NORTH ADAMS -- Haven’t listened to bluegrass lately? Then surely you are missing out.
You! Yes, you, the live music fan. Those of you who have packed up a car, programmed your GPS west (north, south and east), or maybe it was the state maps you kept in the seat back of your vintage VW bus, and hit the road to see the band. And you’ll "need a miracle" if you haven’t got your tickets to Mass MoCA’s second annual Fresh Grass Festival, Sept. 21-23, it’s sold out.
If you were lucky enough to score tickets for one or all days, rest now, because you won’t be sitting down the entire weekend, with foot-stomping good times from the David Grisman Bluegrass Experience, Trampled by Turtles, Carolina Chocolate Drops, Tony Rice, Allison Brown and more.
And don’t for get to bring your instruments for training sessions with Berklee College of Music, Bill Evans and Alison Brown.
Evans, a bridge between traditional and contemporary style, has been playing for more than 35 years. He uses his broad knowledge of classical, jazz and world music to create new music that is firmly within the bluegrass tradition.
"I think that bluegrass is in a great place right now," Evans said. "The new bands - groups like the Infamous Stringdusters and Joy Kills Sorrow [both appearing this weekend] - are creating music that is vibrantly reaching out to young audiences, and these
One of those bands got into bluegrass, not quite on accident, during an acoustic break. Well, David Carroll, banjo player for Trampled by Turtles (headlining Sunday night) explains there was more to it.
"The acoustic break actually came about after our lead singer and guitar player’s electric gear was stolen after a gig in Duluth," Carroll said. "He started playing duo shows with our mandolin player mostly covering songs with a few originals mixed in. Once I came in with the banjo it seemed like we were a bluegrass band at least as far as instrumentation goes, but we were just playing songs. None of us were raised on traditional bluegrass. Our mandolin player, Erik, had a traditional Irish fiddle song book that we learned out of and that sort of opened the door for fiddle music."
But traditional bluegrass influences don’t seem to be a problem or rather, they have changed and energized. One man that has popped up in many a bluegrass bands list of influences is Earl Scruggs.
"Earl Scruggs is unquestionably the most important banjo player of the bluegrass era," Evans said. "But others, like Pete Seeger and even the Kingston Trio, helped to popularize the instrument as a part of mainstream American culture. However, for bluegrass, Earl is the guy."
For the Infamous Stringdusters, influence came from everywhere.
"Everybody’s relationship with bluegrass is a little different," Chris Pandolfi, who plays banjo, said. "Only Jeremy [Garrett, fiddle] played bluegrass from a young age, and the rest of us arrived at it a little later on, probably drawn to it for a lot of the obvious reasons - the tones, the authentic vibe of it all and definitely the amazing musicianship. Between the five of us, there were definitely a few rock bands early on, loud guitars and the like. But these days we find that we are a fusion of rock and bluegrass when we hit the stage, especially as we develop our amplified sound. We love to rock. Who doesn’t?"
The same can be said of Trampled by Turtles.
"We were all into a wide variety of different music," Carroll said. "Dave [Simonett, guitar/lead vocals] was into Bob Dylan and Nirvana. Timmy [Saxhaug, bass/vocals] was into The Beach Boys and The Beatles. I listened to a lot of Led Zeppelin and Widespread Panic. Ryan [Young, fiddle/vocals] listens to everything. Erik [Berry, mandolin] was into Black Sabbath but also was getting into Bill Monroe."
So clearly, this is not the music you might expect it to be.
"There’s no reason to keep bluegrass hidden under the bed or in a back room any longer. It’s presentation can be just as exciting as some rock and roll bands or jazz groups," Evans said. "And the virtuosity of these young players is astounding. They’re checking in with much better chops than any of us had when we were starting out in the 1970s. I’m proud to have taught some of these banjo players and it’s exciting to experience the directions that they are taking the music."
For the Stringdusters, it’s all about the new and pleasing the crowd.
"We are always absorbing new things -- new music, new places, new people -- and they all inspire on different levels," Pandolfi said. "As we share our lives, travelling and playing music, it all adds to our synergy as people and as musicians. No one thing jumps out, but it all bleeds into the experience that we create when we are on stage. Each night is something unique and amazing, and I think that is something we have learned from our amazing fans. They bring the heat and we are inspired to do new things. Maybe they are our biggest influence on us of all."