The Grey Fox Bluegrass festival in Greene County drew a capacity crowd of 5,000on Saturday, and for good reason. No doubt, mild temperatures in the upper 70s helped the daytime attendance, but all 4,000 weekend-long camping spots had been sold out. What drew the faithful and keeps them coming back is simply the best bill of bluegrass in this corner of the country.
At the noon guitar workshop at the Grassroots Stage, Courtney Hartman of Della Mae, Tony Wyatt and Sam Standler flatpicked tunes and took questions from the audience. First Wyatt played the fiddle tune “The Temperance Reel,” and the others improvised melodic variations on the chord line in the manner of jazz musicians. The trio followed that with “Angeline the Baker,” an old-time breakdown that grew out of Stephen Foster’s song “Angelina Baker,” and again the imaginative permutations rolled out. Salient points of the ensuing discussion were Wyatt’s explanation of how great players sustain their notes (this is known as legato technique), Hartman’s approach of singing, then playing a phrase, and the importance of playing with people who are musically better than you, on which they all agreed.
Back at the main stage at 3:15, Red Wine, a band from Italy, filled in for Balsam Ridge, who were unable to make their set. The Italians opened with Gillian Welch’s “Wichita,” and the perfect pronunciation and inflection of their singing was amazing. The boys could pick, too. In the next tune, “Cherokee Shuffle,” Martino Coppo’s mandolin was fleet and fluid, and guitarist Marco Ferretti’s flatpicking was equally dexterous. They also delivered some Italian specialties: “That’s Amore,” and a medley of folk melodies with the Brazilian choro tune “Tico Tico” thrown in.
At 4, country singer and songwriter Jim Lauderdale, backed by the all-woman quintet Della Mae and joined by banjoist and pedal steel player Charlie Rose, took the stage and performed Lauderdale’s originals. Wearing a purple, yin-yang spangled western-style suit, Lauderdale opened with the churchy “I Feel Like Singing Today,” co-written with Ralph Stanley, and to which Rose contributed a fine banjo solo. Courtney Hartman added sensitive guitar work to “Lost in the Lonesome Pine,” and although her playing lacked rhythmic drive, she artfully avoided the usual clichés and never missed a note. On “I Wish You Would Tell Me What I Mean,” a look at love miscommunicated, I was struck by the sight of mandolinist Jenni Lyn Gardner’s hot pink-painted fingernails as they traced supple bluegrass licks on the fretboard.
The duo of Tim O’Brien and Darrell Scott came on at 8 PM, and O’Brien fiddled a lyrical version of a Gaither Carlton tune, “Peartree.” He then switched to mandolin for John Hartford’s “Gentle on My Mind, during which Scott took an impressive solo using his characteristic approach of melodic power-strumming as opposed to the single-note flatpicking typical of bluegrass guitar. Scott also sang a gritty lead vocal on “Keep Your Dirty Lights On,” a trenchant indictment of the coal industry.
Next up was the evening’s highlight, the Del McCoury Band. McCoury, 75 and still going strong, won a Grammy last year for his CD The Streets of Baltimore, and the band, which includes his sons Ronnie and Robbie on mandolin and banjo respectively, was in top-form. They started with “Bluest Man in Town,” a spurned lover’s lament, and Del’s nasal high tenor soared on the verses. Robbie picked a Scruggs-style version of the 1922 Tin Pan Alley tune “Limehouse Blues” on the banjo, and Ronnie and Jason Carter took stellar solos on mandolin and fiddle. They followed with “Cotton Eyed Joe,” one of those old-time fiddle tunes you can hear a hundred times without ever remembering quite how it goes. The Lovin’ Spoonful’s “Nashville Cats,” a tribute to the multitude of great guitarists thronging the Music City, was also a delight.
The Carolina Chocolate Drops, a group of African-Americans who started out playing the music of the old black string bands, closed the night. Their leader, Rhiannon Giddens, is an operatically trained singer, and such vocalists rarely can sound like authentic folk artists—they are just too polished. Nevertheless, the quartet performed a marvelous and varied set, including the fiddle tune “Sandy Boys,” the Fats Waller song “Sweet Sue,” Hank Williams’ “Don’t Let Me Love You,” and the old prison song “Water Boy.” If the lovely Ms. Giddens, with all her talent, ever turned her hand to jazz (she is exploring it) she would be a diva extraordinaire.