Banjos, banjos, banjos…
Everywhere you looked around the sprawling festival grounds, someone (or two or three) was playing the ole five-string. Up on the big main stage. Scattered around on the satellite workshop stages. At the vendors booths. In the campgrounds. In the parking lot. And pretty much anywhere else where there was room for a guy or a gal to stand to work their way through “Foggy Mountain Breakdown,” “Little Maggie” or “Blue Moon of Kentucky.”
And while respect was certainly paid to the music of such old bluegrass masters as Bill Monroe, Earl Scruggs and the Stanley Brothers, there was also enough of that wild-eyed newgrass sound going around that you never really knew for sure just what you might hear next.
Michigan-based Greensky Bluegrass, for example, fired up a couple of bluegrass standards, some like-minded original tunes and busted outside the box with bluegrass variations on Bob Dylan’s “When I Paint My Masterpiece” and – for their encore – a breakdown treatment of Talking Heads’ “Road to Nowhere.”
Thursday was the opening day of the four-day fest, but it felt as though the fest was already in full swing with plenty of music in the air everywhere you turned.
Out of Springfield, Missouri, the Hillbenders had a lot to live up to having won the Telluride Bluegrass Band competition last year and the National Single Microphone Championship in May. And live up to it they certainly did, tearing through a batch of excellent songs drawn from their brand new debut album, “Down to My Last Dollar,” with red-hot picking and an abundance of electric energy on stage.
Veteran Long Island mandolinist-singer Buddy Merriam was kicking it old-school as he and his band Back Roads celebrated their 30th anniversary with a wide-ranging set that stretched from fiery breakdowns to lilting waltzes.
The all-gal Boston quintet Della Mae kept the mid-afternoon crowd entranced with stellar vocal harmonies and hot picking, especially from Kimber Ludiker, who just happens to be the reigning National Fiddle Champion. You’d never have guessed that they just got together last year.
Della Mae’s banjo-player Grace Van’t Hof pulled double-duty, returning to the Masters Stage later in the evening to play with flatpicking phenom (and part-time Nippertown resident) Tony Watt and his band Southeast Expressway.
And speaking of Nippertown homegrown talent, Jim Gaudet and the Railroad Boys earned one of Thursday’s most enthusiastic responses from the fired-up crowd as the quartet showcased Gaudet’s witty folk-bluegrass gems, as well as a few other nuggets like Johnny Horton’s “The Battle of 1812” and the Flying Burrito Brothers’ “Sin City,” the latter as a duet with special guest MotherJudge.
For my money, the single most unforgettable highlight of the day was bluegrass vet Doyle Lawson leading several members of his band Quicksilver through a workshop-concert on the art of singing a cappella gospel-bluegrass quartet singing. Simply heavenly harmonies. Just four voices and not a banjo – or any other instrument – in sight.