As the cool, charged night set in, a refreshing relief from the blisteringly hot summer sun came with it. So did a full, florescent orange moon, slowly creeping up from behind the ridges of the Catskill Mountains. This was the setting just after dusk at the Walsh Farm in Oak Hill, N.Y., as a special gathering of bluegrass lovers from around the world was in progress. Fans traveled from as far away as Australia, and one band, Gravity, came all the way from Sweden to perform. Grey Fox certainly had a solid reputation: it's been nominated three times for the International Bluegrass Music Association Event of the Year, is the subject of the public television documentary Bluegrass Journey, and was featured in BBC World's Destination Music, which featured music festivals around the world. To put it bluntly, Jeffrey Jones, a fan from Vermont exclaims, "I can honestly say that Grey Fox is the only place in the world I will gladly pay money to go sit in the rain!"
The atmosphere at the breathtakingly beautiful Walsh Farm was pleasantly organic and family oriented. Yet these were not your average hotel-renting, tape deck-rewinding families. They celebrated passionately throughout the weekend, and the picking rarely ceased. Many in attendance were seasoned Grey Fox veterans. The festival, which had been held at Rothvoss Farm in Ancramdale, N.Y. since 1976, was moved to Walsh Farm for the first time. The new setting got mixed reviews by attendees, but overall it seemed to be well-liked. The only real apprehension about change was heavily influenced by nostalgia for the original, hillier campground, which allowed for a grander view, yet offered less protection from rain.
A conspicuously large number of Grey Foxers have been attending this festival since their short-pants days. It wasn't unusual for someone to mention coolly, in between thoughts, that they've been going for 30 years or even since their infancy. Many bring their own kids now in order to pass on this grand ol' tradition and to instill a love of bluegrass. In fact, Grey Fox has something for all ages. There's a kids' tent with arts and crafts, clowns, tie-dying, face painting, sing-a-longs, etc. And there's a quiet camping section on the outskirts of the farm for those who appreciate a good night's sleep. Nonetheless, many of the attendees chose to pick on till the crack of dawn. Music could be heard consistently every night until the bright, burning sun forcibly pushed out the tired moon, radiantly shining its heat on our makeshift village of tents and RVs. Even then, though, if there was ever a silent moment without the soulful sounds of bluegrass, it was quickly replaced by a new group of eager, diurnal pickers, filling the void and keeping the spirit alive. Harmonious grooves were constantly wafting through the humid, dewy air, and some incredible music was created not only onstage but also amongst the so called "amateurs" in their humble campsite shelters. Beautiful, sun-soaked people were waiting to meet you at every bend, and adventures were continuously in the making.
Yet, what really makes Grey Fox unique from other music festivals is its hands-on, interactive design. At the Masters Stage, you could hear top artists collaborating, intertwined with priceless stories and legend. The Dance Pavilion was a nighttime hot-spot where bluegrassers young and old could connect through the art of movement and shake their booties. At the Grassroots tent, you could catch a series of workshops taught by professional musicians and teachers. The workshops, which featured an hour-long 101 session and a 102 session, were given on guitar, banjo, mandolin, acoustic bass, dobro, fiddle and even harmony singing. The banjo workshop was taught by Bill Keith, an innovator of the melodic 5-string banjo style, who used to play with Bill Monroe in the Bluegrass Boys. Other workshops were taught by Ron Thomason and Jeff Horton. Right around the corner from the Grassroots tent, pickers put their newly acquired skills to use at the Slow Jams Tent, jammin' out with other Grey Fox community members at a speed everyone could follow. Other novel attributes to Grey Fox include the Bluegrass Academy for Kids and Pete Wernick's Bluegrass Jam Camp, a three-day program put on by "Dr. Banjo" himself for all bluegrass instruments. It's conveniently right before the festival, so pickers could acquire some new skills and then put them to use when the crowd rolled in.
Some of the musical highlights included the bold opening night statement by The Steeldrivers, a veteran ensemble who made a huge splash. The band's self-titled album was released this year and is a stellar collection of original material. The growling voice of Chris Stapleton (guitar, vocals) is like a twangy Warren Haynes as he sings with earthshaking soul rarely heard in contemporary music. Tammy Rogers (fiddle, vocals), Richard Bailey (banjo), Mike Fleming (bass, vocals) and Mike Henderson (mandolin, vocals) round out this amazing group, each adding a distinctive spice all their own.
The Sparrow Quartet, which includes both Abigail Washburn and Béla Fleck, is an eclectic blend of bluegrass and world music. This band is like nothing you've ever heard before (seriously!). While Béla plays a traditional bluegrass banjo with a resonator, Abigail plays an old-time banjo and sings with a distinctive voice that's truly one of a kind. Their sound is one hundred percent original and full of soul. They combine the clawhammer and the three-finger-banjo styles and Abigail frequently sings in Mandarin. She's a great storyteller and has spent time touring in China, honing her craft and a powerful stage presence to go along with it.
The Sam Bush Band closed out the festival Saturday night with a breathtaking bang. This was arguably the best group at Grey Fox. Bush is one of the most talented mandolinists in the world, and Scott Vestal proved he deserves to be listed with the top banjoists as well. They gave the crowd everything they had to offer and the fans couldn't have asked for a better way to wrap up the weekend.
All in all, the celebratory weekend was filled with good vibes, high-spirited folk, and soulfully inspirational American roots music that kept us grooving on till the break of dawn.
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