Pemi Valley Bluegrass Festival Thornton, NH August 3, 2018
by Kathy Hicks Murray
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The weather forecast plagued me as I headed north on I-93 through Plymouth, NH. This was my first gig as a reporter and photographer, and it was due to rain all day long. Just great. When I arrived at the 26th Annual Pemi Valley Bluegrass Festival, I was directed to park in the backstage area, a wide expanse of lawn fenced off and ringed by campers and RV’s. I was a little early, so I wandered the grounds a little to get a feel for the festival.
The stage was a large covered, open air wooden structure reminiscent of the one at Indian Ranch in Webster, MA. It brought me back to my childhood, growing up as a gigging country musicians daughter. The lawn stretched out in front of the stage, already dotted with chairs. Fifty yards behind that was a covered tent with more seating and the house sound board. Set up around one side were local food vendors, serving up a variety of breakfast, lunch and dinner, as well as beverages and homemade ice cream. The festival itself was set in the beautiful Pemigewasett River Valley, under the shadow of the White Mountains in Thornton, NH.
The Benton Sugar Shack Campground has been host to it for a number of years and, as it is a four day event, offers festival goers the ability to camp on site for an additional fee. I sat down at one of the picnic tables and checked my email to see if I had received a confirmation for an interview with Jerry Douglas yet or not. Nothing.
I wasn’t even sure if the Earls of Leicester had even arrived. It was a funny set of circumstances that had brought me there. To start off, I have to say that Instagram has been a curious and wildly lucky tool for me in fostering creative connections. One day, I saw a story post from Jerry Douglas about how one of the venues he was set to play backed out of their show last minute, and that he was offering the ticket holders replacement tickets to another show on the tour. I replied to it, saying that it was crappy when venues and promoters pull that, and how he was an awesome guy for recompensing the ticket holders like that. I didn’t expect a reply. But to my surprise, I got one. Along with a pleasant conversation.
I found out that he was playing this festival, and inquired about possible shooting credentials and he suggested I contact the venue. After a week or so of not hearing anything, I reached out to Live Music News and Review to see what they could do, and within a day I was on the guest list. I sent Jerry a message letting him know that I would be there to photograph and review the show, and asked about the possibility of an interview, and he directed me to his media coordinator. After playing email tag with her for a few days, I was still waiting in limbo to hear if I would get the interview or not.
From the video channel of sweetprince70
The first group, The Rock Hearts, walked on stage. A traditional bluegrass quintet, they feature Joe Deetz on banjo, Alex MacLeod on guitar and lead vocals, Billy “BT” Thibodeau on mandolin, Danny Musher on fiddle and Pete Kelly on upright bass. They all hail from southern New England; Massachusetts, Connecticut and Rhode Island. Although together for a little over four years, this is their first festival and their enthusiasm showed in their performance. They opened with a tight instrumental called ‘Daybreak at Dixie’ featuring some very nice improvisation from the group.
The lead singer, Alex, choked up as he introduced the band, and spoke of losing his father in law just days prior, saying that he dedicated their show to him. In addition to the traditional bluegrass, they played a nice cover of the Merle Haggard hit ‘Swinging Doors’, and followed it up with a “bluegrass-ified” version of the classic ‘Stagger Lee’, which has been performed in many genres and variants since its original recording by Warings Pennsylvanians in 1923.
Before their last song, they announced that while they don’t have any recordings released yet, they have been in the studio working on an EP. And as this is their first festival, they are also looking for bookings. As one member quipped, “…birthdays, weddings…divorces…”, which was met with groans of laughter. They finished up their set with an original song entitled ‘Old Love Affair’, which had a definitive traditional sound. You can find The Rock Hearts at www.facebook.com/rockheartsbluegrass
After a short break to clear the stage, the next group came up. Colebrook Road from Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, was originally a quartet until Mark Rast joined them four years ago. Mark was the 1993 Telluride Banjo Picking Champion and certainly earned the title. The lead singer, Jesse Eisenbise, introduced a song they had written called ‘The Road We Travel’, written about the tragic death of a friend. Lyrically and musically well constructed, with haunting harmonies and great instrumental breaks by all members. More of a modern bluegrass tune, but to me had a feel of early Bela Flek with some more recent Alison Krauss and Union Station overtones.
Their set consisted mainly of original material, all very well written, including a beautifully composed instrumental called ‘Tear Drop Falls’ that literally flows over your ears like water. Multiple band and solo bluegrass contest award winners, the five members, Jesse on lead vocals and guitar, Wade Yankey on mandolin, Jeff Campbell on upright bass and tenor vocals, Mark Rast on banjo, dobro, and bass vocals and Joe McNulty on fiddle and baritone vocals are definitely a group to check out. Colebrook Road played two sets, at 12:00 and again at 5:30, the first of two full bands to play twice today. Check Colebrook Road out at www.facebook.com/colebrookroadband
At 1:00, The Misty Mountaineers took the stage. I have an interesting, if distant, connection to them that I’ll get back to in a moment. Formed in 1975 by Wilf “WC” Clark, the five piece ensemble has been graced by a number of fine musicians over the years, close to fifty at last count. They even have a tour t-shirt that lists all the current and prior band members. A visual history of the band. Pretty cool.
Currently, the talented group is staffed by Bernie Staples on guitar and lead vocals, as well as tenor harmony, Andre Tardif on banjo and guitar, lead and harmony vocals, Dan Burke on dobro and baritone harmony, his wife Kathy Burke on upright bass, and leading the group, the founding, and only original remaining member, ‘WC’ Clark.
When the MC was making their introduction, he introduced WC as the son of legendary cowboy singer ‘Yodeling’ Slim Clark. I felt like someone nudged me in the shoulder. Back in my more consistent performing days (I use that term loosely), I was blessed with the opportunity to not only sing in the same band as my dad, but also with one of New England’s top country bands, The John Penny Band. Through that twenty five year relationship, I fostered many great friendships and connections. One that I will always hold very close to my heart is the friendship I shared with Dick Curless, another legendary musician from Maine, and member of the Grand Ole Opry. He was famous for hits like ‘Tombstone Every Mile’ and ‘Snap Your Fingers’, and when the John Penny Band would back him up, he would always sing songs he had learned from his mentor, “the great ‘Yodeling’ Slim Clark”, like ‘Cattle Call’ and ‘She Taught me to Yodel’ – showing his mastery of the Alpine style of yodeling.
At the end of the Misty Mountaineers set, which was fantastic, great pickers performing a great mix of classics like Charlie Wallers ‘Matterhorn’ and Flatt and Scruggs ‘Big Black Train’, along with some Hank Williams tunes too, I had a chance to catch up with WC. He recounted how when he was six years old, Dick Curless sat in their kitchen and learned how to play guitar from WC’s mom. It was truly wonderful to meet such a great musician, who has such a strong connection to my departed friend. You can find the Misty Mountaineers at www.facebook.com/mistymountaineerbluegrass
Remington Ryde was up next, a four piece group led by Ryan Frankhouser on guitar and lead vocals, funny man Billy Lee Cox on banjo and bass vocals, Jim Treat on upright bass and Stanley Efew on mandolin and tenor vocals. Good picking and harmonies, they played a good mix of original material from their various releases such as ‘Daddy Doesn’t Pray Anymore’ and ‘Where Did the Real Country Go?’, where Ryan encouraged some crowd participation to see if they agreed with the pivotal line, “Hank is looking down, rolling over in his grave,” inciting whoops and cheers from the crowd. They followed that up with the ‘East Tennessee Blues’ and the Hank Williams Classic ‘Jambalaya’. Big crowd pleasers for sure.
Remington Ryde played two sets, at 2:00 and 6:30, both shows full of energy, laughs and great music. Check out Remington Ryde at www.facebook.com/Remington-Ryde-206393889536 Just before 3:00, the sky opened up and I took to the merchandise tent stage right. Not the best vantage point for shooting, unfortunately, but I was still able to hear Laurie Lewis and the Right Hands performance. And the heavy rain did nothing to dampen the crowds enthusiasm either. Some did take to the covered seating, but most just put trash bags over their laps, or like ponchos, put them over their bodies, put up umbrellas, and went back to watching the show.
Grammy award winning Laurie Lewis hails from California, and brings the west coast bluegrass sound to New England with the Right Hands. Tom Rozum, who is primarily on mandolin, also plays fiddle and guitar, sings lead and harmony. Brandon Godman on fiddle, Patrick Sauber plays banjo for the Right Hands, but also plays guitar, accordion and mandolin! Sam Grisman, son of the great David Grisman, fills out the bands rhythm section on upright bass. In his late twenties now, Sam started playing young and first recorded at the age of nine!
A very versatile and talented group of musicians, led by Laurie who is a master fiddler and guitarist herself, they played and incredible set, showcasing each of the musicians individual talents. Their songs were a mix of traditional and original songs including Barstow and an amusing tune called Don’t Fix Up the Dog House, written by Tom Rozum. Laurie would come out again later in the evening to join her former musical partner, Kathy Kallick, on the stage. Visit Laurie Lewis at www.facebook.com/laurielewismusic
It was still raining as the Kathy Kallick band came on. Also West Coast based, Kathy’s group is an incredibly talented group of musicians featuring Tom Bekeny on mandolin and vocals. A veteran of the bluegrass and jazz scene, he has played with Laurie Lewis, Peter Rowan, David Grisman and Jerry Garcia. On upright bass and vocals is Cary Black, who is not only a great rhythmic player but also great at improvisation as well. He has been dubbed the ‘musicians musician’, and has performed or been a session musician with many artists including Petula Clark, Dan Hicks, Mark O’Connor, Joe Pass, Del Ray and Glen Yarborough. Greg Booth wears a few hats, playing both dobro and banjo, as well as singing harmony. A very talented picker on both, Greg hosts an online YouTube channel of over thirty dobro videos that receive over 1600 hits daily.
Annie Staninec. I was totally blown away by her. It seemed to me that she had been steeped in bluegrass from the cradle. I had a chance to speak with Kathy briefly after their set about Annie, mentioning my observation. She told me that Annie basically was ‘steeped in bluegrass’. Her mother was Japanese and her father Czechoslovakian. They moved to California and had Annie, then brought her to every single bluegrass show and festival that they attended. Annie started playing fiddle at the age of five, and at twelve started performing out. She has been out there since, performing, recording and teaching. An extremely gifted player with a seemingly natural ear for harmony, this girl was born for bluegrass and I am incredibly impressed by her enthusiasm, her innate musical ability and her love and dedication to her music.
Last but certainly not least, the leader of the group, Kathy Kallick is no stranger to the bluegrass scene. A Grammy winning artist, she is an accomplished singer, songwriter and guitarist and has been performing since 1975. She is a lifetime member of the California Bluegrass Association, and is also an experienced teacher, often offering classes in songwriting, singing and guitar during camp training sessions at bluegrass festivals all over North America. Their set was inspiring, included some original songs like ‘Foxhounds’ which was inspired by Bill Monroe and the time she spent with him, ‘So Dang Lonesome’, written by Kathy and Cary, as well as some covers including the Bill Monroe instrumental ‘Kentucky Mandolin’. Kathy can be found at www.facebook.com/Kathy-Kallick-Band-120830981278998 and on Instagram at www.instagram.com/kathykallickband
During the supper break, I stopped by to check in with the event organizer, and he told me that the Earls had gotten stuck in the weekend traffic (no real surprise to anyone living in New Hampshire, and knowing the I-93 or I-95 Friday northbound traffic). They wouldn’t be there in time for the 5:00 meet and greet, but would be there in time for the show. I checked in with my interview contact to verify, and she apologized and said that due to the time constraints an interview wasn’t going to be possible this time.
After the break, Colebrook Road, and then Remington Ryde, two of the bands from earlier in the day, took the stage again for shorter sets before Kathy and Laurie came back to the stage again, with members of each of their bands. Kathy and Laurie were the co-founders of the internationally acclaimed group, the ‘Good Ol Persons’, in 1975, and played together on a number of projects. This show was a reunion of sorts for them. Their set consisted mainly of songs from their tribute album to the hardcore Arkansas bluegrass duo Vern Williams and Ray Park, who had a strong influence on bluegrass music in California.
Laurie, an acclaimed fiddle player herself, called Annie Staninec back out to the stage to play twin fiddle with her on the Vern and Ray song, ‘Montana Cowboy’. Their smooth harmonies and excellent playing made for a very enjoyable performance. A little caveat, as I watched Kathy and Laurie perform, I could see members of the Earls of Leicester popping out from the green room, to stand in the wings and get shots of them with their phones. Legends watching Legends. Definitely a very cool atmosphere.
Check out the gallery of photos of the Earls of Leicester here.
At 8:30, as the rain was misting down, Jerry Douglas, Jeff White, Barry Bales, Charlie Cushman, Johnny Warren and Shawn Camp walked out on stage for a brief sound check. The Earls of Leicester. Just damn. I still couldn’t believe I was there, getting to photograph and review them. I had seen Jerry and Barry perform quite a few times in the past with Alison Krauss and Union Station. But this was a whole different level of mind blowing, I think I left my jaw back on the ground in Thornton, kind of show. I won’t lie to you, as a big fan of Jerrys, this review might have a tiny little bit of bias.
I grew up listening to all different types of music; jazz, blues, rock, but mainly it was traditional country and bluegrass. Flatt and Scruggs was a duo that played quite often on my ‘mental transistor radio’, a term one of my favorite author/percussionists Neil Peart is wont to say. I have always loved attending concerts, I have been to more live shows than I can count in my forty years, starting with Alabama at the age of four. And when I shoot a show, I still sing, and dance even while I’m working.
Yes, even in the pouring rain as it was tonight.
I was blessed to have a couple of wonderful volunteers who offered me the shelter of their umbrellas to shoot under from a distance (thank you to the two awesome PVBF Volunteers who helped me out!). But I digress; back to this amazing show. Jerry Douglas had assembled an astounding group of master bluegrass musicians for the Earls of Leicester project. Shawn, unfortunately, was battling a bout of laryngitis and was unable to sing lead, but Jeff took over almost seamlessly to fill in for him.
They opened the show with the classic Salty Dog Blues, flying out of the gate with a dynamic jam, their vocals swelling in perfect harmony. I was riding a natural high from that point forward, running back and forth across the lawn, dodging the rain, taking photos. I’m sure I must have looked like a drowned rat, scurrying around, but I was having a blast!
My only regret was my inability to take proper notes due to the constant deluge during their set, so I apologize profusely, guys, if the songs are out of order! They played an incredible, high energy set that included ‘Big Black Train’, ‘Dim Lights, Thick Smoke’, ‘I’ll Go Stepping Too’, ‘Long Journey Home’ (the first single from their upcoming release ‘Live at the CMA Theater’), and the fiery Charlie Cushman led instrumental, ‘Flint Hill Special’, done in the rolling Scruggs style, that incorporates the “Scruggs Pegs” device, re-tuning the banjo mid song. Just absolutely astounding. The Earls played a full two hour set to a standing ovation when they finished, prompting a three song encore that included one of my own favorites, ‘Roll in My Sweet Baby’s Arms’, and finishing up with the intense ‘Foggy Mountain Breakdown’. It was a magical evening, and I have to say, after tonight’s show, I think I might be crushing a little on ‘Uncle Flux’. The Earls of Leicester can be found at www.facebook.com/earlsofl and Instagram at www.instagram.com/earlsofl
Thank you to all who helped me get this gig – Kelly, Phil, Craig, most especially Jerry for the heads up in the first place! Thank you to the artists who took the time to stop and chat with me for a little while, and to all the performers for the wonderful shows!
About the author: Kathy Murray, formerly of Wellesley, MA, spent most of her summers in Tuftonboro, NH at her family home where she now resides with her husband David, and their nine year old autistic son, Niall. Brought up in an all musical family, her childhood was spent singing and playing the guitar, and going with her parents, Gary and Pam Hicks, to their gigs with Jimmy Allen and Easy Country, John Hicks and Revolution and finally, The John Penny Band. Ultimately, John took her under his wing, and under the stage name Kathy Hicks, brought her up to perform at various benefits and functions throughout the New England area. Presently Kathy focuses on the front end of the house, photographing and now reviewing musical acts for Live Music News and Review.com.
To submit a review for consideration hit us at [email protected]
Check out the Live Music News and Review.com Facebook page for updates and announcements.