The Grey Fox Bluegrass Festival
The Grey Fox Bluegrass Festival is held the 3rd weekend in July each summer in Ancrandale, NY
Now in its 28th year, the Grey Fox Bluegrass Festival is a world-class, four-day outdoor family event offering main stage entertainment featuring the best Bluegrass artists around today, workshops, dance instruction, hands-on learning sessions and activities for the kids. The festival is wildly popular, with the 2001 festival breaking all records to host a total of 18,000 people from all walks of life. Held on the Rothvoss Farm in the hills of idyllic, rural Ancramdale, NY, the festival is internationally recognized for its enormous contribution to Bluegrass music and is admired by the genre’s leading artists, media, music professionals and thousands of loyal fans. This year, the festival will be held from July 15 to July 18.
Bluegrass music has recently enjoyed mainstream popularity, thanks in part to the release of the 2001 Coen Brothers film and soundtrack, O Brother, Where Art Thou? Millions of fans all over the world, however, have long recognized the greatness of this uniquely American style of music and its masters such as Alison Krauss and Ricky Skaggs. The origins of the style are a bit vague, but it is likely that Bluegrass music had its start in the rural south in the early twentieth century. Basically a fusion of “hillbilly,” “folk” and other types of country music that were popular with farm families and blue-collar workers in the area, Bluegrass is an acoustic genre that combines high energy, typically high-pitched singing with unique harmonies and superb musicianship as evidenced in the tradition of “passing a break,” in which everyone with an instrument capable of soloing takes a turn. A typical Bluegrass band could include a 5-string banjo, a flat-top guitar, a fiddle, a mandolin, a dobro and a bass. It’s a very communal type of music—the kind of music that draws you in, can’t help but make you happy, and makes you just want to get up and dance.
The term “Bluegrass” was not used, much less thought of, until much later in the development of the genre. The term arose from the name of Grand Old Opry star Bill Monroe’s band “The Blue Grass Boys.” Bill Monroe was born near Rosine, Kentucky in 1911, the youngest child of a typical southern farm family. Like many rural families of the time, most of his family members played an instrument and the family made their own music to pass the time. At about age eight, Bill was designated to be the family mandolin player. A couple of years later, following his mother’s death, Bill’s Uncle Pen taught him how to play the guitar, and a musical innovator was born.
Bill began his career by playing music with his brothers Charlie and Birch in the 1930s. During this period the “Monroe Brothers” played at various places in the Midwest, especially in the Chicago area. Although the band split by the end of the ‘30s, their impact on music was extremely influential.
Bill went on to perform on his own, eventually hiring Cleo Davis as guitarist, Art Wooten as fiddle-player and comedian Tommy Millard, who played spoons and jug. The group christened itself “Bill Monroe and his Blue Grass Boys,” a name chosen in honor of Bill’s home, Kentucky, “The Blue Grass State.” After bassist Amos Garen replaced Tommy Millard, the newly named “Bluegrass Quartet” went forth to tackle the home of country music, The Grand Old Opry.
The quartet took the Opry by storm, and one of their most popular central pieces, “Mule Skinner Blues” became the hallmark and the standard for Bluegrass music. Personnel changes to the Blue Grass Boys did not diminish their popularity—in fact, the band just became more and more popular and influential as the 1940s progressed. By 1948, “Bluegrass” was a distinct, solidified genre of music. The term “Bluegrass” was first used in print in the fifties, and the name stuck.
Bluegrass has long been associated with the Rothvoss Farm, the home of the Grey Fox Festival. From 1976 to 1981, it was the site of the famous Berkshire Mountains Bluegrass Festival, founded by Nancy Talbot. Even today, many Grey Fox attendees and staff go back to these early days. From 1983 to 1999, the Rothvoss Farm was home to the Winterhawk Bluegrass Festival. Winterhawk presented the best of bluegrass and acoustic music and was a veritable mecca for Bluegrass fans and artists the world over. Now renamed Grey Fox, the festival is produced by Mary Tyler Doub and is hosted, as it has been since 1979, by Ron Thomason and the Dry Branch Fire Squad.
If not for its stellar lineup and round-the-clock jamming, the lordly view at Grey Fox might well be the festival's greatest feature.
Dry Branch Fire Squad began performing at the festival just three years after singer, mandolinist, philosopher and raconteur Ron Thomason founded the group. To date, the band has recorded nearly two dozen projects, many of them for Rounder Records, and has performed at the most prestigious music venues and festivals in North America. Over the years, the band has evolved, yet has remained true to traditional bluegrass and mountain music. As one writer aptly put it, “Unlike most bluegrass groups, Dry Branch sells neither itself, its members, nor even particular bluegrass songs. What it markets are the emotions which stimulated the creation of bluegrass and mountain music as well as a taste of the culture in which this music evolved.” Another reviewer came away with this impression: “Ron Thomason covers many subjects, ranging from poverty to racism, education to the arts, class differences to testosterone, horses to music, all in an absorbing, flowing drawl…I can’t think of a better introduction to American music—Dry Branch is so much more than a bluegrass band.” To view just one performance, it becomes abundantly clear what these writers are talking about.
Dry Branch Fire Squad is not the only treat in store for festival goers. Over thirty bands will play at several venues on the festival grounds, and there are educational tents for adults and children who have been inspired to learn a little bit more about Bluegrass. The Grey Fox Main Stage is the most popular venue at the festival, with its big, naturally sloping grassy amphitheatre that gives everyone a great view. Not only can you see what’s happening on the stage, but you can also see an absolutely spectacular view of the beautiful Berkshire/Catskill Mountain/Hudson Valley region. The sunsets are absolutely breathtaking. The Masters Workshop Stage offers unique combinations of artists, great mini-performances and instructional workshops by the masters of Bluegrass, with plenty of input from the audience in an intimate and shaded setting. The Dance Pavilion allows you to kick up your heels and dance! Don’t worry about bringing a partner there—you’re certain to find one. Ever popular at Grey Fox is the Family Stage with concerts, crafts, games and activities for all ages. No matter how old you are, stop over and enjoy the excellent talent and see hundreds of people having the time of their lives. The grass Roots Learning Tent is the place to hang out with your instrument for hands-on learning sessions with Grey Fox’s gifted and patient instructors. Whether you’re starting to play guitar or are searching for the newest, hottest licks, the Grass Roots learning tent is for you. Finally, the Bluegrass Academy for Kids, open to kids of any school age, is an intensive four-day program that teaches students how to play, sing, write and perform Bluegrass music. Talented and dedicated instructors teach fiddle, guitar, banjo, dobro, mandolin and acoustic bass (or cello), harmony singing, songwriting and even a mini-course in the history of Bluegrass music. Enrollment is limited to 60 students and registration for a most of the courses has already been closed.
Celebrating its second year as part of the Festival and expanded to four days is Pete Wernick's Bluegrass Jam Camp, which will take place before the festival July 12-15. Pete will show "closet pickers" how to be in a bluegrass jam session, fitting in at your own ability level. All bluegrass instruments and singers are welcome–the only experience required is the ability to make simple chord changes. Supportive instruction and easy and fun jamming! Registration is limited and the fee to participate is $300. For more information or to sign up, visit Pete’s Web site at www.drbanjo.com.
There are plenty of places in the vicinity of the festival to stay the night, but most festival goers prefer to camp on the festival grounds. The camping area surrounds the festival’s five stages, creating a relaxed and festive setting for enjoying some of the best Bluegrass on earth. Camping is of the old-fashioned variety—there are no hookups. The good folks at the festival do, however, provide water and portable restrooms, and there are daily ice deliveries and hot showers on site. Patrons have their choice of breaking camp in either the Upper Camping area, which occupies about sixty acres around the festival’s five stages; or the Lower Camping area, which is an additional 25 acres of flat ground that is ideal for an RV but fine for tenting as well. There are quiet camping areas and “Pickers Paradise,” where Bluegrass jam sessions go on late into the night. The campsites at Grey Fox get more interesting year after year, so much so that a couple of years ago the festival organizers decided to reward the most creative site with a pair of tickets to next year’s festival!
So come out to beautiful Ancramdale from July 15 to July 18 and take part in one of the largest Bluegrass festivals in the United States. It’ll be fun for the whole family, and a great chance to connect with this important slice of American musical history.
You can buy Grey Fox tickets three different ways. The fastest, easiest and most secure method is by ordering online at www.greyfoxbluegrass.com. Or you can call them between 10 am and 6 pm [Eastern Time] at 1 888 946 8495 (315 724 4473 outside the U.S.) and order with a credit card. You can, of course, pay by check or money order by sending full payment (payable to Grey Fox Bluegrass Festival) to Grey Fox Office, PO Box 535, Utica, NY 13503. E-mail inquiries may be made at firstname.lastname@example.org. Full Festival Tickets include camping at the festival site from noon on Wednesday, July 14 through 8 pm on Sunday, July 18, 2004. Each person who camps must purchase a Full Festival Ticket. A Full Festival Ticket costs $125 through June 30 and $140 after June 30. Single Day Tickets are also available at various prices: check the Web site or call for more information.