The Finger Lakes GrassRoots Festival of Music & Dance, Trumansburg, New York
“I’m too old to remember to regret.” — Richie Stearns
Trumansburg, New York, sits halfway between two more well-known towns in the Finger Lakes district: Watkins Glen and Ithaca. Like many similarly situated towns, it has become a center for music and other arts. It also happens to the home to the Puryear family, whose son Jeb and his band Donna the Buffalo founded the Finger Lakes GrassRoots Festival of Music and Dance 26 years ago. After several years of cajoling by friends, I finally made my pilgrimage last year and found a festival where I felt at home.
The festival’s grounds are situated on the west side of town at the county fairgrounds. Its four stages are comprised of the larger Infield Stage (once a baseball field), a spacious Grandstand Stage (which hosted harness racing and maybe, from the looks of the dents in some guardrails, a demolition derby), a dance tent, and the only indoor stage — the oblong Cabaret Stage. The latter two are on top of a gently sloping, wooded incline where folks relax and often nap. All four are angled in such a way that there is minimal music crossover. The other necessities are there as well — eateries that are as varied and interesting as a stroll along Ninth Avenue in New York. But there is one thing that was free and plentiful: water. This year it was a necessity as it was hot hot hot, with no rain to cool things off. The area has been in a drought like it has not seen in decades.
I arrived a day early to catch the last day of the four-day Culture Camp, a series of instructional workshops in the making of music, including songwriting. As the groups were small, from four to 16 people in each, there was plenty of time for personalized attention. Whether it be listening to Jim Lauderdale talk about song construction or Driftwood’s Claire Byrne demonstrating the different ways to hold a bow to get a certain sound, there was an obvious camaraderie between teachers and pupils. As I wandered from one to another, instructors who had time off would venture into other workshops to listen and participate. Since it was the camp’s last day, there was also a cooperative ambiance among the participants themselves. Each evening concluded with a dinner and dance. Mine was gumbo made by zydeco legend Preston Frank, whose band also hosted the dance. I felt like a lucky man indeed.
As Donna the Buffalo is the host band, Puryear and Nevins both have administrative obligations throughout the fest that take time and energy away from the music making. Plus, Nevins put the four day Culture Camp together. Nonetheless, Puryear still found time to do two full sets with the string band Bubba George and highly anticipated Saturday morning set with various friends sitting in (this year’s Saturday morning set went on for nearly three hours), as well as three late night sets with the Herd. Jeb and many other Herd mates also sat in on other sets, such as those by Jim Lauderdale and Keith Secola. Drummer Mark Raudabaugh seemed to be the weekend’s busiest musician.
As evidenced by the lineup, this festival is about diversity — both musical and cultural. Where else could you walk around and hear a string band on one stage, Cajun music on another, Native American traditional music on another, and Southern gospel, all within an easy 10-minute stroll. But if the festival could be distilled into one person, one person who embodied its heart and soul, that would be Richie Stearns.
While I certainly had seen him some times before, I had not heard Stearns in so many configurations in such a short time span. It could have been sensory overload, but the more I heard, the more I wanted to hear. The more I heard, the more transfixed I became. Everywhere I went, Stearns seemed to be there to such an extent that I became a bit paranoid thinking that he might think I was stalking him. But, realistically I think he never gave me (or my camera) a second thought. He’s not only in the Bubba George band and a well-known duo with fiddler Rosie Newton, he’s also in a group with the best band name I have ever heard: The Dead Sea Squirrels. He also sat in unannounced in other folks’ sets — including with Rockwood Ferry — and milled around the grounds.
Stearns is a founding member of the seminal, near-mythical late ’70s band The Horse Flies. The band’s core is an Appalachian stringband that is infused with hard-driving rhythms and world music traditions, including Middle Eastern, to my ears. Incorporating percussion and an accordion, Stearns’ throbbing banjo, and Judy Hyman’s incessant fiddle, the band becomes the Talking Heads in the era of Remain in Light. Even though the band is primarily instrumental, Stearns’ vocals sometimes even evoke those of David Byrne. The group’s late Saturday afternoon set was highly anticipated, and even in the dusty, hotness of the Grandstand Stage, it was my singular highlight set.
The most well-attended evening featured the opening night headliners, the Indigo Girls. The large, grassy baseball field was packed way into the outfield, clearly celebrating what the Girls have done during their 30 years. It was stupendous. Two nights later, Brett Dennen brought his dreamy, pop folkiness to the same stage, with a different vibe, as he incorporates the festival circuit into his routine. He’s also quite tall. In between those two acts was the legend himself — the closest we have to Big Mon himself, Ricky Skaggs. As Skaggs has gotten older, his long, flowing white locks make him look like Monroe more and more. The crowd was ready for some Kentucky bluegrass, and it got the best there is.
There were six local artists, four individuals (three based in Ithaca), and two bands, I first saw last year that I wanted to catch again as I was taken with each the first time around. All were even better than I remembered.
Johnny Dowd was a firebrand last year playing very late on Saturday night. This year (his 25th) he did two sets — both special in their own distinct ways. Even when the material is much the same, as any Dowd fan knows, no two performances are alike. Such was the case here as he geared up for a European tour. The first night was vintage Dowd, hard edged as if he were William S. Burroughs with a guitar; the second afternoon set, as one dedicated follower put it, was more accessible. But I think clarity may be the more apt observation. In any event, both performances were spellbinding, as you never quite knew where this pre-/post-punkster tightrope walker, with a touch of insurgent alt-country, would take you. I even saw him smile a time or two.
Of all the sets I caught, Mary Lorson is perhaps the most difficult to describe. Her full band fleshes out her tendency for a gorgeous, oblique tenderness in both her lyrics and music. Switching between keyboards and guitar, she exhibits a soft tension between the known and the unknown, the comfortable and the unexplored. There’s also a spaciousness in her performance that gives her bandmates room to move instead of stepping all over one another. Then, add a self-deprecating stage manner and an arsenal of first rate songs, it is little wonder that her ten albums and several film scores have been so well-received.
Last, and certainly not least, of the three Ithaca-based artists was Anna Coogan, whose rangly and far-ranging guitar work is as imaginative as it is intuitive. She is not only singular in her solo work (with drummer Willie B) but is also adept playing in both the Dowd and Lorson bands. Opera-trained, Coogan often uses her well-controlled voice as a juxtaposition to an otherwise take-no-prisoner approach to her guitar work, switching in and out without notice, keeping you wondering how far she will take the efferescent, calculated chaos, keeping it together as it hovers over your head then darting hither and yon. Sometimes she brings you safely (kind of) back to Earth; other times leaves you stranded in some nethersphere. Watching Coogan play can feel like experiencing quantum mechanics from the inside. She makes the audience part of the performance, pulling you in, keeping you on your toes, not just sitting there on your buns. Tourists need not apply. Even though she studied in Salzburg for a year and developed her musical chops in Seattle, Coogan has made Ithaca home for several years now. She has nine albums aunder belt, is working on a new one, has done two movie scores, and is getting ready to tour with Johnny Dowd.
Coogan’s andmate Willie B (Brian Wilson) on percussion is more than able and willing to push her even further and, simultaneously it seems, pull her into his own orbit of multiple cascading fires. He’s also played with Dowd, Neko Case, and two of my cult favs — Sally Timms and Eszter Balint. If you look closely at his unique set-up, and know anything about drummers, it is obvious he is a force to be reckoned with. I think I just saw the tip of the iceberg as I spoke with several folks who spoke quite highly of him.
An original member of Donna the Buffalo, Jennie Lowe Stearns has charted a different and in some ways a more intriguing course in the intervening years. She has taken a mainly acoustic folky sensibility and dropped it inside a Tsai Ming-liang movie. While her vocals could be described as plaintive, they are no less haunting and delectable. Hearing her for the first time (with the Herd) in 2004 during a four-day stint in Key West sing “Life is strange and life is good/Life is all that it should be” hinted at the Jim Jarmusch-like art songs that were to come. Lowe Stearns does not so much perform as she weaves a spell that you willingly let bind you to something ephemeral, yet it lingers. Like the fireflies of your childhood.
Band-wise, there the two that intrigued me most were Laila Belle, and Calico Moon (the NY band, not the Asheville duo). Both squarely fall within the well-establish folk-country traditions. Belle, fronted by Amy Puryear and husband Ward on guitar, evoke Emmylou Harris and Hot Band circa 1975 mixed with a Tara Nevins-like sensibility. There’s also a ringer in the band, Jason Shegogue on electric and lap steel guitars who often takes the band out of its classic country mode and into Lucinda Williams territory. While Calico Moon has multiple vocalists, Shirley Ladd is the standout. Her vocals are reminiscent of the Roche sisters — all three at once. Any fan of Maggie, Terre and Suzy will take that as a high compliment. Both bands offer music that is contemplative yet danceable. Many folks did just that during their inspiring sets.
All told, during the four days I caught ten full sets and partial sets of 29 others, plus the workshops. There are many folks I have not mentioned who are no less deserving. So, please take the time to click through the slideshow below.
The fest closed as it has for years, with Donna doing a moderate set before welcoming a string of friends onto the stage for a song or two backed by the band. The highlight of which is the way I am remembering those five days now: A glorious sunset, and Richie and Rosie performing “Ribbons and Bows” with these oft-repeated lyrics:
If I could choose the way I was to die
If I had to choose the way I was to die
I would go falling through the hot summer sky
With ribbons and bows tied to my hands and my feet
…and I would feel complete.
The morning after the festival’s close, some Trumansburg friends held a special breakfast for members of the Tribe before we let go and hit the road for home. After spending four full days together, it was a relaxed way of letting go — until the next time. There must have been three or four dozen of us, off and on, eventually spilling out onto the front porch and beyond. As I had the furthest to go I was the first to leave. As I pulled out of the driveway, a most welcomed rain began to fall though the dusty summer sky. I felt complete.