A report from Gettysburg

High gas prices and a chilly misty, rain didn’t seem to put much of a damper on Friday’s festivities at the Gettysburg Bluegrass Festival. Here are some tidbits I picked up while wandering around, listening and catching up with some of the artists.

SHIFTING GEARS. Peter Rowan is writing new material, hoping to get back into the studio “sooner rather than later.” He’s also looking at bringing a more intimate feel to his performances.

“Putting a tour together for a band takes a lot of work,” he told me before the first of two sets. So he’s considering a series of solo house concerts, and intentionally limiting attendance.

The idea grew out of a recent songwriting workshop in which he could count the number of participants on one hand. Much better, he said, than a session crowded with two dozen people where learning is a challenge and teaching isn’t much fun.

Those who saw Rowan’s first set Friday, with his full band, were in for a treat. The former Bluegrass Boy commemorated Bill Monroe’s centennial year with a rousing tribute to his late boss and other bluegrass pioneeers, including a spot-on vocal on Blue Moon of Kentucky, and an inspired rendition of In the Pines. Rowan once told me that In the Pines is the touchstone for his own writing, and that Carter Stanley was one of his main songwriting influences because, “he really tried to tell it like it is.”

Rowan, too, still tells it like it is. He invited fans to visit the band in the merchandise tent after the set. “We’ll be over there gambling, with CD’s as our chips.”

The music business these days is, indeed, a gamble. Rowan made it clear Friday that he’s still all in.

ONE HAPPY MOM. Life on the road often means missing your family, but Rhonda Vincent is getting to see a lot of hers these days. Her daughters, Sally Berry and Tensel Sandker joined her on stage to share the vocals on When the Bloom is Off the Rose. An hour later, they were on the main stage with their own band, Next Big Thing.

Sally and Tensel shared a few bills with Rhonda last year, but now that their bluegrass studies at East Tennessee State University are winding down – they graduate in December – they’ll be touring more often this year.

“I see them so much more now,” Rhonda told me, making it clear that was a very good thing.

The Gettysburg fans were among the first to have a chance to buy Rhonda’s new project with Gene Watson, Your Money and My Good Looks. The official release date isn’t until next month. Those who call her the “Queen of Bluegrass” might be in for a surprise. The CD is straight from the George Jones-Tammy Wynette corner of country music, complete with drums, some honky-tonk piano and first-rate steel guitar work by Mike Johnson. It isn’t bluegrass, but it certainly is great music.

FAST ON THEIR FEET. The Gibsons have the brother act down pretty well, building on a rich legacy built by Carter and Ralph Stanley, the Louvin Brothers and the McReynolds boys. Their harmonies are among the tightest on the circuit right now. They’ve got the brother vs. brother schtick down, too. But anybody who thinks that part of the act is as rehearsed as the music found out that Leigh and Eric are first-class improvisers with wit as well as their instruments.

When Leigh’s voice cracked while he sang On the Other Side of Town, he quickly sang, “No matter what you do, don’t let your voice break on stage.”

At the end of the song, Leigh deadpanned, “I thought I was through with that puberty business.” Eric, older by 11 months, quickly jumped in.
“It’s not fair,” he said, setting up his, um, hair challenged brother. “It’s not fair losing your hair during puberty.”

COMING UP. If all goes well, Saturday will be J.D. Crowe’s first appearance on stage since breaking bones in a fall from his bus a few months back. It will also be the first appearance of Michael Cleveland and Flamekeeper since the surprise departure of Tom Adams, Marshall Wilborn and Jesse Brock. Stay tuned!