At the Grey Fox Bluegrass Fest-ival, the annual four-day blue-ribbon acoustic music event in the Catskills, Saturday’s weather begrudged the attendees a warm, sunny day, and the lineup was one of the best in years. If the festival had a strong suit, it was banjo picking, as three of the greatest players of America’s only original musical instrument were brought together on the same bill.
The duo of Laurie Lewis and Tom Ruzom were on the Main Stage when I arrived around 1 PM. Backed by the austere pairing of her fiddle and Ruzom’s mandolin, Lewis dedicated her song “Millionaire” to the U.S. Congress. It was a somber, minor key melody with lyrics scorning the corporate influence on American politics during the Bush administration: “I found myself in a good position, to buy myself a chief politician, bought myself a cheap election, that’s just how it went boys, now I own the president.” In another high point, Lewis, a two-time IBMA top female vocalist honoree, was joined for a vocal duet by Crooked Still’s Aoife O’ Sullivan on the traditional “Pretty Bird” as a tribute to the late Hazel Dickens, who recorded it in 1967.
At the Masters Tent, J.D. Crowe, Bill Keith, Tony Trischka and Mike Munford assembled for an all-star banjo workshop. Bill Monroe alumnus Keith originated the melodic method of three-finger playing in the early 1960s, making it possible to play fiddle tunes as opposed to the song breaks rooted in broken chords that was the hallmark of the earlier Earl Scruggs style. Crowe, a Scruggs-style player known for his rock-steady timing, has led the band the New South since the ‘70s, and Trischka has played with a long list of bluegrass luminaries and recently gave pointers to comedian and picker Steve Martin. Although Munford of Frank Solivan and Dirty Kitchen has yet to acquire the legend status of the others, he was still an impressive picker.
Keith began with the hoedown “Cherokee Shuffle,” using his trademark technique to play the tune’s stepwise melody note-for-note. Crowe followed with his signature tune “Fireball Mail” as an example of the older school. Next, Trischka played an original medley beginning with a piece called “18” in double C, a tuning used in clawhammer style but rarely in bluegrass. It began as a loopy 6/8 tune and progressed to a driving reel. Munford ended the first round with Kenny Baker’s “Mississippi Waltz,” climbing the neck to flash his precise chops.
At 4 PM on the Main Stage, where I stayed for the rest of the show, J.D. Crowe and the New South delivered a spiffy selection of mostly pop, country and gospel songs filtered through the lens of bluegrass. Crowe’s group, virtually all from Kentucky, also had the strongest harmony singing of the day’s lineup. Dobroist Matt Spain sang lead on Bob Dylan’s “Girl from the North Country” and contributed a tasty solo, as did Crowe with his high position banjo licks. “Lefty’s Old Guitar,” another of the set’s pleasures, was a first-person narrative by an old country singer’s guitar as it hung on the wall savoring times past.
Tony Trischka Territory, a quartet consisting of Trischka, guitarist and vocalist Michael Daves, Mike Barnett on fiddle, and Skip Ward on upright bass came on at six and opened with the traditional ballad “Darling Corey.” Daves’ tenor often had a clothespin-on-the-nose quality, but later on he nailed a high B—the highest note I’ve ever heard any non-operatic tenor sing. In the evening’s most sublime moment, Brittany Haas of Crooked Still joined Barnett for some twin fiddle on “Esther’s Waltz” and provided a gorgeous harmony to Barnett’s melody. Another high point was “The General,” which grippingly chronicled the 1862 hijacking of a Confederate train by Union forces, the rebels’ dogged pursuit of it, and the capture and hanging of most of the raiders.
Fiddler-mandolinist Sam Bush, who was rained out at last year’s festival, closed the show with a two-hour set that blended rock elements such as drums and electric instruments with acoustic bluegrass. Playing slide on a metal resonator mandolin, he goofed around with quotes from the Beatles’ “Within You and Without You” and Jimi Hendrix’s “Third Stone from the Sun” before lunging into his butt-bootin’ rendition of “Old Joe Clark.” Later, in a nod to southern rock, he gave Charlie Daniels’ “Long Haired Country Boy” a bluesy edge, topped off with a double-time banjo solo by Scott Vestal. “Laps in 7” was an original composition by Vestal, who on one occasion seemed to think his dog was lapping water in 7/4 time and wrote the piece in that meter. For this, Bush brought out an electric 4-string mandolin modeled after a Gibson Les Paul guitar and slammed out a string of classic rock licks, screaming string bends and all. The encore, The Band’s “Up On Cripple Creek,” brought things back down to earth. Vestal’s banjo rocked with more double-time rolls, the audience sang along on the choruses, and Bush’s fiddle ended the day’s music with the daddy of the Band’s song, the old breakdown “Cripple Creek.”