Breaking out the banjo

In Swasey Chapel on Friday evening (Feb. 14) there were a few cowboy hats and some serious foot-stomping. Some folks even took the to the aisles to dance. What had the place hopping? The kick-off concert for the 10th Annual Denison Bluegrass Festival.

As a light snowfall covered campus, families, students, alumni, and visitors filled Swasey for some American bluegrass — the first concert of a series of concerts and workshops that took place throughout the weekend. To honor a decade of the college’s bluegrass celebrations, Associate Professor of Music Andy Carlson and Ensemble Instructor Casey Cook created an evening harkening back to past festivals, while simultaneously paving new ground.

The public was invited to continue in the bluegrass festivities throughout the weekend. Saturday was filled with workshops led by faculty and visiting artists; IIIrd Tyme Out and The April Verch Band with Hayes Griffin, a 2010 Denison grad, performed Saturday evening; and the weekend culminated on Sunday with a master class, and Rhonda Vincent and the Rage performing that evening at the Midland Theatre in nearby Newark.

One of the highlights of that first evening was the Denison Bluegrass Ensemble Alumni Band made up of members who had graduated between 2003 and 2012, and who had traveled from New Mexico and Massachusetts, and many places in between.

They wished a “happy Valentine’s Day to all the lovers out there” with a set list filled with love songs, including Dolly Parton’s “Jolene,” J.D. Crowe’s “I’ll Just Pretend,” and Heidi Newfield’s “Can’t Let Go.” They also threw in an Andy Carlson original and a song Caroline Spence ’11 called “a straight-up murder ballad.”

The group had fewer than 48 hours to practice together. But the support from the crowd proved that no one could tell.

Throughout the evening, many bands graced the stage, including the young fiddlers participating in the Denison University Suzuki Program, as well as the Andy Carlson Band and Casey Cook’s Atlanta-based group, The Dappled Grays. Together, the groups performed pieces by artists previously featured at the Denison Bluegrass Festival, including Allison Brown and Tim O’Brien. The large variety included twang-infused harmonies and solos at finger-blistering speed.

Retired sixth-grade teacher Gary Conley from Utica, Ohio, has been to the festival several times over the past decade. “[The music] is something you can never walk away from. And in person? You just can’t beat it,” said Conley, who has roots in the bluegrass hotspot of Kentucky.

We’re already looking forward to next year.

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12:57 AM February 20, 2014

John Talbott wrote:

Hurray for the mentors and the protégés. They are keeping a beautiful genre of music alive and flourishing — and far from extinction.

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