Review by Richard Brody
Photographs by Andrzej Pilarczyk
Under a crystal clear blue sky in Oak Hill, the Grey Fox Bluegrass Festival began with a stellar line-up and a multitude of activities on five stages. I spent almost all of my time at the High Meadow Stage that could accommodate the largest crowd. The line-up there featured a variety of bands from bluegrass traditionalists the Del McCoury Band to the jammy Infamous Stringdusters to relative newcomers the Stray Birds.
The Stray Birds – Maya de Vitry, Oliver Craven and Charlie Muench – are known for their tight playing, clear lead vocals and strong harmonies. While Muench stayed with his stand-up bass, Craven played Dobro, guitar, mandolin and fiddle with de Vitry on guitar and fiddle. Stand-outs in the set were two songs – “The Bells” and the title song from their most recent album Best Medicine. The former was a cautionary tale dedicated to all the people working for equality and featuring de Vitry on lead vocals with fine three-part harmony on the chorus. “Best Medicine,” with lead vocals by de Vitry and nice soloing by Craven on Dobro, featured three-part harmony on a chorus proclaiming music as the best medicine. They also paid tribute to their influences with some fine yodeling from bass man Muench on Jimmie Rodgers’ “Blue Yodel #7″ and Townes Van Zandt’s “Loretta” with three-part harmony throughout and fine mandolin work by Craven.
Bluegrass godfather Bill Monroe helped launch many a musical career. Two of his former Bluegrass Boys – Peter Rowan and Del McCoury – brought their own bands to Grey Fox. Rowan paid his respects with a number of Monroe’s tunes, including “Uncle Pen,” “Brown County Breakdown” and “Christmas Time’s A-Comin’” with superb support from his band – bassist Sharon Gilchrist, banjoman Keith Little, fiddler Blaine Spouse and Chris Henry, whose mandolin playing provided many of the set’s musical highlights. Rowan might not have the same vocal fire-power that he once did, but he pulled out some stellar yodeling on “Blue Moon of Kentucky.” Called back for encores, Rowan introduced one his selections with some amusing stories about his former boss’ pension for running a very tight touring ship and then launched into “Keepin’ It Between the Lines (Old School).”