How the FreshGrass Foundation Grows Roots Music
Sarah Jarosz at the 2021 Freshgrass Festival (Photo by Eric Ring)
The FreshGrass Foundation, No Depression’s parent nonprofit organization, is dedicated to providing roots music artists with opportunities to create new work and to take artistic risks outside the pressures of the commercial music space. It does this through several FreshGrass commissioning programs, primarily the Composition Commission.
The 2023 recipients of the Composition Commission are Grammy award-winning songwriter Aoife O’Donovan and bluegrass supergroup Mr. Sun, both of whom will debut their work at the FreshGrass Festival in North Adams in September. A performer at the foundation’s inaugural festival in 2011, O’Donovan has returned to the festival many times since, serving as the artist-in-residence in 2019. Mr. Sun, comprised of Joe K. Walsh, Darol Anger, Aidan O’Donnell, and Grant Gordy, have chosen to adapt Duke Ellington and Billy Strayhorn’s big-band adaptation of The Nutcracker, altering the score to fit a traditional bluegrass four-piece. Their aim is not to copy the jazz duo’s vision directly, but to grow from their iteration and “play it like us,” according to Gordy.
The first recipient of the Composition Commission was jazz guitarist Bill Frisell, who produced a 90-minute exploration of the American folk music tradition in 2016, adding his own flavor to a spectrum of folk staples, originals, American standards, and more. In 2019, Frisell released this work as an album called Harmony that received widespread critical praise (ND review).
The 2017 commission went to Sarah Jarosz. Jarosz’s commission culminated in a performance of her Blue Heron Suite at the FreshGrass Festival in North Adams, Massachusetts, a song cycle dedicated to her mother and the family trips they would take together in her childhood. Jarosz released Blue Heron Suite as an album in 2021, and it was met with glowing reviews and a Grammy nomination for Best Folk Album.
Rhiannon Giddens, singer, multi-instrumentalist, and founding member of the Carolina Chocolate Drops, was the recipient of the 2018 Composition Commission. Drawing inspiration from bluegrass history, Giddens explored the international origins of the banjo in a song series connecting the different cultures and experiences of women behind the formation of American music. In the same vein, Giddens continued to explore the female narratives throughout history with her Smithsonian Folkways release Songs of Our Native Daughters, a collaboration with Allison Russell, Amythyst Kiah, and Leyla McCalla. The FreshGrass Foundation has maintained a strong relationship with Giddens even after her composition commission. Silkroad, an organization focused on cross-cultural musical collaboration of which Giddens is the creative director, partnered with FreshGrass in 2021 to produce American Railroad, a multi-year project aimed at recognizing the impact of immigrants on the construction of the US transcontinental railroad.
2019’s commission recipient, the Kronos Quartet, was tasked with composing a series that would honor Pete Seeger on what would have been the year of his 100th birthday. The core four of David Harrington, John Sherba, Hank Dutt, and Sunny Yang (along with some guests) gave the audience a tour of the late folk legend’s greatest hits through reimagined compositions penned by Jacob Garchik. The commissioned songs were eventually compiled into an album, Long Time Passing: Kronos Quartet & Friends Celebrate Pete Seeger (ND album review), which went on to win Album of the Year at the 2021 International Folk Music Awards.
In 2021, commissions were awarded to both the Steep Canyon Rangers, who served as artists-in-residence at FreshGrass | North Adams, and the House of Songs, a US-based nonprofit that orchestrates collaborations between songwriters from around the world (ND story). Operating in over 30 countries, the House of Songs bridges different cultures to influence artists and foster their growth. Since 2021, The Momentary in Bentonville, Arkansas, and FreshGrass have co-commissioned performances from the House of Songs at FreshGrass festivals in both Bentonville and North Adams. Performers have included Willi Carlisle, Kalyn Fay, Billy Keane, Mamie Minch, Bonnie Montgomery, Sage Nizhoni, Shannon Wurst, Simi Stone, and Lisa Bastoni.
In 2022, the festival was proud to welcome the Black Legacy Project as a co-recipient of the Composition Commission. The BLP is an organization of both Black and white artists dedicated to performing songs that speak to the Black experience, be it through reinterpretations of old songs or entirely new songs created as a call for greater change. The BLP has been touring the US since early 2022, and their debut album is set to be released in August 2023.
Another arm of FreshGrass’ artist support comes in the form of FreshScores. Artists from a range of traditional music genres compose and perform a score to a short silent film live at the FreshGrass festivals in North Adams. FreshScores composers so far have included Leyla McCalla, Sunny Jain, Dom Flemons, Aoife O’Donovan, and more. The foundation also offers support through its album fund. The funding is provided as a grant, so as not to assume any partial ownership of the resulting albums. The foundation has funded the following projects so far: Original by Bobby Osborne, Nonet by The Mammals, The Royal Chase by Nation Beat, and Curios by Scroggins and Rose.
The latest addition to FreshGrass’ commission programming is the Bluegrass Concertos, a roots music elaboration on the traditional concerto form. The bluegrass tradition and the concerto are a perfect pairing, as both are reliant on the virtuosity of the players and the fluid relationship between soloist and ensemble. The Concertos kicked off at North Adams in 2022 with Jerry Douglas, Sierra Hull, and the Berklee student group Corner House.