in performance: festival of the bluegrass (sunday)

Dry Branch Fire Squad. From left: Brian Aldridge, Jeff Byrd, Tom Boyd and Ron Thomason.

Taking in the Sunday session of the Festival of the Bluegrass is akin to watching a circus leave town. What you face upon entering the Kentucky Horse Park is a mass exodus with buses pulling out, camp sites breaking down and the main stage/big top, which had been alive with the sounds of Town Mountain a mere nine hours earlier, entering its final stages of dismantlement.
But tucked away under a tent at the opposite end of the field remains the festival’s last order of performance business – a three act gospel program headlined by Dry Branch Fire Squad. In many ways, this is the antithesis of the entire four day event – a presentation built around intimacy and music that, when it works, reverts to a pre-bluegrass string sound that wears its spiritual cast devoutly but with refreshingly minimal fanfare.
Therein sits the rustic and unfussy magic Dry Branch chieftain Ron Thomason creates every year, including his quietly but profoundly moving set from this morning that completed the festival. Dry Branch’s music remained steeped in rural, roots-driven songs and spirituals that didn’t call attention to themselves any more than the band’s antique harmonizing or Thomason’s Will Rogers-level storytelling did. As a result, what was delivered was a set scholarly in its understanding of gospel, bluegrass and, frankly, humanity, but also unspoiled to a degree that highlighted the music’s inherent timelessness.
You heard it with the understated turbulence of “50 Miles of Elbow Room” and “Jesus on the Mainline” that simply would not have translated on the festival’s already-vanished mainstage. It was evident in the effortless, familial quartet harmonies that illuminated the sadly relevant “You Don’t Love God If You Don’t Love Your Neighbor.” It also percolated in the turns Thomason took on mandolin, guitar and banjo.
As always, Thomason delighted as a raconteur. He related his storytelling to sermonizing, but none of his tales were terribly moralistic and certainly weren’t judgmental. In fact, two of the hour-long set’s most dramatic passages came from stories that had nothing to do with Sunday worship.
The first dealt with the final moments he shared with an aged show horse (Thomason is a veteran horseman as well as musician) before it was to be euthanized. The other was a performance of “He’s Coming to Us Dead,” a highlight also of past Dry Branch shows, that was performed solo on banjo. With roots that go back to the Spanish-American War, the song details the return of a soldier to his family at a train depot. But the title reveals the true nature of the homecoming.
Both instances moved Thomason and several patrons to tears. What resulted, though, wasn’t any sort of emotional manipulation, but rather a human reaction that was subtle, honest and endearing – as was all of Dry Branch’s sublime performance.

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