in performance: festival of the bluegrass, final day

ron thomason of dry branch fire squad.

The Sunday morning gospel show that traditionally closes the Festival of the Bluegrass has always been a happy curiosity. As everything else in the Kentucky Horse Park that served as base camp over the previous three days is being quickly disassembled, the final music is moved under a small tent at the far end of the field, providing an intimate footnote to the rest of the event.

This morning, as has been the case over much of the past decade, the session was presided over by the Dry Branch Fire Squad in what was its 39th appearance in the Festival’s 44 year history. Little about the band has changed, other than its personnel, although vocalist, raconteur and spiritual/social commentator Ron Thomason remains at the helm with longtime banjoist/dobroist Tom Boyd still on board as first lieutenant. Fortunately, Dry Branch’s sound hasn’t shifted much, either. Though its can properly be tagged a gospel group despite frequent forays into secular folk songs, the thrust is on old-time music – specifically, a style based around pre-bluegrass country spirituals.

This morning’s set sounded rustic without seeming outdated, just as the spiritual messages were conveyed with humor and tolerance instead of the insufferable audience pandering that has become a frequent manner of practice for many gospel-minded country and bluegrass ensembles.

As such, tunes like “50 Miles of Elbow Room” and “Hide You in the Blood” reflected a antique immediacy and technical blemish or two that rightly recalled the very formative spiritual string music of the Carter Family and the Monroe Brothers, groups that recorded both songs, respectively, 80 years ago.

Another happy constant was Thomason’s Will Rogers-esque humor, a genuine anti-thesis of gospel fearmongering. Subscribing to a practice of “taking hate out of my heart,” he flashed a wary smile when referencing the current political climate. “The times,” Thomason remarked, “are trying again.”

Once the hour long set wrapped up a few minutes after the noon hour with “Going Up the Mountain,” the Festival was officially over. Back on the grounds, the main performance stage was already gone as buses, vendors and campers filtered out of the Horse Park. But it was comforting to know Thomason and Dry Branch were atop the mountain, dispensing string band solace that was undeterred by the times.

 



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