FEATURE: MOUNTAIN TUNES

By on August 4, 2015

Genre legends to darling rookies at Targhee Bluegrass Fest

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Jackson, WY – The fusion of old timers and newcomers. The updating and preservation of tradition. The human eagerness of gathering with a like-minded tribe to revel in movements of acoustic music. Welcome to the 28th Annual Grand Targhee Bluegrass Festival. No mammoth Telluride Fest or the 78,000 people that gather at Merlefest, just slopeside simplicity with a few thousand compatible folks. Legend states that Chief Targhee was crucial in keeping the peace between white men and his tribesman. Allow Grand Targhee Resort to accentuate what is quintessential to the mountain lifestyle — peaceful intimacy and spatial goodness, prime camping and nearby accommodations, high-altitude beauty, access to National Forest activities and, of course, good company.

“This festival’s resiliency really is a testament to Geordie’s commitment,” festival talent buyer Tom Garnsey said during an interview with The Planet in 2009, referring to Targhee’s owner George “Geordie” N. Gillett III. “We’ve paced ourselves over the years, [as is] the American way, instead of finding some corporation to come in and make a seven-stage mess out of the place.”

Festival culture with respect to concert bills has long intrigued, especially when it comes to bluegrass. Just like the ole saying, “there’s nothing like a Grateful Dead show,” there’s also nothing like a bluegrass festival where “pickin’ tunes” extend beyond the mirage of main stage acts into the adjacent family-friendly campgrounds, parking lot jam circles and the first-rate Targhee Music Camp. The traditional musical language that has developed in bluegrass is comparable to the time-tested music in jazz, the “standards.” This foundation of widely known material, like fiddle tunes and rags, are a commonality for casual jams and make for instant friendships. Spontaneous collaborations abound. It doesn’t get any more rootsy than creating music on the spot, and cross-band collaborations often make for the most memorable moments. Fans are musicians, and the musicians are fans.

There’s no question that bluegrass festivals have changed dramatically from the mid 1960s, and certainly since the Fathers of Bluegrass, Bill Monroe and the Bluegrass Boys, first cut recordings for RCA in 1940. In those days, it was called “old-time mountain hillbilly music.” Just like the open-minded Monroe was always searching for avenues to add muscle to an innovative, precise and virtuosic sound, the bands that perform at this year’s Targhee Bluegrass Festival may or may not have bluegrass roots, but rest assured they are pushing an envelope that nods to the past while blazing a remarkable trail of their own.

If it wasn’t for branding, it’d probably be a consideration to drop the word “bluegrass” from the festival name completely, at least this year, but there’s already a Targhee Fest. Stickler grass fans would argue that two of the three headliners (Donna the Buffalo and Lake Street Dive) do not fit within the stringband-ruled platform. Conversely, eclectic connoisseurs appreciate not only the progression of the genre and deviation from the program, but the female presence in an otherwise predominantly male-dominated lineup, save the aforementioned headliners, Abigail Washburn and Elephant Revival. It’s all water under the bridge, right? Good music is good music. The glaring idiosyncrasy is the absence of two musicians that have performed at nearly every festival—Sam Bush and Ben Winship. (Though Winship is not billed, he will be an instructor at the Targhee Music Camp, which he founded with Garnsey in 2005.)

“I love the way bluegrass festivals have progressed,” guitarist and Targhee performer Jerry Douglas said. “I love Greensky Bluegrass, I love Yonder [Mountain Stringband]. I’m one of the main offenders as far as taking bluegrass into other places, especially into jazz and rock, and have been criticized for doing evil things to bluegrass. If you can grow the audience demographic for a kind of music, then that’s what you should be doing. Targhee certainly does that.”

Friday: The Veterans

The Friday lineup will kick-off with Bozeman’s Two Bit Franks. Fronted by the humble-voiced John Lowell of Kane’s River and Growling Old Men, the band is rounded out by Targhee mandolin instructor Tom Murphy, mandocello picker Kevin Fabozzi, and banjoist Jeff Shouse. The group covers a range of Lowell’s singer-songwriter material along with classic bluegrass.

Considered a supergroup of singer-songwriters and multi-instrumentalists native to Alabama, Willie Sugarcapps is comprised of Will Kimbrough, Grayson Capps, Corky Hughes, and the duo Sugarcane Jane featuring Savana Lee and Anthony Crawford. Blending the essences of Americana, the group thrives by showcasing five colorful voices and a range of instrumentation.

“Willie Sugarcapps is a homecoming for all of us,” says Kimbrough, who is also performing as a solo artist on Saturday. “It’s coming full circle back to the beginning of why we do this in the first place and the joy of what happens when you play and sing with people who are alike in spirit and mind.”

Next up is Blue Diamond Strings—another interesting mish-mash of duos and musicians that have collaborated at one time or another through their respective 50-year careers. Jody Stecher, Kate Brislin, Eric and Suzy Thompson, Paul Knight, and two-time California State Fiddle Champ Paul Shelasky are all Bay area acoustic music veterans tied together via bluegrass, old time and blues. The germination for this band began 50 years ago when Eric and Jody joined forces with Jerry Garcia as The Asphalt Jungle Mountain Boys.

The next slot is billed as Hot Rize/Red Knuckles and The Trailblazers. That’s referring to the highly influential Colorado quartet Hot Rize (Tim O’Brien, Pete Wernick, Nick Forster and Charles Sawtelle), along with the band’s Western Swing alter-ego, Red Knuckles, which is self-described as “1940s and 50s country music as well as what you might expect from people who have listened to the same jukebox for most of their lives.” Formed in 1978, Hot Rize was the International Bluegrass Music Association’s very first “Entertainers of the Year.” That was followed by a then-new bluegrass Grammy and tours across four continents. Yep, they’re pretty good.

150805Cover-2Donna the Buffalo will close out the day of bluegrass-leaning groups with a low-key, feel good, groove-oriented folk-rock set. The hippy-ish quintet from central New York has a joyful vibe, a hip-shaking zydeco pulse, and hopeful, mellow lyrics that have crusaded through 10 studio albums since 1989. They are not an exploratory jamband as they’ve often been categorized, but rather jam to serve the song on a collective platform. And while the band is also not from the South, their early inspirations come from the old-time music festivals of the region that brought communities together. That “get together” populism is what has kept the band touring the nation for over 25 years.

“We’re a very grassroots operation, we’ve only relied on our own machine,” said singer-songwriter/frontwoman Tara Nevins, who plays acoustic guitar and accordion. “Our first two gigs we traveled in these Volvo station wagons and we looked at each other and said, ‘enough of that,’ and so we went out and bought our first school bus. We always hired friends who had never managed a band or booked gigs before. So when record companies were dropping people or that kind of thing, we have not been adversely affected.”

Donna the Buffalo has cultivated a grassroots following, one that calls themselves “The Herd.”

“We have this fan base that is very community-oriented and very loyal to us,” Nevins explained. “We’re fortunate in that way. At this point, we’re just trying to be a part of cool events like the Shakori Hills Festival that we put on. In November, we’ll hook up with Ben Cohen of Ben & Jerry’s Ice Cream, who is a producing a tour called ‘Stampede,’ aimed at getting big money out of politics. He sells stamps that say just that —‘Get big money out of politics’— to stamp your own cash and have that be exposed within the circulation of money.”

Saturday: Not enough banjos

In-demand session player, choice sideman and songwriter Will Kimbrough will wake up the campground sleepers at noon Saturday, followed by Darol Anger’s latest project, Mr. Sun. Anger’s young band mates are Joe Walsh on mando, flatpicker Grant Gordy and bassist Ethan Jodziewicz. Modern, instrumental string music is their game—solid pickin’ and a kaleidoscopic fusion of jazz, bluegrass and classical themes.

Banjo monster Tony Trischka has inspired a whole generation of progressive five-string players, and he has dedicated a great deal of time to the instructional side of the instrument. His band usually includes “high and lonesome” singer Michael Daves, among others. His latest album, 2014’s “Great Big World,” is very traditional, but it also occasionally finds the legend outside of his comfort zone with a few vocal compositions.

Other-worldly banjoists Bela Fleck and Abigail Washburn follow Trischka’s set. The married duo of Washburn and Fleck have played Targhee a few years ago as band mates in The Sparrow Quartet, which included cellist Ben Sollee and fiddler Casey Driessen. Washburn and Fleck recorded a charming self-titled album last year in their basement, predominantly featuring the rare occurrence of two banjos accompanying one another. Listening to the interaction and weaving on the reworking of the Fleck tune “New South Africa” is a playful ride, showcasing his out-of-the-box dexterity and her prowess of holding down the groove while adding flickers of melody plays. The standout tracks, though, feature Washburn’s optimistically emotive voice.

“The first time I listened to a CD of [Washburn’s] music, I started driving so fast that I got pulled over for speeding and was made to walk the line by the men in blue,” Fleck says on his website.

Keller Williams’s Grateful Grass promises anything-but-traditional takes from The Grateful Dead Songbook, mouth horn solos and all. His backing band has rotated over the last few years, apparently enlisting The Infamous Stringdusters this time around, which will pull double duty for the evening. A ragingly fast version of “Bertha” is worth searching out, and gives you insight into the supercharged, grassed-up versions that will surely be a hit to the Deadheads in the wake of the 50th anniversary shows this year.

150805Cover-3A standout among the post newgrass/jamgrass-leaning stringbands, Greensky Bluegrass tends to build and drive their jams with a patient, Railroad Earth-meets-Grateful Dead mantra that certainly breathes with rock elements. The quintet’s choice of covers reflects this, like Traffic’s “Light Up or Leave Me Alone” or a Pink Floyd medley of “Time/Breathe.” But what dresses to impress is their songwriting. Lyrically, their songs are not nostalgic for the Monroe-era or even the post-Monroe generation of traditionalists. Instead, there’s girth, soul and investment in poetic storytelling, and the progressiveness of the vocal melodies carry the band from, well, Michigan.

By now, if you haven’t caught a set of the high-energy propelled jamgrass that is the Infamous Stringdusters, it’s safe to say that it’s time to crawl out from under that rock. Since their debut performance at Targhee Bluegrass in 2008, the Stringdusters have rose to an elite level in the bluegrass genre. The upward trajectory has progressively transpired in the shadows of the Tetons through numerous festival sets and theatre performances. They have earned the coveted torch as Saturday’s headliners, and you’ll see why.

150805Cover-5Sunday: Acoustic Church

Of the newcomer batch, much of the chatter on the streets points to Sunday opener Chatham County Line, a North Carolina quartet that formed in 1999. Things kicked into gear for them after taking the Best New Bluegrass Band Competition at RockyGrass in 2004. Six studio albums later, including last year’s “Tightrope,” the group merges the singer-songwriter vibe with an innovative approach to bluegrass roots.

When dobro mastermind Jerry Douglas’s new project Earls of Leicester took home a 2015 Grammy for Best Bluegrass Album, it was mastermind Douglas’s 14th Grammy. As a member of Alison Krauss and Union Station, The Country Gentlemen, and J.D. Crowe & The New South, his groundbreaking work has graced more than 2,000 recordings from Phish to Ray Charles.

In case you hadn’t figured out the punningly titled Earls of Leicester, the “Earl” refers to Earl Scruggs and “Leicester” is pronounced Lester, as in Lester Flatt. Douglas has a lifelong passion for the music of bluegrass pioneers Flatt and Scruggs and their band the Foggy Mountain Boys, whose seminal work in the 1950s and 60s created the template for what we know as contemporary bluegrass, transcending traditional genre barriers to popularize the music with an unprecedented mass audience.

Of course, as is the case in bluegrass heavyweights, the other five members of Earls of Leicester are also adorned with awards, accolades and a skill set that sits at the top of the industry. Those players include acclaimed writer, producer and solo artist Shawn Camp on lead vocals and guitar, renowned Nashville banjoist Charlie Cushman on banjo and guitars, veteran songwriter, multi-instrumentalist and Hot Rize member Tim O’Brien on vocals and mandolin, second-generation fiddle phenom Johnny Warren and Barry Bales—Douglas’ longtime bandmate in Alison Krauss and Union Station, on vocals and bass.

“It took decades to find the right players for this project,” Douglas explained from his Nashville home while on a brief break from touring. “This music is educational, demanding and challenging, and these players are at the top of their game.

“What’s amazing is that we cut these songs live and the tempos and arrangements are so close to the original recordings that the length of the two compared side-by-side were often only off by a second or two,” he said. “The only difference, really, was the tuning. Standard concert pitch is 440 hertz. Flatt and Scruggs often tuned really sharp to 451 hertz for more pop from their instruments. Hearing something pitched that tight may be the equivalent of David Letterman keeping his studio cold, you know? We didn’t go all the way to 451 because Johnny Warren had just gotten his dad Paul’s fiddle back from being repaired and we didn’t want to explode it, so we went to 448.”

(Paul Warren was an original member of The Foggy Mountain Boys, and the band regularly showcased his playing. He was a master player of both old-time and bluegrass fiddling styles, and encompassed a technique that reflected all qualitative aspects of “the bluegrass breakdown” and fast bowing style.)

“Johnny remembers watching them rehearse, you know, because he was a kid and was around all of the time,” Douglas said. “He said when Flatt would get his guitar out of the case, he would hit the D string and whatever that was, they’d all tune to it. They didn’t go for a pitch pipe or a fork, they went with his guitar, and it was usually sharp. The music sounds good there.”

It would be a task to follow such a prestigious group but that’s exactly what progressive folk ensemble Elephant Revival will do. Comprised of Bonnie Paine (washboard, djembe, musical saw, stompbox), Bridget Law (fiddle, octave fiddle), Charlie Rose (banjo, pedal steel, guitar, horns, cello, double bass), Dango Rose (double bass, mandolin, banjo) and Daniel Rodriguez (guitar, banjo, double bass), the band’s singular sound can be heard through it’s Arabesque melodies and their use of instrumental dynamics. Elephant Revival’s mission is simple: “To close the gap of separation between us through the eternal revelry of song and dance.”

Closing the festival on Sunday, Lake Street Dive has a head-turning sound empowered by the voice of Rachael Price, who also has a career as a jazz vocalist. The band’s evolution from a weird alt-country jazz group to a pop-soul juggernaut with 1960s influences like Brill Building girl groups, British invasion rock, horn-driven Stax R&B, Motown soul and even The Band-like gospel blues has been ongoing since meeting in 2004 at the New England Conservatory.

“Looking back, I consider the education we received to have been more of a facilitator of creative development rather than a qualifying level of development in and of itself,” said drummer Mike Calabrese. “It allowed us to speak the same language for rehearsal purposes, the tools to take an idea and turn it into a tune, and also a mindset that keeps your thinking pliant, and your boundaries not restrictive but catalytic.”

What originally raised the band’s profile was a viral YouTube video of the group performing Jackson 5’s “I Want You Back,” a seemingly spontaneous, doo-wop style take. Soon after, T-Bone Burnett tapped them for a performance at the “Another Day, Another Time” concert in NYC’s Town Hall. Rolling Stone would go onto say that they were “unexpected showstoppers,” and later called them “the year’s best new band.” Lake Street Dive’s music is brilliantly restrained, never straying from the focus of the powerfully sultry, vocal-led tunes. As New York Daily News put it, “[Price is] fleet, bending her voice around a melody with a David Beckham-esque grace. More, she’s not a one-woman show. The three other Lake Street members write songs, each fine in lyric and tune.”

The band allows each of its compositions to unfold on their own, Calabrese said.

“Songs evolve naturally because although you have an idea of how a section might function on its own or in servitude to the rest of the song as a whole, you need to knead it like dough sometimes in order to make it work the most appropriate way,” he said. “That’s why improvising ideas instead of just taking a solo out of nowhere is a more apt description of what we do. There’s no substitute for the value of getting out there and playing all the shows you can.”

Late night shows at the Trap Bar will feature roots band Damn Tall Buildings on Friday (11 p.m., $5), Bluerock Saltgrass featuring Tom Murphy on Saturday (11 p.m., $5), and Kitchen Dwellers on Sunday (7 p.m., free). Get your grass on. PJH

Tickets cost $69 per day or $179-$199 for the weekend. 

Aaron Davis is from The Bluegrass State; an award-winning singer-songwriter, journalist, multi-instrumentalist, frontman for bands Screen Door Porch and Boondocks, and founder/host of Songwriter’s Alley.150805Cover-4

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About Aaron Davis

Aaron Davis is a decade-long writer of Music Box, a singer-songwriter, multi-instrumentalist, member of Screen Door Porch and Boondocks, founder/host of Songwriter’s Alley, and co-founder of The WYOmericana Caravan.

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