Bluegrass festival marks 30 years

Date: 2/5/2015

As he was approaching the end of a long bout with lymphoma, in June 1985, the Boston Bluegrass Union (BBU) and the New England bluegrass community came together to celebrate the music and influence of Hillbilly Ranch veteran, Joseph “Joe Val” Valiente (1926-1985).

Although he had labored most days repairing typewriters, the Everett, Massachusetts-born, and Waltham-based mandolinist/high tenor singer had found plenty of time to spread the sounds of America’s hill country far beyond New England.

During a musical career spanning nearly four decades, he had worked with the Lilly Brothers, Don Stover, The Berkshire Mountain Boys (with longtime cohort Herb Applin on guitar), Bill Keith, and Jim Rooney, among others. A member of The Charles Valley Boys (a group that helped usher in the era of progressive bluegrass with an album of rearranged Beatles tunes in 1966), he had gone on to lead Joe Val and The New England Bluegrass Boys from 1970 until slightly before his passing.

Although he succumbed on June 11, 1985, two days after the second of two daylong musical tributes, Val’s spirit and memory have continued to fuel the annual Joe Val Bluegrass Festival.

The 30th addition of the festival that bears his name returns to the Sheraton Hotel, in Framingham from Feb. 13 through Feb. 15.

“We’re really excited about this year’s lineup,” said festival organizer Gerry Katz of the BBU. “We have Grammy winners  ( Del McCoury and Jim Lauderdale) and nominees  (Rhonda Vincent, The Seldom Scene, Frank Solivan and The Dirty Kitchen, and Della Mae, who will be performing with Jim Lauderdale), but we’ve got a great sampling of new faces gracing the main stage, as well.”

Thirtieth anniversary performers represent the cream of bluegrass music. “We have an eight-time IBMA (International Bluegrass Music Association) ‘mandolin player of the year’ (Ronnie McCoury),” Katz said, “a three-time ‘fiddler of the year’ (Jason Carter of The Del  McCoury Band), a three-time ‘male vocalist of the year’ (Del McCoury) and  a two-time ‘female vocalist of the year’ (Laurie Lewis). The IBMA’s  ‘instrumental group of 2014, Frank Solivan and The Dirty Kitchen includes 2013’s ‘banjo player of the year,’ Mike Munford, and award-winning multi-instrumentalist, Chris Laquette.”

Seven-time IBMA “female vocalist of the year,” and the Wall Street Journal’s  “new Queen of bluegrass,” Rhonda Vincent will be returning, with her band, The Rage, to close Friday’s main stage. A veteran of more than four decades as a bluegrass performer (having started out with a family band, The Sally Mountain Show), the mandolin player/vocalist has continued to ascend to the heights of musical success. In November 2014, she held the top two slots on Bluegrass Unlimited magazine’s music chart with “Busy City” and “Only Me,” a duet with Willie Nelson.

Although its lineup (Ben Eldridge (banjo), Lou Reid (vocals, guitar), Dudley Cornell (vocals, guitar), Ronnie Simpkins (bass), and Fred Travers (Dobro)) has been together for a decade and a half, progressive bluegrass pioneers, The Seldom Scene (who close the main stage on Saturday) continues to build on foundations the original group set over a half century ago.

“People tell me that we still sound like The Seldom Scene,”  Eldridge said, the sole remaining founding member. “We’ve still got strong vocals, the instrumentation is pretty much the same, and we still do a lot of the tunes that we started doing years ago.”

Endorsed by onstage jam sessions with Phish, tours and recordings with Steve Earle, participation in O’ Brother ‘s “Down from the Mountain Tour,” and membership in the Grand Ole Opry (since 2003), 30 one-time IBMA recipient Del McCoury (whose band closes the main stage on Sunday) represents the very apex of contemporary bluegrass music.

Starting out as an Earl Scruggs-inspired banjo player, in the Baltimore/Washington, DC area, in the early-1960s, York, Pennsylvania-born McCoury, 76,  began playing acoustic guitar and singing lead as a member of the “father of bluegrass” Bill Monroe’s band, The Bluegrass Boys, in 1963.

After a brief respite from music, during which he worked in construction and logging, he formed The Dixie Pals, releasing their debut album, “High on a Mountain,” in 1972. As McCoury’s sons replaced departing band members, the renamed Del McCoury Band became a family venture. Oldest son, Ronnie, took over as the band’s mandolin player in 1981, with his brother, banjo player Rob, joining five years later.         Since relocating to Nashville, in 1992, the group has continued to broaden its following. Their 2003 release, “It’s Just the Night” became the recipient of the first bluegrass album Grammy award. Their latest CD, “The Streets of Baltimore” is a “best bluegrass album” Grammy nominee this year.

Education remains a goal of the Joe Val Festival. While the main stage, and a smaller showcase stage,  host concert-style performances, more than 60 informal workshops (covering everything from bluegrass history to vocal styles and instrumental techniques) will be presented in smaller rooms. “They break down the walls between musicians and audiences,”  Katz explained, “allowing a community to grow out of the music. “

More in-depth sessions (for an additional fee) will be conducted, from 11 a.m. until 4 p.m., on the first day of the festival. Beginner classes include fast track introductions to bluegrass harmony singing and banjo, fiddle, and mandolin playing, advance classes will be focusing on banjo, bass, mandolin, clawhammer  banjo, dobro, and guitar playing and bluegrass singing. 

For the 30th year, interested youngsters between the age of six and eighteen will be participating in a weekend-long Kids Academy that includes two days of instruction in instrumental technique, ensemble playing, and singing, and a main stage, Sunday afternoon showcase. The co-directors of the advanced group, Tony Watt and Laura Orshow will be performing, Friday evening, with The Palmetto Bluegrass Band.

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