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Wet Grass

By Glenn Weiser

Grey Fox Bluegrass Festival

Dodd’s Farm, Oak Hill, July 17

 

Remember all those classic plot lines that you learned about in English class? You know, bluegrass versus man, bluegrass versus beast, bluegrass versus society? Last Saturday at the Grey Fox festival in Greene County, it was bluegrass versus the elements as festivalgoers endured temperatures in the ’90s, high humidity, rain showers, and a late-night thunderstorm that shortened headliner Sam Bush’s closing set. No matter, though—music this good was not to be missed.

When I got to the main stage shortly before 2 PM Saturday, the Dry Branch Fire Squad, the festival’s host band, were playing the last tune of their set, a tasty version of Sam Cooke’s “Bring It on Home to Me.” With the hot sun bearing down mercilessly, though, watching a performer in one of the tented side stages seemed a good bet.

Banjomeister Bill Keith was listed for a 2 PM workshop at the Grass Roots area, so I watched him give a lesson to a couple dozen attentive acolytes. After tuning up and playing 12 bars of some of the coolest blues I ever heard on the 5-string, Keith demonstrated how to find the melody of Carter Family chestnut “Wildwood Flower” on three different parts of the banjo neck. Even pickers from bands on the bill were there to watch and learn.

The next shady refuge was the Masters Stage, which featured the Professors of Bluegrass, led by the provost of Yale University, psychologist and upright bassist Peter Salovey. Although this distinguished scholar is perhaps better known for having pioneered the theory of emotional intelligence than for his musical pursuits, he nonetheless capably took his band, consisting of Yale faculty, students, and community members, through a list of bluegrass standards. As rain fell outside, Salovey drew laughter when he dedicated the Del Reeves song “I Ain’t Broke But I’m Badly Bent” to parents of kids in college, and fiddler Katie Sharp also delivered a smooth rendition of the old-time tune “Forked Deer.”

At 5:30, local heroes the Gibson Brothers took the main stage with songs favoring bluegrass’s traditional side. Guitarist Leigh Gibson’s baritone voice is well suited to country music, while brother Eric, on banjo, has a high, if not nasal tenor. They can harmonize seamlessly together, as they did on the old Salvation Army temperance tune “Beautiful Brown Eyes.” With mandolinist Joe Walsh, fiddler Clayton Campbell and bassist Mike Barber, the Gibson Brothers shined on the hoedown number “Sally Goodin” and Chris Robinson’s “Red Letter Day for the Blues.”

Introducing herself as “a recovering country-music star,” Kathy Mattea debuted at Grey Fox with a set championing the cause of coal miners. A granddaughter of miners on both sides of her family, Mattea began with a slow, pensive version Merle Travis’ “Dark as a Dungeon.” She sang in a rich, throaty alto and used vibrato, a rarity in bluegrass. Another standout was Johnny Cash’s “The L & N Don’t Stop Here Anymore,” which portrayed a small Appalachian town condemned to oblivion when the shutdown of the local coal mines led to the Louisville and Nashville railroad line abandoning its stop there.

With heat lightning flashing ominously behind the thunderheads on the dark horizon, Tim O’Brien of Hot Rize fame played a brilliant set of mostly original material from his new CD, Chicken and Egg. O’Brien, an accomplished multi-instrumentalist with a superb tenor voice and flawless singing technique, was the single most talented performer on Saturday’s bill. Joining the list of pickers who have set music to Woody Guthrie’s unpublished lyrics, he took the Dust Bowl balladeer’s “The Sun Jumped Up” and effectively used the melody of the old gospel number, “This Train,” with it.

Newgrass trailblazer Sam Bush closed the show, or rather a ferocious thunderstorm did. The only artist on Saturday schedule to use a drummer, Bush led off playing fiddle and nailing Bill Monroe’s classic “Uncle Pen” before switching to mandolin for Grandpa Jones’ “Eight More Miles to Louisville.” After a couple more songs, though, heavy rain and now lightning bolts had brung down the curtain on him, and the wet fans streamed out of the grounds.


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