FreshGrass seeks new terrain with musically diverse lineup at eighth festival
NORTH ADAMS — On Aug. 9, the International Bluegrass Music Association announced that FreshGrass was one of five nominees for the organization's Special Event of the Year Award.
"We're thrilled to be considered," FreshGrass Co-Founder Chris Wadsworth said on Thursday.
Wadsworth won't find out if the annual roots music festival takes top honors until the International Bluegrass Music Awards on Sept. 27, but FreshGrass can bolster its case during the event's eighth edition beginning Friday, Sept. 14, and continuing through Sunday, Sept. 16, at the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art. The festival features another musically diverse lineup of performers, including headliners Flogging Molly, Indigo Girls and Trampled by Turtles. For Paul Schiminger, International Bluegrass Music Association executive director, the festival's sonic range was one of the reasons for its award nomination.
"It's great because it's bluegrass, but it's also many of the offshoots of bluegrass," Schiminger said by phone on Wednesday.
Indeed, Wadsworth doesn't want the festival's acts to feel predictable.
"We're always looking to make the lineup surprising and exciting," he said.
The inclusion of Flogging Molly, one of the most prominent Celtic punk groups in the U.S., may have come as a surprise to those with strict definitions of roots music. But guitarist Dennis Casey said that the band's 9 p.m. Saturday festival gig wasn't a surprising booking by any means to him.
"If we just took the electric guitars and drums out of our music, it would fit right in," he told The Eagle during a Thursday telephone interview. "But I think when you put them in, it adds a nice element that will probably bring, hopefully, a pleasant change of sound and excitement to the day."
Folk duo Indigo Girls is also making its first appearance at the festival, playing three hours earlier on Saturday at Joe's Field.
"I've heard that it's great from Alison Brown. Alison Brown is a good friend of mine and Amy's," singer-songwriter Emily Saliers said by phone Thursday, alluding to FreshGrass regular Brown and the other half of Indigo Girls, Amy Ray. Ray will be one of the judges for the FreshGrass Band Award on Sunday morning. Awards for songwriter, fiddle and banjo will also be handed out over the weekend.
The festival opens at 6 p.m. Friday in the Hunter Center with an album's worth of new music by Rhiannon Giddens, who received the FreshGrass Composition Commission for 2018. The co-founder of Grammy Award-winning string group Carolina Chocolate Drops was awarded a MacArthur "genius" grant in 2017.
"I think that'll be kind of a mind-blower," Wadsworth said.
Trampled by Turtles and Yonder Mountain String Band will close out the opening night with shows at Joe's Field and Courtyard D, respectively.
At 11 a.m. Saturday, banjo virtuoso Bela Fleck will hold a three-finger banjo class, one of a handful of workshops that Wadsworth said have been changed more significantly than any other area of the festival from last year. Others throughout the weekend include a master class with traditional Irish group Altan, Bruce Molsky and Darol Anger exploring the fiddle's history and "Band in a Box" with The Mammals, during which spectators can use the Americana group as a backing band while they sing famous tunes. The festival's website calls it "live-band karaoke."
"It's a very FreshGrass thing for us because we push new music," Wadsworth said.
Fleck and The Mammals will also perform later on Saturday. Giddens will return for a more traditional show at 5 p.m. in Courtyard D. Steep Canyon Rangers goes on last at the Hunter Center at 10:30 p.m.
Sunday brings three new FreshScores by Anna & Elizabeth, Emel Mathlouthi and Leyla McCalla, as well as roots world heavyweights I'm With Her and Ricky Skaggs & Kentucky Thunder, both of which will play at Joe's Field.
While the weekend's food and camping, and luthiers, might all feel familiar to FreshGrass faithful, the music shouldn't always, according to Wadsworth.
"We want to have different categories of music over the course of the weekend," he said. "We want some of it to be as expected. We want some of it to be surprising and known. And we want some of it to be surprising and unknown."
Benjamin Cassidy can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org, at @bybencassidy on Twitter and 413-496-6251.
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