“I love old time music,” remarked Ron Thomason as the 40th Festival of the Bluegrass concluded this morning at the Kentucky Horse Park. “Because it’s better than it sounds.”
In lesser hands, that kind of estimation might hold water. But within the 45 minute gospel program, the mandolinist, singer and raconteur delivered with the Dry Branch Fire Squad, Thomason proved himself wrong. His command of pre-bluegrass country gospel was nothing short of scholarly, a fact enforced by Dry Branch’s crisp, unassuming command of works by Hazel Dickens, the Louvin Brothers and the Carter Family, as well as a sampler of traditional spirituals bolstered by expert musicianship but tempered by coolly exact vocal harmonies.
Those qualities beamed forth within the beautifully antique flavor of the set-opening Take Me in Your Lifeboat, the brittle but beautiful sway of 50 Miles of Elbow Room and the hushed gospel fervency of Power in the Blood, which concluded the show and the festival.
There were two other reasons why the performances within this festival-closing program (which was opened nicely by harmony-friendly gospel staples from Kentucky Blue) were as strong as the songs Dry Branch chose to unearth. One was the show’s stunning intimacy. Unlike the three previous evenings, where the primary acts held court on a large mainstage space in front of thousands, the Sunday set played out in a tent where workshops had been conducted earlier in the Festival run. The audience this morning was probably limited to about 40. Some came with their dogs, some rode up and watched from scooters. But all were attentive to the mood and the music. Thomason appeared equally taken by the informality of the setting.
The other reason was Thomason himself. A totally disarming conversationalist, he was country through and through in demeanor. But Thomason regularly uncovered themes within Dry Branch’s generations-old tunes that seemed achingly relevant today. Topping that list was He’s Coming to Us Dead, a Civil War-themed memoriam dressed as a spiritual that resonated especially strongly with the singer given his son’s post 9/11 enlistment in the military. But the song wasn’t played a war cry. It was instead presented by Thomason, sans the rest of the band, as a prayer of peace for soldiers who made it home by considering the fate of one that didn’t.
It was a solemn, sobering but totally unforced moment – one made all the more powerful by Thomason’s almost meditative delivery. There was, indeed, power in this blood.