Walsh Farm: the gorgeous new site of Grey Fox Bluegrass Festival
After over thirty years on the same site, for most regular festivalgoers, the Grey Fox Bluegrass Festival experience has become intertwined with the landscape of the farm which hosted it, from the steep hill which formed a natural mainstage amphitheater to the even steeper hill which separated the entrance and parking areas from the main camping and festival site. So when the organizers of Grey Fox announced at this winter's Joe Val Festival that the farm had been sold, and that they would be moving the festival almost forty minutes north to Oak Hill, NY, there was some serious buzz in the bluegrass community.
It happens: farms fail; festivals move on. And certainly, switching sites changes things around a bit for any music festival. Figuring out where everything goes in a new and unfamiliar space can be disorienting. But making changes is also a great opportunity to revisit and re-establish the very values which do not change, the ones that bring us together each year. When Falcon Ridge Folk Festival moved from one farm to another three summers ago, for example, watching returning regular festivalgoers try to figure out where their "usual" camping spot was on a totally different field made for a fascinating sociological case study. But it was reassuring to see how gentle and cheerful everyone was about the whole process. Once we all settled in, we found our old friends, and had made some new ones, to boot. And by the time the music started, the place felt just like home.
Which is to say: though landscape and terrain certainly frame the experience of any outdoor festival, in my experience, it is the community and the music which make or break a music festival. And given that, Grey Fox fans have nothing to worry about. Having attended Grey Fox for several years, I can attest to both its strong and welcoming sense of community, and its well-deserved reputation as the best bluegrass festival in the Northeast, thanks to wonderful craft and food vendors, impeccable sound production, tight sets and staging, and a performance schedule chock full of artists that will knock your socks off.
This year's lineup, in fact, is one of the best I have seen, a veritable "who's who" of the very best artists in the surprisingly diverse spectrum of sound that is today's bluegrass. The list includes plenty of big names (see below), and many bluegrass community favorites, like International Bluegrass Music Association multiple award winners Missy Raines (bass), and Michael Cleveland (fiddle), both of whom impressed the hell out of me at Joe Valover the past few years. And the Grey Fox organizers have a good eye for new talent; it's a slow year if I only come away with a couple of new favorite and previously-unheard acts by the end of the festival's four day run.
There's banjo master Bill Keith, who has been a mainstay of the Northeast bluegrass scene longer than most folks knew there even was a Northeast bluegrass scene. All-female old-timey bluegrass group Uncle Earl do a great afternoon set every year; if you haven't heard them, know that they are often cited next to new folk artists (and Cover Lay Down favorites) Crooked Still and Sam Amidon as part of a rising generation of great neo-traditionalists. You'll find plenty of current chartbusters, such as the Nashville-based Dailey and Vincent Band, who lean towards countrygrass. And those are just the artists who I didn't have room for in today's download extravaganza.
Today, then, a few choice covers from just a few more of the great acts scheduled to play at the new, more gently sloping home of Grey Fox Bluegrass Festival, July 17-20. Notably, this is just the tip of the iceberg; this year's roster is so good, it was hard to hold myself to a reasonable-sized list. But like the above survey, these artists comprise a representative sample of the "best of the fest" in more ways than one, ranging from traditional bluegrass groups to artists pushing the boundaries between jazz, appalachian folk, and newgrass, and from up-and-coming artists to still-vibrant mainstays of the bluegrass scene. Enjoy, and I'll see you in Oak Hill.
- Infamous Stringdusters, 3x5 (orig. John Mayer)
I raved about the new self-titled sophomore effort from the Infamous Stringdusters a few weeks back; this John Mayer cover from their first album is a wonderful bluegrass take on one of my most beloved guilty pleasures, and I saved it especially for this post.
- The Gibson Brothers, Somewhere Trouble Don't Go (orig. Julie Miller)
- The Gibson Brothers, Cabin Down Below (orig. Tom Petty)
No Depression says bluegrass neotraditionalists the Gibson Brothers own "the classic brother duet thing", and I couldn't agree more. Their new album Iron and Diamonds is chock full of great covers; you probably know Tom Petty better, but the Julie Miller is my favorite.
- Steep Canyon Rangers, Don't Ease Me In (trad./arr. Grateful Dead)
I posted the Steep Canyon Rangers version of this tradsong, based on an arrangement by the Grateful Dead, back in February, but like the rest of their newest album Lovin' Pretty Women, the cover still sounds fresh and exciting to me after multiple listens.
- Abigail Washburn and the Sparrow Quartet, Who's Gonna Shoe Your Pretty Little Foot (trad.)
With jazz/fusion banjo innovator Bela Fleck, beloved indie cellist Ben Sollee (see bonus section here), and madcap fiddler Casey Dreissen, The Sparrow Quartet plays a stripped down form of appalachian-tinged double-banjo bluegrass with jazz and improvisational elements that fit right in at this year's eclectic Bonnaroo festival. They were one of last year's big discoveries for me; I'm eager to see them again.
- David Grisman and Jerry Garcia, Blue Yodel #9 (orig. Jimmie Rodgers)
Mandolin player David Grisman is best known for his delicate, innovative work with Jerry Garcia and Old and In The Way, but this father of modern newgrass is still going strong as the frontman for the David Grisman Bluegrass Experience. This will be Dawg's only appearance in the Northeast this summer. Don't miss it.
- Sam Bush, Girl From The North Country (orig, Bob Dylan)
Sam Bush is another mandolin player who helped originate the newgrass style. Here, he takes a solo shot at Dylan with just strings and voice, and nails it. I'd have included this in our previous Single Song Sunday feature on Girl From The North Country if I had it at the time, but it's never too late for greatness.
- The Del McCoury Band, 1952 Vincent Black Lightning (orig. Richard Thompson)
Serious tradgrass old-timer and one-time Bill Monroe sideman Del McCoury has been enjoying a renaissance of late, and he deserves it: I have a half-dozen covers of this Richard Thompson tune in my collection, but this one blows them all out of the water. How can a guy this old sound so spry? PS: Nice review of Del's new compilation project over at Twangville.
- Tim O'Brien, Maggie's Farm (orig. Bob Dylan)
- Tim O'Brien with Hot Rize, Working on a Building (trad.)
Tim O'Brien is fast becoming a mainstay at Grey Fox, and he always puts in a great set with plenty of special guests. But the rare Hot Rize reunion, which includes all surviving bandmembers (O'Brien, banjo player Pete Wernick, and bass player Nick Forster, who folk fans know from his hosting duties on the nationally syndicated radio program E-Town), is something special: they'll attract the biggest crowd of the festival, but it'll be worth it.
And don't miss these other Grey Fox 2008 attendees which I've previously featured on Cover Lay Down:
- Jerry Douglas covers Hey Joe (orig. Jimi Hendrix)
- Abigail Washburn and the Sparrow Quartet also cover Nobody's Fault But Mine (pop. Grateful Dead)
- The Grascals cover Viva Las Vegas (orig. Elvis)
- The SteelDrivers don't cover anything, but I made an exception and posted two of their songs because they put the blues back in bluegrass better than any group I have ever seen, period.
Tempted? For a full list of performers coming to this year's festival, directions to the new site, and tickets galore, head on over to the Grey Fox Bluegrass Festival website. I'll see you
up on the hill at the new, gently sloping site July 17-20.