Mass MoCA: FreshGrass works to stay ... fresh

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NORTH ADAMS — Entering its seventh year, the FreshGrass festival has already grown tall. The annual roots music romp at the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art drew more than 5,000 spectators last year after once playing host to mere hundreds in its first edition, according to Chris Wadsworth, who co-founded the event with the North Adams institution.

The event also now boasts an acclaimed cast of regulars, including Alison Brown, Del McCoury and Sarah Jarosz.

The challenge, then, is keeping FreshGrass, er, fresh. Wadsworth, who operates the FreshGrass Foundation, has a few ways of doing so.

For starters, he works with The Office, a production and curation-focused company based in New York City and London, to bring an eclectic mix of musicians to North Adams every September. They target both traditional and innovative bluegrass players, as well as "acoustic experiences in roots music stuff, some of which people will know and love, and some of which will be a surprise," Wadsworth told The Eagle during a recent telephone interview.

This year, alt-country artist Brandi Carlile headlines a group that also includes folk-oriented The Wood Brothers and soul-infused Son Little. Carlile's 2015 record, "The Firewatcher's Daughter," was nominated for the best Americana album Grammy award, but the 36-year-old is perhaps best known for a benefit album (proceeds go to humanitarian organization War Child UK) released earlier this year. "Cover Stories" features new versions of tracks from Carlile's first album, "The Story," sung by Adele, Pearl Jam and Dolly Parton, among others. Former President Barack Obama also penned a foreword for "Cover Stories." The festival has been trying to book Carlile, who plays on the three-day festival's middle night, for years, according to Wadsworth.

"She's a leader in this roots-music world," the co-founder said.

And who, exactly, belongs to that realm?

"I consider roots music sort of an umbrella term for a bunch of the sub-genres I guess, if you will," Wadsworth said. "I consider roots music including bluegrass and folk, and Americana, and even things like acoustic blues and as far as you want to stretch it."

FreshGrass isn't afraid to push roots music's limits, representing all of these sub-genres and more. But while this range gives each festival a different collection of sounds, its commissioned awards have also been a consistent source of new material in years past. Previously, FreshGrass has invited finalists to compete for best band, banjo and fiddle honors and cash prizes.

"It's become a mini-festival within the festival," Wadsworth said, "and that's something I spend a lot of time on because I just sort of scour the world for these young bands and young artists."

The 2017 festival has added a new contest, the No Depression Singer-Songwriter Award, sponsored by the roots music magazine that FreshGrass Foundation runs.

"We're excited about the twists and turns that that's going to bring," Wadsworth said.

Also new this year will be the results of the FreshGrass Composition Commission, "given yearly to an artist whose work reflects the FreshGrass mission to preserve and support innovative grassroots music," according to the festival's website.

"We ask an established artist to make an album's worth of music and to try to innovate in some way and put their interpretation on what roots music is," Wadsworth explained.

Guitarist Bill Frisell and folk star Jarosz were the commission's first two recipients and will perform what they've produced. While Wadsworth didn't know what Jarosz would be playing just yet, he said Frisell's work is "out there."

"It's a continuous stream of music that goes on for about 60 minutes," Wadsworth said.

For the third straight year, FreshGrass has also commissioned FreshScores, which involve a musician scoring a silent film in the public domain. Dom Flemons, Sunny Jain and Dormeshia Sumbry-Edwards were this year's recipients. Sumbry-Edwards, a tap dancer, will also be choreographing a dance in addition to the film scoring.

"I have no idea what that's going to mean, but we all get to witness it together," Wadsworth said. "But again, it's a perfect example of just sort of the outrageous stuff that we really like doing."

Yet, even as FreshGrass seeks to add new elements to this now-circled weekend for music fans, Wadsworth said the festival doesn't aim to grow in size.

"We wouldn't want it to be a lot bigger because I think that it takes away from what has become the FreshGrass vibe, which is just [this] easy sort of interaction with artists and with the rest of the FreshGrass community," Wadsworth said.


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