The Delaware Valley Bluegrass Festival, winner of the International Bluegrass Music Association's (IBMA) Event of the Year award in 2016, will run from September 1 - 3, 2017 (Labor Day weekend) at the Salem County Fairground in Salem, NJ, just a few miles north of the Delaware Memorial Bridge, and within a convenient distance for, perhaps, fifty million people on the East Coast. Founded by Bill Monroe and Ralph Stanley in 1971, Delaware Valley is owned and operated the the Brandywine Friends of Old Time Music. Boasting the most varied yet cohesive lineup and approach to a festival of any event we attend, Delaware Valley remains the only one built on a theory and consistent to its governing principals while presenting music from the most traditional to the cutting edge. Well run by its Board and a large enthusiastic group of volunteers, our only regret is that this will be only the third time we've attended.
The LineupWhile billed as a three day festival, Delaware Valley is jam-packed on Labor Day weekend, beginning on Thursday and running through a full day schedule on Sunday ending at near 6:00 PM. The lineup remains true to the charter established by Brandywine Friends of Old Time Music, representing the roots of bluegrass, the best of bluegrass, and a generous sampling of the variety of music that have given bluegrass its prominence influencing every element of American roots music. Each band is carefully selected to present the best in bluegrass and associated music representing the many strands that have contributed to its development.
Junior Sisk, 2013 IBMA Male Vocalist of the Year, sings traditional bluegrass songs, with a particular love for the Stanley Brothers, as well as contemporary songs that have a distinctly traditional ring to them. His high, tenor voice often distracts people from recognizing that he's one of the finest rhythm guitar players in the business. During the last few years, his band has jelled as members have stayed with him and grown into a tight, cohesive group. With fine musicians across the line, this Virginia band is a perfect choice to kick off a festival that presents high tradition and the newest of the new.
April Verch comes from Ontario's Ottawa Valley, in Canada, where she was nurtured on old-time fiddle and dance music in her traditional style, but leavened with having attended Berklee College of Music along with over twenty years of touring. Enlivening her fiddle play with step dancing and singing, she's a one person whirling dervish supported by Cody Walters on Bass and Alex Rubin on guitar, she offers a lively and enjoyable show.
If there's a host band at Delaware Valley, it's Danny Paisley and the Southern Grass. With echoes of Ashe County North Carolina, the vibrant post-WW II bar scene in Baltimore, and two gone but not forgotten nearby venues New River Ranch and Sunset Park, Paisley comes from Chester County in Pennsylvania, but his music reaches back to the dawn of bluegrass. Recently joined by his son Ryan on mandolin, this band represents three generations of bluegrass royalty. It's always a pleasure to see T.J. Lundy on fiddle keeping the two family element of this band intact. Danny appears on both Friday and Saturday.
I've never written, "This band needs no introduction" but....The Gibson Brothers, with a new CD, In the Ground, comprised completely of Gibson Brothers written songs, comes pretty close to that intro as one of the hardest working and most visible of the top touring bands. Their tight brother harmonies, songs that are becoming almost an autobiography, and witty stage by-play have moved them to the pinnacle, while their creative energy continues unabated.
Asleep at the Wheel
Almost fifteen years after seeing Asleep at the Wheel at Merlefest, we get to see once more this iconic Texas Swing band, whose music is fashioned after the great Bob Wills. Ray Benson, standing impressive at 6' 7" Philadelphia born musician who moved to Texas at the suggestion of Willie Nelson, has celebrated this 1940's sound. To get a sense of Ray, his history and personality, read this interview in a 2007 issue of Texas Monthly. Texas swing has had a huge influence on bluegrass fiddling, including, especially, Byron Birline, recognized by IBMA with a Lifetime Achievement Award in 2012.
Becky Buller has been a mainstay side musician, composer, and humorous side-kick in bluegrass for well over a decade. After years in this role, she stepped up to fronting her own band three years ago, and emerged full-fledged with IBMA awards as Emerging Artist of the Year and Songwriter of the Year in 2015 as well as last year's Awards as Female Vocalist of the Year and Fiddle Player of the Year. Her songs reflect her home-grown Minnesota faith as well as her complex knowledge of Appalachian ways nurtured at ETSU.
Charm City Junction
A look at the Delaware Valley history shows that few bands appear there in successive years. Therefore, the appearance of Charm City Junction, for a second year in a row, signals, as it did with Sister Sadie last year, the emergence of a new and exciting band with a unique sound. Patrick McAvinue, a founding partner, still manages to perform with Charm City, despite the fact he's also the regular fiddler now for Dailey & Vincent. Specializing in old-timey, hard driving bluegrass, and Celtic music with it's own particular instrumentation, including the Irish button accordion, this band breeds excitement and generates fans wherever it goes.
The Grascals began life, about a dozen years ago, as a band of Nashville touring and session musicians who wanted to make music together when not on tour. They became the house band at the World Famous Station Inn, the go-to musical hangout for bluegrass and traditional country musicians in Music City. As a band of side musicians, there have been changes, but the basic Grascals sound, comprised of heavy doses of Osborne Brothers music, bows to Dolly Parton, and a series of top-notch originals, continues up-beat and fast paced. Adam Haynes has been a mainstay on fiddle for quite a while. John Bryan, with his fine tenor voice and very good flat picking, helped rejuvenate the band when he joined them three years ago. Sit back and enjoy!
Of course, a Dixieland band! Both years we've been to Delaware Valley, there's been a band the defies logic...until you think about it. Whether it's Steve Reilly & the Mamou Playboys in 2015, or the Malpass Brothers in 2016, there are bands that play music that has influenced bluegrass or been influenced by it included in this festival's lineup. Tuba Skinny, from New Orleans describes itself as a "loose collection of street musicians" which has traveled over much of the world bringing the rich musical culture of its home town to new audiences. In some sense New Orleans can be seen as the Appalachia of jazz, traveling up the Mississippi to cast its influence even on Bill Monroe. The mixing pot of American music is rich. This band belongs because of its connections as well as giving a change of pace.
Sometime, if you are sitting close enough to see it, shut out the famous high lonesome voice, the incredible band, the songs that come from the deepest heart of bluegrass history, and all the awards. Just watch Del McCoury's right hand. The pick seems to be moving as if it were held between a bunch of little fingers lodged somewhere between Del's thumb and forefinger, changing angles, capturing a note, brushing over others, and always, always contributing to the complex rhythms of bluegrass. In fact, Del McCoury may be the best rhythm guitar player ever. The Del McCoury band will perform in one long set closing Saturday night. Again, as he usually does, Del will call for requests and then sing the songs he wants to sing, while people can say, "He heard my request and played it."
Sunday at Delaware Valley traditionally opens with performances by the Kids Academy, which has worked throughout the festival to produce its show, and a demonstration by Crab Grass, a project of the Cab Calloway School of the Arts in nearby suburban Wilmington. The rest of the day's program, with one show per band and closing with the rapidly rising young band Flatt Lonesome at 5:00 PM. Since there's another day left in the long weekend, those attending often stay for some surprises as well, this year, with two important and highly recognized national bands. In many ways, Sunday's schedule presents a history of the development of old-time and bluegrass music in the eras covered and modes of performance.
Kids Academy at Work
Tuesday Mountain Boys
Tuesday Mountain Boys Big Spike Hammer from Walter Burke on Vimeo.
The Delaware Valley Kids Academy is directed by veteran teacher/performer Ira Gitlin with help from the professional and supportive staff. Linked here are details about the program as well as an application to fill out and return. Open to all kids age 6 - 18.
Kids Academy at Work
Cab Grass is a club at Cab Calloway School of the Arts, a magnet school of Red Clay Consolidated School District, located in Wilmington enrolling nearly 1000 students. Directed by Steven Field, who also works with the Delaware Valley Kids Academy, this talented group of young people has appeared on Sunday morning for several years.
Tuesday Mountain Boys
Tuesday Mountain Boys Big Spike Hammer from Walter Burke on Vimeo.
The Tuesday Mountain Boys is a Bluegrass band whose members are associated with the Brandywine Friends of Old Time Music, the sponsor of the Delaware Valley Bluegrass Festival. It embodies the enduring qualities of bluegrass as a grass roots participant, folk music so loved by its adherents that they get together regularly for fellowship and to make music.
Bob Amos & Catamount Crossing
Bob Amos, leader of the widely popular band Front Range (1990 - 2003) has moved home to northern Vermont and created a new band, Bob Amos & Catamount Crossing, which has become well-known in New England for its crisp bluegrass originals as well as its renditions of classic bluegrass from the traditional repertoire, with an emphasis on Ralph Stanley's music. The band features Bob's daughter Sarah on vocals. Bob also has built Stark Brook Studio in far northern St. Johnsbury, VT which is becoming a go-to studio for its high production qualities and Amos's work with developing bands.
Big Country Bluegrass
Founded in the 1980's by Tommy and Theresa Sells, all the members of Big Country Bluegrass come from SW Virginia and North Carolina, along the Blue Ridge. They embody the traditional sounds and values of the culture and music of this region where the traditional gatherings on back porches, cracker barrel general stores, and churches that became bluegrass music were handed down by generations of Scots-Irish people who immigrated to this region in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Perhaps no other national band better emphasizes this tradition than this one does.
What do you get when you take stringband music from the first half of the twentieth century (think Charlie Poole and Fiddlin' John Carson) and present it using contemporary sound recording equipment and a modern sensibility? You get the Foghorn Stringband from Portland, Oregon. With fifteen years of successful national and international touring and eight albums, they have set a standard for the emerging string band movement in Americana music.
Blue Highway has been together for over twenty years with only one major change in their lineup, as young Gaven Largent has replaced the legendary Rob Ickes in the band. Pictured above are four original members (Shawn Lane, Jason Burleson, Wayne Taylor, and Tim Stafford) in their conformation as an acapella gospel quartet. Their repertoire runs from old time harp singing through the traditional repertoire, to a seemingly never-ending flood of original songs from this band whose thirteen CD's have established them as one of the most creative and popular bands in bluegrass. Their list of IBMA awards is simply too long and varied to list here. Original Traditional, their most recent recording was nominated for a 2017 Grammy award.
Paul Harrigill & Kelsi Robertson Harrigill
Flatt Lonesome has risen quickly in the bluegrass world, where longevity is often as important as brilliance. Coming out of the small Florida/Georgia border town of Callahan, they were first noted for their tight sister harmonies and fervent gospel singing. They have emerged as a full-fledged bluegrass band offering music from across the board, with lots of traditional country influence in their singing and playing. They have chosen their mentors carefully and worked hard to advance. Today, most members of the band are located in Alabama, close enough to Nashville to be readily available, but not close enough to be infected by its destructive elements. They received a strong boost from multi-day appearances at Musicians Against Childhood Cancer in Ohio. This year, they're scheduled for performances at the Grand Ole Opry as well as venues from Maine to Florida. We believe we saw their first festival appearance at the Newell Lodge Bluegrass Festival in Folkston, GA. Their trajectory has been directed nowhere but upward since then.
Paul Harrigill & Kelsi Robertson Harrigill
It's a festival, not a concert. Make sure you allow plenty of time to stroll the fairground streets and visit the pavilions, some of which are used by vendors, for performances, as an artist's merchandise store, practice area for Kids Academy, instruction for Jam Camp, a permanent vending area for complete meals, and a covered camping area. Make sure you stop at the t-shirt vendor or for some fine ice cream and much more.
Kids Academy provides kids ages 6 - 18 to gain experience playing bluegrass style music and appreciating what it has to offer as well as enjoying the fun of playing together. Registration materials and additional information can be found here.
Kids Academy Staff
Jam Camp: A Wernick Method Jam Camp will be offered again by certified Wernick Instructor Heidi Olson running for all three days in the morning from 10:00 until noon. The Jam Camp carries an additional charge. Participants who wish to learn to jam find these experiences build confidence as well as being good fun. Heidi has extensive experience working with Pete Wernick (Dr. Banjo) whose camps are known and presented world wide. During hours when the Jam Camp is not in session, the space becomes Jam Central Station, a place where novice jammers can gather to make music together.
Heidi Olson Leads Jam Camp
Jamming: Delaware Valley is a field picking (jamming) paradise. The grounds are exceptionally spacious and jams can be found all over the place, practically twenty-four hours a day. Pick up your instrument and take a walk. You'll find a jam. However, all jams are NOT created equal. Pay attention to whether you're welcomed into a jam, tolerated, or clearly not wanted. Act accordingly. For an overview of jam etiquette, Pete Wernick is your best source. Here's what he has to say about etiquette.
Kids Activities: On Friday and Saturday The Childrens Stage presents programs aimed at kids starting at 1:00 PM and repeated at 3:00. Songs, Stories, Magic, and Folk Songs will keep your child involved for a couple of hours, or longer, while you enjoy the show with them. The schedule is here. The stage is covered and there is bleacher seating.
Chris Capehart - Magician
Vendors: No festival we've ever attended, except Merlefest, has as wide and comprehensive a selection of vendors at Delaware Valley. There's a wide variety of food choices with covered seating and a permanent kitchen or from more portable booths, craft vendors ranging from fine instruments to musical gear, CD's and vinyl records (not many tapes these days), crafts, and, of course, the t-shirt vendor, where you can purchase stuff to wear to tell others about the festival.
Clogging Workshop: FiddleKicks will be hosting a clogging workshop at 3:00 PM on Friday and Saturday. Here's a handout to help you prepare.
The All-Important Details
Tickets: A number of ticket programs are available, with discounts the earlier you order. You can find the complete list here. Tickets may be ordered online or a form for mail order ticket ordering is available for download and printing.
Camping: There is unlimited free camping in open areas with a few shaded sites on the periphery of Salem County Fairgrounds. There are limited 20 amp electric sites and a few standpipes where you can get water. The grounds do not open to the public until 8:00 AM on Wednesday, August 31st, due to the contract the festival has with Salem County Fairgrounds. Campsites are on a first come - first served basis. Often, areas are lined out to make space for groups to camp together. Most campsites are in the open and it's often hot, therefore, pets should be left home. Read the camping page for more information. Here's a list of nearby motel accommodations available.
The Most Important Aide-de-Campers
How to Get to Delaware Valley Bluegrass Festival
Click on the map, Place you location in the space marked 0
The Delaware Valley Bluegrass Festival is one of the premier festivals in the country. It's carefully designed, innovative in the way it presents traditional music along with themes and variations upon it, allowing bands from the cutting edge as well as related bands that help emphasize the Board of Directors' commitment to old time and bluegrass music. What a wonderful way to close the summer bluegrass festival season!