in performance: festival of the bluegrass, first day

mike hartgrove and sammy shelor of lonesome river band. herald-leader staff photos by rich copley.

“Bluegrass – it’s legal everywhere.”

So read the T-short slogan of a patron roaming the Kentucky Horse Park Campground shortly before dusk on an evening that felt more like mid-autumn than early summer. Askew climate setting aside, the surrounding and especially the sounds all signaled the 44th start to one of Lexington’s most honored musical gatherings, the Festival of the Bluegrass.

As has been the case for many years, the Lonesome River Band headlined the Festival’s first night with a set boasting a musicality both rustic and relaxed. Leader Sammy Shelor again typlified the mix. As an often awarded banjoist, he remains a retiring figure onstage, keep his solos to a lean minimum in favor of piloting a richly rhythmic ensemble. You heard with the percolating accessibility of “Thunder and Lighting” and a crisp, set-opening cover of “Ida Red” (the latter a preview of LRB’s forthcoming “Mayhayley’s House” album). But guitarist Brandon Rickmand and mandolinist Jesse Smathers, who rotated led vocal chores throughout the performance also deftly decelerated LRB’s propulsion at times, as during the sterling weeper “Mary Ann.”

flatt lonesome: siblings kelsi harigill, buddy robertson and charli robertson.

Flatt Lonesome, a youthful, gospel-tooted band with members spread from Alabama to Ohio, preceded LRB with a set that was akin to round at a country music jukebox. Fronted by three siblings – fiddler Charli Robertson, guitarist Buddy Robertson and mandolinist Kelsi Harigill, all of whom traded vocal duties – the band provided a youthful gusto to songs penned and/or popularized by Buddy Miller, Merle Haggard, Jimmy Martin, Merle Haggard and more. The opening “Cold Rain and Snow” set the pace, spotlighting a light instrumental fabric highlighted by dobroist Michael Stockton. The siblings harmonies regularly swooped either in three part symmetry or in beautifully splintered form, as the sisterly vibe fueling the Texas swing stride of “Never Let Me Go.”

ron bowling of custom made bluegrass.

Rounding out the bill was Custom Made Bluegrass, a very capable band of Central and Eastern Kentucky performers with a bright balance of gospel originals, a far-reaching array of bluegrass standards (“In the Pines,” “Molly and Tenbrooks”) and a flair of retro-inclined country material (“Streets of Bakersfield,” “I Ain’t Broke But I’m Badly Bent”) that played nicely to the inviting vocal leads of guitarist Van Ramey and mandolinist Ron Bowling.

A footnote to last night’s program: Dolton Robertson, grandfather to the Flatt Lonesomne siblings, died Wednesday. The band cancelled all of its weekend performance, except for the Festival of the Bluegrass. While it didn’t arrive at the Horse Park until Custom Made Bluegrass was onstage, Flatt Lonesome began its set on time. “It’s been quite a week,” remarked Harigill. Regardless of the loss, an strongly animated family spirit drove the performance.


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