You’re a producer. What does the producer do for a big festival such as Grey Fox?
I used to have to do it all myself. I started in ’85 by doing everything but sell tickets. I booked it, I got the volunteers and I got the vendors, but I slowly realized that it takes a lot of people to make something like this work. Now, as a producer, I oversee everything that happens. It’s like putting together a mosaic where I’m the only person who can see how all the pieces fit together.
How did you come to this job? What’s your background?
It was serendipitous. I had a good friend who was a musician who I used to go see play. At one show, where they were the second act, the first act had cancelled and the owner asked them if they had enough material to play the whole show. They said “sure” - and I found myself saying: “not for second act money!” The owner agreed, so, after that night, they wanted me to manage them. I didn’t know too much about managing, but I quickly realized that there was a lot of good music and a shortage of good venues. So I got interested in finding good venues and jobs for this band, which in turn led me to become involved with the Berkshire Mountain Bluegrass Festival. The producer of that festival asked me to help raise some capital and I was able to see what needed to be done. I didn’t have a great deal of control, but I saw all the moving parts. When the opportunity (with Winterhawk-now Grey Fox) came in 1985, I thought, “I’m ready to try this.”
How do you explain the success and longevity of the Grey Fox Bluegrass Festival?
I would explain it as ‘sticking with the vision”: Sticking with my vision of producing really good music but never losing sight of the community. I think this music is really about community. You can look at our line up and see that you could see these bands anywhere; you don’t have to come to Grey Fox to see them, but Grey Fox gives you a feeling of coming home. I’ve always tried to have something for every member of the family. I run into people all the time who say that their parents brought them and now they bring their kids. That, to me, is what explains the success and longevity of the festival.
You must have seen some big changes over the years.
I think some of the biggest changes have been in our infrastructure. The Event Company has made a big difference. They looked at what we did and helped us to make it more streamlined. They’ve become a big part of the festival. Also, Klondike sound for our main stage and Cobra sound, who take care of our other stages do such a great job.
Working behind the scenes can be a thankless job. What do you wish festival attendees knew about the work that takes place to enable the festival to run smoothly?
I would like them to know what it takes to support 500 volunteers. I’ve always felt it’s important to feed people that are working and feed them well. We’ve always had someone working the backstage food that was good. We have Chris Mattson now and he’s fabulous. He feeds the guests, the artists, the volunteers; I don’t know how he does it. We have so many people behind the scenes making it happen. They’re like magic! Everyone always has the patron’s happiness at the forefront of their mind. It’s the greatest team of people. I don’t think any festival has a better team than ours.
I should also mention Ron Thomason (of host band, Dry Branch Fire Squad.) When I first started this, I knew the message I wanted to get out there, but I also understood that I probably wasn’t the best person to communicate it, and that’s when I called Ron. He’ll tell you I called him at 12 o’clock at night but I didn’t; he just thought that because he went to sleep at 8! He likes to tell that story. I just love the way he communicates with people.
What’s new this year? Can we expect to see anything different?
Well, we’re always trying to add something new. Two years ago we added Rushad Eggleston to the mix which I hope is something we keep going. We’re constantly looking to bring in new bands that are strong like Della Mae who we brought in a couple of years ago also. They’re an integral part of Grey Fox now. Celia Woodsmith is their lead singer and she was one of our volunteers. I think she used to work trash and hospitality!
This year we’re featuring a group of veteran musicians playing for us for the first time together: Mr. Sun. It’s Darol Anger on fiddle, Grant Gordy on guitar, Joe Walsh on mandolin and Ethan Jodziewicz on bass. The crowd’s going to love them.
We’ve got Del, Peter Rowan, Hot Rize, Tim O’Brien and Sam Bush who’ve been with us for years but we constantly want to add to that. This year we have a great duo: Billy Strings and Don Julin. Catch them; they’ll knock your socks off!
One of the things that thrill me is our showcase band segment. A few years ago when we started we’d have to scramble to find acts, but now, there are some incredibly talented bands that apply for our showcase positions and that’s very exciting to me.
It’s very easy when we’re selling out our camping every year to fall back on that and think; “do we really need any changes?” but you always need to fine tune. I think of myself as having a little screwdriver and oil can, fine tuning to try and make it even better than it was the year before.
I know you’re a bluegrass fan so I have to ask; who’s your favorite act? Do you get to enjoy any of the entertainment once the festival is under way?
It’s difficult. There are so many favorites for so many different reasons but if I had to have an overall favorite, it would have to be Del McCoury. I will say, I think I’ve only done one festival without Tim O’Brien, so he’s a favorite too.
I’m watching all the time. I see a lot of music but it seems to go by so fast. It’s huge for me too, to catch up with people. Grey Fox people are like one big family.
Many people who attend Grey Fox have been coming for years. How would you describe the festival to someone coming for the first time?
I have to say, I don’t meet too many people in the bluegrass world who don’t know what Grey Fox is. For those that have never experienced the festival, I will say that I don’t believe there is anybody who would come to Grey Fox, see the music on the main stage and not be completely taken in by it.
What does the future hold for the Grey Fox Bluegrass Festival?
Well, when I retire, which hopefully won’t be for a while, my feeling is that the festival will be in good hands. I don’t think it will change. I have a granddaughter who is 13 - and probably her brother too - who are just devoted to Grey Fox. I see Grey Fox as being spearheaded by the same family, with the same focus and the same vision that I’ve had since 1985. They’ve been steeped in it and brought up with it and I’d like to pass it down.
The Walsh family, too, are wonderful people who really understand and get Grey Fox so I think we’re in safe hands.