Tuesday, May 10, 2016

Strawberry Park Bluegrass Festival - June 2 - 5, 2016: Preview

The Strawberry Park Bluegrass Festival, now going into its 39th season, running from June 2 - June 5, 2016, is one of the oldest and most respected bluegrass events in New England. In recent years the park has been through a bad patch, affecting the bluegrass festival which declined, almost to extinction, a few years ago. Happily, I can say that Strawberry Park as a camping destination with the festival as one of its signature events is back. After a few mis-steps under the new management unfamiliar with bluegrass music and the bluegrass culture, the festival has returned most of the policies relevant to the bluegrass community to earlier days, while continuing to pour money into the facility, improving it in every way. Jamming 24 hours a day has been re-instituted on the ball field, quiet hours enforced in the campground, and, best of all, the lineup has returned to its former position of encouraging innovative, new bands and presenting strong traditional ones. If you had given up on Strawberry Park, it deserves your re-appraisal. If you've never been there before, give it a try. You won't be sorry,

The Lineup
Twisted Pine

Winner of the Fresh Grass and Thomas Point Beach band competitions in 2014, nominated for IBMA Momentum Award in 2015, and placing second in the 2015 Rocky Grass band competition in Colorado, Twisted Pine is creating lots of buzz across the nation. Brought together in the roiling musical environment surrounding Berklee College of Music, this band represents another chance, often arising at Strawberry Park, to be able to say, "I saw them when they were just starting out."

Lonely Heartstring Band

The Lonely Heartstring Band is at the next step in the process. Recently signed by Rounder Records with their first CD being released this spring, this band, originating as a Beatles cover band when they were asked to play at a wedding doing bluegrass. They have extended their repertoire from classic traditional bluegrass, through eerily familiar covers to wondrous music written within the band. Each time we see them, they have new wonders to perform. 

The Zolla Boys

The Zola Boys are developing in their home environment under the tutelage of their father and others. They are progressing well with both their singing and their playing, and getting plenty of attention around New England.

Vendors Row

Bob Amos & Catamount Crossing
Bob Amos and Sarah Amos

Hailing from the northern reaches of Vermont, Bob Amos & Catamount Crossing features Bob Amos, former lead singer of the Colorado band Front Range along with his daughter Sarah, and former Front Range member Bob Dick. The band also includes the able playing of Steve Wright, Freeman Cory, and Gary Darling. The song writing is first rate, the musicianship enjoyable, and the pace just right. Sit back and enjoy this band. 

Bob Amos

Michael Cleveland & Flamekeeper

Michael Cleveland has been named the IBMA Fiddle Player of the Year ten times. His band is well selected to highlight the remarkable range of his talents while also showcasing first rate singer Josh Richards. You'll find this band to play entertaining and hard-driving bluegrass. When Mike's on the bill with the Kruger brothers, he often is called to the stage for a rousing jam with them. 

The Kruger Brothers

The Kruger Brothers arrived in Wilkesboro, NC from their native Switzerland about twenty years ago because it was near where Doc Watson lived. They settled into the community, playing mountain music and bluegrass, but their questing spirit has taken them many other places. Jens Kruger writes music for banjo and classical orchestras and string quartets. He plays the instrument like no-one else ever has, finding color and depth in his banjo where others have never before imagined. His greatness might cause first-time listeners to underrate the remarkable talents of his brother Uwe on guitar and vocals, and the third Kruger Brother, Joel Landsberg, whose bass playing holds it all together. If you haven't seen this group, you've missed a transcendent musical experience. If your already a fan, be ready for old favorites and a few new surprises. 

Uwe Kruger

The Gibson Brothers

If you remember that all of New England is about the size of Indiana, and then add in northern New York's windswept, cold farmland between the Adirondacks and the Canadian border, than you can think of the Gibson Brothers as a home grown band. But in the years since they won the IBMA Emerging Artist award in 1998, they've won awards, taken risks, and built their own songs into the jams heard at almost every festival we attend. Their songs are tuneful and catchy while challenging the imagination and the intellect with ideas about the toll modern life takes on traditional values. Mandolinist Jesse Brock was awarded his second Mandolin Player of the Year in 2015. Their latest CD will probably be released in the fall, but many of the new songs are currently being showcased at festivals around the country.  For scheduling reasons, they'll be doing a double set in the early evening at Strawberry Park.  

Steep Canyon Rangers

The Steeps, as many of their fans call them, have had a remarkable career. Getting together as a bluegrass band while undergraduates, they toured hard and then had a rare stroke of luck, being asked to tour as Steve Martin's back-up band. Such a career opportunity can become as much of a problem as a blessing. The Steep Canyon Rangers have chosen the latter, and while still touring with Martin, they have also forged a new and exciting sound for themselves, built around their own song writing, the remarkable fiddle virtuosity of Nicky Sanders, and their fine singing and instrumental work. It's a treat to see them continuing to play bluegrass festivals, while they also are appearing at events like Bonnaroo and in concert halls around the country. They will close on Friday night with one long set.

Snack Bar Offering New & Improved Menu

Box Car Lillies

The Boxcar Lillies will be appearing at Strawberry Park for the third consecutive year with their fine close harmonies and solid song writing. Their music, trending toward a folk/Americana is quite engaging. They come from Massachusett's Pioneer Valley.

Dry Branch Fire Squad

With the retirements of two long-time members of Dry Branch Fire Squad, the band has entered into a new era. Adam McIntosh on guitar, mandolin, and harmony vocals has returned to the band while Jeff Bird plays the bass and sings it, too. Nevertheless, Ron Thomason remains the center of this forty year old band with his humorous and sometimes cutting commentary, passionate advocacy of tradition, and lots of good old bluegrass and bluegrass gospel music. He has only missed one Strawberry Park in its history, and his Sunday morning gospel sets are always much looked forward to and appreciated. 

Ron Thomason - Hamboning

Bryan Sutton Band

Bryan Sutton has been named IBMA Guitar Player of Year the nine times, won a Grammy award, and is the most sought after flat-picker in Nashville as a session player. This is an unusual combination, as work as a session player requires skills quite different from those of a regular performer. He has toured with Chris Thile as a member of his "How to Grow a Band" tour, seen at Strawberry Park. For the past couple of years has been featured with Hot Rize on their reunion tour. Now he appears with his own band on a limited tour. Every connoisseur of the guitar should look forward to hearing this unique stylist and the crew he has drawn around him for this tour. 

Della Mae

Della Mae, under the leadership of fiddler Kimber Ludiker, has pioneered new triumphs and opened many doors for all woman bands in the twenty-first century. Just returned from another State Department sponsored tour, this one to Vietnam, they draw with melody, gusto, and skillful enthusiasm from songs championing working women to bluesy explorations, rock influenced material, and traditional bluegrass, where most of them began. They're truly an exceptional band, who have been returning to Strawberry Park, where they were featured early in their career. 

Gary Nichols

The SteelDrivers won a Grammy with last year's recording The Muscle Shoals Sessions, featuring the fine singing and song writing of Gary Nichols. His blues inflected singing and guitar playing continue the tradition of the band that brings the blues back to bluegrass. When the SteelDrivers take the stage, you know you're in for an exciting evening of music that grabs your head and your heart and just won't let go. With this band, you always know that the band not only makes great music, but they have a wonderful time with each other and with their audience as they deliver. 

Tammy Rogers


Sunday at Strawberry Park is often a pretty laid back affair. After Dry Branch Fire Squad offers its Sunday morning gospel show, two fine regional bands entertain into the afternoon. It's a warm friendly way to end what sure looks like a perfectly exciting and well-designed weekend. 

Hot Flashes

Composed of three familiar singer/songwriters known to New England audiences, this band has fun and delivers good music. Peggy Harvey, Amy Gallatin, and Gail Wade have all been around for a long time in their own bands and as side musicians. Here, the focus is on the trio, singing and having some fun, too. Look for Roger and J.D. Williams, Eric Levinson, and maybe some others to join this band for two sets that will be fun.

Stockwell Brothers

The Stockwell Brothers have been familiar in New England as performers, teachers, music producers, and recording engineers for decades. The Strawberry Park audience is familiar with Bruce Stockwell, a marvelous banjo innovator and teacher to many of New England's better banjo players. Bruce won the Merlefest banjo contest in 2005. His wife, Kelly, plays bass in the band. Brothers Al, on mandolin, and Barry, on guitar and singing lead, join in for this joyous romp through several decades of folk, folk-rock, and bluegrass as well as some contemporary music they found. This is a solid band you'll be seeing more often in the future. 

This year's lineup at Strawberry Park is a sure demonstration that Strawberry Park is back, bringing the best in traditional and cutting edge bluegrass music. You can see the actual schedule here. Now, let's look at the details.

The Details

When: The Strawberry Park Bluegrass Festival runs from Thursday June 2, 2016 through Sunday June 5, 2016. The show continues outdoors in the fine natural amphitheater rain or shine. In the years we've been attending this festival, it has moved indoors once for a day. Come prepared for all varieties of Spring New England weather.

Part of the Pool Complex

New Splash Area

Where: The Strawberry Park Campground is located in Preston, CT at 42 Pierce Road. It is a comprehensive campground with 350 RV sites offering water/electric/sewer/cable TV. It also has numerous permanent sites occupied summer residents. Many of these are for rent, too. After falling into bankruptcy several years ago, it has been acquired by Elite Resorts, which operates a number of destination campgrounds, most of which are in Florida. Strawberry Park has added/renovated many of its facilities and amenities. Take a look here.

Pool Area

Transient Campsites

Jamming:  Many bluegrass fans also play bluegrass themselves and love to jam at festivals. At Strawberry Park, a large ball field within a short walk of both the performance area and the activities complex has been set aside for 24/7 jamming. There's no quiet time provided for, although even bluegrass jammers do eventually go to sleep. This area provides rough camping at no cost, including camping in the jamming area on the ball field. The management does ask that you call to reserve a spot there, though. Many jammers will be pleased to know that, once again, Strawberry Park is jamming friendly. Quiet hours in the campground will be observed from Midnight until 8:00 AM.

Tickets & Reservations: Tickets may be purchased on line here. There are a number of ticket options. For camping reservations,  call 860-886-1944. To see a map of the entire park, look here. In addition to camping, the park owns about fifty rental units scattered around its neighborhoods. While these go quickly, there may still be some of them available for the bluegrass festival. For those not wishing to stay on site, there are a number of nearby hotels and motels. 

The twentieth annual Cajun Zydeco Festival is held the weekend after the bluegrass festival. You can make reservations to stay for the following week,  if you enjoy different kinds of music. If you're interested, check it out here.

How to Get to Strawberry Park
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Carl Landi - Promoter