Each year, the International Bluegrass Music Association honors a festival with their prestigious Bluegrass Event of the Year award. Last year, the honor went to the Grey Fox Bluegrass Festival, held each July in a tiny town in upstate New York.
The lineup at this year's Grey Fox Bluegrass festival reads like a "who's who" of modern bluegrass. It included Grammy nominees The Greencards, David Grisman and Sarah Jarosz, heard there performing her nominated song "Mansineedof [Man's In Need Of]." In 2009, Sarah played her first main stage set at Grey Fox, and proved to be such a hit that she was invited back again this year.
Sam Bush was back, too. The multi-instrumentalist singer-songwriter-bandleader appeared at his first Grey Fox in several years.
"Glad to be back at Grey Fox. It's been a couple of years," he said. "Boy, the people are all out here. It's a hot steamy day. It rained just enough to almost settle the dust. But yes, it's great to be back."
When asked why Grey Fox is so special, Bush said, "For me, it's seeing a lot of old pals. And this audience reminds me somewhat of the audience that goes to the Telluride Bluegrass Festival, in that they're up for anything. That means weather-wise or musically speaking. And we feel welcome here, as do old time musicians, and straight bluegrass bands, progressive bluegrass bands, what have you. We all feel at home here."
Sam was only at Grey Fox one day, but it was a busy one. Not only did he close out the Saturday night show, Sam also presided over a standing-room-only workshop in the afternoon. The event was more like a master class, with Sam singing a few songs, teaching a few techniques and answering a lot of questions. Sam works hard to make his workshops a mix of fun and teaching because he remembers how important festival workshops were to his musical education.
"One time I was in a workshop on mandolin with Bill Monroe, Bobby Osborne, Jessie McReynolds, John Duffy and a young guy named David Grisman. They really are for learning and teaching, so I want to keep the accent on that," he said.
As an audience member, they are always super fun to watch, because you get to see performers doing things that you're not used to seeing them do.
"Oh, yeah," Bush agreed. "And I will take a chance. If someone wants to hear a tune that I haven't played for a long while, I'll try it. I don't know if I'm going to execute it properly. But really it is about technique, and explaining instruments, and talking about strings, equipment picks. Once again, I think back to when I was a kid, and how valuable that was to hear Bill Monroe tell me over the microphone what kind of strings he used. Maybe I want to try those. Maybe I don't want to try those."
But there's more to the Grey Fox Bluegrass Festival than sitting in front of a stage, watching performers. Perhaps more than any other style of music, bluegrass encourages fans to learn to play. Grey Fox offered several different ways to learn the music. In addition to the workshop stage, where the pros play and share tips, tricks and techniques, there is also The Bluegrass Academy for Kids, a three-day music school that ends with a main stage performance. 2010 marked the 10th edition of the camp, and the class size grows each year.
Although this was the third year that Grey Fox was held on the Walsh Farm in upstate New York, the festival's roots run much deeper. It was spawned from the Berkshire Bluegrass Festival of the 1970s, which then became Winterhawk through the 1980s and 1990s. But despite the name changes, one thing has stayed the same: For as long as anyone can remember, the Dry Branch Fire Squad, led by singer and mandolinist Ron Thomason, has been hosting the festival. Dry Branch was the first act to play on Thursday afternoon, and also closed the show on Sunday.
Plans for Grey Fox 2011 are already underway.