It was the biggest and best small festival I have ever attended. There, I said it. I have started with a boom; a writer’s biggest mistake. There was no building to this statement. The opportunity to hook you with subtlety and humor was lost. If you stop reading now, I have only myself to blame. But do yourself a favor reader and peruse on to understand why Grey Fox Bluegrass Festival, held July 18-21 at the Walsh Farm in Oak Hill, NY continues to be the best kept secret in the festival scene and the thousands of annual attendees hope it stays that way for years to come.
Last summer we made our inaugural trip to this hallowed ground of authentic bluegrass and from the moment it ended in 2012, we were excited for 2013. Our lives unfolded in many ways that we could not have foreseen over those 12 months, but permanent ownership of the Apache Mesa pop-up trailer that played such a huge part of our Grey Fox review from 2012 set the stage for a comparable experience; or so we believed in the weeks leading up to the festival. Who knew how different it would be? Arriving late on Thursday, we allowed ourselves just enough time to get settled into the campsite before heading up to the main stage to see the night’s headliner. Now, a quick explanation reader. This is not going to be a number of individual reviews of bands that shared the stages of Grey Fox. Of course, I will be giving my impressions of the bands that played. But, for the most part, this is a review of the festival experience. Each band made a contribution to the weekend as a whole, but just as I have never been a person to judge a musician’s work on their latest single, I will not judge this festival on the set that Keller Williams & the Travelin’ McCoury’s played or the third song by Cedric Watson & Bijou Creole in their late night set. While both were amazing, I want to be more holistic in this review. Just as I like to listen to an entire album, seeking out themes and an interconnection that may cause the sum of the parts to be greater than the parts taken individually, I will be reviewing the festival, not just the artists. But I digress.
Last year, our Thursday arrival felt as if we were arriving at the party after “Surprise!” had been yelled. Sure the bulk of the celebration lay ahead of us, but furtive gazes came our way as if we didn’t understand the importance of an early arrival. In fact, at Grey Fox, an early arrival is part of the experience for many of those who camp. Camping in the “Foxhole”, a nearby farm, starts a week before the gates even open, to appease those who have their sights set on a particular shady hedgerow, or an entire block of campsites (the temporary streets at Grey Fox are in a grid and celebrate famed bluegrass musicians. We camped at the corner of McCreynolds and Crowe this year). While last year, we felt sheepish about forcing our way in between a couple of campsites that did not foresee another neighbor, this year we found a wide open space in the fast filled “Quiet Camping”. This is the outer reaches of the campground that makes it a great place to camp, since very few people walk through this area, and a tough place to camp, as the walk to the venues is the longest from these sites. Still, with the unauthorized swimming creek just past the hedgerow to our west, that kept the sun off of our site until nearly 8 each morning, this site was attractive in it’s surprising availability and I took the time to back the Mesa in just right (And by took the time, I mean got frustrated because I couldn’t see exactly where I was going and may have fancied my trailer backing skills to be something they aren’t).
Despite the set sun, I sweated through my shirt as I set up our site. The humidity was oppressive. My high spirits and a couple of cold 16 ouncers froze my anxiety over the heat and we finally found ourselves in front of the stage just as Keller Williams & The Travelin’ McCoury’s started their set.
Metaphor and analogy are for writers like steroids for athletes. We must have some abilities that come naturally, but with a little boost from these performance enhancers, we can achieve at a level nobody expects of us. And yet, when I think about this festival as a whole, I cannot quickly think of an easy comparison to make. What I can say is that the Keller & The McCoury’s set is a metaphor for the Grey Fox experience. Keller had never performed a Grey Fox and the bulk of the audience had never heard any of his music. Sure, there were many people who were there to see Keller, most of them confusedly relegated to dancing in the side aisles so as not to obstruct the view of all of the seated fans, pacing themselves for the weekend. But those dready few were the minority. Keller did his best to ingratiate himself to the crowd- he rarely strayed from the song list on his album “Pick” recorded with the McCoury’s (except to play a slowed down, twangy ‘Freaker by the Speaker.‘ To those of us who are familiar with Keller, this was both surreal and telling as to how much Keller wanted to be accepted into this realm and to appease the dancing tweekers.) And yet, as his set d tunes, it was clear form the crowd that his version of bluegrass was appreciated, but not what the crowd came to see. Keller bridges the realms of bluegrass and jam-improvisation with strong musicianship and creativity. But these folks want fast solos- both in length and in playing. The development that Keller allows for in his songs is not true to the roots of bluegrass and that is why his acceptance is as a complimentary piece to the weekend, not as its focal point.
As a laid down to bed the first night, Laura crawled out of the camper to go and see the late night sets. I thought about the slightly subsiding heat wave and what tomorrow had in store.
We woke to heat. And humidity. And the blood boiling realization that it was only 8 in the morning, meaning we had 12 more hours until the heat yielded. The morning was filled with swimming in the creek. This year’s rainy June brought the level of the creek up a bit higher than last year, allowing for true swimming holes and the kids splashed around while Laura and I tried to cool down. Intermittently walking trip were made to the kids’ and other side stages, back to the campsite for snacks and then more swimming. Unending heat is like a drug. It made the day all melt together. Yet, that is often the feel of this humble festival. Whether standing backstage talking to an emerging artist, or standing in the crowd in front of that same up ad coming artist and talking to 30 year-old who had just taken up the banjo and thought that coming to this festival would be a great way to make strides as a player, or talking to his mom who came out from Aspen to spend some time with her son who lives on the East Coast, or talking to the two firemen whose campsites flanked ours who spent the afternoon playing banjo together and talking about technique, never having met each other before Thursday; you always can have the same conversation with people at Grey Fox. Everyone is approachable. Everyone wants to here what you have to say. Everyone has a comment to make on what you are saying. Only at a festival with onsite camping and a feeling of ease like this one gives its attendees can complete strangers camped next to each other talk their way through politics, their first acid trip and end up having a serious discussion about the formula to save the world over a gritty cup of coffee having only know each other briefly.
The Travelin’ McCoury’s made another appearance on the second day, with Keller having jumped a plane for another festival appearance on the West Coast. They also lacked their typical front man, the family patriarch, which is what makes them The Travelin McCoury’s as opposed to The Del McCoury Band. But, under the shade of this side stage’s tent, with a less polished version of the quartet then typically seen, the question and answers given between songs overshadowed the music for me. Ronnie McCoury, son of Del and de facto leader of the Travelin McCoury’s talked at length about growing up the son of Del. He talked about growing up in Pennsylvania, which lead Laura to ask about the southern drawl of the boys, and the fact that his father was a logger. The Del McCoury Band only rose to popularity in the past two decades. And despite playing in his early life with Bill Monroe amongst others, Del spent the seventies working hard to provide for his family. “Dad went into the woods when the sun came up and came home when the sun went down,” Ronnie somberly recalled. It was amazing to hear that the boys chose to go into music on their own, never pressured to excel as their father had before them. Robbie McCoury, banjo player, recounted “Dad never once told us to practice.” Still, here they are, leading the Del McCoury Band and bluegrass music as a whole into the 21st century. The intimacy of this conversation with the crowd was palpable, authentic and appreciated.
The heat of the sun was not relenting, but as the dinner break (That’s right, a dinner break. How many other festivals schedule a break on the main stage so you can get much-needed calories before dancing the night away? I always think about a pan of beans, slowly boiling over an open fire when I think of the Grey Fox dinner break.) drew to an end, the line-up on the main stage drew us out of the shade provided by the second stage tents. Having never heard or seen Della Mae I was immediately suspect when all women took the stage for this set. My innate chauvinism was immediately bitch slapped when the ladies started to play, harmonize and all together bring me into this century. This is no gimmick. The atypical gender of the players may open a few doors for them, but their skill shows they don’t need chivalry to come in. They’ll kick the door down themselves. The third and final set of the weekend by the McCoury’s, this time led by their father, completed their cycle of the weekend. The exploratory set with Keller and the introspective set without Del were behind them. Now, dressed to the nines, with Del is his trademark light suit, large quaff of white hair drawn back and pearly whites flashing throughout the set, the band played a polished list of favorites.
No notes were missed, the pedal was always down and the crowd felt like the weekends first true headliner had arrived and given us all the energy back the sun had drained that day. The first set after dark was played by the Infamous Stringdusters. I had been introduced to these guys last year, seeing tem at Grey Fox as well as when they opened for Yonder Mountain String Band at The Higher Ground. Those young men, who were seen as the next generation of true bluegrass musicians, have become men, driving the scene forward. They have been elevated to a level of fame that has them as a headliner, traveling in a customized Prevost bus and playing a set that keeps them more in touch with this crowd that has lovingly elevated them to the level they have achieved. I preferred the exploratory set I saw them play for the hippies when opening for YMSB, but can respect the reverence they have for the Grey Fox crowd; they played to their environment and did it with precision.
The rest of the night, I spent bouncing back and forth between the main stage and the Catskill Stage, which becomes a dance hall late night. On the main stage, The SteelDrivers were delivering their version of country-bluegrass-Americana, similar to what I saw last year. Their instrumentation says bluegrass, but the songs penned and gravelly sung by backwards hat wearing, guitar playing front man Gary Nichols tipped the scales into the alt-country realm. On the Catskill Stage I was blown away by the Creole music of Cedric Watson & Bijou Creole. Creole is the place where southern big band enthusiasts and punk rockers can come together to watch this band pound the washboard with tattoo sleeved arms, blow fire into the tenor sax and create a ska back beat with an accordion. The entire room was moving, packed front to back, happy to be dancing in the cooler night air, released from the seats at the main stage, relishing in the fact that tomorrow was forecasted to be overcast and less humid.
When I woke Saturday, I was happy to feel that Mother Nature had drawn back her fervor and that our 10 month old was not covered with heat rash, as he had been the previous morning. The day began much as the day before had, but Laura took the kids offsite to give them a ride in the air-conditioning and to make sure that their napping needs were met, since they hadn’t been the day before and we as parents paid the price. Despite the slightly lower temperatures, we still spent much of the early part of the day under the protective tents covering the side stages. The Lonely Heartstring Band, their name a pun and a window into whose music they played, and Jim Gaudet and the Railroad Boys gave me a great opportunity to sit down and listen to bluegrass. Sure, we all listen to the music that is playing, but how often to you listen to the bulk of a set of a band you have never heard? Really listen. We didn’t allow ourselves to focus on where we were going next. We didn’t worry about the heat. We just listened. It was refreshing and relaxing all at once. On Saturday, I also noticed that the kids from the festivals revered bluegrass academy had taken their show out of the tents and into the festival proper. Last year, I was blown away seeing so many kids under the tight tents of the academy, listening to and mimicking the playing of professionals on their instruments. There were tents for bass, banjo, fiddle, mandolin, guitar, etc., but this year, the heat and preoccupation of a second kid did not grant me the chance to wander under the tents of the academy again. Thus, I was relieved to see that the students had graduated to playing out; solo, trios and quartets, these little prodigies were everywhere the crowds were moving through the festival, their cases open and a few regular and funny money dollars in their cases showing how much the masses appreciated their desire to keep bluegrass music alive for generations to come.
The lack of heat also drew me to the main stage before the sun was setting, or maybe it was the super group assembled for the 4 o’clock set. Tim O’Brien on guitar and mandolin, Noam Pikelny on banjo, Bryan Sutton on guitar and Casey Driessen on fiddle represented the first super group I had seen assembled at Grey Fox. While a super group at jam-oriented festivals may mean clunky renditions of ‘The Weight’ and May the Circle Be Unbroken’, a bluegrass super group truly brings out the best in players who are given the chance to play charts that they all know, that they must know, to have become such revered players in the bluegrass community. Anchored by the crass and mellow O’Brien, this was one of the weekend’s highlights, and it was before the dinner break. After sustenance, Chris Thile (mandolin) and Michael Daves (guitar) filled the sage with music that typically takes four or five players to make. It is not that they play more notes tan their peers, although they are capable of that when necessary. Instead, these two play complex layers over each other, filling gaps and simultaneously creating space so as to lead you to wonder how two people can be so musically intelligent. The Jerry Douglas Band, the quintessential bluegrass-fun band played their bolo ties off as the sun set and the reality that the weekend would come to an end rose in its place.
Next, the highlight set of the weekend began unassumingly with 4 atypical attendees at a bluegrass festival quietly seated atop the main stage, confidently gazing out on people who are not their contemporaries. As a matter of fact, who are the contemporaries of Carolina Chocolate Drops, an all African-American folk/bluegrass quartet from North Carolina? Having heard these darlings of public radio only over the airwaves, I had never recognized the tongue in cheek nature of their band name. But now, staring open-mouth stunned at the strength and authenticity they bring to an interpretation of Piedmont blues-folk music that I have never heard equaled, there equal is all I can think about. Nobody is doing what they are doing. Not even close. And I’m not suggesting that they are original for the sake of originalities sake. Not even close. As a matter of fact, they are anything but original. The only problem is, their music hasn’t been commonplace for over a century. I have never hear animal bones played live, felt the sepia drawings of yesteryear come to life and wondered so much about what brought these amazing musicians to this music as I did that night. I look forward to our next encounter CCD.
Another super jam was slated to take the stage after Carolina Chocolate Drops, one that I had been looking forward to since the line-up was announced many months ago, but the energy of the day’s music and the heat from the day before finally caught up with me and I was asleep before the kids. Just remember loyal reader, this is a review of the festival, not jus the bands and, at this point in the weekend, the festival had culminated for me.
Sunday at Grey Fox is reserved for reverence. The pendulum swings a bit closer to gospel and a bit further from the music of Kentucky, meaning the instrumentation remains the same, but the ballads become a bit more dominant in the set. So does Jesus in the lyrics and different styles of harmonizing in the verses. It is also a day for people to slowly pack, come back and forth from the main stage to gather their belongings and catch whatever music they might as they begin to formulate a plan for their re-entry into the real world. There are no true headliners on Sunday. Beyond the gospel, Sunday is a day of celebration, recognizing the wonderful players from the academy and getting us all ready for next year.
And ready for next year we are. In spite of the heat and the resulting discomfort it forces on you when you are in the middle of a hayfield with no relief in sight. Grey Fox provides the exact scene that we, a family of music lovers, are looking for in a weekend getaway. There are activities for the kids, there are family friendly accommodations, but above all, there are thousands of music lovers there. The scene does not outweigh the reason for us all gathering, pitching our tents and letting go for four days. Grey Fox is about the music. And you loyal reader, do you think you want to attend next year? If so, lets keep this in mind- the music is what makes Grey Fox the best little festival there is. It isn’t what you bring to it, it is what you are able to take away.