The Gibson Brothers Band headlined Day 3 of the Strawberry Park Bluegrass Festival on June 4.
Strawberry Park's 34th Annual Bluegrass Festival - June 4, 2011
On a gorgeous June weekend at Strawberry Park Resort Campground in Preston, CT, some of the finest bluegrass musicians in the USA converged for the 34th Annual Bluegrass Festival and Folk Stage. Connecticut Concerts visited on Saturday, June 4, the third day of the four-day celebration of American acoustic stringed music to see and meet long-time festival favorites The Gibson Brothers along with the super-hot group The Grascals, international stars The Greencards, the traditional quartet Drybranch Fire Squad and legendary singer/songwriter Claire Lynch and her band, all at the amphitheatre nestled in the woods at the huge park. On the nearby Folk Music Stage, Tripping Lily, The Kennedys, David Mallett and Sally & Howie performed during the afternoon while we were in attendance. All of the bluegrass groups did a second set in the evening.
Leigh and Eric Gibson met with us after their set.
The Gibson Brothers returned to the Bluegrass Festival this year as headliners and they were warmly greeted by the big crowd in the outdoor arena. Eric and Leigh Gibson are among the biggest stars in bluegrass and regulars at this event eagerly anticipate their participation each year. They performed songs from their 10 studio albums including their latest, "Help My Brother." One of the best tunes from the album, "Talk To Me" features guest vocalist Claire Lynch, whose band opened the day, so she joined the brothers for that selection. They also performed "Walkin' West To Memphis" and "Happy On The Sunny Side Of Life," a song they recorded for the soundtrack of an upcoming film on the life of bluegrass legend Bill Monroe. Called back for an encore, Leigh wryly noted that concertgoers were shouting out the titles of so many requests "it sounds like you're mad at us!" They settled for "On The Open Road" to close the afternoon set.
The brothers met with us afterward and Leigh noted their popularity here has been "slow and steady, we've built relationships with people in the audience. I've never forgotten how festivals - and this one in particular - embraced us early on." Leigh reflected on he and his brother's poignant new recording and how it reflects their maturity not only as artists, but as men. "You're one part of a big picture. For me, it stopped being about just me. You tend to work toward a goal, but you need to take time to enjoy the steps in between" and focus on relationships with family and loved ones. "I've taken a deep breath and I'm starting to enjoy the place I'm in instead of just always trying to improve."
The Grascals are one of the most beloved and acclaimed bands in bluegrass today with a youthful lineup of talented pickers, great singers, a tightly crafted sound and a welcoming stage presence that makes new friends everywhere they go. It doesn't hurt to have plenty of Music City friends, either, and their touring and recording with Dolly Parton and connections to other Nashville legends like George Jones, Vince Gill and Tom T. Hall led to a star-studded lineup of guest stars on their latest album including Ms. Parton, Hall, Brad Paisley, Dierks Bentley and Charlie Daniels. They performed a number of their favorites including "I'm Gonna Change, " "Hard Times," "The Famous Lefty Flynn's," "She's Asleep In The Cold, Cold Ground" and their cover of Buck Owen's classic "Tiger By The Tail." They closed with "Where The Corn Don't Grow" (popularized by both Waylon Jennings and Travis Tritt) and "Hear That Lonesome Whistle."
The Grascals' Kristin Scott Benson and Jamie Johnson
The band met with us after the set and mandolin player Danny Roberts and guitarist/vocalist Jamie Johnson generously spent some time recalling the Grascals' roots. Roberts, who grew up on a farm in Leitchfield, Kentucky nearby Jimmy Mattingly (a founding member of the group along with Dave Talbot and current members Terry Eldridge and Terry Smith), founded the band New Tradition before joining the Grascals. The new band grew out of Eldridge and Smith's work at the Station Inn in Nashville in a group called The Sidemen. They decided to put together their own group - "it started out as a jam thing and we liked the way it sounded," Roberts said. Roberts and Terry Smith were invited on and Jeremy Abshire later joined in on fiddle.
Quickly, Dolly Parton "heard some stuff we were doin' and asked us to go out of the road and play backup for her and open for her," Johnson stated. That two-year experience with the country mega-star "was a real good opportunity for us." Johnson, who has a wonderfully magnetic charisma onstage, attributes much of that to working with Parton. "When we started out, we all stood there like bumps on a log. Dolly told us, 'talk to the audience like you're talking to just one person. Give 'em your heart and soul and they'll give it back." It's a lesson they've obviously learned well.
Three-time Banjo Player of the Year (2008 - 2010) Kristin Scott Benson is the newest member of the group. She was raised in a musical family and made her stage debut playing the mandolin at age five. "My heroes have always been bluegrass pickers," she told us. "My grandfather was a (professional) mandolin player and my father played, too. It was always around." She's performed with bluegrass greats like Larry Stephenson (seven years in his band), Larry Cordle, Josh Williams and Rhonda Vincent. Despite performing with some of the biggest stars in mainstream country, her biggest thrill was getting to pick alongside her personal favorite, banjo player JD Crowe, whose t-shirt she proudly wore onstage.
She good-naturedly tolerates some on-stage teasing from the guys as the Rascals tour relentlessly while riding the wave of their popularity. "They're awesome," she smiled. "It's like having five big brothers all the time."
The Claire Lynch Band opened the day and the two-time IBMA Female Vocalist of the Year (last year and in 1997 with the Front Porch String Band) treated the crowd to a fine set with a heart-melting voice that's been described by Dolly Parton as "one of the sweetest, purest and best lead voices in the music business today." Claire has toured with Dolly and recorded as a backup vocalist with Emmylou Harris, Linda Ronstadt, Pam Tillis and many others. As a songwriter, her work has been performed by Patty Loveless, Cherryholmes, Kathy Mattea and the Whites, just to name a few. Mary Chapin Carpenter has been quoted as saying Claire's original songs "display her gifts as a songwriter of uncommon skill ... one who feels deeply about home, family, strength, resilience and courage."
On stage, the stunning beauty with the incomparable voice captures you and won't let go. Her songs are little masterpieces, like "Kennesaw Line," based on an actual Civil War letter, that is haunting in its intimate beauty and aching emotion. She sang her beautiful "This Must Be Love" and "The Day That Lester Died," a song she wrote after hearing the news of the death of bluegrass legend Lester Flatt. She suddenly realized only after he was gone that "I had a heritage and an inheritance" from the music great.
The Claire Lynch Band: Jason Thomas, Claire Lynch, Mark Schatz and Matt Wingate
Claire and Mark
The trio behind her of Jason Thomas on fiddle, Mark Schatz on bass and Matt Wingate on mandolin is tight and talented. Schatz came to her rescue at one point when Lynch gulped water trying to cure a scratchy throat and had to walk off stage for a moment. Schatz took off on a solo venture, playing the "hambones" (slapping the legs and chest to keep a beat), dancing and singing and generally keeping the crowd in stitches. He led us in a sing-a-long of the Appalachian classic "Cindy" that was so boistereous and bawdy I could barely hold up my vocal end through my laughter.
This impromptu moment was maybe the most fun I had all day. Schatz, it turns out, is well-known as a Southern Appalachian clog dancer who works as Musical Director for the internationally-acclaimed Footworks Percussive Dance Ensemble. His solo effort was going so well that Ms. Lynch returned to the stage, smiled and went back off for a little longer since the crowd was enjoying it so much.
"We're happy to be in Connecticut where the people are intelligent, good-looking and the weather is picture-perfect!" Claire shouted out but I was thinking the same thing about her. "Here's a song that's been following me around since ... dirt," she joked, introducing her set-closer, "Wabash Cannonball," covered by many artists including Roy Acuff and Boxcar Willie. It was a splendidly-crafted musical journey that offered solos by everyone in the band and an interesting, jazzy departure for a verse before returning to the familiar rhythm at the end. The crowd demanded an encore and she obliged with "The Woods of Sipsey," a song inspired years ago when she was driving through Alabama to visit her late grandmother but seemed appropriate for the beautiful tree-filled park on this day, as well.
The Greencards' Carol Young, left photo, and Tyler Andal, Kym Warner and Carl Miner.
The Greencards, a band name that's a sly reference to group leaders Carol Young and Kym Warners being from Australia, was a powerfully eclectic addition to the Festival. Along with the two newer members of the group, fiddle player Tyler Andal and National Flatpicking Championship winner Carl Miner, The Greencards lend a unique perspective to this most American of musical forms. They've played venues as varied as the bluegrass MerleFest to Lollapalooza. Their set included "The Avenue" and the title track from their "Fascination" album plus "Make It Out West" and "Girl In The Telescope" from their newest release, "The Brick Album."
Young introduced "Roll On Buddy" with a story about seeing musician Tim O'Brien. "It was one of the most inspiring nights of music I ever saw. I had a few drinks and went home and wrote this song!"
After their set, Kym Warner talked to me about the latest album, "Brick," and the live-in-the-studio process they use to achieve it. "Rather than adding layers" to tracks, they prefer to record live and resort to doing a re-take rather than spoil the purity of the performed piece. Everyone has their own way of recording and "this is what works the best for us," Warner said. "I'm really happy with it."
Though The Greencards hail from Down Under, "we've lived in Nashville the last six years," Young said. They've enjoyed touring with the likes of Bob Dylan, Willie Nelson and Roseanne Cash, which "was amazing!" she said. Their wide appeal has them scheduled to perform at not just bluegrass and country events but at world music and folk music festivals as well.
The Dry Branch Fire Squad
The Dry Branch Fire Squad offered a more traditional bluegrass sound. Guitarist Brian Aldrige, Tom Boyd on banjo and dobro, Dan Russell on bass and Ron Thomason on mandolin have been around for over 30 years so they had plenty of material to choose from. Aldridge is comical onstage as he introduces the songs and interacts with the others but was wary as a reporter approached after their set. Bass player Russell, who started playing way back in 1976 on the banjo and also plays pedal steel, was a little more talkative.
"We always love coming here," he said. "This is a big part of it, enjoying what we do."
The Dry Branch Fire Squad: Tom Boyd, Brian Aldridge, Dan Russell and Ron Thomason
Maura and Pete Kennedy played in the Folk Tent.
The Kennedys, married couple Pete and Maura, played an enjoyable set at the Folk Tent, just far enough away from the main pavillion to be out of earshot but had its own gathering throughout the day. Maura's vocals and rhythm guitar work with Pete's guitar work plus mandolin and other instruments make for a musical partnership that's as strong and exciting as their personal pairing. Married since 1994, they met in 1992 and "immediately connected on a musical level," Maura told me after their set. I asked about the funny story that their first date was to Buddy Holly's grave. She smiled and said "we were talking about Buddy Holly and writing songs together. Pete was on the road in Colorado and by the time we wanted to go out on a date, we were 1000 miles apart. So we met in the middle, in Lubbock, Texas," where they visited the singer's grave site.
The busy duo tours extensively (some 1500 gigs in the past 12 years), records, conducts monthly guitar workshops and play their favorite music on their "Dharma Cafe" show on SIRIUS Satellite Radio's channel 70. "We've been going back and forth to Nashville, writing and recording with (country-folk singer/songwriter) Nanci Griffith," Maura told me. "Pete's co-producing and I'm writing." They've been associated with her for a long time; Pete was her lead guitarist as far back as 1992 and Maura has worked as a harmony singer with Griffith, as well.
"We record in our own house," she added, "so we've moved it (the studio) down to her house. We're touring with her, too," she added, performing with Griffith and working as her opening act. "It's good for us and it's a lot of fun. We've old friends with her."
David Mallett and Michael Burd
Folk singer / songwriter David Mallett of Maine performed on the Folk Stage along with bass player Michael Burd, a fellow Down Easterner ("from a town called Industry," he told me, "a place where there isn't any!" he joked). Burd has worked with the singer since 1981. Mallett, whose songs have been recorded by Pete Seeger, John Denver, Allison Kraus, Emmylou Harris and many others. He's best known for "Garden Song," popularized by John Denver and Arlo Guthrie.
Sally and Howie
Connecticut's own Sally Rogers and Howie Bursen performed on the Folk Stage. Sally has performed on radio's "Prarie Home Companion."
David Nowakowski, manager of Strawberry Park, was delighted with the turnout for this year's Festival. "The weather's perfect. We're happy with the bands and with the crowds. I'm taking reservations already for next year." Strawberry Park has done an outstanding job of bringing in a great variety of reknowned bluegrass and folk musicians every year. And they're happy to be invited back. "Some of them don't get up this way too often," he noted. "There's always a mix of new faces and some familiar ones who've been here since the start of the Festival."