Grey Fox Bluegrass Festival: the music that fills the hills 

Mike Fiorito will be covering Grey Fox for us this year on site. This preview covers his investigation into the festival’s history and enduring appeal.

The documentary Bluegrass Journey opens with a shot of Jerry Douglas and Chris Thile trading licks on stage at the Grey Fox Bluegrass Festival in Oak Hill, New York in 2001. While Douglas and Thile exchanged virtuoso lightning bolts of music from their instruments, another storm was in full force. A pan of the crowd shows a rapt audience, seemingly oblivious to the rain falling hard on their umbrellas. Perhaps Douglas’s and Thile’s playing punctured a hole in the sky, releasing a flood of water from the heavens above. The newer generation of players like Douglas and Thile are invigorating the genre, infusing it with new ideas. And the audience knew they were witnessing history, a slight shift in the bluegrass cosmos.

Grey Fox is the largest and longest running bluegrass festival in the Northeastern United States. Over the years, its lineup has been a Who’s Who of bluegrass from Bill Monroe and Earl Scruggs to Allison Krauss and Billy Strings. As Peter Rowan has said, “The first Winterhawk festival brought into being a great event to the many loyal bluegrass fans of the New York and New England landscapes. The festival has grown into Grey Fox, with expertise that continues the great bluegrass tradition. It’s been a few decades since those heady days when Tex Logan and I played the festival almost yearly! And I remember that time Marty Stuart, Emmylou Harris, and I showed up! And all those midnight jams. I always look forward to returning to Grey Fox. Where the music fills the hills!”

And while the lineup brings people to Grey Fox, it’s the feeling of togetherness that keeps the audience coming back year after year. At times, there have been four generations of the same family attending Grey Fox: infant, mother and father, grandmother and grandfather, and great grandmother, all having a great time. As Mary Doub, founder of the annual event puts it, “Community is what we really sell at Grey Fox.”

The sense of community at Grey Fox is shared among staff, volunteers, ticket buyers, and artists. Many people take ownership of their corner of the event and that feeling spills over to others who might be there for the first time. People watch out for one another and pitch in when needed. The mix of terrific music, community togetherness, and fun make the Grey Fox unique and special. Mary Doub told me that she had the idea about six years ago to put up shade tents so the audience would’t have to sit directly in the blazing summer sun. It’s thoughtful touches like that that makes the Grey Fox community what it is.

And this feeling of “in-person” community is what was missed last year [in 2020], during the COVID pandemic. For the first time in the event’s 35-year history, Grey Fox went online, calling it the “Spirit of Grey Fox 2020.” The community couldn’t live without it. It’s that simple. As Mary Doub said, “We may not be able to gather there in person, but this is the next best thing. It’s important to keep the magic alive.”

 This summer the Grey Fox Bluegrass Festival returns to the picturesque Catskills Mountain town of Oak Hill, New York. For over three decades, the event has been revered for its eclectic, award-winning music and its unique collaborations among artists, as well as for introducing hot new artists, and for its legendary hospitality. This year’s lineup includes 50 bands from bluegrass, jamgrass, Celtic to world beat, rockabilly, hip hop, and Zydeco.

And while community is key to Grey Fox, the spectacular lineup brings the community. Mary Doub’s leadership and wisdom elevate Grey Fox to something more than just a music event. For this, Mary has been recommended by her peers (including Alison Krauss, Jerry Douglas, Sam Bush, Chris Thile, and others) to the IBMA Bluegrass Music Hall of Fame. As the recommendation letter makes clear, “Mary is a vital and much-needed role model, mentor, and collaborator for people of all persuasions, but especially women in the industry. In August 1985, Mary—the only female co-founder of IBMA—was selected as its first Vice President. Her leadership and advocacy of the organization and its community have flourished since that time.”

While Mary’s vision and reputation attract the legends, she also has a sixth sense for emerging artists. For instance, Mary brought on Billy Strings as the artist-in-residence just when his career took off. Mary also invited Nickel Creek when they were still a fledgling band. Likewise, Della Mae. And now these players return as legends in the making, renewing the roster of talent each year.

This year, dobro master and 14-time Grammy Award winner, Jerry Douglas, will be Grey Fox’s artist-in-residence, playing tunes with various artists. Returning as the festival’s host band will be long-time fan favorite, Dry Branch Fire Squad. Luminaries like Del McCoury, Sam Bush, Steve Earle, Béla Fleck, Peter Rowan and Darol Anger will return to the stage with their various ensembles. Also playing are Yonder Mountain String Band, the Grammy Award-winning Steep Canyon Rangers, Ireland’s red hot We Banjo 3, Nashville’s powerhouse SteelDrivers, the all-female Della Mae, and many others.

In addition to performances on five stages, fans from 30-some states and a dozen countries make the annual pilgrimage for the camping, dancing, jamming, workshops, children’s shows, yoga, the 22nd annual Bluegrass Academy for Kids, top of the line vendors, fresh festive foods, beer, wine, and more. Grey Fox is a world of its own.

Grant Gordy from Mr. Sun said, “Grey Fox is the gravitational center for summertime bluegrass in the Northeast. When I think of being there, I feel that Hudson Valley humidity, recall that warm feeling of being at something like a family reunion, and am reminded of some unforgettable hangs and jam sessions, onstage and off. It’s so important to our musical community to have these gatherings and Grey Fox and other festivals like it are doing such a beautiful service to the world by supporting artistic culture in this way, and you can feel it all the way from the smallest campsite to the main stage on Saturday night. Long live Grey Fox!!”

Grey Fox takes place July 13-17, 2022, on the Walsh Farm, 1 Poultney Road, Oak Hill, Greene County, New York. Music kicks off at noon, Thursday, July 14. Advance full-festival camping and day passes are on sale now online.

Photos were contributed by Frank Serio, a songwriter and a photographer with over twenty-five years of experience capturing shows and festivals on camera.