You have to give the 23 String Band points for ingenuity. The Eastern Kentucky-bred bluegrass-and-more troupe found itself again at the Kentucky Horse Park a few weeks ago, picking away in the gray, rain and late-spring chill that had descended on the Great Day race and festival. The tune that put the scene in perspective: John Hartford’s Long Hot Summer Days.
Given the elements, the crowd numbered maybe 30 loyal patrons. The 23ers, though, plowed through a full concert set — its first after an 18-month hiatus. It was, to be sure, a determined re-entrance into the performance world.
“We’ve had bad luck playing the past couple weekends,” said guitarist Chris Shouse, who will perform with the rest of the 23 String Band — fiddler Scott Moore, mandolinist Dave Howard, banjoist Curtis Wilson and bassist T. Martin Stam — when it returns to the Horse Park next weekend under presumably more summery conditions for the Festival of the Bluegrass. “The weekend after the Great Day, we played in Louisville at Forest Fest. It was raining and cold there as well.”
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The 23 String Band became something of a Lexington hit upon its first appearance at the Festival of the Bluegrass in 2012, combining elements of pre-bluegrass country, revamped contemporary tunes and a diverse array of original works that shifted from blues to bluegrass to jazz with a performance vitality that, at times, recalled the rebel/revivalist outfit Old Crow Medicine Show.
“A huge influence for me was old time music and even rock ’n’ roll, so I wanted to combine those to where I had the energy of rock ’n’ roll with the feeling of old time music,” Shouse said. “But I’m not musically trained at all. I cannot read music. I play all by ear. I grew up playing in church and just by watching other people.
“Then you have Marty and Scott, who have master’s degrees in music. So you have a huge spectrum of people in this band bringing in different styles and different techniques. With this band, all the different elements just blend so well together.”
I cut my teeth on the festival. I’ve been going to it for 15 years. Finally getting a slot to play there was huge for me.
Chris Shouse, 23 String Band guitarist
2016 marks the 10th anniversary of the 23 String Band, but it has spent much of the past two years off the road. The rigors of family life, day jobs (Shouse is a fifth-grade social studies teacher in London) and other musical pursuits put the 23 String Band on hold. The Great Day outing was its first public performance in 18 months.
“But it was just like riding a bicycle,” Shouse said of reigniting the band. “You play so much together and play those songs so much that the music becomes like muscle memory. You would be shocked if I told you how many times we rehearsed for that show at the Great Day. It was one time. It’s hard for all of us to get together, so when we do get together, we have to be very intentional about the time that we spend. But all these guys are such superb musicians and so in tune with each other. More than that, we just want to have fun. That’s the whole purpose of playing again this summer. We just want to get on stage with people we enjoy playing music with. We had just as good a time playing to the people at that cold Saturday at Great Day as we will at the Festival of the Bluegrass in front of 6,000 or 7,000 people.”
The 23 String Band’s hiatus didn’t keep Shouse away from the Festival of the Bluegrass last year. He was a patron, just as he was in the years before he played there.
“I cut my teeth on the festival,” he said. “I’ve been going to it for 15 years. Finally getting a slot to play there was huge for me. I grew up, musically, in those campgrounds, in those jam sessions, walking around playing. Then that first year that we played, we had such a great response from the audience.
“There are great jam sessions, great friends, and I really look forward to coming back. I even went last year when the band didn’t even play and still had a great time.”
If you go
Festival of the Bluegrass
When: 7 p.m. June 9, 1 p.m. June 10-11, 10 a.m. June 12
June 9: Lonesome River Band, The Wooks, Hogslop String Band, Blue Belles
June 10: IIIrd Tyme Out, Blue Highway, Blue Mafia, Audie Blaylock and Redline, Junior Sisk and Ramblers Choice
June 11: Town Mountain, 23 String Band, Seldom Scene, Valerie Smith and Liberty Pike, Dry Branch Fire Squad, Mikaya Taylor (After party with The Wooks, Restless Leg String Band and friends)
June 12: Dry Branch Fire Squad, Kentucky Blue, True Life Travelers
Where: Kentucky Horse Park Campground