Tuesday, May 13, 2014

Strawberry Park Bluegrass Festival: Preston, CT May 29 - June 1: Preview

The Strawberry Park Bluegrass Festival opens for its 37th annual run on May 29 and continues through June 1st. The Festival has fallen on hard times since being hit by the combination of the Park's bankruptcy, the falling economy beginning in 2009, and subsequent changes in management. This year's event, while showcasing some very good bands and interesting debuts to the Strawberry Park venue, can boast of no show-stopping, blockbuster headliners calculated to, as bluegrass promoters say, "Put butts in the seats." Headliners like Ricky Skaggs, Marty Stewart, Rhonda Vincent, Dailey & Vincent, Doyle Lawson, The Gibson Brothers or The Lonesome River Band, formerly staples of this venerable festival,  are notable for their absence. Meanwhile, important bluegrass festival mainstays like true workshops, kids academies, and an environment conducive to extensive jamming by fans have been diminished or eliminated. As Strawberry Park appears to be withering, other New England mainstays like Jenny Brook, Pemi Valley, and the revived Thomas Point Beach thrive. Nevertheless, Strawberry Park is the first festival in the Northeast, and brings people hungry for outdoor live music to the venue. This all might be fine if Strawberry Park had veered sharply to becoming an Americana festival. Rather, it appears to be dipping its feet in the water while not truly making the move, thus not pleasing either audience. In the past, I've written extensively about the value of mixed music festivals, and still think that appealing to diverse tastes offers much in strengthening bluegrass music festivals, and therefore applaud this move to increasing breadth of programming. Nevertheless, I write this preview of one of New England's oldest and most respected bluegrass festivals with some trepidation because of its reluctance to book a few great draws.

Dancing on the Deck within Site of the Main Stage

The Lineup
Grass Routes

Grass Routes is a Connecticut-based regional bluegrass band in which each member sings lead, making it possible for them to present a variety of moods, tones, and sounds. Grass Routes appears on Thursday and Friday.

Gail Wade and Turning Point

Gale Wade & Turning Point is also a Connecticut band with a strong presence in the New England region, although we've seen Gale as a solo at WDVX in Knoxville and Bristol Rhythm and Roots. The band presents lots of Wade's personal singer/songwriter material as well as fine bluegrass covers. Her band will appear on Thursday and Sunday.

The Boxcar Lillies

The Boxcar Lillies came together in 2009 from three distinctively different musical backgrounds - bluegrass and traditional country, contemporary country and rock, and singer/songwriter folk. They have merged the three into a trio featuring tight harmony, their own songs, and strong instrumentation. We've never heard the band, but look forward to them. They will appear on Thursday and Saturday.

South Carolina Broadcasters

The South Carolina Broadcasters are an old-time trio featuring tight harmonies and showmanship. They play a national schedule and have been making an increasingly broad impression. We first saw them three years ago at the RenoFest band contest. They appear on Thursday, Friday and Saturday.

Cold Chocolate

Cold Chocolate has emerged from the red hot Boston music scene as an Americana band of which John Lawless of Bluegrass Today has said, "Their sound...lies somewhere between folk and blugrass, hoping to offer something to fans across the spectrum." Cold Chocolate performs on Thursday and presents a workshop on Friday.

Shaded Camping 

Flatt Rabbitt

Flatt Rabbitt is also a Boston-based bluegrass band with a traditional bent. They open the Main Stage on Friday and Sunday. I'm looking forward to hearing this band, several of whose members are friends of ours.

Nora Jane Struthers

Nora Jane Struthers & Party Line is headed by singer/songwriter Nora Jane Struthers and is making an increasingly wide impression on the bluegrass and Americana stages around the country. She has played with the Alaska-based band Barefoot, and is now based in Nashville. The band recently appeared at Merlefest and showcased at IBMA two years ago. Nora Jane appears on Friday on both stages.

Nora Jane Struthers

Cricket Tell the Weather

Cricket Tell the Weather calls itself a progressive bluegrass band containing elements of bluegrass, folk, rock, pop, and chamber ensemble. Andrea Asprelli and Jacob Borisoff won the Podunk Song Writing Contest three years ago. Cricket Tells the Weather appears on Friday..

Monica Rizzio & Old Kings Highway

With roots in East Texas and a dozen years in New England, Monica Rizzio brings a range of background and experience to her song writing and singing. She is best known in the Cape Cod area, but bent on spreading her wings. She has a warm, rich singing voice well suited to Americana, singer/songwriter performances. Monica Rizzio & Old Kings Highway performs on Friday.

Tennessee Mafia Jug Band

The Tennessee Mafia Jug Band is a nationally recognized band which appears frequently on the Ronnie Reno Hour on RFD-TV. Still mourning the loss of founding member Lester Armistead, this band will remain a breath of humorous fresh air in the largely too serious world of bluegrass tradition. Leroy Troy, a serious student of famous vaudeville performers like Uncle Dave Macon continues a tradition of musical clowning within a musical group providing a range of traditional music and novelty songs. The band will appear on Friday and Saturday.

The Greencards

The Greencards arrived in America from Australia as a bluegrass band in 2002 and have morphed into one of the most durable and popular Americana bands on tour and in their recordings. With their unique song stylings and personalities, this band is a perennial Strawberry Park favorite. The Greencards appear on Friday.

Kym Warner

Carol Young

The Claire Lynch Band

Claire Lynch has proven herself to be one of the most durable and popular singers in bluegrass and across genres in acoustic music. She has been named IBMA Female three times over a sixteen year period, her most recent award coming in 2013. Her repertoire runs from classic bluegrass through swing to jazz inflected songs. Her current band contains superlative musicians who provide support for her singing and create a wonderful and highly listenable ensemble sound. The Claire Lynch band will appear on Friday and Sunday.

The Workshop Stage

Hot Mustard

Hot Mustard specializes in traditional bluegrass material with a difference, the difference being that it often features a double banjo approach developed through a state arts council grant several years ago. Composed of two married couples, the artistic spirit grows from banjo master Bruce Stockwell's wizardry. This new England based band is worth hearing. Hot Mustard appears on Saturday and Sunday.

Sierra Hull

Watching Sierra Hull develop from a little girl mandolin player who was surely a wiz into a mature sprite of a young woman who rightfully belongs with the giants of the instrument has been a pure joy. Along with her instrumental virtuosity and confidence, she has developed a strong, expressive voice that brings it all home. Surrounding herself with excellent musicians who are fine soloists on their own and dedicated to helping her sound wonderful hasn't hurt either, nor did the two years spent as a student at Berklee College in Boston. The Sierra Hull Band is about to embark on an around the world trip under the auspices of the State Department's American Voices Abroad program.

Sierra Hull

Stray Birds

Kim Ruehl of No Depression wrote on About.com, "The Stray Birds may have shown up on the national folk circuit a year or two ago, but 2013 was when they really started to step up their game. Building on the sparseness of guitar, fiddle, bass, and three-part harmonies, the Stray Birds manage to create sounds together that are no less than transcendent." That's pretty strong praise from a respected music writer. I missed their IBMA sets last year, but plan on taking a close look at them at Strawberry Park.


The Boxcars bring superlative picking, straight ahead bluegrass, and no fuss or excessive show to the bluegrass stage. If that's your wont, they're your band! Adam Steffey is ten time IBMA Mandolin Player of the Year while Ron Stewart has won both Fiddle Player of the Year and Banjo Player of the Year. No other individual has scored on two instruments. The Boxcars are three time Instrumental Group of the Year and were also awarded Emerging Artist of the Year in 2011. They were also nominated for a Grammy as Best Bluegrass Album of 2013. That's a lot of recognition for a band that's as new as this one. The Boxcars appear on Saturday.

Adam Steffey

Dry Branch Fire Squad

Dry Branch Fire Squad returns to Strawberry Park after a year's absence, having performed at every other year of the festival. Combining topical humor with their own characteristic version of mountain bluegrass, DBFS is well beloved by many bluegrass fans. I like to think of Ron Thomason's monologues as being the bluegrass equivalent to Will Rogers form of political and social commentary. Dry Branch Fire Squad will appear on Saturday and Sunday, although their very popular Sunday gospel set has been moved to the workshop stage.

Ron Thomason singing "He's Coming to Us Dead"

Sometimes it Rains

And Sometimes It's Fine


It's hard to remember that The Grascals have been a highly successful road band since originating at a group of bluegrass sidemen performing at The Station Inn on weekday nights. They've established a distinctive sound and enthusiastic vibe with their combination of Osborne Brothers and Jimmy Martin covers with carefully chosen contemporary songs that stay well within the traditional bluegrass mold. Kristin Scott Benson has been named IBMA Banjo Player of the Year four times since joining the band. She's the only woman performer to win the award since Alison Brown won in 1991, and the only woman to have won more than once. 

Kristin Scott Benson

The Details

Information about free ticketing and free camping in the rough can be found here. Read this fairly carefully, especially the list of rules. The camping areas are spacious. Note the added cost for rough parking on the ball field, the center of Strawberry Park jamming. You can print out the schedule here.

How to Get to Strawberry Park
Place your address in the o and click on the for your personalized route

It's a little difficult to tell what the producers intend for the Workshop Stage, since the listing is only for the band to make an appearance there except for a few designated workshops.  Whether these appearances turn into further performances  or an opportunity for fans to discuss and ask questions seems pretty much up in the air. The lineup for the festival this year emphasizes Americana and progressive music on Friday with a much heavier bluegrass representation on Saturday. The Festival should be applauded for programming more women than any other festival we attend. I've long recommended mixed music festivals and wish Strawberry Park well as it appears to move in a more progressive musical tradition, seeking a younger audience more open to hearing alternatives while still satisfying more traditional fans. The festival is to be congratulated for its willingness to program local and regional bands, taking its responsibility to offer fans new musical experiences. It risks collapsing attendance into Friday and Saturday by repeating all Thursday's bands and most of Sunday's on other days.  We'll be there all four days and look forward to having a wonderful time seeing old friends, making new ones, being introduced to new bands and enjoying some of our old favorites.

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