What a festival! A pop-up town of about 7,000 people grinning ear-to-ear for four straight days in scenic Oak Hill, New York. It does not get much better than that. Add one of the best bluegrass line-ups ever organized and, wait a second, oh yeah, it does. Phenomenal.
I am still beaming about my first Grey Fox experience. From the moment we stepped into the festival grounds proper until the moment we left, it was magic. After being greeted by cheery staff, my crew, Grey Fox veterans, escorted my friend and me to our campsite down near the corner of Reno and Osborne, grassy streets named after bluegrass heroes: necessary features for finding ways among the hordes of happy campers blanketing the farmland’s acres.
I then made my way to see the High Meadow Stage for the first time, each of my steps pulsating with excitement. Just a glorious site: a natural amphitheater with stunning views of the Catskills. Our land claim was down front left, proudly shown off by our buddies who threw the tarp earlier in that prime spot which was ours for the duration: a nice treat not to have to run a tarp every day.
The great Peter Rowan was schooling the crowd beautifully with some classics. We settled in and hung tight while the Gibson Brothers rang the bell and sang it true. Perma-grin already and this was Day One, pre-dinner. No doubt, this was going to be an epic weekend.
The Del McCoury Band knocked Thursday evening’s set out of the park. They actually finished out by taking requests from the audience! It was unbelievable fun and uber impressive to watch Del rattle off those lyrics and pick off those runs with nary a hesitation nor a hitch. The crowd had been stoked for what turned out to be a sizzling set by the Infamous Stringdusters. The Jamily jammed into the new dance pit to show their love. We showed the same from our sunshade at the top of the hill line. By the time the Dusters hit their third song, we were promising them and each other at the top of our lungs that we would not give up when we are old. No, we absolutely were going to be out where the rivers run cold. They nailed every number with their blistering picking and powerful vocals and the combination of their songs from oldie, 17 Cents, to cover, American Girl, to the many gems from their remarkable albums flowed perfectly into a set for the ages.
Day One provided more fun than should be allowed. Unbelievably, three more days of bluegrass heaven were still coming our way. Friday’s main stage had Front Country regaling us with tunes from Sake of the Sound, most sung sultrily by Melody Walker’s engaging voice and all played spotlessly by this talented young band. Crowd-pleaser Joe Craven enchanted the masses, Chatham County Line circled the mic and showed us their traditional chops, and super-group Michael Daves and Friends wowed everyone with their enormous talent.
Béla Fleck and Abigail Washburn brought us to Appalachia, China and New South Africa with their stunning Scruggsy old-timey banjo combination. Their show had Fleck grooving on the baritone banjo at times then practically popping the strings off his tiny uke during his blazing solo and Washburn just belting out lyrics for all the Catskills’ valleys to hear. Balsam Range put on a classy performance, showing all why it was selected IBMA’s Entertainer and Vocal Group of the Year and has too many awards to list. Now, that was some bright blue bluegrass, my friends. The all-female Della Mae won all hearts; those vocals, that playing: you just cannot lose. Frank Solivan and Dirty Kitchen cast a cold spell over a grateful crowd and lit up the night sky with their impeccable picking and dazzling voices. Darol Anger then led The Grey Fox Late Night Jam, a special treat for the night owls. Darol, Rushad Eggleston, Tony Trishka, Joe Walsh, Joe Craven, Brittany Haas, Jesse Harper and others came together to create some wonderful Grey Fox memories, playing grassy renditions of Stevie Wonder’s Signed, Sealed, Delivered, I’m Yours and Paul Simon’s Gumboots and traditionals like Turkey in the Straw, among many, many others. Too fun! Only at Grey Fox.
One of the many beautiful things about Grey Fox is that there are several stages, and joy is happening at each one simultaneously. No matter which stage you find yourself at during any point of the weekend, you are sure to catch a masterpiece in the making. For our crew, the Catskills Stage (Dance Tent) was our proclaimed home base. If ever lost or void of your friends, make your way to the Dance Tent: you will find them there. And if somehow you don’t, you will be instantly boogying to whichever hot band is then blowing the roof off the place that you will forget anyone was ever missing. Balsam Range, Dry Branch Fire Squad, Della Mae, Frank Solivan and Dirty Kitchen, Front Country, The Lonely Heartstring Band, and Chatham County Line had feet hopping all day long there on Friday. And, Scythian had the Dance Tent about as wonderfully sweaty as could be to close it out that night. Quite the party.
Meanwhile, the Creekside Stage, an intimate venue for up close and personal performances had one of the best banjo shows known to man: a tribute to Bill Keith hosted by Béla Fleck and Tony Trishka. This masterful demonstration of Keith’s legendary music included Ryan Cavanaugh, Mike Munford, Noam Pikelny, Mike Kropp, Marc Horowitz and Eric Weissberg. The talent lined up on that stage was a grand site to see. And, Mr. Bill Keith was right there to enjoy the tribute in person. Those were enchanted and historic moments. Creekside also offered stunning performances by Michael Daves and Friends, Mr. Sun, and the Gibson Brothers, among others, throughout the weekend.
Saturday, 2:30 p.m., Dance Tent, could have been midnight anywhere New Year’s Eve. The place was going insane. The Steep Canyon Rangers had a packed house turning up the bottle and drinking it down. With Woody’s singing, Graham’s deep rolls, Nicky’s horsehair shredding, Mike’s arpeggios and Charles and Mike keeping the fantastic beat, it was a rousing good time. We then took our elevated energy up to the High Meadow Stage to witness The Hillbenders perform an unreal endeavor: a note for note, word for word spot-on replication of The Who’s classic rock opera, Tommy. Chad Graves’ dobro was billowing smoke. The show was so electrifying, in fact, that it caused thunder and what seemed to be 100 inches of rain to fall upon us. Once the ravishing rainbow kissed the Catskills, we were all ready to keep the party going. It had started early morn with the talented Caribou Mountain Collective and kept up every minute of that fabulous Saturday. A torrential downpour would not dampen our spirits. No way. Onward. And, we were with a smashing sequence of bands that took us into Sunday morning.
Hot Rize showed everyone how to do it: true harmonies, expert picking and a wide array of tunes from their new When I’m Free album and far beyond, including requests. Red Knuckles and the Trailblazers treated us to some swing country and entertaining tales before heading off to the Dance Tent for a late night much-anticipated romp. The King was up next with his mastermind sidekicks, Scott Vestal, Stephen Mougin, Todd Parks and Chris Brown. The Sam Bush Band had us encircled with friends singing Circles Around Me, howling at the moon at top volume, and entirely blown away with its Dylan into Santana ingenuity. Steep Canyon Rangers were aflame; we were tripping on doorsteps all over the place and Auden’s Train was wholly off the rails! Sam even joined in for a bit. And then, Greensky Bluegrass put the perfect cap on the perfect day with their deep, dynamic original sound.
The entire weekend the Grassroots Stage, the Bluegrass Academy for Kids and the Slow Jam Tent were jamming with their own goodness and the famously heroic picking in the campgrounds was off the charts. By the time Saturday afternoon’s parade came by with the Grillbillies’ pig blimp on a low-flying trek around the campground, my heart was bursting with love for bluegrass, my friends and the world. By Sunday morning, it was on my sleeve as I teared up while tearing down my tent. And, that humidity we felt that weekend? That was Mother Nature giving us all a close, warm bear-hug for making the right decision to be at Grey Fox 2015.
Thank you organizers! Thank you, musicians! Thank you, friends old and new! Such a magical festival. Easy to say that I wish I was still kicking back in the High Meadow right now, hanging with friends and taking in some of the best pickers on the planet. The only thought that breaks my nostalgic reverie? Grey Fox 2016. See you there.