Grey Fox Kids' AcademyAbigail Washburn
In the old days after I'd made it through a few sleepless nights at a bluegrass festival and somehow gotten myself home I felt like I should have a t-shirt that said, "I survived (insert the name of your favorite festival here)." Upstate New York's Grey Fox Bluegrass (or should I say Music?) festival is one such festival. In the old days it was called Winterhawk and even before that Berkshire Mountain Bluegrass Festival, but never mind. The Rothvoss Farm in Ancramdale, New York has hosted a bluegrass - or music -- festival for the last 30 years. Let's hope they favor us for another 30 years. Not only that, they also host the local foxhunt, the Rombout, so I double like those Rothvoss folks. You can't imagine a prettier farm to host either a hunt or a festival.
Anyway, just a week ago I loaded up the little Toyota truck and headed east across some incredibly beautiful (and obscure) roads to Grey Fox. Arriving there around sunset, I jumped right into the fray and started my good time without further delay.
Now to me these days a good time consists of some different elements to what a 1986 good time might have been...but bluegrass music, friends, and laughter are common threads that hold the past to the present.
I do hesitate to call Grey Fox a bluegrass festival because honestly folks I didn't hear that much of what I'd call bluegrass music there. BUT (and this is a big BUT) I heard a whole lot of truly great - and eclectic - and even some electric - music there. And that's just fine with me. There was a little bit of bluegrass mixed in with lots of new acoustic, swing, cajun, blues, new age, and a bunch of other stuff I can't even hazard a guess at. There were threads in the form of musicians who tied it all together - past and present, maybe even future...folks like especially Tim O'Brien and then John Cowan and Jerry Douglas...gee, these guys were around the music back in the early 1980's when I was first discovering it and they have been friends to me down through the years. Great stuff.
Watching their shows, listening to their musical journeys (and those guys have been on plenty of musical paths) the memories of the 80s, 90s and 2000s couldn't help but settle in. They say we bring our own experiences to the way we hear music and I sure felt it this year at Grey Fox listening to those guys who are over 50, too.
This is going to take a few blog entries to rehash, but I've got to say that even though I went to Grey Fox for the sole purpose of hearing Danny Paisley and the Southern Grass and shouting howdy at a few friends, I ended up doing oh so much more. I met lots of fun folks, cried a few times (good tears, happy ones of course) and honestly heard lots of great music that, had it been left to me to BUY that music, unheard, in bins titled "Swing" or "Americana" or whatever I probably never would have heard....I listened to a whole lot of bands that I didn't think I'd like. And if I had bought their CDs it's probable that I wouldn't have liked them much -- although surely I would have appreciated their skill as musicians.
But to see them live and onstage - and from the front row. Well, now, that's a whole different story!! There's something magical and timeless about watching the interaction of musicians playing for the love of it...I never tire of it. The crowd was so large and sort of removed that I think it was difficult for the people onstage to connect directly with the crowd, particularly at night, but the crowd made their presence known with applause, encores, and, well, LOVE. Tim O'Brien is a sort of quiet, understated kind of guy offstage, but onstage his casual, living-room-in-robe-and-slippers sort of demeanor creates a bond with the folks on the hill that cannot be severed. He held the crowd in his freckled hand, getting them to spell their names in the night sky with their flashlights and that sure brought back memories of when Red Knuckles (who looked a bit like O'Brien) used to do that some years ago while Wendell Mercantile was dangling off the stage railing with his zany sunglasses and big white teeth.
Anyway, from start to finish there was an attitude of love on that mountain and I heard so many people talking about it that I knew it wasn't something I'd just conjured in my own mind. Surely a high point for most of us on the hill was stopping by the Kids' Academy during some of the many hours they spent each day with their patient and skillful musical instructors - folks like Louis Kaplan and Cathy Goode, Akira Otsuka, Brian Wicklund and Ira Gitlin (to name just a few) and witnessing the determination these kids had to learn the music, master the songs they'd perform on Sunday afternoon and have a good time along the way. Made me cry every time I stopped by the kids' compound. During the course of the weekend about 106 kids participated in the program and though I suspect a few had to leave for home before their Sunday performance, the ample stage was spilling over with kids, fiddles, teachers and well, love, too. If there was a dry eye in the crowd witnessing this performance...well, it wasn't either of mine!
One of the bands that impressed me most over my days on the mountain was the all-girl band, Uncle Earl. Now I've heard them a couple of times before so I had an idea of the kind of music they do (and I surely wasn't disappointed in the least) but I wasn't prepared for their phenomenal performances. It's true that (well especially for the guys) they're easier on the eyes than most bluegrass bands, these girls just well delivered the goods in a way I'll not soon forget. There was sweetness and skill, professionalism and a raw kind of edge, a whisper and a cry....these girls can sing, play and dance. Not bluegrass. No, don't try to call it bluegrass. But I for one didn't care. These girls sing and play wonderful music for the soul, for the heart. They deliver a wide range of material in an uplifting and entertaining manner. I only wish I could have seen them perform another 100 or 200 songs.
(to be continued)