We spent the weekend in upstate New York at the Grey Fox Bluegrass Festival, now in its 30th year. (This is the festival formerly known as Winterhawk.) The weather was reasonably cool, the music was great, and once we found a decent place to camp (at a commercial campground about 20 minutes away) we had a great time.
Grey Fox is a way of life for some people, who get there weeks early, set up very elaborate camps, and basically stay up for 24 hours watching music, picking* and partying. We had the best of both worlds -- we got to spend some great time in people's camps, playing and talking, but had a secluded peaceful spot to sleep at night.
*Bluegrass for "playing music"
|"See you on the hill!"
The festival is held on the Rothvoss farm in Ancramdale, NY. Henry Rothvoss, who died earlier this year, was a bluegrass lover who started the festival in 1976. The festival is held on the side of a steep hill, with the main stage at the bottom (or halfway down, more accurately, since it's about a 15-minute walk up the hill to the stage area from the lower parking area).
Camping can be rough if you're not prepared -- we got there late and our first site was on a 30-degree angle -- but some people come prepared. Very prepared. The first person in line to get in got there on June 20. The setups included two-story structures with porches, enormous tent setups where 20 people could sit around and play while others cooked dinner in the kitchen, and RV setups. Not to speak of a tepee.
|Dry Branch Fire Squad
Ron Thomason (on mandolin) and Dry Branch Fire Squad host Grey Fox and have played at every festival for the past 30 years. His goofy rambling between songs was hard to hear sometimes, but he was pretty funny, and he wrote a sweet appreciation of Henry Rothvoss in the program booklet: "We had some things in common. We were both farmers. he, in fact, was the kind of farmer I always wanted to become and never quite learned how. He had that "farmer's patience" which let him value a few minutes of focused conversation with another. It was easy to picture Henry in the middle of making hay, racing against a rainstorm and yet, at the approach of a friend, climbing down off his tractor to take the time to "shake and howdy" as if the sky would be sunny for days."
|Ricky Skaggs and Kentucky Thunder
Better known as a country singer, Skaggs is a hell of a bluegrass picker, and played a great show on Saturday night. People who'd seen him the previous year said that he digressed into contemporary Christian music, but thankfully he stuck to bluegrass, closing with a beautiful gospel tune.
The Kentucky Thunder banjo player is an award-winning musician with several records of his own.
This young Tennesse guitarist blazed away on stage with Skaggs, and was the talk of the tents afterwards.
|The Del McCoury Band
On stage Friday night. Some say they're too polished, but Steve Earle (who recorded the album The Mountain with them) calls them the greatest band in bluegrass.
|Ronnie and Del
The band features two of McCoury's sons, Ronnie on mandolin and Rob on banjo. Both are, of course, astonishing players.
Steve Earle went on about midnight on Saturday, closing the show on the main stage. Between his left-wing politics, and the fact that he's not really a bluegrass musician, a large number of people left before his set began, and many others sat stonily through his political talk.
|The Bluegrass Dukes
Earle plays his bluegrass shows not with his regular band The Dukes, but with these guys instead -- traditional bluegrass style with everyone gathered around a single mic. It's an all-star band: Grammy winner Tim O'Brien on mandolin, Darrell Scott on "everything with strings," Casey Driessen on fiddle and Dennis Crouch on bass.
|Moon Over Grey Fox
Actually, it's a peace symbol lit up in the trees, with Steve Earle (who said he asked for it to be re-lit) on stage below.