I’ve attended literally hundreds of festivals, and Grey Fox continues to be one of my favorites, with a perfect combination of music, ambiance, established stars and up-and-comers and super-friendly people. If heavy metal brings out the headbangers, bluegrass brings out the dancers and down-to-earth folks.
There was plenty to dance to. The great folklorist and archivist Alan Lomax called bluegrass “folk music in overdrive,” and that’s as good a description as any I’ve heard. With five stages and (nearly) a zillion jams lasting into the wee hours, Grey Fox may be geared toward the easygoing, but certainly not the lethargic fan. Traditionalist Del McCoury and “New Grass” innovator Sam Bush both had several thousand sleep-deprived bluegrassers in a collective state of perpetual motion throughout their sets, as did most acts, which included other superstars like Béla Fleck and Abigail Washburn, the Infamous Stringdusters and the Steep Canyon Rangers.
The Sam Bush Band had missed Grey Fox for a year or two, and both the band and the crowd delighted in his return. They played a mix of traditional and new songs like Flatt & Scruggs’ “Little Girl from Tennessee” and Bill Monroe’s “Roll On Buddy, Roll On” (which Bush often performs with Del McCoury) and Leon Russell’s “One More Love Song,” all with that Sam Bush energy. Bush not only plays the Hell out of that little mandolin, he’s got a longtime touring band that can actually keep up with him. Bush infused Jim & Jesse’s “(It’s a Long, Long Way) To the Top of the World” (the second line is “but it’s a short fall back down”) with a lot more drive than the original, and I loved it. That song segued perfectly into Bush’s own “How in the World Did We Get This Far?” (co-written with Jeff Black), which gave us all a glimpse into this artist’s mindset. Whatever introspective thoughts Bush harbors, believe me, this guy is still on an upward musical trajectory.
Having seen Billy Strings and Don Julin at the Folk Alliance Festival, I knew what great music I’d be missing, but since Strings played solo later, I decided to peruse the substantial vendors’ alley, where I found urinals made into instruments, instruments made into jewelry, wood flooring made into instrument-shaped cutting boards and wood chairs to suspend above your floors. Whimsical, useful or playable, there was something for everyone, and lots and lots of food to go with it, even though a high percentage of attendees were campers: camping was sold out. I ran into a couple who lives two doors away from me, and they camped, though the drive is barely 30 minutes. Lest anyone has the impression that this is a local festival, one of the raffle prizewinners hailed from New Zealand, and license plates included states from Florida to Maine.
Billy Strings had a pickup band, and if I hadn’t heard the guys’ discussion about what key and what tempo to play each song in, you’d have thought they’d played together for years. It didn’t hurt that Strings and banjo player Gabe Hirshfeld generate enough stellar licks between them for a quintet. Strings himself said, “I got myself some hired guns,” and Hirshfeld shot back “…and they’re packing heat!” That they were, people.
Speaking of heat, Hot Rize, with the fabulous Tim O’Brien, Pete Wernick, Nick Forster and newbie Bryan Sutton generated plenty of heat on their own, and earned a Special Merit Badge for playing their entire set in suits and ties on a very, very hot day. We fans should have fanned them, but we were too busy dancing.