The pop-up and its small footprint we would call home for the next 4 nights was ready. The sun had long since set and the kids were happily snuggled under doubled over blankets in the 1975 Apache Mesa. The evening’s cold temperatures were more than the few packed layers of cotton could defend against, so Laura and I were doing our best to think warm thoughts and be thankful for the reprieve from last year’s unbearable heat as we sat outside in the still and dewy night. Her vapor filled exhalation was caught in the beam from her headlamp, over top of the festival’s program. Laura was hard at work reading and rereading schedules for all of the stages; planning sets, activities and the needed down time that we hoped to achieve over the next several days. To achieve success at Grey Fox Bluegrass Festival, all you need is an understanding of the festival’s many official and unofficial offerings, a plan as to how you will integrate all of these into your day and help from Mother Nature. The festival will provide you with all of the other ingredients you need for a good time. Our first night at this year’s Grey Fox on the Walsh Farm in Oak Hill, NY was ending perfectly.
Arriving early to a festival is a statement only amongst those that arrive early. When people come on the first day of the festival or, gasp, any day after that, they don’t know that you had been hunkered down for nearly 24 hours before anything was officially sanctioned. But, for those people willing to sacrifice another day of work just to get a camping spot with 20 more minutes of morning shade, arriving a day early changes the entire festival experience. You are able to walk through the vending and talk to each craftsperson as they are setting up their wares. You learn about the location of every stage, every bank of porta-potties and all of the things unique to this year’s festival; and you do this without having to navigate through thousands of people doing the same. You make an immediate connection with the land that, soon, so many feet will trample upon and beat down; turning grassy fields into traveled, muddy paths. It is the presence of others that helps to form the community that represents a festival. But, the extra few hours with just the early arrivers helped me to be much more connected to the Wash Farm this year.
By Thursday morning, the landscape of Grey Fox was quickly changing. All of the campgrounds to the east of the stages, those campgrounds that allowed car camping, were filling. People were constructing as much square footage of comfort as they were willing to bring in trunks, on top of cars, on trailers, even in U-Haul’s. Rugs, Astro Turf, blankets or the recently cut hay of this functioning farm were the platform upon which kitchens, living rooms, showers, and jam areas grew out of the field. By mid-day Thursday, our just add music community seemed to be near capacity.
The center of this newly constructed metropolitan area was the concert venue on the hillside to the west. I felt like a member of an ancient civilization; no matter where I was on the grounds, I could always see the center of our existence. But ours was not a church- not in a traditional way- nor a monument to man. It was a series of stages and white tents, celebrating the creativity that would emulate and be sent out unto our fair citizenship. The most densely populated camping area was nearby the stages. I can see that a shorter walk, or stumble, to your campsite may be the appeal in these sites. For me, the sheer density of mankind, the constant action, the dust, and the 24 lifestyle makes a stroll past these residences, walking out to where the roads are less traveled and the hay still grows green, where the hours of the festival mirror the hours of daylight, most appealing. I’ll take the long walk home every night. It’s therapeutic. The strength of the festival fades when the lights of the tents, the amplified music and engines become less and less noticed, replaced by the steady hum of generators and acoustic picking.
One the hallmarks of this festival is the participation of the festivalgoers in creating the soundtrack of the weekend. Their place is not under the hot lights of the main stage, but in the campground, hunkered under an easy-up, playing with a quartet of friends who brought their strings to Grey Fox, because that is what the devout do. Of course the all can play; whether coming up through the ranks of the on-site Bluegrass Academy, or having sharpened their picking skills elsewhere, attendees at Grey Fox are encouraged to make their own music. Every night, as I made my way home, I would find a small group of people. Sometimes they knew each other intimately. Sometimes they had just met that day. Regardless of outward familiarity, they all shared an inward appreciation for the music that can be created by a banjo, guitar, mandolin, fiddle or some combination of these instruments. When they happen to have a double bass or an accordion, the music is all that much richer. But the lone player, straining to see her strings in the dim lantern light is just as powerful because all of these players are part of the continuum of Grey Fox.
This year, that continuum was evident all the way through the headlining acts. Nickel Creek assumed the role of headliner on Thursday night, years after making their Grey Fox debut, establishing themselves as nuevo-grass-maestros, breaking up and now rising up again. The music that they are playing now is a mix of new and old, but to my ears, it all sounded as it came from the same deep collaborative efforts, regardless of the era. Lead by the almighty Chris Thile, this quartet seems to be have brought all of the thing they learned when they were out from under the power of the Nickel Creek name to this second running of the band.
But it was the band that came on before Nickel Creek that made me sit up and take notice. For years, I have been intrigued by the Steve Martin’s presence in the music scene. While I have never seen him perform, I have heard snippets through radio interviews and all the while did not give credit to the Steep Canyon Rangers for being more than just a backing band for that wild and crazy guy. Currently Steep Canyon Rangers are touring without Steve Martin, and now I understand why it was this band that he hooked up with. All of the members are younger players, but their respect and admiration for what has been done over the past half-century in the realm of bluegrass comes through in their stage presence, their style, their songwriting and, most importantly, in their playing. They do not feel the need to incorporate many modern influences outside the umbrella of bluegrass into what they are playing, save the addition of a drummer. In doing so, they have developed a depth of musicianship that cannot be met by many of their peers, whether devout bluegrass or new grass players. They stand alone in how genuine and true they are to their chosen musical path.
A trip to the children’s tent at Grey Fox does not force you to watch too many clowns. Sure the unavoidable magician, balloon artist and, yes, even a silent clown were on the stage at the kids tent. Equal time, however, was made for picking. Kids were encouraged to dance, to create visual art, to sing along; all to the fast fingers of whichever nameless musicians backed up the emcee. Happy Meals are meant to make lifetime customers at a young age, because they make fast food fun. Likewise, I will not be surprised when Natalie shows up with a “My grass is blue” bumper sticker on her first car. Grey Fox plants its seed in the formative ears of it youngest attendees. And in doing so, it helps parents to have fun at this festival. The weekend is not all about only those events that happen once the sun goes down. I will always make time for the crafts and dancing at the kid’s tent, as long as my kids want to go. And when they get too old for that, they festival is ready with the Bluegrass Academy. After that? I guess the kids will be going on their own in the aforementioned car with the bluegrass bumper sticker…
On Friday, the presence of the McCoury family began to be felt. In the afternoon, Del McCoury and his sons sat down at one of the side stages and talked about the road they have traveled since the years when Del worked and lived a life outside of bluegrass. This seated event filled up an hour before Del and the boys were even scheduled to take the stage, but when they talked you could hear a pin drop in this enraptured crowd. But the pin would not have broken the fixed attention that everyone was giving to Del and the boys as they gave us a glimpse into their lives.
What felt like minutes after this local version of Storyteller’s ended, the Travelin’ McCourys took the stage at the larger of the second stages. The tent and its raised wooden dance floor were packed. Taking pictures, Laura noticed that the silver haired patriarch of the family was sitting beside the stage watching the boys play. I assume that seeing his boys play without him is a rare treat for Del and his wife, and his joy was palatable. Wandering around the back of the tent, I noticed another transfixed rare attendee at a Travelin McCourys show; Keller Williams. Usually, Keller joins that boys on stage, which is what he did in the last slot on the mainstage later that night in the third incarnation of the McCourys- and it was only Friday.
Before Keller and the boys took the stage, it was nice to see that both the Gibson Brothers and Della Mae, who have grown in prominence within the Bluegrass scene, were justly recognized this year. Last year, when I first told you about the hot set that the Gibson Brothers laid down mid-afternoon, everyone in the bluegrass scene seemed to be taking notice. Now, a year later, with a band of the year award under their belt, the Gibson Brothers seem to have settled into a blend of ballads and fast picking tunes. Clad in the suit and tie uniforms that always signify a bluegrass bands commitment to perfection, the Gibson Brothers continue to climb towards the headlining slot.
Just after the Gibson Brothers, and before Keller and the Travelin McCoury’s, Della Mae found themselves with one of the most appreciated sets of the weekend. The all-female lineup continually reminisced with the crowd about how they discovered bluegrass at this festival, with one of their members still choosing to camp out early with folks, just to get a good spot when the gates opened Wednesday morning. Their pride in playing at now being honored with an evening set came through in everything they said, played and shared. An act that may appear to get booked for their gender juxtaposition to what is expected in a scene dominated by men, brushes off this moniker once they start to play. Songwriting, playing, show(wo)manship and an ability to keep one foot planted in the roots of bluegrass with the other pushing ahead, Della Mae will put to bed any thoughts of a rise to fame based on anything other than talent.
Although I have told you repeatedly about the connection that so many of the weekends bands have to the classic bluegrass of their forefathers, it was not escaping me that Nickel Creek and Keller Williams fall outside what most people call Bluegrass. The instrumentation of these bands is consistent with what you would expect to see gathered around an oversized microphone, but the music only starts there. It goes to a place that many longtime attendees at Grey Fox told me was definitely not bluegrass. On Saturday, this continued to show up. Whether in the rapped lyrics over bluegrass riffs when Gangstagrass brought down the house late night, or within the intense drumming of the Carolina Chocolate Drops as they reignited the themes of the African American’s take on Americana in the Appalachian Hills; even the melancholic tones of Elephant Revival showed me that Grey Fox recognizes that with the next generation, bluegrass mixed with other forms of music may become that norm at Grey Fox. But don’t worry folks. When Del McCoury took the stage as the headliner on Saturday night, he reminded us not only what traditional fast picking bluegrass is all about, he showed us that at 75, he shows no signs of slowing down. Obviously his sons are branching out, taking the rest of the band on the road without Del and playing in a few non-traditional realms. But when they get behind that silver haired fox, the most polished, truest bluegrass is what we have is store. Coincidentally, it is not a member of the family that is driving their onstage playing these days. Jason Carter on fiddle is one of the greatest bluegrass musicians working. What he adds to the mix is the perfect blend of melody, harmony, theatrics and speed. The McCourys are lucky to have him.
This was my third trip to Grey Fox and I still have a lot to learn. I know where the swimming hole is and I know where I want to camp when I arrive. I know where to recharge my phone and where to get the funny money that is accepted by the vendors. What I don’t know is where to get the endurance and passion to stick around on Sunday morning. The last day of the festival is billed as a gospel show with awards, presentations and main stage slots for the kids who worked so hard through the weekend at the Bluegrass Academy. For us, it has always been a day to slowly pack and get on the road, so as to be home by a decent hour. This year was the same. But, as I made my way through the festival grounds towards the vending area for one last time, I felt like I was in a town square during the age of enlightenment. All of the people around me had bluegrass on the mind, but they were expressing it differently. The music as the place where all of our collective thoughts began, but we all were going in different directions. People talked about what they had heard and what surprised them. They talked about their own instruments and how they played. All of this was at a dull roar so we could all continue to hear the music that was being made all around us. On the corner of Scruggs Ave. and Watson St. where a graduate of the Bluegrass Academy played one more free form concert with her fiddle case openly accepting contributions.
From the main stage as the gospel sounds of the Dry Branch Fire Squad made us all feel a few steps closer to heaven. But maybe that air under our feet came from our collective enlightenment. Yes, bluegrass is firmly rooted in the past. Del and all of his peers brought so much to the scene and we will be eternally indebted to them. Through the music of some of the younger bands, their sound will live on. But this year, the first flat brimmed hat I have ever seen at Grey Fox caught my eye and was an emblem for the weekend. It was irregular in this forest dominated by its roots. But when I heard the wearer of the flat brim talking about the hot picking he saw on the Creekside Stage, I saw that bluegrass’ canopy is growing taller and branching out. Grey Fox recognizes this and continues to offer the perfect balance of roots and new growth throughout the weekend. See you next year.