“How about a prison song?” asked Blue Highway’s Tim Stafford as Day 3 of the 40th Festival of the Bluegrass Day reconvened last night at the Kentucky Horse Park.
Sure. Why not? The afternoon performances boasted requisite songs of death, bedevilment, betrayal, heartbreak, heavy drinking (the kind usually brought on by the aforementioned) and, of course, the plain ol’ all American blues. So why not indeed spend evening time singing about doing time? It is a festival, you know.
Actually, the fun and beauty found in six of the featured acts that performed yesterday was in how they got bluegrass’ thematic and spiritual foes to mirror the aptly summery feel of their string sounds.
A new act of bluegrass all-stars, The Masters of Bluegrass, went straight for source material. With no new material of its own to hawk, the alliance of Del McCoury, Central Kentucky banjo hero J.D. Crowe, Bobby Osborne, Jerry McCoury (Del’s brother and a former bandmate from their ‘70s days in the Dixie Pals) and Bobby Hicks offered two sets of traditional favorites. A little ragged in terms of ensemble execution at times (although Crowe and Del McCoury, respectively, played and sang with expert vigor and precision throughout), the group emphasized the blue in bluegrass by letting Osborne’s mountain tenor ignite Blue Moon of Kentucky, a song so familiar and poetic you forget how sad it is. But when Crowe lit into the instrumental Lonesome Road, the full traditional thrust of the MOB came into view.
Festival favorite Seldom Scene’s contributions to the bluegrass blues were vivid and plentiful. Dudley Connell’s take on Muddy Water was studied and soulful, as was his delivery of the classic country murder ballad Long Black Veil, which benefited from the funereal dobro accents of Fred Travers. While decades-old favorites like Old Train still possessed a potent melodic cheer that still defines Seldom Scene’s sound, Connell’s stoic but soulful version of Hazel Dickens’ My Better Years revealed the artful, emotive depth of the band’s music.
A pair of new acts (to the Festival, at least) could be viewed as opposing points on bluegrass’ moral compass. Town Mountain’s sets revolved around music from its new Leave the Bottle album. The highlight was the title tune, a twisted waltz underscored by lyrics that dealt with an expected sense of recreation (“let the time pass through the bottom of a glass”). The Boxcars, on the other hand, possessed passionate gospel urgency in its set. Still, Keith Garrett’s Hurtin’ Inside was a portrait of loss that better approximated vintage country than traditional bluegrass.
The day’s standout moments, though, came by ways of two very different eulogies by a pair of Festival vets.
Near the conclusion of its afternoon set, Dry Branch Fire Squad chieftain Ron Thomason – a stage raconteur of Will Rogers proportions – dismissed his bandmates and confided that he had been told earlier in the day about the death of his prized horse. Given how the mandolinist is also a professional rancher, such news had to be devastating. As a tribute, Thomaso sat alone onstage and performed the rural body percussion practice known as hambone. It was a moving though unexpected celebration of life.
The other was simpler but even more eloquent. During Blue Highway’s evening set (arguably the high point of the entire festival), Rob Ickes performed a solo dobro version of the spiritual The Old Rugged Cross in honor of Mike Auldridge, who died late last year. Auldridge was the original dobro voice of Seldom Scene, a frequent Festival performer in decades past and, undoubtedly, a major inspiration to Ickes. What a fitting place, occasion and artist for such a remembrance.