The first day of the 32nd Blueberry Bluegrass Festival in Stony Plain, Alberta was as successful as anticipated.
All acts were well-received, but it wasn’t acutely apparent which of two acts was the fan favourite.
With an emphasis on show,The Kody Norris Show, a four-piece making their Canadian debut, performed a Jimmy Martin-inspired set of good ‘n’ country bluegrass that brought their considerable indoor audience onside immediately. Norris got big, deep notes from his flattop box, much to the delight of the crowd, winning them over while shamelessly mugging with exaggerated facial expressions and repartee. His bandmates were up to the task with both Mary Rachel Nailey (fiddle, and a single song on mandolin) and Josiah Tyree (banjo) more than holding their own as foils. Their set tomorrow evening is highly anticipated.
With grey skies opportunely clearing for the start of the mainstage sets, the ever-growing audience moved outside for Rounder recording artists The Po’ Ramblin’ Boys. Even stronger, more energetic and personable than when we last saw them two years ago, this East Tennessee outfit set the bar high for all combos to follow. Nominated last month as IBMA Emerging Artists of the Year, the quartet slew an appreciative audience with songs from their various albums, including their brand new song, “Next Train South.” A tight, modulated, and professional set was offered.
The festival kicked-off earlier with an entirely appropriate, old-timey set from Pharis and Jason Romero, a well-regarded duo from Horsefly, British Columbia. Their haunting tones and home-hewn harmonies was a terrific appetizer for a festival that has broadened and elevated its artistic palate the last two years.
Also appearing on the mainstage was the western Canadian band Nomad Jones who performed a selection of standards and band-written songs. Bill Humby displayed a fine voice on songs like “Gentle On My Mind” and “Down On The Dixie Line. Blueberry legends Byron Myhre and Craig Korth are always welcome on these ears, especially on contemplative instrumentals such as Korth’s “Steele Heights” which featured Korth on mandolin and Miles Zurawell on guitar.
Jeff Scroggins & Colorado, also nominated as IBMA Emerging Artists of the Year, closed out the evening with a set of bluegrass rooted in the tradition, from “Roanoke” and “Matterhorn” to “Shenandoah Valley Breakdown” and “Hey, Porter”—Johnny Cash tunes are always popular. A band without artistic weakness , one was considerably impressed with the singing and guitar playing of Greg Blake. With no little bit of country in his voice, Blake demonstrated that his live efforts match his recorded ones, previously admired. Fiddler Ellie Hakanson drew applause with her interpretation of Hazel Dickens’ “Just A Few Memories,” a performance I hope she revisits in a subsequent set. Guest bassist Nico Humby, of Nomad Jones, took part in a crystal-clear trio of “Pathway of Teardrops” with Hakanson and Blake. As noted previously elsewhere and to their detriment, the group does distract itself with an overabundance of between song banter. But the music? Spot on!
New to Blueberry this year is a patio with good sightlines offering fortified beverages, sure to be popular as the forecast is positive Sunday, with a good chance of sunshine Saturday (fingers crossed.) Regardless of weather, the musical talent on display is going to be incredible, with all of Friday’s artists appearing throughout the weekend. Bolstering Blueberry will be new Bluegrass Hall of Fame member Ricky Skaggs and his band Kentucky Thunder (Saturday evening) and—making their Blueberry debut—The Travelin’ McCourys (Sunday night, closing the fest) along with the Slocan Ramblers, Calvin Vollrath, Kayla Hotte & Her Rodeo Pals (Saturday night dance), and Edmonton acts The Bix Mix Boys, Braden Gates, and Jim and Penny Malmberg, along with jam ambassadors Prairie’s Edge and Backroad Stringband.
Look to Blueberry Bluegrass for ticket details, load up the vehicle, and come spend a day or two in Stony Plain: I don’t know how you could be disappointed!