The usual tricks to get to the front of the stage go out the window at the Gettsyburg Bluegrass Festival. You can’t hope to snake your way through gaps in the crowd, patiently surveying the sways and shifts in the human sea, looking for an opening, like a slow motion game of human frogger. And you can’t time your move for the end of the opening act’s set, when the crowd thins as people dash to the facilities, or to stand in line for a beer.
None of that works because nobody stands at Gettysburg. They sit politely in their nylon and aluminum camp chairs, all lined in the neat, wide rows folks placed them in a week ago when the festival grounds opened up for the placing of the chairs.
That’s right. People claim spots first row, center, by being the quickest down the hill when they fire the starting pistol, or blow a horn, or maybe just say “go ahead folks,” I don’t know because I was not there. I had another commitment, and besides, four-day passholders are the only ones who get to stake an early claim. We were day-trippers.
So when we rolled in Saturday afternoon, deliberately late, skipping a few early acts to avoid the extreme mid-August heat, we were pretty content to find a spot to place our chairs about 15 rows from the stage, a little off the left.
Some idiots must have abandoned this good spot because of the heat, we thought.
A sun that was the size of Kate Smith in a lemon yellow chiffon gown was belting out notes that beamed down, baking your skin till you are as brown as a rotisserie chicken, or pinker than a breast cancer rally. What missed you on the way down bounced off the blacktop tarmac we were set up on and formed the “two” of a one-two punch. A dry breeze chipped in to make it feel like a convection oven.
Those idiots, it turned out, were not so dumb.
The last band of the afternoon comes on stage. It’s a gang called Headwaters, a quintet that gets to play a set at Gettysburg as a reward for winning the Deer Creek Fiddler’s Convention.
I know that because Kenny Windbeck, who plays the banjo and is the father of the mandolin player, tells us so. Numerous times.
It’s the last set before the scheduled “dinner break” between the afternoon and evening sets. Most of the chairs around us are empty. Most folks, we figure, have already headed to their camp sites to cool off and dine. Then the first song ends and a tremendous ovation rises from behind us.
There is a row of huge tents, maybe 30-yards long, at the top of the hill that makes up the natural amphitheater at the Granite Hill Camping Resort. And they are packed full of folks who moved up there to get out of the sun.
This is a mature crowd. We’re used to being among the older crowd at most festivals we go to. Here we skew decidedly younger.
The crowd being older helps explain why it has moved to the cover of the tents, even though it puts them almost a football field away from the stage. These folks did not live to be this old by dying from skin cancer.
Kenny takes time to explain to us that his son Kyle, playing the mandolin, won the banjo competition at the Deer Creek gathering and took second in the guitar competition. That was okay, Kenny says, because the winner was Joey Mosely, Headwaters’ guitarist.
The crowd roars in approval at every mention of the Deer Creek Fiddlers’ Convention competitions. Apparently they know all about it. They seem to think it is a pretty big deal. And I will take their word for it because this is their world, ever so slightly askew from mine. They are far more knowledgeable than I when it comes to traditional bluegrass.
As we walk back to our vehicle to tailgate during the break, I notice Kyle Windbeck walking to the parking lot, his mandolin case slung over one shoulder, a folding chair under his other arm. He is walking a lady who turns out to be his grandmother to her car. Her leaving actually causes the average age of the crowd to rise.
My usual festival haunts are, to borrow liberally from Larry Keel, freakier. It was Keel who, at a Halloween gig in a downstairs banquet room of a best days past country resort, referred to the music we like as “freaky bluegrass.” Since then I’ve borrowed the term.
It’s hard to describe the style of music we listen to friends. “Freaky bluegrass” seems to work. It’s a genre perhaps best described as consisting of bands who use traditional instruments to make music that defies any neat, clean, classification.
Jamgrass, some call it because of the extended length of some of the breaks, or the abandonment of the original melody for an extended jam before coming back around to finish the song.
Songs tend to be longer than those of more traditional bluegrass. Bands use pedals and electronics to bend the sound of their instruments. They even sometimes use electric mandolins and banjos, like bluegrass Dylans at Newport. Some of them, gasp, even use drums.
There is no such nonsense at Gettysburg. O.K., yeah, Steep Canyon Rangers played here in May, and they do have a drummer. But he plays on one of those wooden boxes and he wears a cool hat. Plus SCR established their chops sans percussion before Mike Ashworth joined the band, so there is that.
Electric instruments were kept at bay, at least on Saturday. The lineup gave no reason to suspect anybody would try to smuggle any in. Traveling McCourys do use some pedal board electronics. But that’s Del’s kids and besides, Jason Carter, that guy can play the fiddle — two-time IBMA champ.
None of this is intended to sound critical. To the contrary. We had a fantastic time. It just was different.
“If you don’t find me, I’ll be over there on the side dancing,” said my wife, pointing to a spot while we waited for the Traveling McCourys to come on. “I don’t want to piss people off by standing in front of them.”
I sense disdain. She’s wearing a new tie-dyed top she just got made by dye artist extraordinaire Danny Balfour. She doesn’t blend. That is new to her. She is used to festivals that are seas of tie dye. She is also used to festivals where people dance. She has seen the Traveling McCourys before. It’s the reason we are here. And she struggles to comprehend that people will all sit still during their set.
She had been warned. When I came here in May to see Steep Canyon Rangers, I sat next to a woman who looked old enough to be my grandmother. She was with a husband dumb enough to brag that he was two years younger than her. I told him he was full of shit, I knew he was a lying scumbag here with a girl young enough to be his daughter. I do believe had I asked Grandma to run off, she might have thought about it.
They were not the oldest couple there that night. But they went nuts about the Steep Canyon Rangers, drummer and all. The whole crowd did. “That Nicky Sanders, he is the best fiddler player there is,” an old-timer who obviously knew the band’s personnel told me.
“He’s pretty good,” I said, thinking I’d get a blank stare when I went on to add, “But Jeremy Garrett, Tim Carbone, and Jason Carter are pretty good, too.”
“You’re right,” he said. “I really like those Stringdusters and Jason Carter, I didn’t think about him. Yeah, he is pretty damned good, too,”
See, they are a very knowledgable crowd. And they are open to a little less traditional bluegrass mixed in.
“Those Traveling McCourys were the best band here, where can I get their CD,” demands a man who stops me as I come from behind the stage after their set ends, taking advantage of my photo pass to cut behind the stage area to get from one side to the other without navigating the crowd.
I explain to the guy that I am not with the band but I don’t think they have a CD available other than one they recorded a few years back with Keller Williams. You can download a lot of their shows at archive.org, I try to tell him.
“I have a crap computer. I don’t want to be bothered with that internet stuff,” he tells me. “They just made a new fan. They were great. That’s not bluegrass, that’s newgrass.”
And as long as you don’t make him play it on a computer, or, God forbid, make them dance, then these folks are OK with some different stuff.
Again, none of this is a complaint. As far as I am concerned, this is a tremendous festival. It’s small. It’s intimate. It’s less than an hour from home and there is no traffic to hassle with getting there. Parking is free, and fairly close to the venue. We didn’t camp, but the camping is close and convenient, the tent areas full but uncrowded, with ample trees for shade. There is a small campground convenience store where you can purchase bottles of water at a normal convenience store type price.
You’re allowed to bring your own beer. What more could you want?
There is just one stage, and the changes between acts are swift. One advantage of traditional blue grass is that switching acts usually involves little more than rearranging the mics. And the acts are good. I never heard of many of the bands that play here. My two visits have both been drawn by one particular act that evening. But every other band I have heard here has been top notch, filled with incredible pickers.
Yeah, the atmosphere is a little more laid back than the festivals we are used to, but it is still a lot of fun. To be honest, the everybody sitting part is not so bad. I’m old, not in great shape, and have a body like an orthopedic surgeon’s bank account. That is to say there is probably a good orthopod’s fortune to be made repairing my bad knees, aching hips, and sore feet (did I mention my rotator cuff?).
Part of the allure of being on the rail, for me, is having something to lean on to take some pressure off my bad wheels. There are times when I want, hell, need, to sit down and it is nice being able to see the act from my seat, with nobody standing in front of me.
Bonus points for the absence of conversations during the music. We’re grownups here. We show the band, and the neighbors, some respect, even if we leave our baseball cap on when we eat at Applebees.
Besides, who would I be to tell these folks to change their culture. I am a guest here, a visitor exploring a different, slightly off parallel, universe.
During the McCourys set, mandolin virtuoso Ronnie McCoury paused between songs to tell a story about how he and his brother, banjo picker Rob McCoury, used to come the Gettysburg festival. where they would camp with their father, bluegrass legend Del McCoury, who has played the festival many times, and chase little girls.
“He would chase them,” Ronnie says, pointing at his brother. “I’d catch ‘em.”
Bass player Allen Bartram, who grew up near Philadelphia, also has memories of coming to Gettysburg with family when he was young.
“I came to see all my favorite bands here, so it is kind of full circle getting to play here,” Bartram says. “It’s a good bluegrass crowd.”
This is a bluegrass institution of sorts. Granite Hill has been hosting bluegrass festivals here since 1979. For a little perspective, DelFest, one of the top festivals in the newgrass universe, just celebrated its 10th anniversary. Bonnaroo has only been around since 2002. Lockn’ is in just its fourth year.
Only festivals like the Philadelphia Folk Festival, Newport, and Telluride have been around longer. South By Southwest started in 1987. Gettysburg was in its ninth year already. And Gettysburg is not an annual event, it’s biannual, They hold a festival every May and another each August. This is the 73rd Gettysburg Bluegrass Festival.
Bill Monroe played here on his 75th birthday. Alison Kraus played here when she was in high school. Rhonda Vincent’s daughter played guitar with the Rage and sang backup with her mom on Saturday. Ralph Stanley, Ricky Skaggs, Tony Rice, John Duffey . . . the list goes on, and grows as newgrass/jamgrass/freaky acts like the Infamous Stringdusters, Steep Canyon Rangers, and the Traveling McCourys play here.
There is a seniority system for camp sites. As long as you renew it before Sunday of the festival, you get to have the same site for the next year. Campers who have been waiting for a chance to swap up to a better site get first dibs on any sites not renewed.
“Don’t forget to renew your campsite for next year,” the emcee reminds between acts.
And many will. They have made the pilgrimage faithfully for years, and will for years to come.
You might even call it a tradition.