FreshGrass highlights: Sam Amidon will perform at Mass MoCA festival

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NORTH ADAMS -- After performing at Wilco's most recent Solid Sound festival in 2013, Brattleboro native Sam Amidon returns to Mass MoCA this Sunday to perform at FreshGrass, the museum's yearly bluegrass and roots music festival. A confident fiddler, banjo player, guitarist and singer, Amidon will release his sixth solo album, "Lily-O," on Sept. 30. Like his earlier albums, the songs on "Lily-O" are largely original re-imaginings of traditional American folk songs.

BWSV: How do you think your music fits in the surroundings of Mass MoCA?

Sam Amidon:

It's right in the middle of beautiful New England, and many of the songs I sing -- especially the shape note songs -- come from that. It has all the weird, beautiful old brick, and the crazy modern art.

BWSV:Alison Brown, another FreshGrass artist, said that modern art is built on the traditions and history of all the art that came before it, and today's folk music is the same in that way.

SA: That's true, definitely. In some ways, it's more accidental that I sing folk songs, because I'm not singing them to be part of a genre or to try to preserve them or anything like that. It's more because I love them and think they're great songs and great stories. I come up with these guitar parts and mess around with the melodies, and its like a collage process. For me, it's more a connection to a collage idea of not worrying so much about creating the whole thing, but just creating an installation place for stuff to happen.

I think the tradition of folk music is very important, but it's not really important while you're making the music. It's just something to worry about if it starts to die out, which, as this festival shows, there's very little risk of happening.

BWSV: You have a new album coming out soon, and like some of your other albums you're using lyrics and themes from old folk songs. Where do you find that source material for your songs?

SA: Well, I find a lot of the material from the powerful field recordings that Alan Lomax made, the Southern Journey series of field recordings. There are some amazing musicians that he recorded on that trip, especially Bessie Jones, Almeda Riddle and the shape note Sacred Harp singers. But a lot of them I actually heard in New England, growing up in Vermont, because my parents are great folk singers and there are tons of really great traditional musicians around New England.

I grew up going to contra dances and playing for contra dances in Greenfield on the fiddle, so a lot of the songs I first learned just from friends, just singing them, and it wasn't until I was a teenager that I started checking out field recordings and hearing earlier versions.

On this album there are definitely a few songs that I would have heard my parents singing. The earlier albums have more stuff from field recordings, and this album -- in terms of source material -- comes more from friends growing up, people who are my heroes but not ancient folk people living around New England. But once I bring the music into the studio I kind of forget about the source. By then you have to pretend you wrote it because that's how you get inside it.

BWSV: What do you have planned for your FreshGrass performance?

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SA: On Sunday I'm pretty sure -- and we'll see if I can wake him up early enough -- but I think I'm going to have Thomas Bartlett playing with me. We became friends during a very important screening of "Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles" in 1987, the original film, in Brattleboro. Then we ran into each other at a concert by the David Moss Dense Band, which was this weird experimental performance that our fathers both brought us coincidentally to, also around the age of 7.

We formed a band around that time to play music, and he now does all kinds of s***. He's the piano player on the last few records by the band The National, and Antony and the Johnsons, and he produces albums by Glen Hansard and all these different kinds of people.

Now he has an incredible band called The Gloaming, who plays expansive Irish music. Thomas is going to come with me, which will be really fun, because we've been friends since we were little kids. I think he's going to bring his drum machines and keyboards.

If you go ...

What: FreshGrass festival, music, workshops. Lineup includes Emmy Lou Harris, Liam Ó Maonlaí, Martha Redbone Roots Project and many more

When: Gates open 5:30 p.m. Friday, Sept. 19; last concert begins 10:30 p.m.

Saturday 10:30 am. to 10:30 p.m.

Sunday 10:30 a.m. to 5:45 p.m.

Workshops, late dance parties

Where: Mass MoCA, North Adams

Admission: Friday $39 for adults, Saturday $55, Sunday $58 -- student, child, three-day rates

Information: freshgrass.com


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