”), the duo’s first CD, Florida Is Dangerous, pays homage to the blues and to Florida. Somehow it all works because those are two topics De Roche and Hankinson love.

Written and sung by De Roche, with Hankinson on harmonica, the bluesy title track gets right to the point with clever lyrics about why Florida is dangerous. There’s no doubt what De Roche is singing about when he says: “A mouse in Orlando/Or Should I say a rat/Take your dreams and your money/But then invite you back.”  Then there’s this: “We got lots of lightning, tornadoes, and thunder/Too many hurricanes to number/Tropical depressions/Forest fires/Too many tourists/That stay to retire.”

Ah, Florida, ya gotta love it.

Originally from New York, De Roche, 59, earned his doctorate in psychology at the University of Florida and established his first practice in Ocala more than 30 years ago. An avid surfer and fisherman, he was influenced by reggae and other island music while living in the Caribbean and Hawaii. His travels to New York City, Atlanta, and New Orleans added to his musical repertoire.

De Roche would buy his first guitar in a most unusual place.

“I bought my first steel guitar in 1972 at Ocala Music and Marine,” remembers De Roche, who now lives in Flagler County but maintains his practice in Ocala. “I know that sounds odd, but it’s the truth. The place sold boats and other marine stuff in one half of the store and musical instruments in the other half. Since I love both the water and music, it was the perfect place for me.”

Hankinson’s family has deep Ocala and musical roots.

“Everyone in my family was involved in music in some way,” says UF graduate Hankinson, 59, whose private legal consulting firm is now based just north of Daytona near Marineland. “We were all in the church choir, some of my family performed in USO shows, and I started out playing the classical piano.”
Hankinson switched to playing harmonica, “Because,” he says, “you can’t carry a piano around with you.”

De Roche and Hankinson were introduced by mutual friends more than 30 years ago. According to De Roche, they first played together “during a jam session on the back porch of a friend’s house in Ocala’s historic district.” They’ve been playing together ever since.

They named their duo Chrome Blind because of what Hankinson describes as “the flashy chrome guitars and harmonicas we play.” In addition to the National steel guitar, De Roche also plays Old Fender electric guitars and sings lead and harmony vocals. Hankinson sticks with his harmonicas while also singing lead and harmony vocals. Both De Roche and Hankinson write songs, but De Roche more so.

Besides writing and singing “Florida Is Dangerous,” De Roche also does both on a sultry number called “Black Dress.” Hankinson wrote and sings “Got No Reason.” There are also covers of songs by Willie Nelson, Robert Johnson, and Jerry Garcia.

Hankinson’s favorites are two songs by Willie Dixon, who he calls “my patron saint of the blues.” Dixon is also featured as a background photo on the back of the CD cover with De Roche and Hankinson in the foreground in the jaws of a Great White shark.

Just a reminder that Florida is dangerous.

‘Timeless Rock Songs’
Band: Stereoside
Current CD: So Long

For the members of Stereoside, things couldn’t get much better. The four-member group signed with independent record company Bieler Brothers this past March and saw the release of their first CD, So Long, in late September.

But like most good things, it didn’t happen overnight. Ocala natives Ben Foster (guitar/vocals), 32, and Chris York (drums), 35, have been playing together for 10 years. David Oliver (bass), 27, joined the group four years ago. The newest member is Jeff Shields, 23, who after winning the 94.9 WTNT “Tallahassee Idol” contest, became the band’s lead singer in early 2006.

“We’ve been involved in music all our lives,” says Foster, whose grandmother taught him to play guitar when he was six. “It’s just something we’ve always done. Now with signing with Bieler Brothers and our CD coming out, we feel like this is our big break.

“We consider ourselves a straight-up rock band,” he continues, “with some Southern rock influence.”

But there is a little country mixed in.

“I grew up listening to country music,” says Foster, who graduated from Vanguard High School. “People like Hank Williams Jr. and Johnny Cash were some of my favorites.”

Prior to joining Stereoside, Shields was considering a solo career as a country music artist.

 While listening to all kinds of music, Foster pointed out that groups like Def Leppard and Whitesnake had an influence on Stereoside’s sound. In another nod to a significant influence, Shields acquired the nickname “Jelvis” after he sang a song and made what Foster called “an Elvis move.”

All the members of the band write songs. Foster and Shields wrote the CD’s first single, “Sinner.” With Shields doing the lead vocals, Foster says that the cut “is getting good airplay.”

Based in Ocala, the band is planning an extended fall tour to back the release of So Long.

“We made the record we wanted to make,” says Foster. “We want to make timeless rock songs.”

Click on each band name below for direct link to their website.

Chrome Blind

Follwers Of God

Mark Johnson

Moss Bluff

Ordained Praise


Posted in Ocala Style Features

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