Friday, August 31, 2007

New MerleFest web site drops discussion board

From Ted Lehman

"I dropped by the Merlefest site (www.merlefest.org)last evening to take a look at their forum, which I try to follow and contribute to, and found a template for a new site to go live on August 31st. This struck me as a good idea, since they've had basically the same site for several years. No links on it are currently alive, but something did catch my attention.

It appears, from the template, that they have decided to eliminate their Merlefest Forum, a place where about 2500 Merlefest fans have had a chance to exchange information, sell tickets they have purchased but find they cannot use, make recommendations for performers they'd like to see, and complain about Merlefest policies.

Recently, there has been a thread running called "Sad News" which explored the removal and resignations of a pretty good number of Merlefest staff members and speculated on what this might mean for the future of this premier festival. Is it possible that the new management of Merlefest has such a thin skin and is so concerned about controversy that they have eliminated this very important internal communications device? At present the question is up in the air awaiting the debut of this new web site, but if you are a Merlefest adherent, you should keep an eye on this.

Wednesday, August 29, 2007

The Nightwatchman press conference at Newport Folk

Of all the performers at Newport Folk Festival this year, none represented the genre's ties to activism and social justice more than The Nightwatchman, the folk-singing alter-ego of rock guitarist Tom Morello. Following his performance, Morello met with reporters backstage to talk about channeling Woody Guthrie, political expression by artists, the contrast of solo work to his role in Rage Against the Machine, and much more.

Friday, August 24, 2007

Joshua Tree sinks deeper roots

The already appealing lineup at the Joshua Tree Roots Music Festival, Oct. 20-21 in Joshua Tree CA, just got tastier with the addition of Martha Scanlan and Reverend Peyton's Big Damn Band. The lineup also features Hot Buttered Rum, The Avett Brothers, Uncle Earl, The Greencards, Dan Bern, Jake Shimabukuro, South Austin Jug Band and Carolina Chocolate Drops.

This is just the second time out for a festival that bills its as a rootsicana newgrassy folkadelic high-desert camping experience.

Monday, August 20, 2007

Deluge washes out Wisconsin festival

By Dancin' Dave

Jack Lawrence and I have been friends for probably at least 20 years now and unfortunately we don't see each other these days as much as we used to. So, I was very excited when I saw that he was booked for Larryfest, a small bluegrass festival in southwestern Wisconsin this past weekend. We made plans to finally have a good visit while drinking some tasty Leinies and doin' some catchin' up. Plus, the fact that Jack is one of my favorite musicians doesn't hurt, either...>g<

Other bands booked for Laryfest included the Wilders, Special Consensus, Mountain Heart, Druha Trava and a few other lesser known bands.

So, the plan was to visit daughter Erica and my newborn granddaughter Regan on Friday night/Saturday morning and then head over to the festival around noon on Saturday.

I awoke Saturday morning to rain, but it wasn't that much of a concern...until I heard a forecast that predicted a day-long rain. This forecast was one of mixed feelings, for Wisconsin really needed the rain. It kept raining throughout the morning, so we kept putting off driving over to the festival. Finally, we decided to head on over, arriving just on time for Jack's set at 4:30, with the thought that we'd be able to visit after he was done.

We arrived at around 4:00 and the rain had continued. We were directed to a parking lot, with the advice that we find a high and dry spot! (sure....) Even though I had the truck in 4 wheel drive I couldn't even get into the parking lot through the mud, and actually almost slid into a culvert/ditch. It was obvious that the whole situation was not good and I could see that anybody even thinking of leaving was not goin' anywhere without some heavy duty towing with heavy duty machinery. So with heavy hearts Lynn and I headed away from the festival, headed to Madison to visit newborn granddaughter #2 and my other two daughters. And the rain kept comin' harder and harder and harder....it was even scary driving on the Beltline around Madison.

The next morning Erica called and told us the horrific news: the area received between 10 and 12 inches of rain, roads and bridges were washd out and major highways were closed! And...she was sooo happy that we didn't stay at the festival!
Bottom line: the entire area is a disaster area, with whole towns evacuated and many roads and bridges gone. I emailed Jack and then called him, thankful to find that he was home safe in North Carolina....he got out of the area just in time, also.
But we're all worried about all the folks stranded and especially those festivarians who had to be trapped at the venue....and thinking positively that everyone is alright!

If anyone was there and has read this I hope that you can let me and other concerned folks that you are safe, sound and in a dry place by now!

Thursday, August 16, 2007

Pickin' in the Pasture, Lodi, NY - Preview

Pickin’ in the Pasture will open its gates at noon on Wednesday, August 22 for campers getting ready for this really enjoyable rural festival above the shores of Seneca Lake in the Finger Lakes Region of central New York. Lodi, New York is a tiny farm town. There are few services and almost no accommodations nearby, so this festival is largely a resident experience for campers who come from throughout the region for four days of great bluegrass performance and high quality, enthusiastic field picking. In the case of this festival, the word “field” should be taken literally. Day trippers come from nearby Rochester, Ithaca, and Syracuse. Promoters Andy and Susan Alexander, along with their son Jesse, operate a sheep farm. Until several days before the festival begins, its grounds are several large sheep pastures. For the festival, the grass is cut and the sweet aroma of mown hay permeates the area. Much of the camping space, particularly closer to the main stage, is not quite level, so first time attendees should bring plenty of material for leveling their rigs. Perched on the side of a hill, the view reaches out across the beautiful Seneca Lake and rural New York. People thinking of New York as paved over have quite a surprise in store for them.

While we won’t be at Pickin’ in the Pasture this year because of a conflict, this is a very well run festival with a strong lineup and plenty more to recommend it. The vendors offer good food as well as fair food. An unusual vendor for a bluegrass festival is a booth selling lamb in several different forms. The Alexanders always offer a strong range of workshops and vendors as well. Local Amish farmers sell fresh produce and baked goods on Thursday through Saturday. Fresh water and ice are available. The chicken barbecue benefits the local fire department. Another interesting event usually held on Saturday morning, features Andy and his Border collie moving 600 sheep from one paddock to another. The skill of the dog and the interplay between master and his canine assistant are fascinating to watch.

All other attractions aside, this festival stands out because it has a good lineup and lots of Pickin. The Lonesome River Band headlines this year’s festival with their appearance on Thursday, offering as strong a kick-off as any festival could wish for. Despite recent changes in personnel, the current band, which we saw twice in Florida last winter, is as strong as anyone could ask for. The return of Brandon Rickman singing lead and playing a hot guitar and the addition of Matt Leadbetter on Dobro gives this band real depth to complement Sammy Shelor’s magnificent banjo work. Andy Ball on mandolin and tenor vocals adds still more depth.

David Davis and the Warrior River Band come to Lodi from Alabama. Their music is very finely honed traditional bluegrass. Davis is a fine Monroe style mandolin player and is ably supported by a very good band. They are only rarely seen at northern bluegrass festivals, so it’s a treat to be able to hear them here. The Steep Canyon Rangers return to Pickin’ in the Pasture after a year highlighted by their being selected as IBMA Emerging Artist of the Year for 2006. This band, which came together as students at the University of North Carolina, presents a selection of their own work in traditional style. Graham Sharpe’s “Just Like Dale” is a talkin’ song that will please any NASCAR fan. Their song “Lovin’ Pretty Women” is the title song of their new CD. Their high energy presentation and first rate musicianship make them a hit at many festivals.

Jesse McReynolds and the Virginia Boys offer an opportunity to see one of the great first generation players whose contributions to mandolin style have complemented the early work of Bill Monroe and added greatly to bluegrass mandolin style. For many years he toured with his late Brother Jim, and well into his seventies, Jesse is still creative on the mandolin and retains a strong voice. Smokey Greene, also well into his seventies, is a fixture at bluegrass festivals in the northeast and in Florida. It would be uncharitable to call his a solo act as his guitar “Ben A. Martin” is very much in evidence. Smokey has written hundred of songs and offers from his own work as well as classic country, folk, and bluegrass selections. The Lewis Family Band has been touring for over fifty years offering their unique form of gospel bluegrass and broad comedy. Little Roy Lewis does not receive sufficient recognition as a great banjo player because of his commitment to gospel and his clowning despite the fact that he’s one of the banjo greats. He performs with his three sisters and nephew Lewis. Sister Polly has been quite ill recently.

Rounding out the touring bands appearing at Pickin’ in the Pasture are Goldwing Express and The Abrams Brothers. These are both family bands, but quite different. Goldwing Express appears regularly in Branson, MO and tours relatively infrequently. The three sons bill themselves as the Indian (Cherokee) sons of a full blooded mother and their blonde, white father. Their act contains a good deal of humor based their ancestry and the supposed dumbness of their dad. Many audiences enjoy both their comedy and their music. The Abrams Brothers, John (16) and James (14) are primarily a gospel band from Ontario, Canada, supported by their father, grandfather, and a cousin as well as a non-family banjo player. They are a developing band who have made an appearance at the Grand Ol’ Opry and whose schedule shows ambitions to become an international band.

Local bands are also an important feature of this festival. The host band is Seneca County Bluegrass, which is led by hosts Andy and Susan Alexander and will perform on the first three days. Their son Jesse will appear on Saturday. The Cabin Fever Band, based in Norwich, NY plays traditional bluegrass and their mandolin player and lead singer was also a member of Smokey Greene’s band for many years. Mike Tirella leads this quality band with humor and energy. James Reams and the Barnstormers appear on Sunday. They’re a traditional bluegrass band. Finally, Danny Paisley and the Southern Grass is a regional band on their way to attaining the national reputation they deserve. Several years ago, on the death of his father Bob, Danny Paisley stepped to the front of this excellent band. They play traditional, hard driving bluegrass with skill, speed, and respect for the traditions of the music. This is another first rate band.

Pickin’ in the Pasture runs from August 23-26 in Lodi, NY. Tickets may be ordered from their web site or obtained at the gate.

Wednesday, August 15, 2007

Tim O'Brien Takes a Plunge

With Fall Strawberry around the corner, this is a good time to catch up with some of the video we produced from the Spring festival in May. This three-minute video documents what has become a tradition at Sunday morning Revival concerts when Tim O'Brien is on hand. After his set, he strips down and dives into Birch Lake, leading hordes of fans in a sort of ritual baptism Strawberry-style.

We have another video from Spring that we hope to get up soon, and we will also be video blogging at the Fall festival. Stay tuned.

Monday, August 13, 2007

Lake Champlain Bluegrass Festival - Review

On a sunny Saturday morning we drove north through the Adirondack high peaks and emerged onto the flats of Lake Champlain heading up I-87 to the very edge of New York. A few hundred yards short of the border we turned right and crossed the bridge into Vermont. Soon we saw a mass of huddled RVs in the midst of a large field. We drove in, exchanged our tickets for wrist bands and were carried on a golf cart to the stage area where we set up our chairs and looked around. This sort of service, the golf carts, is typical of the attention to detail and friendly environment of this sixth edition of the Lake Champlain Bluegrass Festival. Because of a dog sitting responsibility, we had missed the great Rhonda Vincent’s performance the night before, but other than missing her, the Saturday lineup offered two great headliners and almost all the other regional and local bands appearing.

This festival, while it takes place in the middle of a field with no appreciable shade, is well laid out, roomy, and people friendly. Promoter Steve Palmer, with the able assistance of Rich Kendall as well as a personable and enthusiastic staff of volunteers has continued to learn as the festival progresses. He will continue to grow as he follows his own advice to listen and respond to the wants and needs of his audience. The grounds are laid out to permit plenty of room for people to select seating while leaving room at the rear for those requiring shade to set up their own shade tents. The RVs for a U shaped corral allowing early arrivers to set up beside or in front of their rigs and watch or listen from a distance. A shade tent for seniors is provided. The Alburgh Fire Department provides food, including chicken barbecue, hot dogs, burgers, and so-on. They also cook breakfast. Other food venders offer ice cream, fancy coffee, and cotton candy. I missed having my fried dough (Once a festival, whether I need it or not!) but didn’t miss the smell of hot grease. All told, the grounds were well managed, roomy, and attractive.

I’ve written quite a bit recently about the strength of local and regional bands. This festival, in addition to headlining The Gibson Brothers, who once were a local band, offered a whole afternoon and early evening of local and regional talent before bringing on The Gibsons and Doyle Lawson & Quicksilver for four back-to-back sets ending at midnight. I generally prefer seeing the headliners first in the late afternoon and then having them come back for a set at night, but Steve Palmer was persuasive in saying that the excitement and immediacy of night-time performances as well as the opportunity for more people to show up trump balancing the schedule.

When we arrived the fiddle contest was in progress. The senior division was won by Harry Ralph, Jr. who also played fiddle for The Cabin Fever Band. The fiddle contest was interesting due to the various categories offered and the range of skills. The banjo contest was won by Fred Warner. Bob Degree and the Bluegrass Storm with a solid set. Degree has a good voice and his mandolin player both sings and plays well. Adam Dewey and Crazy Creek followed. Dewey is a solid Monroe style mandolin player with a good voice. He is complemented by Rich Stillman on banjo, a fixture in the New England bluegrass scene. Rich, who played with two bands, participated in two workshops, and stopped to talk about his Kell-Kroyden banjo with anyone who showed an interest, was a constant whirlwind at Arlburg. Adding to the high quality of this band is the very fine fiddle work of young (21) Luke Price who comes from Salt Lake City and is a student at Berklee School of Music in Boston. Joe Singleton on guitar adds a fine tenor voice and strong rhythm guitar (Look for his wife’s photos on flickr where she posts from bluegrass festivals as well as putting up her own art photos.)

Southern Rail followed with their customary mix of southern bluegrass, gospel, and folk influenced work. Jim Muller and his wife Sharon Horovitz provide most of the vocal strength, although all four members sing. Bob Sachs on mandolin and vocals arrives for this Boston-based band’s shows from his home in Charleston, SC. Rich Stillman is a welcome addition with his crisp and technical banjo work. This is a fine band which has deep roots in southern bluegrass while having a New England cast to its work. The Mad Mountain Scramblers were not my favorite band at Lake Champlain, but they did a creditable job on several Peter Rowan covers. The Cabin Fever Band (careful here, there’s also a Bay area band of the same name.) is a is a lively group from central New York, which features traditional bluegrass. Leader Mike Tirella is happily recovering from a heart attack and playing lead guitar. Brian Jiguerre, remembered by many for his years with Smokey Greene sings wonderfully and Harry Ralph, Jr has quite a career ahead of him as a fiddler if he goes for it. James Reams & the Barnstormers followed with a strong set as well as doing a jamming workshop. Yonderhill, from Montreal, impressed with their harmonies as well as the unusual clawhammer banjo work of Teri Joe Rodriguez. While all this sounds like a long afternoon of little known bands, it stands as testimony to the depth of quality music available to New Englanders from their home grown product. Lots of good stuff!

Doyle Lawson’s band Quicksilver is very much in transition these days. Joey Cox has been them for about five weeks on banjo after stints with Blueridge and the Kenny and Amanda Smith band. Alan Johnson, a fine fiddler joined the band back in April after the breakup of Blueridge. His excellent fiddling and resonant bass voice has been well integrated into the band since we last saw them at Merlefest in late April. Carl White on bass will be picking up some of the humor role being lost by the Jamie Dailey’s leaving to form his own band. Because of Lawson’s well-known exacting standards, the band will continue to offer the high quality of performance fans expect. One member of the band said to me, “Four years with Doyle is like getting a Ph.D. in bluegrass and gospel music.” Darren Beachley has moved from bass to rhythm guitar where he provides extremely solid work and a strong voice. The trio remained very tight as Jamie moved to the rear, befitting his eminent exit, during their second set. When Johnson adds his bass voice to the gospel quartet, chills run down your spine.


The Gibson Brothers added two more sets to their record of lighting up bluegrass festivals in New England and New York. Fortunately, the past two or three years have seen their audience widen as they’ve appeared at Winterfest in Yakima, the festival in Argyle, TX and High Mountain Hay Fever in Colorado within the past year. This winter they will be seen at YeeHaw Junction and Palatka in Florida. Their increasing national profile has been helped by lots of satellite radio play, interviews on XM radio, and three number one albums. Not a bad record for a pair of brothers hailing from just south of the Canadian border. In addition to performing two sets, Eric Gibson did a banjo workshop as well as working with brother Leigh to do a song-writing workshop. All this in addition to graciously meeting the hundreds of fans who came to Alburg for their performances is part of what makes them so popular. Beyond their personalities, their musical excellence and distinctive sound always work in their favor. Rick Hayes, playing his own design mandolin contributed his usual solid mandolin play as well as his patented smile, which somehow makes others smile, too. Mike Barber, as always, was strong on the mandolin. This Saturday I particularly was aware of the wonderful contribution Clayton Campbell makes on fiddle, his soaring breaks and strong backup contribute mightily to this rising band. Clayton is also a long-time performer with the Kentucky Opry, where he has performed since he was seven years old. This is a band not to be missed if they perform in your area.

We arrived home tired and happy at about 2:00 AM. I had originally not thought I wanted to go to this festival, but it turns out to have been more than worthwhile, and we’ll surely be there next year.

Dancer

Mike Tirella of Cabin Fever


Luke Price of Crazy Creek


Saturday, August 11, 2007

Bluegrass prodigy Sierra Hull debuts at Newport

For me, one of the exciting acts at Newport Folk was the debut appearance of Sierra Hull and HIghway 111. A 15-year-old mandolin and vocals bluegrass prodigy, Hull has been getting rave notices in festival appearances around the country, including at MerleFest this year.

I've been so impressed with some of the other youth bluegrass talent out there including The Lovell Sisters from Georgia and Sarah Jarosz from Austin. This would be my first chance to see another teen sensation that people are buzzing about.

It turns out that Hull is very much in the mold of Alison Krauss, who was not only heading the bill here this year but has a long history at Newport, going back to her own debut at age 14. You never know how careers develop, but I wouldn't be surprised to see Sierra Hull headlining festivals 10 and 20 years from now.

[Photo: Sierra Hull at Newport's Waterside Stage]

Hull played with a tight band of young bluegrass pickers, including her brother Cody on guitar and high tenor harmonies. Beyond her obvious musical gifts, what impressed me about young Ms. Hull was her stage presence and band arrangements. She has more than raw talent but has begun to package herself for future stardom.

She performed a mix of originals and covers that displayed a knowledge and respect for traditional bluegrass. In a few cases, her versions of songs about lost love and other mature themes seemed slightly out of place coming from so young an artist.

I got a chance to chat with her after her set. She seemed down to earth and not at all full of herself. She still goes to the public high school in her small home town of Birdstown TN. She gives much of the credit for her success to her father, who got her started, and Alison Krauss, who has taken her under her wing.

She is especially excited about her forthcoming new album, produced by Ron Block of Alison Krauss's band and including contributions from most of the members of Union Station, the progressive bluegrass band Mountain Heart, and other musical greats such as Tony Rice.

The record is due in January. Look for it to make an impact in the bluegrass world, and expect to see more of Hull on major stages next year.

Tradition gets an update at Newport Folk Festival

Although this was my first time attending the Newport Folk Festival, much of my musical identity was shaped by what happened there in the 1960s--Mississippi John Hurt, Doc Watson, broadside singers like Ochs and Paxton, and of course Bob Dylan.

The modern incarnation is much different than the festivals of the early 1960s, but still is connected by an unbroken thread to its historical roots. For one thing, producer Bob Jones has been instrumental since the beginning and is still the guiding light. For the past 20 years, the festival has been held at beautiful Fort Adams Park in Newport harbor, instead of the in-town sites of the famous early festivals. Actually, the opening night event is held in the original location at the Newport Casino, now the International Tennis Hall of Fame.

[Photo: The scene at Newport]

Musically it has evolved as well. Today's equivalents of artists like Doc Watson or John Hurt are side stage performers. The main stage needs mass appeal, so we get rock-oriented acts like those dominating Saturday's lineup--Grace Potter & The Nocturnals, John Butler Trio, North Mississippi Allstars and The Allman Brothers. The center of gravity was decidedly over in a blues-rock direction.


Not that I am complaining. The Allmans were everything I would want from a festival headliner. And Grace Potter knocked my socks off. Also, the Sunday schedule moved the needle back in a folkier direction with Emmylou Harris and Alison Krauss closing out the festival on the main stage. Plus , there were plenty of solid folk performers on the other stages--Ralph Stanley, the Canadian showcase, the Wainwright family, Cheryl Wheeler and more.

[Photo: Warren Haynes and Derek Trucks of the Allman Brothers Band]

Performers that especially caught my attention were Grace Potter, The Carolina Chocolate Drops and Tom Morello as The Nightwatchman. I'll write in more detail about the performances in subsequent posts. My overall comment is that this is a folk festival in the same way that New Orleans is a jazz festival or Telluride is a bluegrass festival or Ottawa is a blues festival. The labels serve as a loose guide at best, and the main stage performers at any of them are pretty much interchangeable.

[Photo: Alison Krauss]

Site and logistics

The Fort Adams site is nothing short of spectacular, the equal of any festival venue for pure beauty. Telluride may be the ultimate mountain festival location. Newport has to be the ultimate seaside venue. The three stages and other facilities are erected on the grounds of an 1830s-era fortification set on a neck of land at the south end of the Newport peninsula and surrounded by the boats and waterscapes of Newport Harbor.

The logistics ran as smoothly as any major festival I have attended, probably the result of running the folk and jazz festivals here on consecutive weekends for so many years. Site capacity is said to be 10,000 and actual attendance was about 15,000 for the two days. Lines for bathrooms, vendor booths, artist signings were not too long. Traffic was not at all bad getting into the festival, though getting out was a bit of a wait. I was able to get to and from the festival by passenger ferry from the nearby island of Jamestown, where I was staying. Water taxis shuttled people to the wharfs in downtown Newport.

This was the first festival to take place following the merger last January of longtime production company Festival Productions Inc. with Festival Network. FPI is still headed by George Wein and the festival is still programmed by Bob Jones, but the new umbrella organization introduced a few innovations for this year's event.

For one, beer and wine were available on the grounds in a new cafe area for the first time. I was surprised to learn that liquor had not been available previously, and it was definitely a popular addition despite a bit of a bottleneck with the ID verification process. The new company is also very sensitive to public relations--the facilities provided for the press were the best I have seen at any of the festivals I've covered.

[Photo: Grace Potter]

Donut in the audience

On the downside, a new seating plan for VIP ticket buyers set aside the prime territory for customers who filled the seats only during the closing sets. Most of the main-stage performers played to a roped-off area of empty seats while lots of enthusiastic fans jammed on the sides and behind the sound board. A good many fans and a few artists expressed their unhappiness about the new policy.

I had a chance to talk with Chris Shields, the CEO of Festival Network, about the VIP seating issue and other matters. He readily acknowledged that the seating plan had been a mistake. "The last thing an artist wants to see is a donut in the audience," he said. "You have to make sure that audience enthusiasm is at the heart of the festival, right out in front.

"There are other places to put VIPs," he continued. "We will make this a policy for all our festivals to fill the front center with enthusiastic fans."

Speaking of donuts, Dunkin' Donuts was much in evidence as the presenting sponsor for the festival, as was Gibson Guitars, the second major sponsor. Proceeds on sales of donuts went to charity. At least one artist questioned the wisdom of associating the name of such a storied festival with a corporate brand. "I understand why they do it, but I can't help thinking it is a little weird," said Tom Morello is a press conference backstage.


Morello was also struck, as was I, by the contradiction of situating a folk-music community in the midst of Newport's opulence, with its mansions and yachts. But that is nothing new--the folkies and the aristrocrats of Newport have long since made their peace.

[Photo: Tom Morello as The Nightwatchman]

I also understand the realities of festival economics. My only complaint is putting the sponsor in the festival name. Here again, Shields basically agrees and indicates that most other Festival Network events will not use corporate names for branding. "If you brand after a product or a company, and then they change their marketing plan, years of goodwill and momentum can be wiped out," he said.

Shields had that exact experience some years ago when directing the Bell Atlantic Jazz Festival. "Bell Atlantic turned into Verizon the next year, and the new marketing department was more interested in rock-and-roll than in jazz," he said.

Fortunately, Dunkin' Donuts remains interested in folk music--or as near to folk music as you can expect at a major contemporary music festival.

Thursday, August 09, 2007

Stages should fit the personality of the festival

By Dancin' Dave

I've been thinking about festival stages lately. This has been prompted by my last festival trip that included the Greyfox and Floydfest festivals, and whose stages differ greatly but both fit the respective festival's scene perfectly.

I was told that the main stage at Greyfox is the original stage, which means it was built 31 years ago on the Rothvoss farm in the Berkshire Mountain area of New York. "Quaint" is the perfect word to describe this stage! And that term of course works for most of the surrounding New York area.....'tis a beautiful part of the state. This stage has soooo many memories for the attendees, whether it be the customers or the staff or the volunteers or the musicians themselves. I myself was immediately taken by the stage and found myself helping to give it a new coat of paint that very first year I saw it. (1998) Just this year I sat watching a set with a longtime volunteer who reverently told me of his love and affection for the stage and all of the super musicians who graced it....Bill Monroe, John Hartford, Earl Scruggs, Del McCoury and Vassar Clements were the musicians he mentioned.

On the other side of the spectrum, the Floydfest is only six years old and is in the process of attendees building their own musical memories. This process hopefully will include memories of the stages....and the two new stages are nothing short of spectacular. The first (and Main) stage was built by Dreamworks, a timber framing business in Floyd, and is massive and beautiful. The second stage is smaller and to my mind is even prettier....this stage is brand new, being "unveiled" this past festival, and is called the Streamline Hill Hollar Stage. The first set that I saw on this stage was by the Waybacks, and included three encores! A fitting premiere, in my view....and it proved to me that the stage was fire-proof as well. >g<

Both stages were designed by Steve Arthur, who formed the Streamline Timberworks in Floyd and who donated the new stage to the festival. Both stages are built with an ancient construction utilizing large timbers and fastened together with wood joinery such as mortise and tennon held together wth wooden pegs. They are strikingly beautiful.....and the Hill Hollar Stage was raised by a collaboration between 3 different timber frame companies, simliar to the Amish barn raisings. There will be musical memories built around these stages!

Other festival stages that stick out in my mind include the Watson Stage, at Merlefest; and a wonderful fitting tribute to Doc and Merle. Another festival stage tribute is the Fred Shellman stage at Telluride....Fred was one of the founding members of the group that started the Telluride Bluegrass Festival. Also, another stage in the Planet Bluegrass organization is the stage at Rockygrass and the Folks Festival in Lyons, Colorado. I don't remember if this stage has a formal name, but I considered this stage to be the most beautiful that I had ever seen. I love the fact that the background is trees!

The Ampitheater Stage for the Suwannee Springfest and Magnoliafest is also very beautiful and perhaps the most attendee-favorable stage that I've seen. It's located in a natural bowl that is tiered for easy seating and the area is located amongst big live oak trees that have spanish moss hanging.....and this moss and the crookedness of the tree branches themselves can lead to some eerie sights at night! >g< Because it is located in these trees there is always shade if you'd prefer, or during the day there are plenty of areas where one can sit in the sun if that's the choice. The choice of shade in a hot sun situation is a real plus!

Another green festival grows in California

Following on the heels of the recent Green Apple and Harmony Festivals in northern California, as well as the global Live Earth concerts earlier this summer, another environmentally focused music festival, the Think Green World Music Festival, is set for its inaugural run September 8 at Skyline Wilderness Park in Napa CA. Featuring musical acts Harry Best & Shabang, Caribbean Allstars, West African Highlife Band and Mambo This!, the festival will also offer workshops and exhibits about promoting environmental awareness.

Organizers will minimize the event's carbon footprint by using a solar-powered music stage and providing composting and recycling stations. Advance tickets are available online for $20; at the door, admission is $25.

The greening of the music festival industry is all the rage this year as established events scramble to reduce their environmental impact. It remains to be seen if new events focused on environmental awareness will find a niche in the burgeoning festival market, or if festival-goers' interest in environmental involvement will be satisfied by existing events that add a green component.

The bet here is that both trends will continue to grow. Some attendees will begin to make decisions about where to spend their festival dollar on the basis of environmental impact. People passionate about the environment will attend festivals that are green from the ground up.

Otis Mountain Music Festival - Preview

The Otis Mountain Music Festival will hold its fifth annual event on August 17th and 18th in Elizabethtown, NY along route 9 between the route 73 split and Elizabethtown. This festival has been moving its date and searching for an identity which will sell in this huge rural county within the Adirondack Park in northern New York. It remains to be seen whether scheduling two of the most popular and progressive bluegrass bands in this venue will bring in the crowds needed to make this event pay. I can only hope. In scheduling the great, established Sam Bush Band and the wonderful emerging band The Infamous Stringdusters to appear on Saturday, promoter Jeff Allot is offering a day of the very finest progressive bluegrass that can be found. He is also offering an interesting, if little known, supporting cast ranging from traditional bluegrass to indie/rock that may hit the spot or fail to please.

The setting of the Otis Mountain Festival could not be any more beautiful. The band stand sits at the base of a gentle ski hill which slopes upward and away to form a natural amphitheater. There is plenty of room for people to see the bands and, I understand, an area has been set aside to permit dancing without interfering with viewing and listening. In the past, this festival has featured excellent food venders featuring offerings several cuts above the usual fair food served at bluegrass and music festivals. There is rough camping available and good transportation from the rather remote parking areas and the festival site. Allot has gone to great lengths to make this event one in which there has been extensive community involvement, and, in its 2005 version, succeeded admirably. Last year he changed the date to conflict with another New York State festival, which we chose to attend. This year he has again chosen a new date. I thought the weekend after Labor Day was a great date to hold a festival, but apparently it didn’t draw sufficient crowds, and it was chilly at night. Perhaps finding a regular date and keeping it would be a good way to build the festival audience.

Sam Bush is one of the most important influences in bluegrass music since its invention by Bill Monroe. With the establishment of The New Grass Revival in 1971, bluegrass opened itself to the new sounds coming from Rock and Roll bringing new sounds, rhythms, and themes into the acoustic music Monroe had pioneered and whose influence continues to dominate the genre. In his history of bluegrass, Neil V. Rosenberg points out that the musicians have always been out ahead of the fans of bluegrass music in their willingness to explore new approaches to the music. For more than 35 years, Sam Bush has been in the lead. He has introduced electric instruments and drums to the genre without ever bending it too far from its roots. His mandolin and fiddle playing are extraordinary. His current band, with Scott Vestal on banjo, Byron House on bass, Chris Brown on Drums, and Stephen Mougin on guitar continues in the tradition Bush has established, but the band is really Sam Bush. The list of performers Bush has played with forms a who’s who of bluegrass and country music greats.

While the Sam Bush Band represents the genesis and progress of modern bluegrass music, The Infamous Stringdusters stand for the state of the art. Composed of a group of players, several of whom studied at the famed Berklee School of Music in Boston, this fast rising group has taken the country by storm during the past eighteen months. I have written about their debut album “Fork in the Road” here. They still need to establish a solid record of ongoing accomplishment, but this first recording is better than a good start. Otis Mountain gives listeners one of their last chances to hear and see the original band, as brilliant flat-picking guitarist Chris Eldridge is leaving the band to join Chris Thile. Eldridge represents a link between the past and the future. He’s the son of Ben Eldridge, an original and continuing member of The Seldom Scene, who is acknowledged as a master of innovation on the banjo. Chris Eldridge appears to be in some other world as his wonderful solos and oh-so-solid rhythm guitar contribute mightily to the Stringdusters’ drive and style. Banjo player Chris Pandolfi is the first banjo graduate of the Berklee School of Music, perhaps the premier school for contemporary jazz, rock, and pop musicians today. Jeremy Garrett on fiddle comes from Idaho where he was a member of his father’s band The Grasshoppers, and he studied at South Plains College in Texas, where there is a well-known bluegrass program. Garrett sings lead and plays fiddle. Jesse Cobb, on mandolin, also comes from a family of bluegrass musicians. Andy Hall on Dobro and providing lead vocals is also a graduate of Berklee, where he majored in Music Production and Engineering. Finally, Travis Book, the newest member of the band on bass, comes from Colorado, where he was recognized for his playing as well as his lead singing. This band came together after all its members had moved to Nashville and established themselves with a variety of touring bands as well as studio musicians. Their collaboration grew out of jamming in the rich Nashville scene and his matured as they formed the Stringdusters and have worked to forge a distinctive sound and style. As a band they are still maturing and should provide years of delightful surprises to thoughtful and informed listeners.

As might be expected with two such budget busting bands, the remainder of the lineup emphasizes either bands you haven’t heard of or local/regional bands that don’t have to travel too far or demand too much to appear. This does not, however, mean you won’t find something worth listening to. Big Spike, acting as host band this weekend, comes from Vermont and seeks to recreate the sounds of bluegrass and country music as it existed at about the time bluegrass began to distinguish itself as a sub-genre within the country music rubric. According to their web site “The band aims to recreate a sound that is long gone from country music, a sound closer to the honky-tonk and early bluegrass sound of the 50's than it is to what's played in Nashville today.” They are justly familiar to bluegrass fans around New York and New England.

Similarly, The New England Bluegrass Band, while best known in its namesake region, consists of excellent musicians presenting music in mostly traditional formats. They have recently been joined by Ashleigh Caudill, a new graduate of Berklee School of Music on bass and vocals. Joe Walsh, new mandolin player for the group, is also a student at Berklee. Since the Infamous Stringdusters are on the bill here, I wouldn’t be too surprised to see Chris Pandolfi sitting in with the group, too. Lincoln Myers, Ron Cody, and Cecil Abels are long term members of this excellent bluegrass band. All the members have experiences that cross genres and also have considerable range within bluegrass. You can expect first class sets from this band on Saturday.

Three Doug Knight is a local bluegrass band that provides very satisfactory covers of bluegrass standards as well amusing songs written by guitar player Speedy Arnold. They will provide more than satisfactory sets on both Friday and Saturday. For me, Wild By Nature, Greenwich Mean Time, and Crossing North are unknown quantities. You can find a little more information on Greenwich Mean Time here at their MySpace entry. They provide a couple of cuts from their catalog. Their blurb seems determined not to provide any useful information about them except that they come from Olympia, WA. Crossing North is a duo based in Plattsburgh, NY. You can hear some of their cuts here.

Tickets to the Otis Mtn. Music Festival are $24 advance until August 18th and then $29 at the gate. The Festival map can be found here. This eclectic festival looks like a really good bet. Between two great national bands, some pretty well-known regional bands, and some new experiences, you won’t be wasting your time.

Wednesday, August 08, 2007

Grey Fox and Floydfest back to back

By Dancin' Dave

Good morning fellow music lovers....I am back home here in Northern Wisconsin after a fabulous double festival trip to New York for Greyfox and Virginia for Floydfest. Two finer festivals I have never witnessed and while the festivals themselves differ from each other, there are also many similarities...

The first would be the dedication of the staff to producing the best festival possible! Of course the Greyfox folks have been at it much longer than the Floydfest folks (it was only the 6th year for Floyd...), and even with all that experience the main drive is constantly to come up with new ways to please the audience. This comes straight from Mary Doub, whose infectious attitude permeates all those around her. And I have found Kris Hodges and Erika Johnson to have the same burning desire to put on a festival that will thrill the attendees at Floyd.

And to me it's the attendees', staffs', volunteers', artists', vendors', etc. personalities that are every bit as important for a festival to be a success as the music itself. I'm in a fortunate position in that I get to interact with all of these facets of the festival scene, and I dig it! >g< There are many fine and more than fine folks that frequent both Greyfox and Floydfest and I thought I'd touch on some of them....

Artist interactions
I had a great conversation with Pete Wernick at Greyfox concerning the level of musicianship in the young musicians these days.....Scott Vestal telling how thrilled he was to be playing with one of his idols.....sharing a thought with Ron Thomason on the cutting of education funding....dancin' and smiling with my friend Kristin Andreassen in the dance tent, along with Sara (of the Duhks).....hangin' out with Earl-girls at their compound and discovering just how sweet Oskar Brewery brews are >g<....getting to watch a set by the Infamous Stringdusters at Greyfox with Chris Thile and seeing his face light up after each blistering solo by the boys......and happily delivering ice cold Leinies to both Jesse Cobb of the Stringdusters and a fellow Wisconsin native, and to cool Joe Kyle, Jr. of the Waybacks who always appreciates a good beer!

At Floydfest I had a great visit with Mr. Bush himself, and among other things we talked about Vassar's fiddle and Richard Thompson. I had sent Sam some acoustic shows of Richard's and recently sent him Richard's latest release, "Sweet Warrior". Sam had been able to check out Richard's set at Bonarro and his main reaction to all of this Richard stuff was: "Holy Snakes!!!" (a dream of mine is that someday those two collaborate....!)

Grey Fox staff
John Watson and John McKernan are a joy to watch while all the while they're working their butts off.....Ernie is always a hoot!....Louis digging electrical ditches with only one hand.....Lisa trying not very successfully to be not TOO excited over her job (!), (and handling that job very very well, I may add...).....visiting with Chuck Wentworth and talking music and grandkids.....seeing Brian and Diane again and wishing they didn't live so far away....and this list could go on and on, but I'll stop after mentioning Mary Doub again---great job again, my friend!

Grey Fox customers
Kudos definitely have to go out to Len and Anneke, who returned to the Hill for the third year in a row from the Netherlands. The only problem with that was the fact that their luggage and their instruments did not make it to the Hill until the festival was over! Somehow on Sunday night at the after-festival party they were still smiling and planning the trip again for 2008......had a couple of young guys from Iceland as first time customers and those young fellows were in bluegrass heaven! So much so that the smiles on their faces might just be permanently attached....plus all the rest of my Greyfox customers were pretty much regulars and I gotta' love that....>g<

At Floydfest special thanks go out to Shannon and of course Tonya and Theresa for all of their help in making my operation work.....and then there's Kris and Erika, who like Mary D. are the soul and driver of the festival. Super folks with super attitudes.

My customers at Floyd were also pretty much all regulars. I love it...they come from all over the country and will all be comin' back next year. I was treated to fine wine, fine food and other fine fineries and how lucky can a guy get? (as a good friend would say: "it's not what you know, it's WHO you know...>g<")

And it was especially fun to enjoy all of those great dance partners at both festivals.....at the end of each night my feet and legs start to protest and I try to listen, but...the music is just so damned danceable! (thanks again to all of those musicans...) And the partners just all so damned cute..>g<

It was also a gas to introduce Lynn's grandson (and my step-grandson) to Greyfox! Alic is 11 years old and his eyes and ears took in everything around him. It was sure fun to watch him become a "Hill convert"....and he earned lots of respect from me and Lynn as to how hard he worked when we needed his help. I suspect that he's already planning next year's trip.....

And the best I've saved for last! I didn't know how I was going to pull off two big festivals on back-to-back weekends, but I did it; thanks to the huge contributions from two new dear friends who worked their butts off for the Dancin' Dave cause. On Monday morning during teardown at Greyfox it started raining, which caused 17 or 18 tents to be put in the trailer sopping wet....dripping, even. Then on Tuesday during the setting up work at Floydfest it rained even harder! (luckily we had all the tent essentials such as sleeping bags, cots, etc. dry, as that stuff was done on Sunday night...) We had the good fortune as to have Wednesday with no rain, along with Thursday, so everything dried out just fine before customers arrived on Thursday and Friday. So----Sweeney and Karen are two of the finest folks I've ever met and they did all of this work with smiles on their faces and humor in their souls. I couldn't love them more.....

And there was music at these festivals....!

Peace, David

Tuesday, August 07, 2007

Audio: A Month of Festivals for Mark O'Connor

Michael Gaither interviews fiddle master Mark O'Connor on the eve of the debut of his first symphony at the Cabrillo New Music Festival in Santa Cruz. In the 25-minute audio interview on Gaither's Stories and Songs podcast, O'Connor contrasts the different musical styles he is known for, and on the three festivals he will play in August--Cabrillo, Aspen Music Festival on August 13 and Strawberry Music Festival on Labor Day weekend. Click the play button to listen.









Saturday, August 04, 2007

Linda Ronstadt opens Newport

Last night was jazz night at the Newport Folk Festival.

At least that is how it seemed for the first half of Linda Ronstadt's opening night concert at the International Tennis Hall of Fame.

Backed by an eight piece jazz band, Ronstadt focused on her Nelson Riddle-arranged jazz standards repertoire, before moving on to pieces by contemporary composers in the second half and finishing with a selection of her hit pop songs from the 1970s.

The concert was interrupted two songs into Ronstadt's set by a power failure that knocked out the sound system. Thirty minutes later, the power was back and the show went on.


[Photo: Linda Rondstadt]

Ronstadt's performance was her first at Newport. She said she remembers getting Sing Out Magazine as she was growing up and reading about the legends of Newport.

However, she said that she realized only two weeks ago that this concert was a part of the historic festival. "If I had known, maybe I would have switched bands," she said, meaning that she might have brought her folk-rock backing unit. "But this is the band I'm on tour with, so this is what you get."

Ronstadt, who has been somewhat outspoken about politics, dropped several zingers during the show. Introducing a Cole Porter number with her tongue in cheek, she dedicated "Get Out of Town" to Attorney Genera Alberto Gonzales.

That number was a standout of the jazz portion of the set, as was her version of Billy Strayhorn's "Lush Life." Among the contemporary composers, she performed two Jimmy Webb songs and a number, "Feels Like Home," from Randy Newman's Faust song cycle.

Besides her tour of jazz standards and miniset of some of her hit songs, Ronstadt also touched briefly on another phase of her career, singing one her Mexican rancheros and offering one verse of "Blue Bayou" in Spanish.

The set closed with a series of her pop hits from the 70s--"Poor, Poor Pitiful Me," "Blue Bayou," and "Desperado."


[Photo: Madi Diaz opened the concert]

Opening for Ronstadt was Madi Diaz, an appealing young folk-rock singer-songwriter who is a student at Berklee College of Music. Judging by her poised debut before a sold out audience, Diaz is an artist to keep your eye on. I wouldn't be surprised to see her on a lot of festival stages in the years ahead.

I wonder if there will be a folk night next week at the Newport Jazz Festival.

Thursday, August 02, 2007

Fox Family Bluegrass Festival - Preview

The 18th Annual Fox Family Bluegrass Festival will take place August 9 – 12, 2007 in Old Forge, NY. The Fox Family’s home is in the Adirondacks, even though they have relocated to Nashville. Fronted by the wonderful voice of Kim Fox, this band continues to host a traditional bluegrass festival. Accommodations are limited and the camping is rough. There are no hookups and the nearest shower requires a drive of several miles. Old Forge is located here, in the southwest corner of the massive Adirondack Park, close to the New York Thruway and I-81. The Adirondack Park, a six million acre state park, is the largest wilderness area east of the Mississippi River, a vast tract of woods, mountain, and lakes. Because many people harbor stereotypes about New York, few recognize that this magnificent wilderness lies with only a few hours’ drive of millions of people in the northeast and the Midwest.

IIIrd Tyme Out

Headline bands, in addition to the host band Fox Family, are IIIrd Tyme Out, Jr. Sisk & Rambler Choice, reunited and on tour, and The Gibson Brothers, one a local band but now a national band of growing popularity which retains its loyalty to the local festivals that booked them when they weren’t so big. It’s hard to tell just now who will turn up with IIIrd Tyme Out. Founded and fronted by Ray Deaton, Bassist and premier bass singer, has announced he is leaving the band and The Bluegrass Blog announces here that Edgar Loudermilk has replaced him. Deaton originally said he would stay the season, but has moved up his change. Mandolinist Alan Perdue has been replaced by mandolin master Wayne Benson, which will add considerable depth to the band. Russell Moore is a long-time standout on vocals and rhythm guitar. Steve Dilling has been with the band on banjo for sixteen years. He’s struggling with distonia, but an injured Dilling is still better than most banjo players. All-in-all, despite their recent changes, IIIrd Tyme Out should continue as a very strong band. It’s always interesting to see how a changing band develops. Watch them on stage as they discover new ways to present their music through the addition of new musicians.

Jr. Sisk has long been one of the premier voices in bluegrass music. When Blueridge broke up as Alan Bibey left to help form Grasstowne and Alan Johnson moved on to Doyle Lawson & Quicksilver (side note: Isn’t it interesting how many bands have former Quicksilver players and how this particular festival features several of them?) Jr. Sisk reconstituted Rambler’s Choice and began to tour with them. This group made one recording with Rounder in 1998. Junior, a resident of Virginia, played with the Lonesome River Band in their early days as well as with Wyatt Rice & Santa Cruz. His distinctive high lonesome tenor and solid rhythm guitar have added depth and character to every band he has played with.

Sarah Jarosz is a fourteen year old mandolin player who lives in Austin, TX. She has received a lot of recognition in IBMA’s effort to promote younger artists. There are a lot of young, female mandolin players out there just now. Sierra Hull and Jessica Lovell are just two of a growing number. Sarah Jarosz has joined this group. If half of Sarah’s professional friends on her MySpace page have seen and heard her, she’s likely to be worth your time, too. Aiophe Donavan of Crooked Still offers quite a comment.

The Gibson Brothers

The Gibson Brothers of course need no introduction to readers of this blog. Simply put, we believe this group is among the premier bluegrass bands in the nation. As their national recognition increases, they have lit up audiences from Yakima Washington to Myrtle Beach. No longer a regional band, the Gibsons originated in Ellenburg Depot, NY, only a few miles south of the Canadian border, but their characteristic brother harmonies and very strong instrumental support are without peer. Watch Eric Gibson, who is one of the few lead singers who picks effectively while singing. He has yet to receive adequate recognition for his fine banjo work. Listen to brother Leigh, whose voice blends with Eric’s as only brothers can. Both brothers write wonderful songs and their background and taste has led them to create new bluegrass sounds from classic country and rock and roll. Bassist Mike Barber, mandolin player Rick Hayes, and fiddler Clayton Campbell add depth and taste to this superior band. The variety of their sounds, harmonies, and keys takes them beyond bluegrass while never straying very far from their roots.

A huge revelation that comes almost every time we attend a local festival is the reminder that there are so many fine bluegrass bands around. While people think of New York as urban and ethnic, the state is home to many bands rooted in country and bluegrass music. These bands are well-represented at the Fox Family Festival.

Local bands include The Atkinson Family, whose delightful music, much of it written by father Dick ]Atkinson, combines country and bluegrass with a northern New York tone that fits right in here. His song about losing the farm should be a classic. The review in Bluegrass Unlimited noted, “Tearin’ Up the Line is a stellar production that will surely generate many new friends for the group.”

The Dalaney Brothers describe themselves as a contemporary bluegrass band that has played around New York State for the past 25 years. Over the years, they have recorded five albums. Recently they replaced two longtime members for medical reasons. The New York Times named Full Spectrum as one of the top ten local releases in 2000.

Sweet Cider describes itself as “ rooted in vocal harmony, attention to arrangement and original material. They now perform their own style of acoustic music with that ever-present bluegrass flavor. The Northeast Country Music Association has named them CMA bluegrass band of the year several times, and they have been inducted into the NE CMA hall of fame as well as receiving other awards. They hail from Rotterdam, NY along the NY Thruway.

Miller’s Crossing is a Long Island bluegrass band whose sound, according to the cuts on their web site, is traditional southern. Their lead vocalist has a pleasant voice and instrumentals are strong. “Miller’s crossing prides itself on the original material eachmember brings to the band’s repertoire. They strive to play bluegrass music the way they feel it, and the result is a fesh outlook on the music while not getting to far away from its roots.” The McCarthy/Paisley Band from Elbridge, NY advertises itself as featuring traditional Americana and contemporary folk music.

Off the Wall’s entry at ibluegrass says, “Blending folk, bluegrass and traditional country into a unique, no frills sound that lends itself to the works of John Prine, Guy Clark, Tim O'Brien and the Seldom Scene, as well as the works of more obscure songwriters. Add to that, strong vocals and tight harmonies, you have the makings of enjoyable music that tells the story of lifes journey.” They come from central New York.

Bill Knowlton and Lisa Husted will emcee. Tickets are $75.00 for the entire festival, including rough camping. Day passes are $20.00 for Thursday, $30.00 a day for Friday and Saturday, and $15.00 for Sunday. Gates open for camping on a first come, first served basis at 10:00 AM on Wednesday and there is no reserving of spaces for others. A dump station and showers are available nearby, but there are no amenities for campers on the site. This festival has one of the most interesting and varied programs for young people of any bluegrass event, showing their interest in and concern for children’s enjoyment and providing alternatives for parents wishing to give their children a good time. For additional information, check out the Fox Family Bluegrass Festival’s web site.

Some pictures for this post were taken from band web sites. I will remove them immediately upon request.

Wednesday, August 01, 2007

MerleFest executive director B Townes addresses community concerns

By Dan Ruby

MerleFest maintains its commitment to presenting music that fits Doc Watson's definition of "traditional-plus," said MerleFest executive director B Townes in an exclusive interview with Festival Preview.

Townes would not give away any names of artists who have been booked for 2008. The lineup is scheduled to be announced toward the end of September. "Rest assured it will be the best ever," Townes said.

Following the departures of three key staff members, long-time MerleFest attendees are expected to closely scrutinize the lineup when it is released, looking for signs of changes in artistic direction.

Townes declined to comment on specific personnel issues. Regarding the staff departures as a whole, he said, "Just as the talent at MerleFest changes and the music evolves, so will the people who are involved. The people we loved, artists and employees, who have passed on, or who have moved on, we will miss them."

However, he maintained that the staff changes will not result in significant changes to the festival's musical mix. Townes said the tradtional-plus format allows the festival to program bluegrass, Americana, Irish, cowboy, jambands, zydeco and dozens more musical styles.

On the subject of genres, Townes expressed some doubts about the Americana label used to describe the festival's music. "I think Americana is one genre among many that we present," he said.

Townes said as festival founder and director, he was the one primarily responsible for setting MerleFest's musical direction, and that others who have been involved in booking have followed his formula. "It is very broad, but I know the boundaries that Doc won't cross and that MerleFest won't cross. We will push the envelope, but still keep it in the formula."

Townes said that Doc Watson is consulted regularly as a sounding board. "From the beginning, Doc said he didn't want to manage the festival but he wants to play at it each year. He is always available to give us his thoughts on this act or that act, but after 20 years, I kind of know what he is thinking," Townes said.

In response to specific concerns that the management changes might result in more bookings of mainstream country-music entertainers, Townes said, "Let me put that to rest. It is not the intent of MerleFest to go beyond the boundaries to bring in more commercial acts. Having said that, we reserve the right to invite any artist that our committee decides people want to see."

He cited Dolly Parton and Marty Stuart as examples of Nashville artists who have been successful at MerleFest because they have embraced more traditional styles. "When someone like that says, 'I want to play bluegrass,' we take note of that," he said.

Responding to criticism

In the interview, Townes also responded to a wide range of concerns that have been raised following the staff changes.

He explained that the festival is owned by the Wilkes Community College Endowment Corp., of which he is executive director. He also wears hats as the vice president of development for the college and executive director of MerleFest. Currently he is also acting artistic director for the festival.

Ted Hagaman, a former marketing executive with Lowe's Companies, is the managing director of the festival, responsible for coordinating the six project teams working on specific aspects of the festival. According to Townes, Hagaman's success as the college director of hospitality and of the Walker Center made him the best choice for the position.

"Ted worked a lot on the site changes that were unveiled this year, including the Shops at MerleFest and eliminating cars on lower campus, a dreeam I have had for 10 years. Ted implemented that and did a great job," Townes said.

On the subject of festival sponsorship, Townes said he started the sponsorship program in 1992 to support a public television film about the festival, and that since then the sponsorship program has grown substantially.

"For about five years, we have had the goal to secure a presenting sponsor for the festival and we were proud to announce Lowe's as the presenting sponsor last year," Townes said. He added that it was his own work and not Hagaman's connections that brought in the sponsor deal. "Lowe's exercises no influence artistically on the festival," he contended.

Townes denied that the festival prioritizes commercial success over artistic quality. "Our commitment is to put on a quality event first, and the dollars follow from that. However, the reality of business is that there is a certain level of revenue that must be realized to pay for talent, infrastructure, production and amenities," he said.

Townes said the festival is not seeking to increase attendance. Instead the goal has been to improve audience quality by increasing the ratio of weekend passes to single-day walk-ins.

Regarding logistical problems that developed during the 2007 festival, such as a slow exit flow on Saturday night, Townes said that they resulted from a combination of site improvements that were implemented this year and programming. "We will tweak our procedures to address the problem, but it really was better than it would have been if we still had car traffic," he said.

In response to charges that the festival's management style is autocratic. "Actually, our management style is open and team-oriented," Townes said, explaining that each of the festival's major functions are directed by a project team. "That structure can make decision-making somewhat cumbersome, such as with the number of people involved on the programming team. But we want that kind of team organization," Townes said.

Townes acknowledged some sensitivity about political speech. "The college is apolitical and we work with both sides. However, in an election year, we wouldn't choose to put on people making political statements," Townes said. If an artist has a reputation for being outspoken, "we would want to have a conversation about that before we booked the talent," he said.

Longtime MerleFest friend concerned by changes at the festival

The consolidation of power by MerleFest executive director B Townes raises concerns about the festival's future as an artistic beacon, says a long-time festival supporter who does not wish to be identified.

In an interview with Festival Preview, the source charged that Townes and managing director Ted Hagaman are more committed to making money for Wilkes Community College than they are to the audiences that have supported the festival since 1988. The source worried that the feel of the festival on the ground will become increasingly "sterile" as management overlooks the interests of patrons and ticket buyers. The festival should belong to the people who pay their money year after year and to the artists as much as it does to the college, according to the source.

The source's concerns mirror many of those that have been expressed on the festival's online discussion board.

Festival executive director B Townes responded to the changes in a
separate interview [link] with Festival Preview.

According to the source, the festival management was not under any
direct pressure from its presenting sponsor, Lowe's Companies. However, Townes and Hagaman adopted what the source describes as “a Lowe's way of doing things,” in which consistency is valued over originality.

Lowe's influence is felt because many of the college's donors are
retired Lowe's employees. Although they may not attend the festival,
their voices are heard when it comes to upholding the conservative
values and standards of the community. The source said that while MerleFest is the largest of WCC's many fundraising efforts, the festival often did not fit well within them. Some artists and audience members display values that differ from the Wilkes County mainstream and from the image the college likes to project.

Writing on the wall

The changes that culminated in seven people leaving the MerleFest
staff have been underway for several years, at least since 2004, when
a previous managing director stepped down, the source said. For the
next year, the staff operated democratically under Townes leadership. Managers had authority for their areas and festival-wide issues were decided by consensus.

But the next shoe dropped in fall of 2005 after Townes returned
from hiking the Appalachian Trail. Hagaman, a former Lowe's marketing executive who had been working for the college for four years as hospitality director and director of the performing arts center, was named managing director. Other managers' job descriptions and reporting structure were changed. Unnecessary travel was eliminated. Staffers were expected to fit the policies and culture of the college, instead of functioning more independently.

At the 2006 festival, the performance by the Woody Guthrie Ribbon of
Highway, Endless Skyway tour was seen by critics as honoring a political leftist, the source said. It was a reminder of a flare up the year before over antiwar statements from the stage by Steve Earle and Alison Moorer.

For staffers not on the same page with management, the writing was on the wall. Armbruster took a new position in December 2006. Two other key staff people, Art Menius and Nancy Watson, were known to be seeking other employment but were forced to resign. In addition to those three, four other staff people have left the organization.

The source thinks that the housecleaning is now over. The college is
advertising for a replacement artistic director and marketing director, with more narrowly defined job descriptions.

The relevance of the controversy to attendees commenting on the festival discussion board is the possibility that a change in direction in artist bookings and programming could result.

The source did not feel that 2007 booking of a Nashville name artist Pam Tillis was necessarily indicative of a trend toward mainstream country. MerleFest fans will find out soon if there is a new booking
philosophy when the 2008 lineup is announced in September.

A more commercial approach might succeed in increasing attendance and revenue, the source said. So MerleFest could continue to prosper, yet lose its importance as an artistic taste-maker. Should that occur, it would be a loss not just for MerleFest attendees but for the greater roots music community, for which MerleFest is a flagship event, the source said.

The source believes that there is natural conflict between the needs of a public college formally charged to have local focus and a fund-raising event that has international scope. Menius and Armbruster, in particular, were perceived as having a greater allegiance to MerleFest rather than to Wilkes Community College.

The source doesn't know what Doc Watson thinks about the staffing changes, but said that Doc exercises minimal influence. However, Doc's continued endorsement of the festival is important to MerleFest’s reputation, and should Doc ever publicly break with the festival, that would be damaging. To date, there is no indication that anything like that might happen.