Grass Fire! 

Finger-pickin' goodness highlights the Bitterroot Bluegrass Fest

If the Fourth of July wasn’t inspiration enough to dust off your best foldable furniture and join the parking-lot-paradise crowd, you’ll have another chance this weekend at the 13th annual Bitterroot Bluegrass Festival in Hamilton. The added attraction of a bluegrass festival is, of course, the music. Whether you want to play or just listen, the festival provides three days of musical entertainment, 24-hour jam sessions and scheduled workshops to brush up on your technique.

The festival is scheduled for Friday, Saturday and Sunday at the Hamilton fairgrounds. Mark Dickerson, the festival’s organizer, says the annual event is “like old home week,” a reunion of musical friends, many of whom travel great distances to get there. “It’s a pickers’ festival,” says Dickerson. “A lot of people come just to play together in the camping area.” There will be 150 to 200 camping sites available and Dickerson hopes there will be plenty of great music both inside and outside of the shows. With a small crew of stalwart volunteers to help, Dickerson strives to make the festival atmosphere as hospitable as possible, and encourage sharing between all the participants. “Bluegrass folks are friendly, not aloof,” he explains. As part of the encouragement, there will be instrument workshops for banjo, guitar, mandolin, fiddle and bass at 11 A.M. on Saturday.

The first Bitterroot Bluegrass Festival was held in 1990. At the time, the stage was out in the middle of the arena and had no cover. Asked how that festival was, Dickerson simply says, “It was hot.” About 200 people attended. Six groups performed, five from Montana and one from Jackson, Wyo. This year Dickerson expects up to 2,000 attendees, and says with a certain pride, “Now we have a covered, carpeted stage.” Performers for this year’s program will be from across the country, as well as one group from the Czech Republic, and a stable of seasoned groups from the Bitterroot, Flathead and Missoula valleys.

Headlining this year’s program is Fragment, a five-piece bluegrass band from the Czech Republic. The band’s lead vocalist, Jana Dolakova, sounds a lot like Alison Krauss and the band could pass for Union Station. But this isn’t just some fly-by-night copycat ensemble. Fragment comprises some of the finest stringed instrument players in Europe, as talented as most found on either side of the Atlantic. Their sound is clean and played from the heart, and they have the musical abilities to stretch the boundaries of bluegrass in surprising and joyful ways. If you like the most contemporary bluegrass sounds being produced in the United States today, I recommend you “Czech” them out (heh, heh).

Also at the top of the bill are the Sons of Ralph, and The Bertye Maddux Band featuring Pete Wernick (banjo player from Hot Rize and Red Knuckles and the Trailblazers). The Sons of Ralph hail from Waynesville, N.C. Ralph Lewis, the band’s frontman, guitar and mandolin player, vocalist and progenitor, began playing mountain music in the 1940s. In 1974, he joined Bill Monroe’s “Bluegrass Boys” on guitar and played until 1977, when he started picking with his sons, Marty and Don.

The Bertye Maddux Band is a wife, husband and daughter ensemble billed as “Southern Colorado’s premier bluegrass group.” Bertye cut her teeth on the songs of Lefty Frizzell and Marty Robbins. She plays mandolin, sings lead vocal and writes many original songs in the group’s repertoire. Pete Wernick, world-renowned banjo player, songwriter, teacher and president of the International Bluegrass Association, will accompany Bertye, Mike and their daughter Ruth.

Local musicians are also well represented in the festival lineup. Mike and Tari Conroy, of Conner, play a rare old-time “brother” style of duet harmonies. The Gravely Mountain Boys are also solidly grounded in the traditional bluegrass style. Silcher and Skyrud, from Hamilton play a variety of styles from traditional songs to Johnny Cash, including a few ballads from California singer/songwriter Kate Wolf. BitterSweet, whose members come from the Bitterroot Valley, play styles ranging from bluegrass, country and pop to salsa and calypso. LeftOver Biscuits, from the Flathead, play bluegrass standards with a knack for infusing them with a popular music sound which they call “the front porch bluegrass treatment.” They are known for their blended three-part harmonies. Pinegrass, of Missoula, plays a mix of bluegrass standards and some unique cover songs given the bluegrass treatment. Choice pickin’, right in our own backyard.

The 13th Annual Bitterroot Bluegrass Festival gets underway this Friday and runs through Sunday at the Hamilton Fairgrounds. Tickets are $24 for all three days, $18 for Saturday and Sunday, or $10 for a day ticket.

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