Saturday’s third annual Mountain Song Festival held at the Whittington-Pfohl Auditorium on the campus of the Brevard Music Center in Brevard, NC stands as another example of the well run, thoughtfully programmed music festival’s power to attract significant audiences to hear an eclectic range of contemporary and traditional bluegrass music. Hosted by the Steep Canyon Rangers and promoted by Ranger Woody Platt and his partner John Felty, the event, according to an early count reported from the stage by Parker Platt, director of The Boys and Girls Club of Transylvania County (the festival’s beneficiary), attracted over 2100 attendees. Tickets for this one day festival cost $40, only slightly less than many festivals charge for a three or four day event. The festival featured four high powered acts, all associated with bluegrass music, but perhaps not pure traditional bluegrass according to some people’s lights. Nevertheless, the Rangers, Cherryholmes, Tim O’Brien, and the Sam Bush Band as well as special guest Steve Martin raised the rough and kept the house rockin’ from early afternoon until well into the evening.
The Wittington-Pfohl Auditorium is an 1800 seat open air, covered auditorium featuring state of the art sound and light, comfortable seats with good sight lines, and a spacious stage designed to handle every kind of performance from grand opera to soloists. The home of a world famed music school during the summer, the Brevard Music Center, hidden away on the edge of Brevard and bordering the Pisgah National Forest, provides an ideal venue for a one day event. Although there is no on-campus camping, there are nearby campgrounds that would make the music center a good site for longer events, too. Food, prepared and served from a covered porch, ranged from simple hot dogs through barbecue and ribs to elaborate platters of more varied salads and wraps. Instrument vendors as well as craftspeople and the WNCW, the regional NPR station, offered a variety of interesting distractions. The Boys and Girls Club sponsored a booth with activities for children such as face painting, a corn-hole board, hula hoops, and a small exercise course, all designed to interest and intrigue little ones. There is ample lawn seating for people preferring staying fully outdoors to the comfortable theater style seats in the auditorium. In other words, there was plenty going on to keep the diverse and enthusiastic audience, ranging in age from newborns to very seasoned seniors busy and amused for a full day. The event was truly festive.
Martin Anderson (emcee)
The Steep Canyon Rangers led off with a high energy set of more-or-less traditional bluegrass greeted to huge enthusiasm by this home town crowd. A new song by bassist Charles Humphries not even yet named dealt with the ways in which society has become so complicated that black and white responses to gray issues no longer satisfy. This song should be sung everywhere right up until the election and beyond as it views the world in shades of gray. In their second set, the Rangers were joined by comedian, writer, actor, musician Steve Martin on banjo who played “The Crow” from his new banjo CD as well as singing an amusing song called “Late for School.” The band was then joined by Cia and Molly Kate Cherryholmes and Tim O’Brien for a rousing version of Foggy Mountain Breakdown. Fiddler Nicky Sanders, who had earlier impressed with his very fine Orange Blossom Special, came through again on FMB. Seeing Ranger Graham Sharp lined up with Martin and Cia Cherryholmes for the famous Scruggs composition was a real treat, and the audience roared.
Steep Canyon Rangers
The Cherryholmes family, who bill themselves as presenting “bluegrass on steroids” showcased a lot of material from their new Cherryholmes III album. This band has continued to improve and evolve over the years we’ve been watching them. Yesterday several elements of their performance stood out for me. First, they just plain seemed to be enjoying what they were doing. There was a verve, an element of genuine enthusiasm, I haven’t always felt in their shows. Each family member seemed more comfortable in their skin and with their role in the band. Molly Kate, still only fourteen years old, has continued to grow as a fiddler and her singing, until recently mostly relegated harmony parts, has matured enough for her to do a better than creditable job as a soloist on a song she wrote. Cia’s voice has continued to mature into one of the most recognizable and reliable voice in bluegrass, and her banjo picking is truly fine. Skip’s flat picking on guitar, and B.J. on mandolin and fiddle are fast, accurate, and sometimes stunning. Strains of Stefan Grappelli, Celtic influences, a hint of rock sensibility, and carefully choreographed movement ending with a family Irish clogging demo all contribute to a very satisfying performance. Their schedule now includes many more arts centers, concert halls, and music festivals than merely bluegrass events, attesting to their broad appeal.
Tim O’Brien, who has stood astride the world of bluegrass and folk music for more than thirty years, appeared solo in support of his new CD Chameleon. While musically and culturally very different, Tim, standing alone on this huge stage and holding a large audience rapt with attention, reminded me of nothing less than Pete Seeger in his ability to entertain and stimulate thought in his audience while introducing them to new and interesting music. Since the heyday of Hot Rize in the 1970’s, Tim’s work has surprised and delighted audiences everywhere. With a somewhat sly grin flitting across his face, he picks several guitars, the mandolin, and plays fiddle with equal skill, always choosing the right instrument to fit the lyrics and the sentiment of each song. Sometimes plaintive, sometimes humorous, sometimes piercing the heart and mind, his performances never fail to move.
Saving the Sam Bush Band for a single long set to close the day shows the promoters’ programming savvy and good sense. Sam was there at the dawn of bluegrass festivals at Fincastle, VA on Labor Day weekend in 1965. As founder of the New Grass Revival in the 1970’s, he helped move traditional bluegrass into the rock and roll era. His influence on music, especially in his role at both Telluride and Merlefest, is legendary. Today, with a band filled with talent and incendiary inventiveness, he continues to grow and develop. At the same time, his music, while always paying due deference to Bill Monroe, John Hartford, and other early innovators, continues to move in its own direction. His insistence on putting talented drummer Chris Brown on stage alienates many defenders of the traditional. Giving him the big canvas of a long, concluding set allows him to paint the musical picture he want for the crowds who stay to hear him. Nevertheless his music, loud and jam-band oriented, isn’t for everyone. Closing the evening allows those who object to his volume, the drums, or his sound can leave after a successful day. The more adventurous can stay to listen and to marvel at his continued innovativeness after more than forty years of performing. Opening with Mr. Monroe’s “Uncle Pen” and closing with an encore of a ramped up version of “Cripple Creek,” Bush’s set was high energy and lively. As always, Scott Vestal on various banjos, many of his own design, is a banjo wizard going his own way. Stephen Mougin, a Massachusetts native, is a wonderful guitarists who, it seems to me, sang more than I’ve heard him in the past, and with passion and conviction. Byron House on every kind of bass, just astounds. I offered our friend Marta a hatchet to take to her own bass after hearing House. She, of course, declined the offer. Brown, on drums, is tasteful and restrained, adding to the music without ever dominating.
The Mountain Song Festival demonstrates there’s a large, vital, and varied audience for a music festival presenting a range of kinds of music. While the audience for pure, traditional bluegrass festivals may be dwindling, festivals including healthy dose of traditional music accompanied by some of its many cousins can entertain and involve audiences of young and old, black and white, privileged and more needy brought together by the allure of fine music. Next year’s Mountain Song Festival promises another stellar lineup. Hold this weekend for next year.