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Blueberry Bluegrass - the little festival that always does

Donald Teplyske  |  February 8, 2019

Blueberry Bluegrass, Stony Plain, Alberta's little festival that always does, has announced their 2019 artist lineup. Emphasizing quality entertainment over mainstream name recognition, this August's fest could be amazing.

Once past the four or five names that may be known outside hardcore bluegrass circles - Ricky Skaggs, Marty Stuart, Rhonda Vincent, and Del McCoury included, all of whom have played the fest - there aren't too many folks that can be guaranteed to fill a park with the unconverted.

So what is a Canadian fest - far northwest of the bluegrass banjo belt - to do to ensure the grounds fill?

The biggest names appearing at Blueberry this year are most assuredly 'bluegrass.' The Tim O'Brien Band - a new collection of bluegrass veterans - and Joe Mullins & the Radio Ramblers are this year's true headliners.

It would appear that the Blueberry Bluegrass organizers have elected to go with a broad range of performers. Included are some traditionalists to appeal to those of us who want to hear the music the way we think it should be played, as well as a bunch of performers - many on the youthful side - who bring something a bit different to acoustic music.

It is a fair, reasonable balance.

Alberta has a long history of supporting both eclectic, modern folk festivals and smaller, niche bluegrass fests. Alberta likely doesn't need another folk fest, but it definitely needs to maintain and nourish its bellwether bluegrass fest.

The people organizing Blueberry love the music, but they also understand that a strictly 'bluegrass' event is likely to smother itself with debt and stagnant attendance numbers. Because the truth is, an unadulterated bluegrass fest - featuring acts those of us in the know love, but who have minimal gate appeal - is never going to draw more than a few hundred paying customers over a weekend.

O'Brien has been making acoustic bluegrass-, folk- and Celtic-influenced music for a real long time, on his own, in duet with Darrell Scott, Mollie O'Brien, and others, and as a founding member of Grammy-winning traditionalists The Earls of Leicester. O'Brien last appeared at Blueberry as part of Hot Rize, the legendary band that re-emerged over the last decade, and which has brought O'Brien his greatest acclaim in bluegrass circles.

The Tim O'Brien Band, who have an album coming out early in March, features O'Brien (mandolin, guitar, fiddle, and vocals) joined by Mike Bub (bass), Shad Cobb (fiddle), Patrick Sauber (banjo), and Jan Fabricius (vocals). O'Brien clarifies, "Our lineup is classic bluegrass, but these folks play in any style you want, so we can reach pretty deep in my song bag when it's called for."

Mullins has been fronting the Radio Ramblers for well more than a decade, releasing seven albums with the group, and an eighth is just around the corner. He was previously a member of the Traditional Grass, led by his father, Paul, and Longview, a bluegrass supergroup. JM&RR are one of the most popular groups on bluegrass satellite radio, and are a perennial presence on the bluegrass charts.

Bluegrass border-straddlers John Reischman & the Jaybirds also returns to Blueberry. This very talented five-piece band has long been known for the quality of their music and live performances; they really are one of the best groups going. British Columbia-based Reischman's mandolin playing is clean and pure, one of those who have kept Bill Monroe's vision of bluegrass mandolin alive and vibrant.

Nick Hornbuckle (banjo), Trisha Gagnon (bass) and Greg Spatz (fiddle) have been with the Jaybirds for some 20 years. Reischman told me, "The Jaybirds are very happy to be returning to the Blueberry Bluegrass Festival, Canada's premier Bluegrass event! It will have been 10 years since we last played. We are excited to introduce the Blueberry audience to our new guitarist, Patrick Sauber. He is a familiar face to many, having toured with Laurie Lewis, Peter Rowan and Tim O'Brien on banjo." Sauber will be busy during the Blueberry weekend, as he is also a member of O'Brien's band.

High Fidelity is one of the strongest 'traditional without being old-school' bluegrass outfits recording today, and their Rebel Records release of last summer was well-received. It was an outstanding collection of music from the band fronted by life partners Corinna Rose Logston and Jeremy Stephens, who appeared at Blueberry a couple years ago as part of David Peterson's 1946 band. Kurt Stephenson, Vickie Vaughn and Daniel Amick are also integral members of this fairly youthful outfit.

Barefoot Movement is a bluegrass-folk group that will appeal for those who are looking for something a little different. The band isn't 'out there' by any means, and are contemporaries of others - I'm With Her and Lonely Heartstring Band, as examples - who take the parameters of bluegrass and gently massage the edges to see where they'll go.

The Cleverlys are a group that Alberta bluegrass promotors have followed for many years. Branson favourites, The Cleverlys are hard to describe, but are sure to be favorites of those who want their bluegrass to have more than a little bit of 'show' along with musical proficiency.

Front Country and Nu-Blu are also from the youthful end of the bluegrass spectrum, and both may be best described as belonging to the wider Americana field. Nu-Blu played Blueberry in 2014, and while they remain at least partly within the bluegrass fold, their most recent music has taken a broader view of acoustic music.

Carolyn and Daniel Routh are the band's principals, and they host Bluegrass Ridge TV. Daniel shared that the group is excited to be back at Blueberry Bluegrass. "Last time we were there, we had just started to branch out with our music, and since we have been continuing to grow our brand into many areas that bluegrass music isn't prevalent in. Hosting Bluegrass Ridge TV and being ambassadors of the music we love is such a huge honour, and we can't wait to share where it's taken us with all the festival goers in August."

Northern California's Front Country is perhaps best characterized as a progressive bluegrass band, bringing to their music the entire range of roots music. I suspect they will also be playing one of the late-night dances at Blueberry.

Adding even more diversity to the line-up, central Canada's Lonesome Ace Stringband makes its Blueberry debut. Years of experience as a trio while also playing in a variety of other configurations has allowed the principals of LAS - John Showman, Chris Coole, and Max Heineman, fully three-fifths of the Foggy Hogtown Boys - to create their own blend of old-time, folk music.

Blueberry Bluegrass has long supported emerging and regional bluegrass acts, and this year appears no exception with some eight additional acts participating and playing a range of sounds. The Steve Fisher Band, Bill and the Belles, Growling Old Men, The Western Flyers, Rugged Little Thing, Jessie & the Gents, The Strawflowers and Troy's Old-Time Dance Band are all scheduled to appear.

Those who appreciate the acoustic side of Americana - bluegrass, old-time, and folk - will find much of interest at the Blueberry Bluegrass Festival in Stony Plain, Alberta Aug. 2-4, 2019.

©Country Standard Time • Jeffrey B. Remz, editor & publisher •
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