Contemporary bluegrass pioneer Tim O’Brien wears many hats.
Older fans may remember him as the lead singer of Hot Rize, the progressive bluegrass band that formed in 1976 and still tours occasionally today. Or they might remember that band’s alter ego, the honky-tonk parody band Red Knuckles and the Trailblazers, which features the members of Hot Rize in different outfits. Still others may prefer O’Brien’s solo work; his most recent solo album, “Chameleon,” was released this May. And a new generation of fans may recognize him for his appearances with The Stringdusters, whose latest album, “The Infamous Stringdusters,” was produced by O’Brien.
Grey Fox Bluegrass Festival
WHEN: Today through Sunday
WHERE: The Walsh Farm, 1 Poultney Road, Oak Hill
HOW MUCH: $170 for full festival; $45 for Thursday; $55 for Friday; $55 for Saturday, $25 for Sunday
MORE INFO: (888) 946-8495, www.greyfoxbluegrass.com
But fans heading to the Walsh Farm in Oak Hill for the annual Grey Fox Bluegrass Festival, today through Sunday, won’t have to make a choice — they’ll be able to see O’Brien in all four of his musical incarnations, plus a fiddling workshop, to boot. O’Brien has become a regular fixture at the festival, although he missed last year’s, having taken time off from the road to work on “Chameleon.”
“I’ve done [Grey Fox] a lot of times, though I’m not clear on when it started,” O’Brien said during a recent phone interview from his home in Nashville. “But I’ve been there since pretty much the first year.”
It’s easy to understand why O’Brien would be unclear about when the festival started, considering the number of name changes it has been through. The Grey Fox name didn’t surface until 2000; before that, the festival had been known as the Winterhawk Bluegrass Festival since 1983. However, there has been a bluegrass festival in the region since 1976, when Nancy Talbot founded the Berkshire Mountain Bluegrass Festival. Since 1985, Mary Tyler Doub has been in charge of the festival.
These festivals have all taken place at the Rothvoss Farm in Ancramdale in past years. However, the farm’s sale last year necessitated the move to the Oak Hill location on Route 22 in northern Greene County, near the Albany County border. Doub said she was initially worried that the move might affect this year’s attendance, although it seems now that those worries were unfounded.
“With the move and gas prices and everything, we were very worried that we would not have the community that supports us, but they are supporting us strongly and well,” Doub said. “It looks like the camping part will be sold out before we even open the gates.”
This year’s festival features over 40 acts spread out on five different stages, including The Dry Branch Firesquad, which has hosted the event nearly every year its been held, according to Mary Burdette, the festival’s assistant director. Also of note is Abigail Washburn and the Sparrow Quartet, featuring the legendary Bela Fleck on banjo, which will take the Main Stage at 7:30 p.m. Friday. The Bluegrass Academy for kids on the family stage, a slow jam tent for those just learning to play, and yoga and cooking demonstrations throughout the weekend will round out the festival. Visit www.greyfoxbluegrass.com for a complete schedule of events.
“One of the most important things is that people come back year after year and bring their children up there because it’s a community,” Doub said. “It’s one of the things that makes bluegrass music so great, and Grey Fox, I think, really tries to enhance that community, with the Bluegrass Academy for kids, great music, really good food, nice shopping. We try to get everybody involved, really involved.”
Workshops are one way that the festival aims to involve audience members. Throughout the weekend, workshops on songwriting, fiddle playing, guitar playing, mandolin technique and a host of other topics will be held on the Masters Stage and the Grass Roots Tent.
O’Brien will be co-hosting a Celtic Connections workshop with Irish fiddler Kevin Burke at 4 p.m. Saturday.
“These things, they usually have workshops in the afternoons, and they’re semi-instructional, informal performances, to maybe a full-on performance,” O’Brien said. “There’s a lot of question and answer, but some performing as well.”
When he spoke on the phone, O’Brien had actually just come from a weeklong festival of American fiddle tunes, where he taught mandolin, fiddle and singing. Although originally a guitarist, O’Brien has developed a command over multiple instruments over the years, usually picking up a new instrument as the need arose. He bought his first guitar, a Sears catalog Harmony, in 1966.
“Later, I started branching out into the other things in a search for usefulness, just for function,” he said. “There might be three guitar players. [So I thought] maybe a violin would be kind of cool, or a harmonica would be good, or a mandolin. Somebody else picked up the mandolin. So I’d go look for another [instrument]. I grab the one no one else is using.”
Although O’Brien is less concerned with picking up new instruments these days, he has added a new one to his shows — a banjo.
“[Playing banjo] had been kind of a hobby until then,” he said. “When I made this solo record, which was just me and an instrument on each track, I used as much texture as I could draw from each instrument. I’ve been playing the banjo for years, I just haven’t in front of people. I doubted if I would.”
“Chameleon’s” stripped down songs will be featured during O’Brien’s solo performance on the Main Stage at 3 p.m. on Friday. The album marks the first time he has recorded songs with no overdubs, just his vocals and one instrumental track. The album features instrumentation ranging from the tried-and-true acoustic guitar approach to fiddles, mandolins, banjos and others.
“It was something that I had thought about doing for years and years, and it just so happened that with this project, what was ready was a bunch of new original songs, and I picked the ones that worked the best,” O’Brien said.
“It was driven by what songs were there and what instruments worked best with them. ‘I need something to play; oh, I’ll play the fiddle. I just did one with banjo, that sounds good, I need another one now.’ You sort of tidy up as you go, grab a couple more things, put it in a row and it’s done.”
Although O’Brien has been focused on his solo material recently, he said he is looking forward to performing with his bands again. Hot Rize will be celebrating its 30th anniversary as a group during its Main Stage appearance at 8:45 p.m. on Saturday. After that performance, the group will head over to the Dance Pavilion to play as Red Knuckles and the Trailblazers at 11 p.m. O’Brien is also excited about his appearance with The Stringdusters on Friday at 11:45 p.m. on the Main Stage.
“I love playing with The Stringdusters, they kind of pump me up because they’re younger guys, and it’s contagious, the joy of it,” he said. “Then I get to renew old friendships and exercise dormant muscles with Hot Rize; we play a couple times a year, and it’s good to get the stuff out there. There’s some kind of vibe when we assume that position, and I’m looking forward to all that.”
Grey Fox lineup
Today: Dry Branch Fire Squad, Gravity, Adrienne Young, Little Sadie, Pete Wernick’s Bluegrass Jam Campers, Red Stick Ramblers, Steep Canyon Rangers, Michael Cleveland and Flamekeeper, Dailey & Vincent Band, The SteelDrivers, The Greencards, Michael Cleveland, Brian Wicklund, Kevin Wimmer, Linzay Young, John Kirk, Trish Miller, Fiddlestyx.
Friday: Chatham County Line, Steep Canyon Rangers, The Greencards, Uncle Earl, Tim O’Brien, The Grascals, Dry Branch Fire Squad, Abigail Washburn and the Sparrow Quartet, The David Grisman Bluegrass Experience, Del McCoury Band, The Stringdusters, Gravity, Adrienne Young, Kristin Andreassen, Sarah Siskind, Sarah Jarosz, Ron Thomason, The Wilders, Bela Fleck, Pete Wernick, Bill Keith, Chris Pandolfi, David Grisman, Ronnie McCoury, Kindling Stone, John Kirk, Trish Miller, Uncle Earl, Big Sandy and His Fly-Rite Boys, Pete and Joan Wernick, Jeff Horton, Mary Maguire, Brian Ldridge, Tony Watt, Bill Keith, Andrew Van Norstrand, Pete Reichwein, Alex Sens, Joe Sinchak, Suzanne Bladek, Cristo Lewis, Banjer Dan.
Saturday: Misty Raines and the New Hip, Chatham county Line, Adrienne Young and Little Sadie, Dry Branch Fire Squad, Dan Paisley and the Southern Grass, The Gibson Brothers, The Wilders, The Stringdusters, Hot Rize, Jerry Douglas Band, Sam Bush Band, Kitsy Kuykendall, Sarah Jarosz, Mike Bub, Mike Barber, Eric Frey, Brian Sutton, Andy Falco, Chaz Justus, Tim O’Brien, Kevin Burke, Jerry Douglas, Andy Hall, Mike Witcher, John Kirk, Trish Miller, Fiddlestyx, Gravity, Uncle Earl, Red Stick Ramblers, Red Knuckles and the Trailblazers, Ron Thomason, Tony Watt, Bill Keith, Jeff Horton, Mary Maguire, Andrew Van Norstrand, Pete Reichwein, Alex Sens, Banjer Dan, American Family Jamboree Band, Cristo Lewis, Lew Gelfond, The Panfil Brothers.
Sunday: Dry Branch Fire Squad, Kindling Stone, Missy Raines and the New Hip, Bluegrass Academy for Kids, Kindling Stone, Diane Kordas, Stone Soup Family Edition.