21 July 2012: Martinsburg, West Virginia
It was supposed to be a nice day, weather-wise. After a summer of extreme weather I should have expected to be ready for anything. Who would know it would turn cold and rainy here in the foot-hills after so many days of 100-Plus degree heat? I really don't know the Martinsburg area well, so I did what I always do and got there early. I missed two turns I should have taken to get to the event site and passed a farm house that was surrounded by mules - honest-to-God mules. I didn't know anyone raised them anymore. I pulled up to an opening that went into a stand of woods and there before me were two little white signs that said "BMA." I paid 20-bucks to the lady at the entrance and then drove on in. I got the first parking spot in the field. I saw Todd Stotler there immediately (Sound Engineer with Echoes Studios) and Steve Harris (Circa Blue Band). They recounted the tale of trying to deal with a rabid raccoon that greeted them when they arrived at the performance pavilion earlier in the morning. Welcome to wild, wonderful, West Virginia. If it hadn't been for Todd I would have never gotten word about the first-ever "Grass and Grub Festival" promoted by the Bluegrass Music Alliance of Martinsburg.
Ernie Bradley and The Grassy Ridge were on the play-bill. That was enough of a reason for me to drive an hour and a half to get there. For 20-bucks you got a meal plus an afternoon of listening to Ernie and his band, plus The Shuey Brothers, Circa Blue, Drymill Road, and The Back Creek Valley Boys. I like these smaller events more for the surprises than anything else. You never know what to expect. If nothing else you can always chalk up an interesting trip to somewhere you've never been before - and West Virginia is always interesting. I could tell from the get-go that not many paying customers were going to show up. At it's highest number I counted 98 people on the grounds with a few people coming and going, and that didn't include the band members. Maybe the weather. Maybe the fact that this was a first-time deal. Maybe promotion or lack there of factored in. Who knows? There's always next year if enough people are interested in supporting mountain music.
The Shuey Brothers (Harrisburg, Pa.) kicked off the program and I felt sorry for them because they were dressed in Hawaiian shirts. They had to be freezing up there. They were OK. Nothing spectacular. Or maybe it was nervousness at having to be the kick-off act. The on-stage banter and joking got a little long-winded. Circa Blue came on. Another band I'd only heard about but had never experienced. Unfortunately for most of their set they were missing the mandolin player and compliments to Steve Harris for pulling it through. You live and learn to cope with the unpredictable - like rabid raccoons and 58-degree weather in the middle of July. Then the program really got interesting when Drymill Road took over.
Out of Winchester, Virginia, Drymill Road is headed up by Sean Loomis on guitar and vocals. To say it's headed up by Sean Loomis isn't telling the whole story. Each member contributes his own expertise equally to Sean's lead guitar. Launching off into dark minor strains, I was waiting for a bluegrass band that was bringing Klezmer music to the hills of West Virginia. Or maybe Nuevo Flamenco. This was different - very, very different and I was wondering what this audience of bluegrass die-hards was thinking. The trick was in resolving back to very traditional mountain music forms and riffs. They were making a statement: We can play that stuff and play different stuff, too. Sean Loomis was going through so many key changes it made my head spin and he'd challenge Robert Mabe (banjo), Doug Ross (mandolin), and David Hurt (Bass), to keep up with him. These guys drive like a well-oiled machine and their set was non-stop. I hate to say this, but you could move this group into a jazz club and no one would be disappointed; they are that good at what they do. Their brand of music is about paying homage to authentic bluegrass, while presenting it in an innovative way. This isn't the Punch Brothers and it's not 'newgrass.' It's just very refreshing, and it's done well. Doug Ross finished off the set with Jimmy Martin's "Freeborn Man." That did it for me. Made me a fan of Drymill Road. When I got back to my laptop I pulled them up on YouTube to see what was there. None of the videos do them any justice. You have to experience them up front and real and in a live performance to appreciate their talent.