Posts Tagged ‘Grey Fox’

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Postcards from Grey Fox

21 July 2014

Just back from the Grey Fox Bluegrass Festival. For once, let me share a few experiences with you while they’re still fresh.

I only discovered Nora Jane Struthers & The Party Line this year, but this is in fact Nora Jane’s third Grey Fox as a performer. As she explains in the video, her connection to the festival goes back to her childhood. Growing up in New Jersey, Grey Fox (which is in the Catskills region of New York) was “the local festival” for the Struthers family. Though now based in Nashville and exploring genres other than bluegrass, Grey Fox and bluegrass clearly continue to occupy a special place in Struthers’ heart. The musical snippets in this profile are from “Barn Dance” a song featured on Struthers’ 2013 album, “Carnival.”

While talented performers like Nora Jane Struthers light up the stages of Grey Fox, an army of festival staff and volunteers toil behind the scenes to keep the party going. Perhaps no one better illustrates the self-effacing, for-the-good-of-the-order spirit of the festival personnel than Ginger Smith. To give you a sense of Ginger, here’s a quick profile:

For the duration of the festival and beyond, Smith more or less lives in a big top tent just to the side of the main stage at Grey Fox. There she oversees Ginger’s Grey Fox Café, the festival’s own food concession. Her culinary offerings range from humble hot dogs to gourmet gumbo, all cooked right on site.

Smith strikes me as one of those incredibly industrious people who think that sitting down is for sissies. She must have a monster garden, since she grows the ingredients for the relishes and jams she serves at the café and sells at her local farmer’s market.

Tuckered out yet? But wait, the best is yet to come: Proceeds from the sale of Smith’s preserves and condiments support the Copprome Orphanage in Honduras, where she volunteers during winter months. You can learn more about Copprome by visiting http://copprome.com.

Grey_Fox_Parade-1

Grey Fox grew out of its predecessor, Winter Hawk (kinda sounds like the start of an old Native American legend, but I digress). Mary Doub was one of the producers of Winter Hawk and now owns and operates Grey Fox. This edition marked the thirtieth festival with Doub at the helm. At this point, Doub must be thinking a bit about her legacy. Will Grey Fox live on once she is no longer in charge? What music will they be playing at Grey Fox thirty more years down the line?  Will dawn still be greeting the Grillbillies, her rosy fingers stroking their greyed Mohawks and faded tattoos?

The general consensus “on the field,” so to speak, is that Grey Fox has gradually moved away from traditional bluegrass over the years. Certainly, there were plenty of drums, electric guitars and saxophones in evidence this time. On the other hand, the picking scene around the campsites seemed more lively than last year, so I’m not ready to declare Grey Fox a bluegrass festival in name only just yet. Indeed, if bluegrass has a “big tent,” it’s Grey Fox, and for now, all the strains of roots music that inform bluegrass can be found there, jostling each other on the dance floor.

Yer Pal— Curly

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Three Tall Pines Branch Out

22 September 2012

Earlier this summer, the Boston-based group Three Tall Pines posted a video of an infectious ditty called “Going to Grey Fox.” Where better then to catch up with this quartet than at their home-away-from-home, The Grey Fox Bluegrass Festival?

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pJQcYg9SHx0 w=427&h=240]

Like so much of the best stuff that happens at Grey Fox and other fests, this performance took place away from the stages— just a beautiful moment in the early evening captured among tents and trailers.

Songwriting is a particular strong suit of this group. The composition in this video is “Tire Chains,” an original tune that can be found on the band’s 2011 release, All That’s Left. With its evocation of small town and rural life, its loping rhythms and its twangy vocals, “Tire Chains” offers a good introduction to the world of Three Tall Pines. While these guys are very much part of Boston’s burgeoning roots music scene, they don’t seem to share some of their compatriots conflicted relationship with bluegrass. As their Grey Fox anthem suggests, they answered that high and lonesome call long ago. They have been baptized in bluegrass, washed in the blood not just of murder ballads and fiddle tunes but also more contemporary strains of the music. Indeed, overall, their sound seems more a product of soaking up the currents of the last twenty years of bluegrass, country and Americana music than the study of folk traditions. To put it another way, I hear more Steve Earle and David Rawlings in their songs than Dock Boggs and Robert Johnson.

As I mentioned in an earlier post from this year’s Grey Fox Festival, a generational shift seems underway at that sprawling confab of musicians and music fans. With the passing away of so many pioneers of bluegrass, the mantel of elder statesperson has been passed to the generation of Sam Bush and Tim O’Brien, leaving room for an army of twenty-somethings to stake their claim to the music. Three Tall Pines are definitely soldiers in that army, but they’re not at war with the generation that came before them.

At the very end of the “Tire Chains” video, you can hear someone say, “Bill Keith,” as if to acknowledge the good vibrations that came from recording in the shadow of Bill Keith’s iconic teepee, the beige structure visible directly behind the band. Keith’s musical approach, which shifted the emphasis away from chord patterns and toward melodic and chromatic runs, transformed banjo playing in the 1960’s. Once a Young Turk, today Keith is a benevolent godfather and guru to the generation of Three Tall Pines, Della Mae, The Get Down Boys and many other acts. His teepee is therefore a fitting symbol of the bluegrass tradition, a culture that at once endures and evolves.

How many members would a group called Three Tall Pines have? It’s a trick question on a couple of counts. For starters, the band consists of four pickers: Dan Bourdeau (guitar and vocals), Joe Lurgio (mandolin and vocals), Conor Smith (fiddle and harmony vocals) and newcomer Nick DiSebastian (bass and harmony vocals). But the group also draws on a circle of friends and collaborators, most notably Avi Salloway, who has worked with them as both sideman and producer. That’s Salloway you see on slide steel guitar and harmony vocals in the video. Salloway is currently working with Three Tall Pines on a new album, so depending on how you count, expect to hear more from this trio, quartet or quintet soon.

Yer Pal— Curly

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Grey Fox 2012: Change in the Wind

21 July 2012

Bluegrass Festivals can get stuck in ruts, trotting out the same handful of acts each year. I’m here in Oak Hill, New York to report that the 2012 edition of the Grey Fox Bluegrass Festival is not just another retread. The winds of change are blowing through the meadows here. To get a better sense of what I’m talking about, check out this brief video postcard:

There’s plenty more to say, but a hot jam is brewing at our campsite, so I’d better run. As I mention in the video, we’ve shot a lot of footage here— particularly some of those Young Turks that are in the ascendancy here. Check back over the coming months as we share these treats and more with you.

Yer Pal— Curly

P.S.— Big thanks to my great media team at Grey Fox: Lauren Scully and Geoff Poister.

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The SteelDrivers: A Hot Ticket

13 June 2012

Bluegrass and gospel share something like a sibling relationship: they are genres bound together in spirit. Last week, I offered an example of a gospel tune, “River of Jordan,” given a pretty straight-ahead bluegrass treatment by The Bluegrass Gospel Project. Compare that with this number by The SteelDrivers from last summer’s Grey Fox Bluegrass Festival:

Friends, I’m seeking some spiritual guidance here: Am I going to hell for thinking that Tammy Rogers’ performance is, um…sexy? I see her do that little shimmy and— heaven? Brother, I’m already there. Sacrilege or healthy response? Discuss.

Actually, harnessing the engine of desire (so to speak) in service of the holy is an old trick.  Consider these classic lines:

That is, of course, the old standard “Holy Sonnet XIV” by  John Donne (1572-1631), who certainly knew both sides of the secular/sacred fence. As you can see, Donne has a field day mixing lusty metaphors with pious metaphysics in the poem, ultimately swooning to a climax by asking the Almighty to “ravish” him. Yowzah. So if you think I’m a lewd dude for focusing so much on the seductive qualities of Rogers’ song, well, at least I’m putting her in august company.

By the way, when I say “Rogers’ song,” I mean it: Rogers co-wrote “You Can’t Buy a Ticket to Heaven” with well-known alt-rocker Victoria Williams. Even if you leave the shimmy out of it, the song is catchy as heck. I hope it gets heard more widely.

Guess it’s apparent by now that I’m a member of the Tammy Rogers Fan Club. The SteelDrivers have weathered some significant line-up changes over the past couple of years, but if Rogers ever moves on, the end times shall be upon that band. She brings a ferocious, yowling bluesiness to her fiddling that puts her in a class all her own.

In Black and White

Part of what accounts for the range of styles encompassed by the gospel you hear in bluegrass these days is the fact we’re actually hearing the confluence of two fairly distinct musical traditions. On the one hand there is black gospel, which draws from the rich legacy of spirituals and the music of the African-American church. On the other hand there is white gospel, an amalgam of camp meeting tunes, Southern Protestant hymns and shape note singing. Not surprisingly, the pioneers of bluegrass drew heavily— though certainly not exclusively— from the white gospel tradition in which they were steeped, and you can still hear that tradition in much of the bluegrass gospel music that’s performed today, including “River of Jordan.” However, to my ears at least, a song like “You Can’t Buy a Ticket to Heaven” owes a lot to the black gospel tradition. I hear it both in the bouncing rhythm and the dips the melody takes here and there. Listen to Sandy Cherryholmes’ song “Changed in a Moment” for another example of a contemporary bluegrass song that owes a lot to the African-American gospel tradition. Slowly but surely, cultural barriers defined by race are falling. Why wouldn’t this also be happening in bluegrass?

Yer Pal— Curly

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Remembering Kenny Baker at Grey Fox

28 July 2011

The great fiddler Kenny Baker died on July 8th. Exactly one week later, the ad hoc Kenny Baker Memorial Orchestra assembled on the main stage at the Grey Fox Bluegrass Festival to “play homage” to this titan of American musican. The “orchestra” was the brainchild of Matt Glaser, himself a renowned fiddler and a guiding light of the American Roots Music Program at Berklee College of Music.

Since the Grey Fox program was already in place long before Baker passed, there wasn’t a block of time available for a full-blown tribute. Glaser and company therefore had to make the most of a brief interlude on Friday afternoon between sets by Michael Cleveland and Tim O’Brien.

The assembled multitude managed to pack four tunes into ten minutes. In my view, the heart of the medley was the second tune, “Cross-eyed Fiddler,” a Baker original, appropriately enough. Have a look and a listen…

Now, without clicking “replay,” how many of the performers can you name? If you’re from New England, chances are you recognize a face or two, as many are based in the region. With the likes of Baker and Hazel Dickens leaving the stage, and with players like O’Brien, Cleveland and Glaser well established in their careers, it’s time for a new generation of players to make their marks. Most of the performers in the “orchestra” are in their twenties; many are in highly regarded bands such as The Deadly Gentlemen, Della Mae or the Red Stick Ramblers. For those of you who haven’t updated your Who’s Who in Bluegrass lately, I’m providing, free of charge, the following video guide. This clip shows the entire Baker tribute medley, with the bonus feature that all players are identified. See how many pickers you can I.D. before their names show up on screen. Extra points if you can pick out the musician who is also an MD specializing in Emergency Medicine.

Only a stone could resist being moved by that last image of the players filing out to “The Dead March,” finally leaving just Cleveland on stage, like a solitary candle. Wish I could tell you more about “The Dead March.” It’s a late Monroe composition, a tune Glaser said that the Father of Bluegrass “remembered,” but I haven’t been able to dig up much beyond that. I suspect that as many people know the tune from a celebrated television performance by the meteoric supergroup Muleskinner as from any of Monroe’s recordings.

“The Dead March” is a keeper, but in the end, it’s “Cross-Eyed Fiddler” that really sticks with me. This seems a hugely underappreciated fiddle tune. It’s not an old composition and it’s under copyright, but those conditions haven’t kept other tunes (“Rebecca,” “Ashokan Farewell,” “Josephine’s Waltz”) from entering the fiddling canon. Perhaps it’s the title that holds it back— “Cross-Eyed Fiddler” doesn’t seem to fit its jaunty tone.

In any event, I love how the players at Grey Fox really get into the swing of the tune. You can see them all, little by little, put their bodies into it, swaying and bouncing to the melody. One of the things that made Baker a great musician— perhaps the thing— was that there was at once a looseness and formality to both his playing and his compositions. If you’ve ever seen a photograph or a video of Baker, there’s a kind of severity to the way he carried himself. He had this ramrod-straight posture, and no one— not even Bill Monroe— looked meaner in a perfectly blocked cowboy hat. His playing had a definite precision, too, but look closer and you can see how relaxed his technique remained, even when playing at speed. Like so many master musicians, he made it look easy.

Many people feel that to say that he “co-wrote” the classic tune “Jerusalem Ridge” with Monroe is to give Baker too little credit. Whatever the case, if you compare how he plays the tune to the whole host of subsequent renditions, what stands out is how spare and clean his version is. Every motion of the bow is like a punctuation mark. At the same time, however, was there ever a more baroque and passionate fiddle tune than this? There it is: the marriage of contradictions so often found in great art. For the philosophers following along at home, you could say that while there was much that was Apollonian in Baker’s demeanor and bearing, a Dionysian side always came out in his music. Whatever wonders future generations of musicians have to offer us, we will miss Kenny Baker.

A Word or Two More On Grey Fox

The biggest no-show at Grey Fox this year was not Peter Rowan, who managed to make it, albeit a little later than expected. No, the big no-show was the colossal, end-of-time rain storm that shows up like clockwork— except when it doesn’t. Even the storm’s usual sidekick, Insufferable Heat, barely stopped by. This, combined with the usual strong line-up and the off-the-hook campsite jams, made for a glorious festival. But don’t take my word for it: in a bid to put me out of business, Grey Fox has really ramped up its online media. Check out the festival blog for boatloads of videos. I’m particularly impressed by— and partial to— the several videos that capture the campsite jams. As we all know, some of the best playing goes on in these informal gatherings, and the experience is even more ephemeral than a live concert. After all, Del McCoury and his boys will play together another day, but most jams are fleeting hook-ups, so to speak. Those of us who care about this stuff need to do a better job of documenting these magical moments. Hats off to the media crew at Grey Fox for its progress on that front.

Yer Pal— Curly

P.S. The Emergency Medicine specialist is Kalev Freeman, one of the fiddlers lurking in the rear on the right side of the stage.

P.P.S. Thanks to Nick DiSebastian, Ben Pearce, Fred Robbins, Mary Burdette and Matt Glaser for their scholarly assistance.

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Crooked Still: Main Stage Presence

14 November 2010

Whether by design or accident, New England’s shrine to folk music, Club Passim, is hosting a weeklong showcase of cutting edge string bands with Boston roots. Crooked Still kicks things off on November 17th and 18th. Not surprisingly, their four shows in this tiny venue are already sold out. Next up, on the 19th, is Joy Kills Sorrow, who return to Passim after a summer and fall touring the U.S. and Canada. Wrapping things up on the 22nd is the newcomer of the bunch, the bluegrass outfit Della Mae.

I caught Crooked Still’s shows at this year’s Grey Fox Bluegrass Festival. The band has often performed at Grey Fox, but as the sun sank on the first official day of the festival and the quintet set up, vocalist Aoife O’Donovan wryly noted that this time they had almost achieved their goal of playing on the main stage after dark. They then kicked things off with a number from their latest CD, Some Strange Country, “Calvary.” I’ve been waiting for the right moment to share this chestnut, and I believe the time has come…

One of the most appealing aspects of Crooked Still’s performance style is that it creates an atmosphere of spontaneity on stage. Never mind that this may largely be pure showmanship (I’ve heard rumors that banjo wiz Liszt writes out his manic solos in detail). Watch how giddy O’Donovan appears at the end of “Calvary.” She has the look of someone in a jam session who has just stumbled upon a moment of perfect harmony. I’ve seen her react like this at the end of songs over and over, yet I buy it every time. Imitators take note: if you want to hold the audience in your hand, try bottling a little joy like this band does.

Listening to that tune and the set that followed, I couldn’t imagine who else might need to be convinced that Crooked Still is ready to be a headliner, but while the band clearly has legions of fans, it remains somewhere on the periphery of the bluegrass scene. That tenuous relationship may have something to do with two complaints that I sometimes hear muttered when Crooked Still comes up in certain circles, to wit—

1. It Ain’t Bluegrass

No one would make the case that Crooked Still goes after the vaunted “high and lonesome” sound that defines so much of bluegrass, and yes, it’s true that they’ve dispensed with a couple of the iconic instrumental elements of the traditional bluegrass outfit in favor of a…er, cello. That said, if somebody’s keeping a checklist of the attributes of bluegrass, surely Crooked Still’s repertoire fulfills several of the key items: they’re steadfastly acoustic, their rhythms are driven by a propulsive chop, and most importantly their songs are largely drawn from the canon of traditional ballads, hymns and fiddle tunes (“Calvary” is a good illustration of this— a 19th century hymn that came to the band by way of a recording from banjo legend Dock Boggs).

Some folks seem to think that this last attribute aligns the band more with old time music than bluegrass. In truth, the whole old-time-versus-bluegrass debate always depresses me. The style of playing shaped by Bill Monroe, the Stanley Brothers and the other founders of bluegrass was suffused with the ancient musical traditions of the mountains and the British Isles. That being the case, why is a bluegrass band that plays songs by the likes of Merle Haggard somehow more authentic than an outfit like Crooked Still with its contemporary renditions of sea shanties and Appalachian melodies?

I suspect the band itself wouldn’t lose much sleep over this argument. Many of the younger string bands today seem to be taking pains not to affiliate themselves too closely with bluegrass. Perhaps they fear that the label will summon up associations among younger audiences with cornpone sentimentality and weird uncles. If this is in fact the case, it’s a shame. Bluegrass is too young a genre and too marginal a cultural phenomenon to be defined so narrowly. Whether it’s through conservative impulses within the community or stereotypes imposed by ill-informed outsiders, bluegrass can’t afford to get painted into a corner. That’s why I’m saying that Crooked Still and the other ensembles that are redefining string band music are still playing bluegrass, whether they mean to or not.

2. Their Songs All Sound the Same

Okay, don’t shoot the messenger, but this is probably the most common knock against Crooked Still. It’s certainly true that their sound is absolutely distinctive. Whether it’s by a funky groove, a soaring chromatic run on the banjo or a snippet of breathy vocals, it takes all of five seconds to identify a Crooked Still song. It’s also the case that, while the latest album might follow a more programmatic structure than past efforts, all the band’s recorded output has hewed closely to a formula based on catchy modal hooks and elegantly spare arrangements.

But, come on! How many bands ever attain a truly distinctive sound? Indeed, in the grand scheme of things, we tend to remember performers for just one or two traits that were their own (think of Jimmie Rogers’ yodel or Johnny Cash’s flat and haggard tone). I’m sure many a musician looks upon arriving at such a defined sound as having attained the holy grail of performance technique. Once you’ve got your hands on such a rare commodity, why let go?

Perhaps the chief liability to having a unique sound is simply that pickers don’t cover your material. In bluegrass, imitation truly is the sincerest form of flattery. It’s also the way that music gets disseminated and integrated into the genre. Because of their groundbreaking technique and unorthodox instrumentation, even the band’s most ardent admirers don’t seem tempted to copy its style or substance. But who knows? I’ve seen a lot of young cellists in bluegrass jams of late. Perhaps the musicians who will carry Crooked Still’s mantel are still growing up.

Whatever its drawbacks, the obvious advantage to sticking with a particular sound is that you can keep refining and developing it. Through some key personnel changes over the years, Crooked Still has continued to hone their particular style. That single-mindedness has yielded dividends, both on Some Strange Country and especially in their recent live performances. The best way I can put it is that “they sound like Crooked Still, only more so.” True to their name, they have distilled their sound to its essence and they have achieved that odd mix of tightness and grace that only comes from working on material for a very long time.

All that said, I’d love to hear the band take on new repertoire. Such as…? Well, how about some Merle Haggard? Actually, you don’t have to tax your imagination to get a sense of what Crooked Still might sound like if it expanded its songbook. Several members of the band are involved in side projects. Banjo ace Greg Liszt has fronted a group called The Deadly Gentlemen for the past couple of years. The band is about to release a new album entitled Carry Me To Home. It’s a fascinating, challenging and altogether worthwhile effort that sounds a bit like Crooked Still might if O’Donovan turned the mic over to Eminem. Don’t take my word for it: if you hurry, you can get a free download of the album here.

Yer Pal— Curly

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Josh Williams Causes Heartache Outbreak

25 August 2010

In our last entry of Ye Olde Performer Showcase, members of Acoustic Blue offered the observation that the bluegrass circuit had become the default home for traditional country music. With everyone in the country music firmament from Dolly Parton to Jim Lauderdale releasing bluegrass albums and with country stalwarts like Gene Watson performing at bluegrass festivals, it’s hard to take issue with this view.

Even an event like the Grey Fox Bluegrass Festival, whose line-ups often read like a genealogy of the New Grass bands of the 1970’s, has of late been tinged by a touch of twang. This year, country songbird Kathy Mattea brought her recent collection of coal mining songs to the Grey Fox main stage, and Josh Williams returned with his band to perform a couple of sets that drew heavily from the country canon.

Of the flavors that country music brings to the bluegrass tradition, none are more pungent than those found in a good break-up ballad. Whereas the classic bluegrass ballads tend to deal with drowning, poisoning, dismemberment and other crimes of passion, the destruction documented in country tunes generally takes the form of psychic wounds. Case in point:

For a man who has yet to turn thirty, Williams does an uncanny job of summoning the ghosts of the best crooners of country’s bygone eras. Like Randy Travis and George Jones before him, he can pull off that trick of somersaulting from an opening bass note right up into the tenor range. He’s also mastered a down home version of melisma, a technique whereby, as he approaches the climax of a song, the singer turns a single syllable into a miniature cadenza of heartache. Check out what Williams does to the word “tried” in the final chorus.

Like so many fine songs, “The Great Divide” never was an outright hit (it reached #41 on the country charts in 1989), but it has since become something of a standard. Latter day bluegrasser Gene Watson recorded the tune and is still closely associated with it, but it was actually written by Randy Travis (in partnership with John Lindley). In album notes he wrote at the time his recording was released, Watson referred to “The Great Divide” as “my favorite song.” He also credited Travis for persuading him to keep performing when he was ready to chuck it all. Cool how so many of the dots connect here, from Travis to Watson to Williams.

Yer Pal— Curly

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