Guthrie, Oklahoma’s 17th annual International Bluegrass Festival (OIBF) brought together music fans from across the United States to hear performers from around the world. Kathy Mattea, whose last record recalls her West Virginia roots, closed out the three-day festival on the Land Run Stage in front of a cold, but appreciative, crowd. The event’s international focus meant a lineup of musicians from Japan and Belgium as well as The Kruger Brothers, originally from Switzerland and guitarist Richard Smith who came to the United States from Great Britain. While the crowd numbered significantly less than the 40,000 people who came to Guthrie in September for the Mumford and Son’s Gentlemen of the Road stop, it was equally enthusiastic and appreciative of the musicians’ talent.
Festivals in this part of the country don’t get much more diverse than this one and it included Japan’s Blueside of Lonesome who performed two sets. Members participated in instrument workshops during the weekend and younger band members could be found jamming with local kids in the backstage tent despite the language barrier. During their performance, they played Bill Monroe’s Uncle Pen and Old Dangerfield, and two Gospel numbers Let Us Travel, Travel On and Cryin’ Holy Unto the Lord with tight four-part vocal harmonies.
A highlight of their set was fiddler Hiromu Teshima singing John Hartford’s Steamboat Whistle Blues. Guitarist Masuo Sasabe spoke of chauffeuring Hartford during one of his trips to Japan and meeting him during an earlier trip to the OIBF. During Friday’s set, they were joined by Byron Berline on fiddle and Barry Patton on bones for Lonesome Road Blues. This performance added to their versions of traditional bluegrass and country songs showed the audience that the band has an appreciation for American roots music history as well as the musical chops to play it.
Vocalist Yoshie Sakamoto fronted the band on some numbers, including Please Help Me I’m Falling and Pathways to Teardrops, with a vocal style reminiscent of 1960s female country singers. Even though her native dialect is different than what listeners are used to, she would fit in any venue where classic country music was performed. Both Yoshie and Blueside play festivals and country music bars in Japan and they were warmly received by the Guthrie crowd. They dedicated a heartfelt version of Berline’s “My Oklahoma” and the crowd responded warmly.
Brothers Steve and Jefferson Louvat with bassist Michel Vrydag performed mostly original songs and were later joined by Uwe and Jens Kruger. This was the Louvat’s fourth trip to Guthrie. Their mandolin and banjo instrumentals were reminiscent of a improvisational style that may be out of place in some festivals, but worked well in Guthrie where musical genre lines are blurred. The OIBF has consistently provided both traditional bluegrass and some that is a little outside the traditional definitions .
The Kruger Brothers set touched on Doc Watson and other styles that originated closer to their North Carolina home but also featured their excellent take on Curtis Mayfield’s People Get Ready, and their own Watches the Clouds Roll By and Carolina In The Fall. The Krugers have performed at nearly all of the 17 Guthrie festivals and are a crowd favorite, and this trip came on the heels of their Late Night With David Letterman appearance. Jens Kruger facilitated the festival’s banjo workshop as well, which had players from five different countries.
Berline met Canadian Craig Korth at a festival in the pacific northwest where he asked Korth to sit in with him for a performance. He later invited Korth to Guthrie for his festival and hosted him at his house. Banjoist Korth repaid the favor by sitting in with Byron’s band during the festival, and traded licks with Berline’s banjoists Billy Perry and Takumi Kodera who came to the festival with Blueside of Lonesome. That ripped through a version of Shuckin’ the Corn. Korth spent 18 years in the band Jerusalem Ridge and is an excellent banjo and guitar player. He also who conducts the NimbleFingers Bluegrass and Old Time Music Festival in British Columbia.
During the banjo workshop, both Korth and Blueside banjoist Ryukichi Hayakawa (through an interpreter) said that as youths they first experienced the banjo by hearing Earl Scruggs’ Ballad of Jed Clampett and Foggy Mountain Breakdown, and that those experiences led to lessons and a lifetime love of American roots music. Haykawa went on to say that he went on to study the styles of Bill Keith and John Hickman, who attended the festival but did not play.
Berline’s band played all three days of the festival. Their sets included a mix of bluegrass, western swing and sixties rock, recalling Berline’s days with the Flying Burrito Brothers and other groups. The band was especially strong with Berline and Greg Burgess on twin fiddles playing My Window Faces the South and Somewhere Over the ‘Fiddle’ Bow.
Headliner Kathy Mattea’s Saturday night set showcased equally her earlier hits and her love of traditional Appalachian music. She and her band (Bill Cooley on guitar and mandola, Eamonn O’Rourke on fiddle and mandolin, and David Spicher on bass) performed several cuts from 2012’s Calling Me Home. While strapping on her banjo for one song, she “thanked” whoever scheduled her to play after The Kruger Brothers’ set and mentioned that she had finally met the Krugers but had been a fan for years. Her cover of The Rolling Stones’ Gimme Shelter and Berline’s appearance with her band were crowd favorites.
In addition to the Land Run Stage featuring the main acts, OIBF has a vibrant campground full of music. The Cottonwood Creek stage located in the campground showcases local songwriters and musicians from the campground. It is held in a large tent and is jam-packed every night.
The annual event is held the first weekend in October in Guthrie which is 30 minutes north of Oklahoma City.