Grey Fox 2006

We spent the weekend in upstate New York at the Grey Fox Bluegrass Festival, now in its 30th year. (This is the festival formerly known as Winterhawk.) The weather was reasonably cool, the music was great, and once we found a decent place to camp (at a commercial campground about 20 minutes away) we had a great time.

Grey Fox is a way of life for some people, who get there weeks early, set up very elaborate camps, and basically stay up for 24 hours watching music, picking* and partying. We had the best of both worlds — we got to spend some great time in people’s camps, playing and talking, but had a secluded peaceful spot to sleep at night.

*Bluegrass for “playing music”


Grey Fox 2006 On the Hill
“See you on the hill!”
The festival is held on the Rothvoss farm in Ancramdale, NY. Henry Rothvoss, who died earlier this year, was a bluegrass lover who started the festival in 1976. The festival is held on the side of a steep hill, with the main stage at the bottom (or halfway down, more accurately, since it’s about a 15-minute walk up the hill to the stage area from the lower parking area).

Dry Branch Fire Squad
“Camping”
Camping can be rough if you’re not prepared — we got there late and our first site was on a 30-degree angle — but some people come prepared. Very prepared. The first person in line to get in got there on June 20. The setups included two-story structures with porches, enormous tent setups where 20 people could sit around and play while others cooked dinner in the kitchen, and RV setups. Not to speak of a tepee.
Dry Branch Fire Squad
Ron Thomason (on mandolin) and Dry Branch Fire Squad host Grey Fox and have played at every festival for the past 30 years. His goofy rambling between songs was hard to hear sometimes, but he was pretty funny, and he wrote a sweet appreciation of Henry Rothvoss in the program booklet: “We had some things in common. We were both farmers. he, in fact, was the kind of farmer I always wanted to become and never quite learned how. He had that “farmer’s patience” which let him value a few minutes of focused conversation with another. It was easy to picture Henry in the middle of making hay, racing against a rainstorm and yet, at the approach of a friend, climbing down off his tractor to take the time to “shake and howdy” as if the sky would be sunny for days.”

Ricky Skaggs Ricky Skaggs
Ricky Skaggs and Kentucky Thunder
Better known as a country singer, Skaggs is a hell of a bluegrass picker, and played a great show on Saturday night. People who’d seen him the previous year said that he digressed into contemporary Christian music, but thankfully he stuck to bluegrass, closing with a beautiful gospel tune.

Jim Mills Cody Kilby
Jim Mills
The Kentucky Thunder banjo player is an award-winning musician with several records of his own.
Cody Kilby
This young Tennesse guitarist blazed away on stage with Skaggs, and was the talk of the tents afterwards.

The Del McCoury Band Ronnie and Del
The Del McCoury Band
On stage Friday night. Some say they’re too polished, but Steve Earle (who recorded the album The Mountain with them) calls them the greatest band in bluegrass.
Ronnie and Del
The band features two of McCoury’s sons, Ronnie on mandolin and Rob on banjo. Both are, of course, astonishing players.

Steve Earle Steve Earle
Steve Earle
Steve Earle went on about midnight on Saturday, closing the show on the main stage. Between his left-wing politics, and the fact that he’s not really a bluegrass musician, a large number of people left before his set began, and many others sat stonily through his political talk.

The Bluegrass Dukes Steve Earle and Tim O'Brien
The Bluegrass Dukes
Earle plays his bluegrass shows not with his regular band The Dukes, but with these guys instead — traditional bluegrass style with everyone gathered around a single mic. It’s an all-star band: Grammy winner Tim O’Brien on mandolin, Darrell Scott on “everything with strings,” Casey Driessen on fiddle and Dennis Crouch on bass.

Moon Over Grey Fox
Moon Over Grey Fox
Actually, it’s a peace symbol lit up in the trees, with Steve Earle (who said he asked for it to be re-lit) on stage below.

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8 Responses to Grey Fox 2006

  1. rosiebird says:

    Camping rules. But I think those multiplex tent structures just lose something. I think I am going camping for my bday.

    • ken says:

      I don’t know — I’m a camping weenie, and those setups were pretty sweet, especially if you’re going to be there for ten days. I was MUCH happier when we found a place with a water spigot and showers.

  2. Great pics, Ken. Phone of triumph!

    I can pretty much assume that people were kind to you, since you ended up playing with them, but what was the vibe like? A lot of the people must go every year- was it an insular group to crack?

    • ken says:

      Ha! Those are not phone photos (except for the top one of the camping sticker on the car). They were taken with my Canon, with its kickass digital zoom.

      People were pretty nice, but yes, many of these folks have been going for years if not decades, so they’re naturally somewhat insular. I’m not real good at “cracking” groups, insular or not, but I had a couple of advantages. Several Brooklyn/NYC pickers I know had set up tents there and were hosting picking sessions, so I knew people at some of the tents and that’s where I played. Plus Shana came, and she’s a hell of a lot more socially capable than I am.

      Also, though, there’s kind of a special ethic among these kind of musicians where it’s pretty much OK to walk up to a group of jammers and sit in. If you can play well and aren’t obnoxious, you’ll be welcomed.

      When I was playing in one of the tents a guy walked by holding a fiddle case and stood watching for a few minutes, and a couple of people yelled at him to come in and play. More forward people just walked up and started playing and were welcomed. I can often do that, and in fact I met this whole Brooklyn crowd years ago by showing up at the bar where they jammed every Sunday and pulling out my harps. Another advantage I have (perhaps the biggest) is that I play pretty damned well, and I play an instrument that is not common in bluegrass circles. So after a couple of songs, when it’s clear that I know what I’m doing and know the music, people open up.

      It’s a little harder, though, when you’re walking into a big tent complex full of people who have been coming together for 15 years. Much more intimidating than joining a circle of musicians under a tree like you’d find at Merlefest or other festivals that are not so camping-focused.

      But overall the vibe was relaxed and friendly; even the loud obnoxious drunks were not so bad.

      • Ha! Those are not phone photos (except for the top one of the camping sticker on the car). They were taken with my Canon, with its kickass digital zoom.

        Dammit! Foiled again! Please do not think I am unappreciative of your Canon-rather, think of me as one with a greater-than-average faith in your Treo. 🙂

        Shana does have a really friendly, open demeanor-I liked her within 20 seconds-but so do you. I’m glad that the social rules are much more “what can you bring to the party”.

        Another advantage I have (perhaps the biggest) is that I play pretty damned well

        A pretty grave understatement from the outside perspective, by the way. I’ll admit that I have never tried to play the harmonica, and found the guitar to be painfully difficult… so I might just be a greenhorn amazed by the fact that anyone can play anything beyond “hot cross buns”. Still, from a listner’s POV, you sounded pretty damned polished at the gig I went to. You’ve got polish, kid!

        (Insert black-toothed smile, puff of cigar smoke)

  3. harrietbrown says:

    Thanks a lot! That was a really pleasant photo/story. Makes me wish I was there and still playing fiddle.

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