Winterhawk Bluegrass Fest offers something for everyone
Ancramdale, N.Y., July 16-19, 1998
By Jonathan Colcord
ANCRAMDALE, NY - The "Sweet Sixteen" Winterhawk Bluegrass Festival lived up to it's theme as young acts ranging in age from barely 6 to 18 dominated the lineup.
The shadow of the New Grass Revival also hung over the festival.
The youngest performer, Ryan Holladay, 6, performed his own short set with his father, while at other times being invited to perform with the Lonesome River Band and the Del McCoury Band. This little boy sings wonderful tenor and can also pick banjo and dobro.
Another young act returning was the Schankman Twins who are 18 this year.
Perhaps the most promising young band was Nickel Creek, fronted by 17 year-old mandolin virtuoso Chris Thile, with 15 year-old Sara Watkins on fiddle and her older brother Sean on guitar. Thile's father Scott rounded out their lineup on bass. Nickel Creek won two standing ovations on the opening night.
The contingent of youthful bands didn't stop there. Kickin' Grass, another new band of 15-18 year-olds would perform, as would the young Tina Adair with her family band, the Adair's. Adair has a superb voice with great range and is becoming a fine mandolin player as well.
Another theme which also seemed to permeate the festival was the legacy of the New Grass Revival. The band that has been hailed as the carriers of the newgrass torch, Crucial Smith performed a good set of original newgrass material including their own version of the Beatle's "Please, Please Me."
New Grass Revival alum Bela Fleck brought his popular jazz-edged act the Flecktones to the festival. Received with a mixed response, Fleck performed his trademark banjo-jazz set, including an acoustic portion. The group includes drum effects and brass in their act.
The Sam Bush Band, including former New Grass Revival members Sam Bush and John Cowan would perform material from the new "Howling At The Moon" CD. The inclusion of drums in the group found some audience members offended as it is a "bluegrass" festival which does not normally find drums in band lineups. Highlights were old New Grass Revival standards such as "Calling Baton Rouge," on which they later would have a hit when invited to re-record it with Garth Brooks for one of his albums.
Darol Anger arrived late and missed his early set, but would perform later putting together many of the artists who contributed to his recent Island project "Heritage" with Laurie Lewis, Tony Trischka, John Cowan and others. They pulled off a great set considering the lack of rehearsal.
Peter Rowan lead the usual "Midnight Jam" portion of Saturday's late show. Joining him on stage was Laurie Lewis, Tim O'Brien, Darol Anger, Tut Taylor, and many more. Rowan would also perform on Sunday in the only set to feature guitar virtuoso Tony Rice. Rice is still not singing however due to vocal strain over the years.
While this year's focus seemed to be dominated by the young and progressive, there were many moments that harkened back to tradition. Most notably, the stellar appearance from Ralph Stanley & the Clinch Mountain Boys.
Great sets of traditional bluegrass were also delivered by the Gibson Brothers, the Dry Branch Fire Squad, the Lonesome River Band, Continental Divide and the 1997 International Bluegrass Music Association's Entertainer's Of The Year the Del McCoury Band. The U.S. Navy's Country Current country/bluegrass group made a return appearance this year much to the crowd's delight - wearing their dress-white uniforms. The Freight Hoppers graced the stage with their blend of old-time mountain music and would also help drive the dance stage until the wee hours.
The schedule this year seemed a bit busy allowing for only one set for some acts such as Breakaway, who were surely deserving of more.
Winterhawk continues to be one of the greatest bluegrass festivals in the country. The age diversity within the crowd made it evident that something was being offered for everyone to enjoy.