It was over 10 years ago when Justin Price-Rees, a talented and exuberant fiddler from Australia, traveled halfway around the world to make music and a home in Santa Rosa Beach. Although he returned to Bendigo, Victoria, in 2010, the news of his tragic death last week at the age of 39 shocked a community where he’d made many close friends. “We’re deeply saddened,” said Kyle Ogle, guitarist with the band Dread Clampitt, the band Price-Rees played with for about six years. “I always thought we were going to see each other again and play music together one day.” Price-Rees died suddenly Monday after a struggle with mental illness for most of his life. He grew up busking as a street musician and gained fame after becoming the youngest winner of the Australian National Fiddle Championship at the age of 15. He went on to win the award at 16 and again at 18. In 2000, he moved to Santa Rosa Beach, after his mentor Max Tillman, from Tallahassee, introduced him to Balder Saunders who plays the mandolin with Dread Clampitt. “Music brought him here and brought us together,” said Saunders. He quickly found a family away from home in the tight-knit community. “There he was not just a friend, but was accepted as family,” said his mother Barbara Price-Rees, from her home in Melbourne. She said he had his health problems and everyone knew that, but they were able to give him the help he needed. “If it wasn’t for that support he wouldn’t have stayed,” she said. “I know he would like that community to know how much he appreciated that.” Those close to him describe a man with a big heart who never met a stranger. “He was a sweetheart by nature,” Ogle said. “The kind of guy who, seriously, if he had one dollar in his pocket, he’d give it to you.” He loved women and cold beers, and was always up for an adventure. But, his life was the music, Ogle said. “We’d go to these festivals and he’d jam with people until the sun came up, trying to share his gift,” he said. “That was inspiring.” Price-Rees joined Ogle and Saunders shortly after they started playing together in 2002. “We really felt like we had a band at that point,” Ogle said. It was the start of an endeavor, filled with all the excitement and energy of a new beginning, and Ogle said Price-Rees really contributed to that feeling. “He was always encouraging me to practice, practice your scales, and play hard,” he said. “Get in there and give it all you got, always. He was this super, older mentor figure and musically he was just like a genius, a brilliant musician. “It was young, fresh and new. You don’t get too many chances to do that. I was blessed to be able to go through that with him.” Saunders said the band was gigging hard at the time, playing six or seven days a week, with doubles on the weekends. They toured up the east coast and took the van to Colorado three times. Price-Rees was the go-to for the late-night shift behind the wheel. “He had this totally weird sleeping schedule, he’d sleep all day,” Ogle said. He was always on hand to make a day interesting, approaching life with the free spirit of a child. “He was excited about the simple things,” Saunders said. He remembered a time when the band was playing a festival and in between sets Price-Rees joined a lawnmower riding competition. “Without us knowing he just went and signed up and the next thing you know he’s got a helmet on and he’s up on this lawnmower.” Ogle, Saunders and Kenny Oliverio, who joined the band in 2006, became very close with Price-Rees during his time in Florida. Price-Rees’ mother said he thought of them as brothers. Ogle remembers one time he was in the pit in front of the stage when Price-Rees had been invited sit in with the band moe. He said he looked up to see a rare shimmer of doubt cross the face of his friend, who was usually comfortable in the spotlight. Price-Reese looked down and Ogle shouted up to him and pumped his fists in the air, giving his friend strength. “And then he just ripped, he whaled,” Ogle said. “His eyes started rolling in the back of his head.” Price-Rees moved back to Australia for more specialized treatment, his mother said his time in Santa Rosa Beach was often on his mind. She said since her son was a child he had dreamed of going to the United States and playing bluegrass music. “He did express to me along the way that he had fulfilled all his dreams in not only meeting, but playing on the same stage with these wonderful musicians at major music festivals with Dread Clampitt,” she said. “If nothing else happened in his life, he had fulfilled that dream.” A memorial service will be held June 6 in Victoria, Australia. Flowers or other condolences can be sent to Lilydale Memorail Park, 126128 Victoria Road, Lilydale, Victoria, Australia. 3140. A memorial jam session is planned for Price-Rees in Grayton Beach, but a date has not yet been set.