Della Mae at the 2022 Grey Fox Bluegrass Festival – photo © Frank Serio Photography
I drove up to Oak Hill, New York from New York City to attend the 2022 Grey Fox Bluegrass Festival. Since my wife and I rented an Airbnb in Windham, we stopped there first to unpack before going to the festival. I’ve been to the Catskills many times, but Windham boasts wide and deep valleys nestled in its endless rolling hills. The vistas are stunning. Be careful on the mountain turns! I was trying not to look at the beautifully colored gingerbread houses and smart looking farms as I drove down the winding roads.
Our Airbnb had a tree right out front where squirrels and chipmunks stopped to listen to me play guitar as I sat on a chair near the door. I saw blue jays swirling around and heard their feet clicking on the tin of the roof. This all made for a magical setting before I set out for Oak Hill.
As soon as I was ready to go to the festival, I called Frank Serio, who has photographed these festivals for over thirty years. Frank has a terrific eye for capturing iconic moments. He and I have become close friends. If Frank attends any event I write about, I ask him to provide the photos. He has a trove of classic pictures that go back to the days of Ralph Stanley, Bill Monroe, Tony Rice, Peter Rowan, and his beloved Sue Cunningham. When gods roamed the Earth.
We drove up to Walsh Farm where the great blue-gray banners reading Grey Fox fluttered in the wind. As Mary Doub said to me that day, “We want to put on a world class show but make it feel very intimate and connect and feel good.””
Darold Anger, in a conversation we had after the event, said, “Grey Fox is held at a beautiful farm. Grey Fox is part of a small population of these events which have soul. This is partly from the organizer’s love of music, and a reflection of the community that comes to the event. The people that come to Grey Fox love the music and love each other. Because it’s northern New York, you never know what’s going to happen with the weather. There could be rain, tornadoes, mudslides, etc. Many of those things have happened to create challenges. There’s a certain amount of spirit among the people that come. They feel that they’ve survived together, you know, the tornado of ’89, or whatever other calamity. And the people look forward to seeing each other again and again. They’ve got their space mapped out, their RV and everything. These events don’t run on money. They run on love. It’s an experience based on love of music and of each other. And that is a beautiful thing.”
Arriving at these events with Frank is great because everyone knows him. I’m the new guy on the block at these events, so it’s nice to get introductions by Frank. To date I’ve mostly been a writer and listener behind the scenes.
Upon arriving, I had the great honor of meeting Jerry Douglas, who was the Artist-in-Residence at the 2022 Grey Fox Bluegrass Festival. I also met Jerry’s lovely wife, Jill. Just standing near the backstage gave me the thrills. I saw Sam Bush, Del McCoury, Ronnie McCoury, Jerry Douglas, and other luminaries of the bluegrass world. Americana legend Steve Earle was also there.
Later that night, Béla Fleck took the stage to perform songs from his Grammy award winning album, My Bluegrass Heart. With him was Justin Moses (multi-instrumentalist), Jacob Jollif (mandolin), Mark Schatz (bassist), Bryan Sutton (guitarist), and Michael Cleveland (fiddle).
Béla Fleck, along with many fellow musicians from the seventies and eighties, pushed the limits of bluegrass, introducing jazz, classical, and even world music elements. I love the infusion of new ideas in bluegrass. It has kept it vibrant and relevant, as opposed to being music listened to at the library only.
I had conversations with a friend on the ride up about hybrid forms of music. My friend said that he’s a purist. He doesn’t like “mixed” musical forms. I completely disagreed. I think that all music is a hybrid of various forms. There is no “pure” sound. For instance, Bill Monroe created bluegrass by melding other forms of music, including gospel, ragtime, old-time, country, and blues. And Monroe wanted his players to develop their own sounds, their own styles.
As Fleck began to play, the crowd started to hoot and holler. Whatever is happening in the world of music outside of this event, the people here love this music. It is unmistakable. They are devoted fans. Looking at the faces of people around me, I saw older folks, hippies, lots of young people, many in their twenties, and children.
As Fleck introduced his next song, Strider, the crowd roared and screamed. Playing on a five-string banjo, Fleck tuned the strings during the song to match the song’s chord changes. It was quite a feat of concentration and musical excellence to pull off.
Standing in the center of the stage, Fleck was simultaneously a player, composer, and conductor. His eye movements directed the other musicians when to join in. You could see that, in his low-key manner, he was coordinating the various parts. Even his eyebrows were as busy as a conductor’s baton.
After Strider Fleck said, “We need more banjo,” inviting Wes Corbett to the stage. And now Justin Moses was playing the banjo, too. Fleck then invited Jerry Douglas to the stage, joking that dobro is not as good as a banjo. As the three banjos played, Douglas jokingly put his fingers up to his ears, as if to stop from hearing the chorus of banjos. Meanwhile, Douglas’s dobro playing was fierce, like lightning released from containment in a giant tight drum, rippling over the crowd.
Continuing with the stage banter, Fleck quipped that “bluegrass has words sometimes and people actually sing it,” inviting Bryan Sutton to sing. Sutton introduced his song, Time Has Come, saying that we need to learn how to speak to each other again, regardless of political affiliation. An excellent flat picker, Sutton is also a terrific singer.
Lonesome world in tragic times, discussion framed by battle lines
Just reach across take my hand and let’s repair this broken land
Brother time has come for you and I to make amends and heal our troubled hearts
Fleck then introduced the song, Hunter’s Moon, inviting Justin Moses to play on fiddle.
The banter between Douglas and Fleck was funny, and an interesting juxtaposition to the superb complexity of the songs. Fleck then invited Sam Bush and Sierra Hull to the stage to play mandolin, making fun of Jerry Douglas having said that “rehearsing is overrated.”
Fleck provided a preamble for the next song saying that, when he was in Louisiana, he was inspired to write it, having seen a sign that read Baptist Pumpkin Farm. Only later he realized that what he saw as one sign was two different signs. But the song title Baptist Pumpkin Farm was too perfect to change.
Showing his bluegrass heart, the group performed I’m On My Way Back to the Old Home, which is about as bluegrass as you can get. Sierra Hull and Sam Bush came back to the stage to join in.
I was hoping that Sierra Hull would sing one of her own tunes. I had missed her performance earlier that day, but had been listening to her music for a few weeks prior to the event. A protégé of Alison Krauss, Sierra Hull has helped shape the future of bluegrass, introducing other elements into the mix. Hull has received five International Bluegrass Music Association nominations in the past three years. Hull received the Bluegrass Star Award, presented by the Bluegrass Heritage Foundation, on October 19, 2013. The award is bestowed upon bluegrass artists who do an exemplary job of advancing traditional bluegrass music and bringing it to new audiences while preserving its character and heritage. Be on the lookout for Sierra Hull. We have many years ahead to watch her continue to evolve bluegrass as an artform.
The next day, Jerry Douglas took the stage solo. Douglas’s dobro playing is so explosive and powerful, it would part the Red Sea. There is so much joy and mystery wrapped up in his phrasing and pitch, his dobro sound is like the soundtrack to one human soul. I hear violins and cellos, rivers and oceans, and the flapping of butterfly wings. And while Douglas’s playing can thunder like Zeus’s voice, it is also sweet and low, like the whisper of a fairy in your ear, lulling you to dream.
During his set, Douglas invited the brother and sister group, Gira and Uma Peters, to the stage. They are both under eighteen. Together they performed a lively tune called Take the Sandman to Your Captain ’til He’s Gone.
In addition to allowing for different bluegrass interpretations, The Grey Fox festival made clear that it’s important to connect the generations and fold the younger folks into the mix. Music like bluegrass can only be transmitted side-by-side, from whispered lips. Reading tabs and learning licks won’t do the trick. Just like a young Del McCoury played with the first generation of bluegrass players, so the baton must be passed to the next generation. This is music with tradition, no matter how it evolves and develops. Connecting back to that tradition is key. As Abigail Washburn has said, “The new heart, face, and soul of old-time music is Giri and Uma Peters.” And there we go full circle.
Another example of hybrid styles, the group Mr. Sun is home to three generations of extraordinarily talented musicians, each bringing their own gifts to the band. Although they can be categorized as American String Music or bluegrass or jazz, as a group, Mr. Sun achieves new musical dimensions.
By virtue of his long career as an innovator in contemporary string music, fiddler extraordinaire, Darol Anger, is the spiritual leader of Mr. Sun. Anger has played with Republic of Strings, the Turtle Island String Quartet, the David Grisman Quintet, Montreux, Psychograss, The Duo, and other ensembles. He is also an associate professor at Berklee College of Music. Anger is joined by mandolinist Joe K. Walsh, who spent four award-winning years in the Gibson Brothers. Like Anger, Walsh has also held a Berklee professorship. Guitar genius Grant Gordy, a former member of David Grisman’s unit, is a master of various styles from bluegrass to R&B, to rock, and to jazz. New to the group is veteran jazz musician Aidan O’Donnell.
Like Béla Fleck, Jerry Douglas, and Sam Bush, Mr. Sun has a great stage rapport with the audience, cracking jokes and making light of their music. After opening with an instrumental, Grant Gordy announced, “we had a great time playing today,” garnering giggles from the crowd. Gordy then introduced a tune from their new album, Extrovert, written by him, called Danny Barnes. The song is both haunting and playful, feeling familiar yet new. Gordy’s guitar playing sounds like extraterrestrial arithmetic. I’d like to think that, contained in his notes, are the encoded cures for all human diseases. As Mr. Sun performed, I could hear Jerry Douglas playing dobro backstage in the background. I wasn’t sure if the audience could also hear it. Danny Barnes climaxes to a few near endings, giving each musician a chance to dramatically solo before it finally ends. Meanwhile, Darol Anger kept playing, continuing to another song. Mr. Sun then launched into a funky version of There Ain’t No One Like You.
Gordy provided a preamble to the next song, saying that the members of Mr. Sun are “benevolent stewards of the next generation, playing ‘obscure bands’ music.” The crowd anticipated hearing an obscure tune from an unknown band. The audience roared after the first four notes, getting the joke, when they realized it was a cover of Blackbird by the Beatles.
I had previously asked Gordy what genre of music Mr. Sun played, knowing this would be unanswerable.
“Categories are really for the music labels,” said Gordy. “They need to know how to sell us.”
But the truth is Mr. Sun is more than just a composite of the styles that have influenced them and which they are interested in. In addition to influences previously mentioned, Gordy told me that members of Mr. Sun recognize their debt to African American music: R&B, funk, and jazz. There is no question that they’ve put a funky twist on their version of American String music. There is plenty of fizzle and pop in their delivery.
Jerry Douglas joined the stage to accompany Mr. Sun and perform Ride the Wild Turkey, written by Darol Anger.
Douglas joked thanking Mr. Sun for supporting fledgling artists, referring to their ruse in performing Blackbird. To which Darol Anger replied that it was a Jerry Douglas tune. Anger continued, “Playing next to Jerry Douglas is like standing next to a very large truck filled with pipes resonating at the same time.”
Darol Anger then introduced Tamp ‘Em Up Solid, also off Extrovert. As the album’s liner notes read, “This song started as a railroad chant, sung by Rochelle Harris, and collected by Alan Lomax in 1933. Ry Cooder recorded it in the ’70s.” Another vocal tune, it gets everyone tapping their feet and clapping. I love Mr. Sun’s choice of vocal songs and the way they deliver them.
Following Mr. Sun was none other than bluegrass legend, Peter Rowan. True to form, Rowan diverged from everything that had preceded. Playing with the fabulous conjunto group Los Texmaniacs, and his son, Michael on guitar, Rowan played his catalog of old and new tunes through a Tex-Mex lens. Rowan opened with the song, Free Mexican Airforce, getting the crowd fired up and singing along.
Next, he played Break My Heart Again, off his first solo album, Peter Rowan. Break My Heart Again has a very Tex-Mex feel and was played perfectly by Los Texmaniacs.
Rowan then played a few songs, including Oh Liberty, from his upcoming album with Los Texmaniacs, which will come out next year. I had heard versions of this song previously, so I could hum along. Many of the songs from the upcoming album depict the injustices and discrimination that Mexican immigrants experience in their efforts to flee oppression at home and abroad.
Ending the set with a Tex-Mex version of Midnight Moonlight, the audience didn’t want to let Rowan go. It was refreshing to hear a set of songs with lyrics.
There was much more at the Grey Fox Bluegrass Festival. There are multiple performances happening on the three stages scattered around the park. I didn’t get to see them all. I was hoping to see the group Della Mae, but couldn’t as I had to leave to pick up my wife and son while they performed. I love the Della Maes’ Facebook description: A band of women, feminists, and activists that think they are bluegrass musicians. Their second album, This World Oft Can Be, was nominated for a Grammy Award for Best Bluegrass Album at the 56th Grammy Awards in 2014. In 2015, they released their self-titled third album, Della Mae. 2020 saw the release of Headlight.
I had been listening to Della Mae on my shuffle so I would know the songs when they performed. When I see them live, I will know their songs even better. Hopefully, before Grey Fox 2023.