“He who does not expect, will not find out the unexpected.” Heraclitus
For the past 16 years, I’ve made a mid summer pilgrimage to the Catskills to attend the Grey Fox Bluegrass Festival. I enjoy bluegrass music. The heartfelt songs, the multi layer harmonies, and stringed instrumentals all appeal to me. It’s a music best experienced live. Going to the 4 day Grey Fox Festival is a great way to experience lots of this great music in a live format.
After so many years, I’m pretty comfortable with the overall festival. I know what to expect from the location, layout, camping, overall schedule, and performance stages. There are some perennial bands that perform each year and that I enjoy seeing. Also, the music has many famous standard songs that I enjoy hearing in live performances. And, if you play an instrument, the jamming opportunities are numerous. Assuming the weather behaves, it’s an overall great way to spend a long summer weekend.
Many go to the festival to see the headliners. Some go to perform and jam. Others just go to party with their friends. For me, in the past few years the draw has been seeking or stumbling upon the unexpected music gems. A performance that wows me, a new talented artist, or a new or an old song I’ve never heard. That’s my quest when I go to Grey Fox, What will I hear or see that is new and unexpected? The quest guides how I spend my time at the festival.
Each year, I’ve been rewarded in my quest. So, for this post I’ll share some the expected and unexpected things I experienced at Grey Fox this year.
- The Weather – mid July in the Catskills is usually hot and steamy. This year was no different. It was mostly sunny, in the high 80’s, and very humid. Sweating seemed like my main activity followed by drinking lots of water. It’s just the way it is at Grey Fox. If you go, be prepared to be hot, sweaty, and sticky. Luckily, the evenings cooled down, which helped make sleeping possible.
- Camping – The onsite camping area is a large 40-50 acre hayfield that transforms into a bluegrass city. It’s close quarter camping shoulder to shoulder with other bluegrass fans. The weather had been dry so the hay-field was firm to drive on. I camp in the Generatorville section which is for RVs who want to run generators. This year the gennys were going non stop to power all the AC units. There was a constant hum in the air from all the machines. I ran mine a few times to cool the RV down at night. My solar panels kept my batteries charged all weekend.
- My Friends – Over the years, I’ve got to know some of the other regular attendees. Some of these people have become good friends. Each year I seek them out to reconnect. I camped next to some friends from Vermont who we met a few years ago. I also got to see some of my dancing partners who also attend each year. It was nice to see all of these folks again.
- The Music – There are a couple of bands that I look forward to seeing each year. The Dry Branch Fire Squad has been the festival’s host band for 26 years. The band’s leader, MC, and lead singer, Ron Thomason, is a fine musician (mandolin, banjo, and guitar) and does a great job singing bluegrass and gospel harmonies. Their music mostly old-time bluegrass standards. I enjoy seeing them each year and listening to Ron’s folksy humor and commentary. Here’s a video of them singing Aragon Mill, which was recorded by bluegrass icon Hazel Dickens. Ron sings with a lonesome voice (much like Hazel) that suits this sad song.
- The other band I enjoy seeing each year is the Del McCoury Band. Del started his music career singing and playing guitar with Bill Monroe’s Blue Grass Boys. Still sporting a big full shock of white hair, Del is now a bluegrass music icon who can still sing the high lonesome harmonies.
His band, which includes sons Ron and Rob, is a very tight and professional group. Del has a great following and readily engages the crowd with his humor and comments. You can tell from seeing him perform that he’s still having a blast at age 77.
- Headliners – There were some good groups headlining the Main Stage. They included the Steep Canyon Rangers, Sara Watkins, Della Mae, The Gibson Brothers, The Steel Drivers, The Earls of Leicester, Sierra Hull, and Chris Thile and Bela Fleck. I had seen a few of these groups before and sat for few of the performances this year. They’re all very good, but I’m not a late night guy anymore. Here area few pictures I took during their daytime performances.
Most of the unexpected things were songs and performers – old songs that I had never heard, musicians giving a great performance, new performers singing new songs, and new performers singing old songs.
- Mike Compton – I had first heard of Mike from the “O Brother, Where Art Thou?” soundtrack which he played on. He’s considered a modern master of the bluegrass mandolin and someone I’ve wanted to see and hear. He’s a very natural player who plays like Bill Monroe. He was at the festival performing as a duo with Joe Newberry. Their repertoire is playing old-time bluegrass songs from the Monroe Brothers, Stanley Brothers, and the Carter Family. Bill Monroe wrote some bluesy mandolin instrumentals (Bluegrass Stomp, Rocky Road Blues, Travelin Blues). Mike and Joe did one of those songs that I had never heard – “Bluegrass Special”. A bluesy instrumental gem that Monroe wrote and recorded in 1946. Hearing Mike play it, made me take note that Bluegrass Special is a song that I should learn to play.
- The Earls of Leicester – An all-star group of musicians that reincarnates the music of Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs. Created and headed by master Dobro player Jerry Douglas, the Earls of Leicester play the music that The Foggy Mountain Boys (Flatt and Scruggs band) performed in the 1950’s and 60’s. The Earls play with a drive and passion that gets your blood pumping. The music may be old timey but it was all new to me. Their performances were a highlight of the festival. Here’s a video of them performing a song.
- Berklee College of Music Students & Alumni – There were 4 groups from Berklee that performed in a morning session at the small Creek Side stage. The groups were either students or alumni from Berklee. It was perfect for my quest to find the unexpected. I was rewarded with two of the groups. The trio Little While sang some beautiful ballads and harmonies. The group Damn Tall Buildings were outstanding. They sang mostly original songs. They were very tight, animated, and had a great driving sound. They were good enough to be on the Main Stage.
- Bluegrass Karaoke – On Saturday morning there is an hour of bluegrass karaoke on the Creek Side Stage. There’s a live backing band who can play anything you can sing. People sign up to sing or it can be impromptu. The session is like what Forrest Gump said about a box of chocolates – “you never know what you’re going to get”. This year there were some very good singers, but the person who stole the show was a 10-year-old little girl who sang and played the fiddle. She was a little pitchy when she sang but she boldly took lead breaks and played right along with the seasoned band members. She got the only standing ovation. In a few years, she’ll be on the Main Stage.
- The Grillbillies Parade – For the past few years, a group of bluegrass festival goers called the Grillbillies, have been putting on a parade at the festival. Each year there is a theme for the parade. This year the theme was Star Wars and the Grillbillies did another great job. It was hilarious. Here are some photos.
A few years ago, bluegrass mandolin master, Ricky Skaggs, told a story while performing at Grey Fox. The story was about a question that he once got asked. A person asked -“Ricky, why do you keep playing all these old songs?”. He answered – “They’re not old if you’ve never heard them yet.”. His words are so true.
The well of bluegrass music runs deep and is sill being filled with new music. That’s one of the reasons why I keep coming back to Grey Fox. To hear or see something new. It might be some songs from the 1940’s or some from 2013. It might be a music icon, a new band of young folks, or an upcoming 10 year old fiddler.
I had a another great time at Grey Fox and hope to return next year.