LIVE: Grey Fox Bluegrass Festival @ Walsh Farm, 7/16/16 (Day Three)
Review by Glenn Weiser
Photographs by Jake Jacobson, Adam Frehm
After a day of taking in the bands on the main stage at the Grey Fox Bluegrass Festival, I came away thinking that today’s high and lonesome sound isn’t your Uncle Zeke’s bluegrass anymore. Although you could hear plenty of more traditional fare at the annual four-day event at the Walsh Farm in Greene County, this year I heard fewer three-chord songs about life and love in the Southern Appalachians and more experimental instrumental compositions and music closer to that of singer-songwriters. Bluegrass may be in search of new hunting grounds, but the level of performers was stellar as usual.
As I arrived midway through the 12noon set of the festival’s host band, the Dry Branch Fire Squad was whizzing through “Shenandoah Breakdown,” a speedy 12-bar blues breakdown. Then lead vocalist Ron Thomason shouldered an open-back banjo and, playing frailing style, lit into the Carter Family’s “Fifty Miles of Elbow Room,” a gospel number extolling the spaciousness of heaven. Thomason’s world-weary vocals were augmented by a fine dobro solo from Tom Boyd. Next was “Someone Play Dixie for Me,” a ballad about an ill-fated Confederate prisoner of war whose last wish was to have the rebel anthem played at his burial. Also noteworthy was Sam Cooke’s “Bring It on Home,” to which guitarist Adam MacIntosh and Thomason, now on mandolin, contributed bluesy solos.
At 2pm, 24-year-old mandolinst Sierra Hull took the stage. When I last reviewed her seven years ago, I noted some stiffness in her playing and predicted the teenaged Tennessean would get much better. Did she ever! The elfin picker has blossomed into a phenomenal artist with a fluid, graceful technique and a wealth of musical ideas to match her songwriting and vocal skills. From her new CD, Weighted Mind, “She’s Crazy” was a fast fiddle tune with non-traditional but well thought-out chord changes that she played on mando-cello. Another notable instrumental was J.S. Bach’s “Two-Part Invention #6” performed as a fleet, nimble duet with bassist Ethan Jodziewicz. On her “Lullaby,” Hull’s vocals sparked as her soprano voice soared up to high notes with aplomb.
The Virginia-based Steel Wheels stepped onstage at 4pm. Huddling into an a cappella quartet, they began with their “Promised Land.” With lyrics like “I’m gonna climb up on that highest mountain, I’m gonna walk down that lonesome road. Tell me again, tell me again. Tell me again, how you left your home for the promised land,” it sounded for all the world like an old spiritual. “The Architect’s Daughter” was an original tune in the natural minor mode featuring Eric Brubaker’s fiery fiddling. For “Red Wing,” the band took Kerry Mills’ 1909 Tin Pan Alley tune, slowed it down and wrote lyrics imploring a mythic bird to take the singer back home to hearth and family.
Della Mae, the best all-woman band in bluegrass, came on at 8:30pm and opened with their “This World Oft Can Be.” Courtney Hartman’s old time banjo and Kimber Ludiker’s fiddle gave the song, an affirmation of the power of friendship to ease a troubled mind, a strong Appalachian flavor. A cover of Jason Derulo’s “Marry Me” was a bouncy picture of a country girl who just knows the boy she’s sweet on will wed her, with the fiddle tune “Billy in the Lowground” thrown in as an instrumental chorus. Another treat was Dolly Parton’s “Why’d You Come in Here Lookin’ Like That,” a stompin’ red-state paean to the birds and bees. “Why’d you come in here lookin’ like that. In your cowboy boots and your painted-on jeans. All decked out like a cowgirl’s dream. Why’d you come in here looking like that.”
At 9:45pm banjoist Bela Fleck and mandolinist Chris Thile, two of the greatest instrumentalists in acoustic music, came out and performed a set of mostly original instrumental compositions. Their playing was impeccable, but the chord lines themselves over which the scampering melodies were written sounded too loosely constructed, giving the music a meandering, aimless quality. Things solidified nicely though, when the duo turned their hand to Antonio Scarlatti’s “Sonata 159” and invoked that good old Baroque feeling of an orderly universe.
Bluegrass legend Ralph Stanley died on June 23, and his passing was marked with an all-star finale of his music. Sara Watkins opened with “Will You Miss Me When I’m Gone” and was joined mid-song by Chris Thile and fiddler Darol Anger. For the breakdown “Clinch Mountain Backstep,” a dozen or more musicians piled onto the stage and let their notes fly. That was followed by Ellie Buckland singing lead on “Little Maggie” to the accompaniment of the massed pickers. They closed with the sacred song, “Let Me Rest at the End of My Journey.”
Tara Linhardt’s review at Bluegrass Today