Bluegrass. Both word and sound connote mountains and rolling hills, banjos and fiddles floating on a sweet summer breeze in the great outdoors. So, while throwing a three-day bluegrass bash indoors at a hotel in the dead of winter might seem a tad incongruous with the spirit of the music, it is also the particular triumph of the annual Joe Val Bluegrass Festival.
Now in its 23d year, the event - which kicks off tonight and is named after the late mandolin and high tenor singer Joe Val - offers a weekend's worth of wall-to-wall bluegrass performances, workshops, musical instruction, and more, all crammed into the Sheraton Framingham hotel.
"It has a life of its own now," says Gerry Katz, who heads the nonprofit, all-volunteer Boston Bluegrass Union, the organization behind the festival. "We certainly have a challenge to create a festive atmosphere indoors, but we've got the drill down. We put in hundreds of hours, but we love it and get caught up in it. By the time of the festival, we're carried along by the energy."
Katz says he was "a disenfranchised rock and roller back in early '80s" when he was first turned on to the music by listening to radio host Brad Paul's bluegrass show on WERS. "I was just enthralled by this wonderful ensemble music," he recalls. "The bluegrass I love is when it's so emotional that it reaches into your chest and rips your heart out."
Here are a handful of the many notable artists you may want to catch. For details, go to bbu.org.
Michael Cleveland and Flamekeeper Tonight at 10:40 on the main stage
Considered one of bluegrass's best and most blazing young fiddlers, Cleveland picked up the instrument at age 4 and never put it down. He's already been named the International Bluegrass Music Association (IBMA) fiddle player of the year five times since bursting on the national scene with "Flamekeeper," his 2002 debut album that also won IBMA instrumental album of the year honors. Cleveland has played alongside greats such as Bill Monroe, Ralph Stanley, and Alison Krauss, to name a few, but his backing band, also named Flamekeeper, is where he truly shines. The lineup includes standouts Jesse Brock (mandolin), Todd Rakestraw (guitar), John Mark Batchelor (banjo), and Marshall Wilborn (bass).
The Reunion Band Tomorrow at 10 a.m. on the main stage
No wonder they're called the Reunion Band. They came up with the name only six years ago, but between them, these Boston-area veterans have about 150 years of experience and have played together, in one form or another, for more than three decades. Rhythm guitarist Dave Dillon was a member of Joe Val and the New England Bluegrass Boys for seven years. Mandolinist Richie Brown and bassist Margaret Gerteis played with Apple Country, while fiddler Art Schatz and banjo player Lauck Benson have played with a who's who of New England bands. Everybody sings, and everybody swings.
The Frank Wakefield Band Tomorrow at 1:05 p.m. on the main stage
In a career spanning more than 50 years, mandolin player Frank Wakefield has done it all - and then some. At 19, he wrote his first original tune, the classic "New Camptown Races," back in 1953. Over the years, the Tennessee native also enjoyed a legendary long-term partnership with Red Allen, jammed with country rockers New Riders of the Purple Sage, and sat in with the Grateful Dead. He taught mandolin player David Grisman much of what he knows. At 73, Wakefield shows no signs of slowing down
Alecia Nugent Tomorrow at 2:10 and 6 p.m. on the main stage
Torch, twang, and tenderness might aptly sum up Nugent's crystal-clear voice and fresh take on bluegrass. Thanks to growing up on a rich diet of Reba McEntire and Loretta Lynn as well as Ray Price and Carl Smith, the Louisiana native colors the music with bold dollops of bluegrass's close cousin, country, and blurs the line between old traditions and new directions. Nugent's band includes prime-time players Jennifer Strickland (bass), Thomas Wywrot (banjo, guitar), Tony Watt (guitar), and Jason Robertson (mandolin).
The SteelDrivers Tomorrow at 3:10 and 7 p.m. on the main stage
One of bluegrass's most promising outfits possesses an old soul that belies its age as new-school upstarts. Hailing from Nashville and with a just-released self-titled debut album to boot, the SteelDrivers revolve around the compelling original material from co-songwriters Chris Stapleton (vocals, guitar) and Mike Henderson (mandolin). The band also relies on the tight musicianship of fiddler Tammy Rogers (who has played alongside Nashville alt-country royalty such as Buddy and Julie Miller), banjo player Richard Bailey, and bassist Mike Fleming. Stapleton's rugged vocal style makes a perfect complement to his sturdy songs, which have been covered by the likes of Tim McGraw.
The Steep Canyon Rangers Tomorrow at 4:10 and 9:20 p.m. on the main stage
Since springing from Chapel Hill, N.C., these new-breed bluegrassers have wasted little time carving out a name and niche for themselves as purveyors of a strikingly dynamic, harmony-rich musical mix that builds on the bed of early bluegrass but also honky tonk and blues. The Steep Canyon Rangers are a potent new force on the scene, having won 2006 IBMA emerging artist of the year honors.
The James King Band Sunday at 1:45 p.m. on the main stage
Currently one of the reigning singers of hard mountain bluegrass, the Virginia-born King cut his teeth as a guest vocalist with Ralph Stanley in the late '80s (not to mention his tenure with the bluegrass supergroup Longview) and was named the IBMA's emerging artist of the year in 1997. King has since issued several acclaimed albums that combine his powerfully lonesome pipes with a crack band that also includes the high-harmony tenor singing of mandolinist Kevin Prater, banjo player Adam Poindexter, fiddler Adam Haynes, and bassist John Wade.