With my long relationship with music, it may be surprising that I have not been going to music festivals my whole life. I only got into the whole thing after my oldest, in terms of knowing her not her age, friend Susan’s wedding in 1991. And it was a throwaway invitation. After a wonderful, bonding type wedding weekend, one of my new best friends casually mentioned over his shoulder as he was driving away, “hey Sheila, you should come to Winterhawk with us. I think you would like it.” Boom, I did not need much more. Note: do not invite me to something if you don’t want me there. Seriously. I will show up. Really. I mean, I once attended a wedding I was invited to the day before. You have been warned.
Our group then spent the next 25 years, off and on, heading to the Berkshire Mountains the third weekend in July for a weekend of camping, cooking, laughing, and most importantly, hours and hours of bluegrass music at the Greyfox Bluegrass Festival (nee Winterhawk). It was there when I first saw Allison Krause at a mere 17 years old, Chris Thile at 16, learned how to air yodel and the difference between a mandolin and a banjo. I sent back Kazakh vodka the year I lived abroad and kissed the campground when I returned the following year. We slowly went from the young kids who stayed up all night long and got shushed by the old timers we made fun of to becoming the old timers and shushing the young’uns. Sadly, we have not gone in the last few years as it started to feel more like an endurance test than a fun weekend. This is a long way to say I was totally psyched to be invited to join friends for a bluegrass festival that was a 15 minute walk from their home. I bought my ticket before they could change their minds.
I showed up at Jennie and Scott’s beautiful vacation-but-they-live-in-full-time home on the Thursday before Columbus Day weekend for the Festy Experience. The Festy Experience is in its 6th year and held annually at Devil’s Backbone Brewery (DB) in Nelson County, Virginia. Nelson County is known for having more breweries than stoplights. There are 45 miles of the Appalachian Trail in the county all nestled within the Blue Ridge Parkway. DB is one of the fastest growing breweries in the country that not only has some tasty beer, but incredibly smart management, because they hired my friends away from me, I mean Philly, no, I mean me. Jenny and Scott’s whole set-up is pretty sweet, if you know, you enjoy beautiful scenery, ideal weather, gorgeous mountain ranges, easy to hard hiking trails, access to national state parks, an excellent Saturday farmer’s market and nice people. You know, only if you are into those type of things.
We headed down to the festival Friday afternoon to check out the set-up and have a plan in place for the weekend. It is hosted by the Infamous Stringdusters and they are in a full blown set by the time we got there. These guys are good. Fun, hip, tight, tight band with a bit of new grass but with lots of respect to old school Del McCoury/ Bill Monroe bluegrass as well. I immediately started wiggling (someone’s recent, and sadly accurate, description of my dancing at times) and took a deep bluegrass breath. After missing a couple years of Winterhawk, I was glad to be home.
On Friday night, we seemed to only catch the Stringdusters, so we saw a couple sets of them. Not true, we did go over to the smaller stage and caught a Pennsylvania bluegrass band. During the first song, Jen and I turned to each other and simultaneously said “these guys are bad.” Now, if you can guess anything from me, it is an unusual day when I don’t like a band, let alone think a band is bad. I mean, I am seeing 50 bands this year. Cripes, I love music. I am not a music critic, I am music fan. So, I do not say a band is bad lightly, if ever. These guys were bad. We left that stage and headed back to catch another Stringdusters set. This one from backstage. Yup, for the first time in my life I had an all access pass and I was not letting go.
It was exactly how I imagined back stage, musicians wandering around, clean porta potties, food trucks and beer, not free, mind you, but for $2 a cup I was very happy. Best of all, I was allowed just to walk up the steps and hang out on the side of the stage and watch the show from there. I was in heaven. It was from this vantage point when the Stringdusters played a sweet Grateful Dead cover of “Jack Straw.” Only one of my favorite Dead songs and there is very little I love more than a bluegrass Dead cover. I was in heaven. I am not sure my feet touched the ground on the way home.
The next morning we set out for our next day of behind the scenes listening. Unfortunately, there was no backstage at the smaller stage but we had to see the Love Canons, a 80s cover bluegrass band. They were fun, really fun. I mean where else can you find a bunch of aging hippies singing at the top of their lungs “you have to fight for your right to party.” As it turns out, I just don’t love a Dead bluegrass cover, I love any bluegrass cover. I am not sure how else to explain that I dug the whole set of songs that I would never describes as loving, including Sledgehammer, Centerfold, Danger Zone and Maniac. Though I think they could have used even more banjo, they were the most fun band I saw during the weekend and my festival find. We then headed back to the main stage for Lyle Lovett and John Hiatt, the headliners.
As were back stage getting ready, I see a very familiar head of hair. Before I even knew what I was doing, I was sprinting across the space yelling “Mr. Lovett, Mr. Lovett.” And then we chatted. Yup, I chatted with Lyle Lovett and have the picture to prove it. He then needed to get ready for his set so headed back into his bus. Interestingly enough, right after that encounter, the roadies put up police caution tape around his and Sam Bush’s buses. I am not saying that our chat and that action was connected, but the timing was definitely curious.We headed out front and listened to a beautiful and intimate set. Clearly friends who admired each other, John and John traded songs and stories as the sun set over the Blue Ridge Mountains. While there is always a new music find at each festival, there is always a “moment” too. The culmination of the music, your friends, the comraderie of the crowd, the accumulated dirt, the scenery, etc. All of this leads to your festival moment. And, this was mine.
As we reflected the next day, Jen and I came to the conclusion that it is much different camping at a bluegrass festival than attending one on a daily basis. The music was good, but not enough. I was too clean. I got a good night’s sleep each day and I took real showers. Bluegrass is not just a type of music, it is a lifestyle and it hard to truly incorporate as a day tripper. I also realized that I am not quite done with Greyfox, endurance test be damned. (Chawbacon, see you on the hill 2016!)
25 shows to go, 235 days left…
24 shows to go, 234 days left…