Grey Fox: A Bluegrass Festival Designed for Both Enjoyment and Learning

Written By: Amy Lieberman and Photos By: Tabitha Clancy

The Grey Fox Bluegrass Festival is a festival designed for music lovers and musicians alike. You may think you are coming to simply listen to and enjoy the best of the best bands in the bluegrass world, but Grey Fox is so, so much more. In addition to the indescribably breathtaking music that takes place on the High Meadow (Main) Stage, it is possible – and recommended – to learn some new musical techniques from experts in their fields on the Grass Roots Stage, listen to stories and some tunes from your favorite musicians in a more intimate setting on the Creekside Stage, pick up a new dance step or just boogie down at the Catskill Stage, and participate in directed slow jams in the appropriately named Slow Jam Tent.

The festival officially began on Thursday, July 17, but for those hardcore Grey Fox attendees, the gates opened early, on Wednesday at 7:00AM to be exact, so folks had time to set up camp either car-camping style, or a bit more ‘in the rough’ having to carry your stuff across a field to the High Meadow Camping area and park across the street in the Car Corral, which entitled you to a $20 parking fee refund, as well as entrance in a raffle to win a pair of tickets to next year’s festival. For those early to arrive, entertainment for the evening was provided on the Catskill Stage, with an open mic event, followed by the showing of the Bill Monroe documentary Powerful: Bill Monroe Remembered.

With fans eagerly awaiting the music to begin on Thursday, many had been camping there since the night before and had all that extra time to get psyched up, the day kicked off at 1:00PM with the official host band of the weekend, Dry Branch Fire Squad. The band has a true old-timey sound, and they make you feel as if you are sitting with them in their living room, with the set being highlighted by the intermittent ramblings and storytelling of band leader and ‘National Treasure’ Ron Thomason. Once Dry Branch Fire Squad had gotten things kicked off, the young Barefoot Movement impressed the crowd with their upbeat rhythms, their great job at taking turns leading the tunes, and their playful introductions of each other. They ended their set with a super fun cover of Blind Melon’s “No Rain”.

At 3:00PM on Thursday, the Creekside Stage opened with a raucous performance by the immensely talented Rushad Eggleston, who was actually a beneficiary of a Grey Fox Scholarship, which allowed him to attend the prestigious Berklee College of Music. He is truly a cellist from another universe. In fact, he has created a whole other world which he describes as “the land of Snee” from which forth comes ridiculously absurd lyrics, which Rushad sings while running and jumping around stage with a cello strapped over his shoulder. Just one of the gems that he shared with the crowd was actually a request of the hilarious song, “I Peed on a Bird” introduced at one of his late night sets on the Catskill Stage last year. During this song, the magic of Grey Fox truly became evident. Even though that song most likely didn’t make it into the mainstream music scene, and quite possibly didn’t leave the grounds of Grey Fox, every single person in that tent seemed to remember all of the bizarre lyrics of the chorus and were belting them out while laughing and enjoying sharing a special bond with the rest of the Grey Fox community.

The official first day of Grey Fox marched on, with performances by the 2012 International Bluegrass Music Association (IBMA) Emerging Artist of the Year Joe Mullins & The Radio Ramblers; the note-bending and beautifully harmonizing HillBenders; and the traditional yet at the same time contemporary Deadly Gentlemen, featuring a heavy percussive sound coming from a double bass. Next up was the more folky Aoife O’Donovan Band. Her voice sounded familiar, and it quickly became evident that she was the singer from Crooked Still, who have not played together since 2011. Well, wouldn’t you know it, since two other members of the band’s original line-up were present at the festival as well, she had banjoist Greg Liszt (currently playing with The Deadly Gentlemen) and otherworldly cellist Rushad Eggleston join her on stage for a mini Crooked Still reunion. The Steep Canyon Rangers, having gained fame in recent years from performing with Steve Martin, sure had a hard act to follow, but they managed to astound the crowd with their particularly haunting fiddle and banjo sounds, and incredible harmonies so on target that at one point, it sounded like there was a train whistle blowing.

After a sky that threatened to pour down upon us earlier in the day, the sky cleared up and the moon rose over Nickel Creek, the final band of the evening on the High Meadow Stage. It was hard to tell that the band had been on hiatus since 2007, as they still managed to forge the chemistry they had so many years ago, when they first formed their band back when they were just children. The addition of Mark Schatz on the bass to their line-up for this tour added a whole other amazing element to their already sweet sound. After playing one of their more popular instrumental tunes, “Ode to a Butterfly” mandolin player Chris Thile explained that it is much more difficult to come up with names for instrumental songs than it is for songs with a chorus, and perhaps as a way of apologizing for depriving us of Nickel Creek’s music for all these years, jokingly said that the band had taken so much time off because they had run out of titles for their instrumental tunes. Well, it sure was great to have them back together to see how much they have grown up, while still staying true to the band’s roots.

Grey Fox doesn’t mess around, the music on the second day got started at 11:00AM, and for those who got up even earlier, or for those who never even went to sleep, there were meditation classes at 9:15AM and yoga classes – accompanied by a live band – at 10:00AM at the Catskill Stage each morning. Mama Corn gave us all a run for our money first thing Friday morning, with their rousing renditions of “Catfish John” and Pink Floyd’s “Fearless” as well as their take on “Keep On the Sunny Side” which they ironically played in a minor key. Red Wine, a bluegrass band who flew here all the way from Italy, and who has been touring worldwide since 1978, was almost like the Jimmy Buffett of the bluegrass world, both in appearance and song styles, and even threw in a medley of Italian songs, which was a bit cheesy, but acceptable given the sweet Italian accents of all of the band members. On the opposite end of the spectrum geographically, Wood & Wire have their roots (well, at least their bass player does) right here in western New York. Hipster-like in style, this foursome played/sang around a single microphone, which is always enjoyable to watch and see how they manage, and they handled it with ease. The next band was aptly named Brothers Comatose; the chemistry and harmonies between the band members were so tight, there was no doubt there were brothers involved. Changing the tone drastically, Nora Jane Struthers and the Party Line were up next with a much more Americana-based set, perhaps the most so far in this genre all weekend. Struthers has a sweet voice, and is yet another example of some of the young talent out there these days. Once again going in a completely different direction, Gangstagrass showed us all a good time, demonstrating just how far you can push the bluegrass envelope, combining bluegrass and hip-hop; who would have thought it would work, but it was a whole lot of fun.

During ‘dinner break’ on the High Meadow Stage, Del, Ronnie, and Robbie McCoury were sharing family stories on the Creekside Stage, as well as offering tips about the ‘efficiency of motion’ employed by the McCourys, in that if you watch them closely, even though they are playing a thousand notes a minute, their hands barely move. It’s always lovely to listen to Del’s sing-songy voice telling us stories; he sure does have a lot of history to share, being that it is his 75th birthday this year, and he has been playing bluegrass music for the majority of his life, having gotten his big start with Bill Monroe & the Bluegrass Boys all the way back in 1963.

After getting some nourishment back at the campsite and putting on some extra layers before the cold set in for the evening – it got down into the 40s a couple of nights; it was time to head back to the High Meadow Stage for the fun times that were in store for Night 2 of Grey Fox, starting with The Steel Wheels. Jumping on the reunion bandwagon, the band invited a former member of the band to join them, adding a second fiddle to the mix, proving that you can never have too much fiddle. The sophisticated and polished Gibson Brothers graced us with their good-natured brotherly goading and their straight up 5-piece traditional bluegrass line-up.

Following the Gibson Brothers was the all-female band Della Mae, a band who truly got their start at Grey Fox. These young musicians have been coming to Grey Fox for years, but just recently as musicians themselves. In fact, bassist Shelby Means used to attend Grey Fox as a volunteer picking up trash! They seemed very appreciative of Grey Fox and all the doors it had opened for them, so much so that they even took the time to thank the “I-I-Iceman” crew; there is a fleet of trucks driving around the camping areas all weekend selling ice to campers in need of keeping their coolers chilled, by inviting them up on stage and singing Foreigner’s “You’re As Cold As Ice”.

Saturday evening’s headliner, Keller Williams and the Travelin’ McCourys set started with Keller Williams alone playing some of his signature fast/choppy guitar licks, and singing some silly tunes, including one about an ‘over-the-shoulder rocket launcher’ – that’s Keller for you, and then invited bassist Alan Bartram out to join him for a song about losing his remote control for three days, which forced him to write shallow lyrics since he couldn’t watch TV. Meanwhile, Bartram was cracking up this whole time. Fiddler Jason Carter came onto the stage next, and joined the other two for a cover of Waylon Jenning’s “Good Hearted Woman”. Keller felt a banjo was needed for this next song, so that was Robbie McCoury’s cue; he joined the others for a song about falling in love with a girl on the porta-potty line. By far the funniest introduction was Keller ‘welcoming’ mandolin player Ronnie McCoury onto the stage with Tom Petty’s “You Got Lucky” with Keller basically telling Ronnie to watch himself, and to better not get cocky and think he is better than Keller. The band truly did have fun up there on stage, and the audience could definitely tell. Performing some of Keller’s more famous tunes, including “Freaker By the Speaker” and “Mullet Cut” they threw in a couple of some not-so-obvious covers, ranging from Taylor Swift’s “Trouble” to their encore of Foster the People’s “Pumped Up Kicks”.

It was tough to end the evening on such a high and fast note, but that just gave folks the energy to keep their dancing feet moving onto the Catskill Stage, where the zydeco-style Revelers were playing into the wee hours on both Friday and Saturday nights. Mo’ Mojo were on the Catskill Stage on Thursday night. Even if you didn’t make it down there after the full day of music on the main and workshop stages, you could still enjoy them from your campsites, as their steady drum beats and washboard scratching really thumped through the ground, keeping the rhythm going whether you were aware of it or not.

The Saturday morning of Grey Fox always means one thing for me: bluegrass karaoke on the Creekside Stage. Audience members are encouraged to belt out some tunes, either ones they have written themselves or traditional songs, but the most unusual aspect of karaoke at Grey Fox is that you have a live band backing you up! My friend, who I’ve been coming to Grey Fox with for at least 10 years now, and I always make sure that we wake up early enough and have enough coffee in our systems to make it to this super fun and nerve-wracking event at 11:00AM, which isn’t always the easiest task to accomplish on Day 3 of Grey Fox, but we managed to work up the courage to sing Gillian Welch and David Rawlings “Red Clay Halo” joined by my boyfriend on guitar.

Following that intimidating experience, it was time to sit back, relax, and listen to the gems we were in for that day. Frank Solivan and Dirty Kitchen were a ton of fun, demonstrating that they had been paying attention around the campgrounds by dedicating a particularly trippy version of Tony Rice’s “Is That So” to the huge black Grey Fox balloon that was shaped more like a pig, that was flying around amongst the camping area. The Claire Lynch Band provided country music lovers with what they were craving, but there was a surprising amount of jamming mixed in, especially on their version of “Wabash Cannonball” a traditional square dance tune, which they managed to go off on an amazing tangent with, and almost caused the audience to forget what song they had started with, but managed to rope it right back in. The next band scheduled to play on the High Meadow Stage was Balsam Range, but they were running late, so we missed their set on the big stage, but Red Wine, the Italian bluegrass band, was more than willing to play a second set!

Taking a break during the heat of the afternoon, it was time to take advantage of one of the slow jam workshops, specifically the workshop for guitars and basses. Although the bassists got a little bit shafted, as we were far outnumbered by guitarists, it was still useful to spend an hour really delving into two songs, and jamming on them super slow. This allowed you to pick up on things that you might have once tried to figure out by listening to a recording, but weren’t really being able to get down because the musicians on the recording were playing too fast. The slow jam tent is a great place for beginners to feel comfortable playing in a judgement-free zone.

Rushing back up to the High Meadow Stage to try to catch the end of Jim Lauderdale’s set with Della Mae, it was interesting to see the mix of the old school and newer artists of the bluegrass world collaborating together so effectively. Some of the banter coming out of Lauderdale’s mouth seemed a bit inappropriate, but he ended on a gracious note. After once again getting spoiled with a ‘home’-cooked meal back at the campsite, it was time to hear Elephant Revival, another band playing to the more hipster crowd, mashing together a variety of musical genres from a band consisting of a mind-blowing collection of instruments, each band member knowing how to play several, with one of the female lead vocalists sounding a lot like Beth Orton. The incomparable team of Tim O’Brien and Darrell Scott came up to bat next, and they did not disappoint. Bringing us back to a more traditional style, it was simultaneously comforting and inspirational to know that so much sound can come out of just two instruments – although Tim was switching between the mandolin and fiddle throughout their set. After singing several traditional-sounding numbers, they switched to a more serious mood and sang “Turn Your Dirty Lights On” an original protest song about an environmental issue near and dear to Tim’s heart: mountaintop removal in West Virginia, where he was born. One of the song’s lines was “Coal is black, it ain’t never gonna be green,” which seemed to hit a nerve amongst the crowd. They followed that intense song with a much more upbeat one, “Dance, You Hippie, Dance” which helped lighten the mood and led to one of Tim’s signature flashlight shining sessions.

On this third day of Grey Fox, there were essentially two headliners, as if the Del McCoury Band wouldn’t have been enough, the Carolina Chocolate Drops were there to top off the evening. But first things first, the Del McCoury Band, Bluegrass Hall of Fame inductees, never fails to delight, and this performance was no different. Having three members who are part of the same family blessed with some very musical genes, you’ll never hear a tighter band. Plus the non-McCoury members of the band are nothing to shake a stick at, bassist Alan Bartram has mastered the difficult art of being able to sing a melody and play the rhythm section at the same time, while fiddler Jason Carter is an expert at pretty much every technique of playing the fiddle, having won three IBMA Fiddle Player of the Year trophies. They got to most of their more popular tunes including audience requests – you can tell that Del is truly listening to what the audience is asking for, as he does tend to get to most of their requests. Requests included, “All Aboard”, “High on the Mountain” and of course, “Vincent Black Lightning”. At a festival like Grey Fox, where you see just how far bluegrass music has cast its web and embraced other genres, it is refreshing, and appropriate, to have a true traditional bluegrass band hold such a prominent position in the line-up.

The esteemed final Saturday night-time slot on the High Meadow Stage was reserved for the Carolina Chocolate Drops, who have proved that the old-time music they have been researching and perfecting is still a sought after genre. Even though there were thousands of people on the concert field, everyone was so mesmerized by Rhiannon Giddens hauntingly striking vocals that at times, you could practically hear a pin drop. The audience was hanging on every word sang and note played, and rightfully so, because each song was a story in its own right. In fact, “Come Love Come” was a history lesson in itself, as it was based on slave narratives from the Civil War that Giddens had read and gained inspiration from to write this tune. The Carolina Chocolate Drops put together an ideal set, combining the perfect mix of original songs, including “Ruby Are You Mad At Your Man?”, which has been performed by the New York City Ballet; and “Cornbread and Butterbeans”, described as being a song about life, love, and food; storytelling between songs; a dancer who joined them on stage for a couple of tunes to do some clogging and the Charleston; guest appearances by Del McCoury, Della Mae, and Jim Lauderdale; and a few awesome covers, including Blu Cantrell’s R&B hit single “Hit ‘em Up Style”. Their stage presence is a force to be reckoned with, as they somehow made you feel like you were sitting in a circle around them in the swamplands of the South, just listening to some old-timey twangy strings and hand drums.

Once the music is over on the festival stages, don’t think that you are done for the night: one need only walk around the campgrounds and keep one’s ears open, and discover that some amazing music is taking place all around you. It is a wonderful thing to have a gathering of such talented musicians not only on the festival stages, but amongst the festival attendees as well. For those bold enough, it is definitely worth walking around the campgrounds with your instrument and join in one of the jams. Most people don’t bite, and many are welcoming of new players to jump in a take a solo.

The Sunday of Grey Fox is a short day, ending by 2:00, allowing everyone ample time to pack up and get home at a reasonable hour before having to delve back into the working world the next day, yet you can always count on three uplifting and inspiring elements to keep you going until next year’s Grey Fox rolls around. First of all, the Dry Branch Fire Squad’s Sunday Morning Gospel Show is not to be missed, as everyone needs their fix of Ron Thomason’s storytelling one last time before the end of the festival. Secondly, the instrument raffles are drawn, which always keeps everyone on their toes, because who wouldn’t want to go home with a well-crafted new instrument? Throughout the weekend, folks were encouraged to purchase raffle tickets for one of five stellar acoustic stringed instruments, including a Deering banjo and a Northfield mandolin, the proceeds of which go to a scholarship fund given to selected Berklee School of Music’s Summer Strings Program recipients. And last but certainly not least, the Bluegrass Academy for Kids gets to play a “graduation gig”. Over the course of the festival, a group of about 120 kids between the ages of 8 and 17 are given the opportunity to attend a free intensive four-day workshop on everything you need to know about perfecting your stringed instrument, singing harmonies, and performing collaboratively as a band. It is always quite a sight to see all those young talented children on the main stage, giving us the confidence that bluegrass music will continue to grow and thrive with this next generation of musicians.

As you pack up the last of your camp and make that final trip across the field, don’t be surprised if you get a tear in your eye as you say goodbye to your tent neighbor, someone who had been a complete stranger at the beginning of the festival but has now come to be a lifelong friend, knowing that you are going to have to wait 360 more days until the next Grey Fox. And just a warning to those of you who are thinking of coming to Grey Fox next year: be prepared to keep the third weekend of July free every year from now on, because once you start coming to Grey Fox, there’s no doubt that you will make it an annual tradition from this point forward. See you next year on the hill.

Below are some links to download recordings from this year’s and previous Grey Fox Bluegrass Festivals.

The Carolina Chocolate Drops, Keller Williams and the Travelin’ McCourys, Del McCoury Band, The Deadly Gentlemen