Saturday at Festival of the Bluegrass featured arguably the 44th annual gathering’s most diverse lineup, musically speaking, with equal amounts of traditional and progressive bluegrass from bands such as The Grascals, The Wooks, Seldom Scene and Town Mountain amplified into the sea of attendees in lawn chairs.
I arrived just as Town Mountain, who’d later put a cap on Saturday’s music, finished its afternoon set under a blistering sun — albeit more forgiving than in year’s past. Following the hard-driving five-piece from Asheville was The Grascals, who dazzled in their afternoon and early evening sets that included a performance of the Obsorne Brothers’ “Windy City.” The song featured a relatively slow pace compared to much of the remainder of the band’s set, and featured an elegant trio of synchronized vocals with guitarists Terry Eldredge and John Bryan and bassist Terry Smith. Backed by 4-time IBMA Banjo Player of the Year Kristin Scott Benson and mandolinist Danny Roberts, the song highlighted each band member’s instrumental proficiency.
Late into their evening set, The Grascals welcomed Roberts’ daughter Jaelee onto the stage for a cover of Alison Krauss’ “Ghost in this House.” The younger Roberts wowed the crowd in a trio performance featuring both Roberts and Smith, showing off a commanding voice with astonishing range and precision. Many similarities can be drawn between Krauss and Roberts’ chilling performance, the most notable being that Krauss too garnered recognition during her teen years performing around the festival’s grounds.
As day turned to night, Lexington’s own The Wooks took to the stage, mixing covers such as Bruce Springsteen’s “Atlantic City” with a plethora of originals. The group, which is set to depart for a west coast tour on Tuesday that includes a spot at the illustrious Telluride Bluegrass Festival in Colorado, had the crowd more animated during its late set than any other band Saturday with popular originals like “White Lines and Neon Signs” and the instrumental “Wookie Foot Shuffle.” “Shuffle,” which closed the set, featured dynamite performances from guitarist CJ Cain and mandolinist Galen Green.
Festival regulars Seldom Scene, who in years past performed two sets, played just one on Saturday due to the high school graduation of mandolinist Lou Reid’s daughter in the afternoon. The group saw another change take place when their slot was swapped with Band of Ruhks, another band comprised of festival regulars, with the core once leading the Lonesome River Band, who headlined Thursday night at the festival. Seldom Scene showed off proficiency and versatility throughout its set, foraying into both traditional and progressive bluegrass along with an occasional dip into the blues, including a cover of James Taylor’s “Sweet Baby James”.
Capping off Saturday night, just as they did in 2016, was Town Mountain, which came out firing on all cylinders with a threesome of songs off last year’s highly acclaimed “Southern Crescent”, including “Whiskey with Tears,” “Arkansas Gambler” and the title track, featuring the smooth howls of mandolinist Phil Barker on lead vocals. Barker’s infectious howls continued into the ever-popular “Lawdog” before jumping into the Jesse Langlais-penned “I Miss the Night.” Barker later premiered a new tune dubbed “Underdog” prior to welcoming members of The Wooks and guitarist Chris Shouse of Louisville’s The 23 String Band to the stage for a three-song jam and encore.
While music on the festival stages ended around 1 a.m., music throughout the Kentucky Horse Park campgrounds was just beginning. Echoing until close to sunrise was the tantalizing picking of both amateur and more well-seasoned musicians. Members of The Wooks and Town Mountain played well into the night, joining many attendees who’ve come to Festival of the Bluegrass for years.
According to festival co-organizer Roy Cornett, the festival’s preparation had a few road bumps, but nothing out of the ordinary. Cornett added that ticket sales were up considerably from years past, but he wasn’t yet able to provide an estimated head count for the weekend.
“I’ve always said I’d rather sell one weekend ticket over 50 day passes, because those people are here for the long haul,” Cornett said. “We have the best fans in the world.”
Matt Wickstrom: @wickstromwrites