Okay, so it's not my field. But it is a field, and a mighty big one at that. Packed to the tree lines with pickers, grinners and listeners, the Walsh farm in Oak Hill, New York becomes the home of the Greyfox Bluegrass Festival every third weekend in July. Named the International Bluegrass Music Association's Bluegrass Event of the year in 2009, Greyfox has assembled the finest talent and steadfast fans for over thirty years. Neither rain nor sleet ( hmmm...) nor gloom of night keeps the legions of devotees from lining up in anticipation of the opening of the Greyfox gates. While at its former location in Ancramdale, New York ( the festival moved in 2008 to Oak Hill ), a pre-festival tradition of camping at the bottom of the hill began in order to secure prime camping real estate. Dubbed "The Foxhole", it is now held about 4 miles from the current festival site on the Allan farm. Bluegrass enthusiasts Elsie and Jim Allan welcome the not yet tired and weary as they pick and party their way through the week before the actual event. "Gumbo Night" serves up a grand finale to the Foxhole and the masses move on to the "Really Big Shoe".
Born in 1976 and christened the Berkshire Mountains Bluegrass Festival, the gathering was eventually named "Winterhawk" and spent its first 30 years in Ancramdale, NY on a beautiful sunset-blessed hillside belonging to the Rothvoss family. Ten years ago, Winterhawk became Grey Fox when one of the founding partners decided to part ways with the administration. In January 2008, the Rothvoss farm was sold and an intense search ended at the Walsh farm in time for that year's festival. Renamed and relocated, the spirit of Grey Fox lives on and flourishes as more fans discover its magic.
I first experienced Winterhawk in the mid-eighties as a fledgling banjo player. Lacking the confidence to insert myself into a jam, I stood on the sidelines and watched as musicians traded solos and sang in harmony. While I may have been under equipped to join in the music making at the campsites, I was able to bask in the talent flowing from the main stage. The best of the best in bluegrass took to the floorboards year after year, from the Father of Bluegrass, Bill Monroe to the progressive heat of the powerhouse New Grass Revival. Doc Watson's brilliant guitar stylings were served with the warmth and humor of his front porch demeanor. A young Alison Krauss celebrated a birthday during a set, going on to win 27 Grammys during the course of a career that continues to spread the bluegrass word. In 1989, I watched as Pete Wernick of Hot Rize took the stage after surviving the crash of United Airlines flight 232 in an Iowa corn field. There are eight million stories in the Naked Bluegrass City; this has been one of them.
Twenty years later, I'm setting up a tent on a patch of grass thoughtfully reserved for me by my friends. It's hot. Sweat pours from my face as I put together the poles and bid farewell to my vanity. My hair will be flat, my feet will be dirty and my hygienic routine will be compromised. I could very easily forgo camping these days- my home is situated on a wooded lot and offers daily access to Mother Nature and her wonders. As I question the sanity of signing up for three days of blistering sun and steaming Porta-potties, I hear the answer.
A novice fiddler practices intently alongside her parents' camper, while a spirited jam session kicks up a few sites away. Young, dreadlocked, and decidedly bohemian, the folks on the other side of our temporary road pay homage to Jerry Garcia. A cluster of old timers play it like Jimmy Martin; a young man on jazz keyboards plays it nothing like Jimmy. Music. It's all here and it's all good.
We arrive with our instruments and our arsenals of material in hopes of sharing our musical thoughts and enthusiasm with fellow pickers. Although the main stage line-up is top notch, I am drawn to Grey Fox by the promise of finding that special jam session, that moment where it all comes together. Even if it never happens or if I come up against material I don't know or can't execute, I pack up my shortcomings and head home to prepare for the next festival. Move 'em out, Rawhide!
Music as an art form is organic and ever changing. Bluegrass traditions are preserved while new ideas emerge and evolve. Having spent his lifetime pioneering and creating the "high lonesome sound", Bill Monroe considered himself the father and caretaker of bluegrass. When a new band didn't perform to his standards, he would say, "That ain't no part of nothing." With all due respect, I disagree. It's all part of something; something which draws thousands of people to festivals across the country. We step out of our lives, into our cars and campers, and settle down in the middle of a musical encampment that will disappear in a few days. It is our Brigadoon, if you will, but we don't have to wait a hundred years for the gates to open again. See you next year.
Originally from Pennsylvania, I graduated from Penn State University with a degree in printmaking. And so I waitressed-first in my hometown and then at the Plaza Hotel in New York City. I now live in upstate New York with my husband and dog, play bluegrass music and work on my photography skills. I also spend inordinate amounts of time in the gym to ward off middle age as it nips me in the behind.