Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Out Standing In My Field

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.

Photo by Dan Tressler. Thanks, shmerrr.


  1. Have a great time, Joan! I admire your courage, tenacity and talent!


  2. well said!!! This festival has been the major event of my life for over 30 years. My group is in it's 3rd generation, and our youngest member (2 yrs old) said it all "I want to go see the muuuusic Mommy"

  3. Well written piece indeed. I was part of the throng at the Walsh farm a couple of weeks ago too. I played the part of a Medical Volunteer but in reality I was a pre-novice banjo picker that has been staring at my instrument in it's case of the other side of the room, afraid to pick it up after a bad learning experience..... for 30 years now.
    After reading your note, I think I might just open that case and start plunking a bit. Maybe next year you'll see me tentatively walking and listening to the different jam sessions that I enjoyed all weekend this year.
    Tom the EMT

  4. Excellent writing, Joan, and fond memories of our Grey Fox experience!
    The joy of Grey Fox, or any such festival I imagine, is not just the actual time spent out in a field under the stars, but the reflection of those moments that take place for a lifetime thereafter. We've all been privy to a wonderful time of sharing with a musical family. See you next year and, whatever you do, keep on writing - you're terrific.

  5. I dont think it could've been written any better! Grey fox is a wonderful festival, full of people who care enough to keep it that way. I am thrilled to be a part of it and look forward to many more years of the experience!

  6. Thanks Joan beautifully said - hope we can jam soon!

  7. REALLY well written and a treat to read! Your love and commitment to bluegrass was expressed beautifully in this post.

    Did you ever consider doing music festival reviews? writing and submitting... you really did a great job of capturing the feel of the fest.

    from your heart and eyes to their ears... WELL DONE JOAN!!!

  8. Great story! Sounds like a fun weekend of good friends and good music!