Grey Fox Bluegrass Festival
Oak Hill, NY
July 14-17, 2011
Words & Photos By Tabitha Clancy
All grass is blue at Grey Fox. Well, metaphorically anyway. For one July weekend, the hay fields of the Walsh Farm in Oak Hill, NY, were transformed into a picker’s paradise. In its two decade plus years since it began, Grey Fox has undergone various changes without sacrificing its integrity as a festival for all things bluegrass. Founder and producer, Mary Doub, even changed the name about ten or so years ago. She remembers looking up towards the wall in her bedroom. “It just hit me,” she claimed. On the wall was a painting of a grey fox.
Grey Fox, in its mere existence, tells the story of bluegrass. Each day, the schedule was designed as if it were claiming folk lore of its own, connecting the older generations with the younger generation. The Dry Branch Fire Squad hosted the festival and made various appearances throughout the weekend, telling stories and harmonizing song. Fittingly, they closed with a Sunday Gospel.
Part of the Grey Fox story lies within the campgrounds which are set up below the amphitheater staging area and extend back where the Catskill forests take shape. The farm was opened a day early for set up, if for no other reason, so that no music goes unheard. The campers were serious about their bluegrass. Each camper had their own stories, some of which resemble their own bluegrass heroes. Walking the grid, weaving through road paths named for the legends of bluegrass, the sound of pickers playing and storytellers could be heard. Glamorous camps speckled the site. One site had its own modified version of Jenga. This wasn’t just a game of blocks out of a small box. These blocks were painted and enormous which was set up for everyone to participate, the only rule being, a beer must be left if the blocks fell. Some camps were makeshift pubs, and other sites were stages complete with disco balls and lights. All were always welcome. Even the professional musicians would wander yonder and play an impromptu set.
Each day began with the more traditional bluegrass sets. Peter Rowan played moral songs in a lullaby fashion. The children were soothed and the parents relished in the rolling melodies carried by the banjo. This weekend was to be a family affair. The music played to all ages. Babies kicked their feet, children danced, lovers held each other and the elders basked in the warmth of the sun.
The Thile and Daves Duo picked up the tempo. Mandolin virtuoso, Chris Thile fancied us his skills with guitar player Michael Daves playing songs from their debut disc, Sleep with One Eye Open. Seemingly, from this point on, mandolin was the guest of honor for the weekend.
Make no mistake, each instrument was important and no other could convey that point better, than multi-award winner and fiddle player, Michael Cleveland. He invited an orchestra of strings to join him on stage, mostly students of Berkley College. In a four song set; “Kentucky Waltz”, “Cross-eyed Fiddler,” “Stoney Lonesome” and "The Dead March,” they paid tribute to late fiddler, Kenny Baker.
Each day, the sun soaked concert field would break away giving a giant round moon an opportunity to share its lunar beams with the musty aired night. Before the night settled in too much, The Del McCoury Band eased the daylight crowd into the night with waltzes in minor keys and gospel harmonies that grabbed the crowd in such a way they awarded a standing ovation. The farm grounds converted into a late night party with more modern and less traditional bluegrass bands. Here is when the plot of the story continued. On Friday, Yonder Mountain String Band rotated through band members taking solos. Jeff Austin kept the crowd to their feet with telling of a story while chopping his mandolin into “If There’s Still Rambling in the Rambler”. Mid way through the song, he invited Robby McCoury and Jason Carter for a sit-in on “Death Trip” that segued back to “…Rambling”. Sam Bush closed Saturday night alternating his instruments and telling tales of folklore through song, most notable in the “Ballad of Stringbean and Estelle”. Bluegrass in all forms began to make sense to the newcomers. The story unfolded, a tale dating back to Bill Monroe and moved through time.
While the main stage was reserved for more formal sets, the dance pavilion was a flurry of activity. Here the musicians played to an audience of two-steppers, square dancers and pre-teens huddled in their dance circles. Donna the Buffalo could be heard wailing on their tools for a late night closer Thursday night. Various artists took the stage here, some as a second set. The Sweetback Sisters, in their blue gingham dresses, reveled in the spotlight of a sweet and sassy set, blending acoustic with electric instruments and harmonies that captivated the soul. The dance pavilion also served as a Yoga tent in the dew drenched mornings. Lucy Weberling and Lotus Blossom Special led the sleepy-eyed risers who needed to regain blood flow and re-center their peaceful intentions in preparation for another dynamic day. At any time, this was where self-expression through movement was encouraged and welcomed.
Grey Fox was educational too; whether it was a formal workshop taught by a professional, or a grey-bearded fellow wondering into a camp, it didn’t matter. If you came in with minimal knowledge, you left a new expert on the subject. Workshops presented the opportunity for players of all levels (and ages) to interact with musicians. Some of the best shopping can be done at a festival. Grey Fox was not short on vending. From guitar shops to clothing and jewelry to lawn furniture, it was all there for the elite hippie to browse or purchase. As for food, there was some of the finest fair cuisine around. The Skinny Pancake was a favorite as it provided gourmet crepes of all kinds. A little fun was had in purchasing food since real money was traded in for funny money.
Grey Fox presented a fine sample of bluegrass in every aspect. Each day provided an opportunity to learn something and absorb a tune or two. It was a weekend for a community to come together and share. There is a pride in picking and at Grey Fox, it was everywhere!