Friday’s Wide Open Bluegrass extravaganza at Red Hat Amphitheater was the first of two full days of concerts marking the grand finale of the International Bluegrass Music Association’s weeklong celebration of bluegrass music.
Wide Open Bluegrass refers to the diversity of styles comprising today’s bluegrass. While grounded in the traditional roots planted by Bill Monroe and His Blue Grass Boys in 1945, the music has evolved into an array of styles reflecting generational interests of the past 70 years. Friday’s performers offered a mostly traditional subset of today’s bluegrass.
The day began with Laurie Lewis and Her Right Hands, and closed with Nitty Gritty Dirt Band. Lewis, along with her guest performer, Alice Gerrard, represented women in bluegrass, a rarity until Gerrard and Hazel Dickens blazed the trail in the 1960s and ’70s.
With their revolutionizing “Will the Circle Be Unbroken” album of 1972, the Dirt Band united the country and rock communities. With contributions from Doc Watson, Jimmy Martin, Earl Scruggs and others, the album introduced rock fans and musicians to bluegrass, a union which influenced many of today’s Wide Open Bluegrass participants.
Other performers included Peter Rowan, Marty Stuart and His Fabulous Superlatives, Dailey & Vincent, the Soggy Mountain Boys, the Earls of Leicester, and Ricky Skaggs and Kentucky Thunder.
While each artist featured peak moments, a few performances were especially noteworthy.
Lewis’ latest CD, “The Hazel and Alice Sessions” acknowledges the impact of those pioneering women on her own career. Gerrard joined on the Dickens-penned gospel hymn, “Won’t You Come and Sing for Me,” and Gerrard’s “Payday at the Mill” and “Working Girl Blues.”
Performing on his birthday, Marty Stuart gave himself and the audience a gift of high-energy acoustic brilliance with his aptly named band. Guitarist Kenny Vaughan was flawless on the challenging “El Paso,’ performed as a tribute to the late country guitarist Grady Martin, who played on the original Marty Robbins hit.
Performing on his birthday, Marty Stuart gave himself and the audience a gift of high-energy acoustic brilliance with his aptly named band.
Stinson showcased his vocal talent on “Wild Angels,” a song he wrote with Matraca Berg that became a hit for Martina McBride. Stuart stood alone for a mandolin solo on “Orange Blossom Special,” the iconic bluegrass tune written by the late Ervin T. Rouse of Craven County.
Less than 24 hours after being named bluegrass music’s top entertainer for the second consecutive year, the Earls of Leicester proved themselves worthy of the honor. The all-star sextet was formed by Jerry Douglas as a tribute to the legendary Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs and the Foggy Mountain Boys.
With last year’s top male vocalist, Shawn Camp, in the role of Lester Flatt, the band reprised Flatt and Scruggs classics and lesser knowns, including “The Train That Carried My Girl from Town,” “Salty Dog Blues,” “I’ll Go Stepping Too,” “Roll in My Sweet Baby’s Arms,” and “My Mother Prays Loud in Her Sleep.” A bona-fide supergroup, the Earls feature Grammy-winning resonator guitarist Douglas, who won his 10th trophy for dobro player of the year and newly crowned banjoist of the year Charlie Cushman and bassist of the year Barry Bales.
The performance by Ricky Skaggs and Kentucky Thunder was marked by homage to the late bluegrass patriarch Ralph Stanley, who passed away in June at age 89. In 1971, Stanley hired Skaggs, then a 15-year-old prodigy, and launched his career.
The Stanley Brothers’ “Rank Stranger” and “Little Maggie,” along with Bill Monroe’s “Uncle Pen” were interspersed with the band’s instrumental fireworks on “Blackeyed Suzie” and Skaggs’ own “Crossville.” The most poignant moment came in the encore, with the a capella gospel hymn, “The City Foursquare.” Singing in the Primitive Baptist style in which Stanley was raised, Skaggs had performed the song at Stanley’s funeral.
Celebrating their 50th year, Nitty Gritty Dirt Band capped the day with a set of Dirt Band hits and anecdotes by lead singer Jeff Hanna and banjoist John McEuen. While never strictly bluegrass, the Dirt Band’s 1972 album, “Will the Circle be Unbroken,” is credited as the catalyst for dissolving barriers between the country/bluegrass community and rock. Many of the artists performing at Wide Open Bluegrass were influenced directly or indirectly by the “Circle” album.
The band revisited its early hits, “Buy for Me the Rain” and “Mister Bojangles,” along with later ones, including “Workin’ Man (Nowhere to Go)” and “Fishing in the Dark.” The encore featured an audience singalong on the Carter Family’s “Will the Circle be Unbroken,” a fitting end to a day of music diverse in style yet sprouting from bluegrass roots.