MASS MoCA to host bluegrass

MASS MoCA’s annual bluesgrass festival kicks off on Friday, bringing 40 bands through Sunday. Photo courtesy of berkshireonstage.com
MASS MoCA’s annual bluesgrass festival kicks off on Friday, bringing 40 bands through Sunday. Photo courtesy of berkshireonstage.com

For the fourth year, MASS MoCA is hosting its much-anticipated annual FreshGrass Bluegrass Music Festival this Friday through Sunday. Broadcasted as a “new hub for the bluegrass community,” with a striking band list of both “traditional and cutting edge” acts in its press releases, the FreshGrass Bluegrass Festival promises an eclectic combination of both modern and classic bluegrass tones from bands that span from The Gibson Brothers to Sam Am.

“We don’t just do hardcore old school bluegrass, because bluegrass roots music is evolving. This Americana music is changing and adapting with a lot of great young bands and great innovators … along with the incredible old school folks,” said Larry Smallwood, producer of FreshGrass Bluegrass Festival.

“The first time I heard bluegrass, it was just five or six people on a stage sharing one microphone,” Smallwood said. “It wasn’t a competition of loudness like a rock band with a drummer and all this equipment. It was very pure. It’s a shared endeavor, that is fantastic and quintessentially American music.” As both Producer of the Festival and Deputy Director of MASS MoCA, Smallwood spends the year promoting the festival, working with booking teams in New York, and preparing the site for the upcoming event.

What initially started as a one-day bluegrass and roots program four years ago has become a massively successful weekend-long music festival. “Every year they expanded on the idea, they went at it whole hog this year and deepened the lineup,” Smallwood said. He expects about a collection of 40 bands to make an appearance, the largest lineup yet. “There are 25 main acts that are selected through our office and then 15 or so pop-up acts that are selected through a judging process.”

In addition to the festival, there is also an annual FreshGrass Award: a music contest, judged by an all-star jury of industry professionals for a prize of $15,000, recording time at Compass Records in Nashville and a main slot in the FreshGrass Bluegrass Festival in 2015. “This year the contest includes separate competitions for solo banjos, duos and bands,” Smallwood said. “We want to promote people to apply and narrow it down to five entries per discipline and hope that after the contest they will decide to play a pop-up concert.”

As for guitar, mandolin and banjo players, musicians of all skill levels are invited to bring their instruments to participate in workshops, free with admission. With their instrument on hand, people can sit down and participate in Banjo MegaJams, improvisation in Bluegrass and a Fiddle Summit.

With both classic and modern takes on bluegrass, the festival appeals to Bluegrass fans from all generations and origins. “To me it’s really satisfying to have such a great range in the crowd,” Smallwood said. “It’s a nice family thing, and at the same time hardcore bluegrass folk who are retired will arrive in their RVs, and it’s kind of great to hang out with those folks too.”

Smallwood hopes that everyone, from bluegrass fans who have never visited MASS MoCA to MASS MoCA members who have never heard bluegrass, will be “pleasantly surprised” by the offerings of both the museum and the festival. Tickets for admission can be purchased on freshgrass.com as single- and three-day passes, with special deals for students. Smallwood urges students from the College to attend.

“You guys are members of MASS MoCA so we want Williams College students to come out here every chance they get,” Smallwood said. “You will not see something like this anywhere else. Why travel 100 miles or a 1000 miles to go to a massive three-day music festival, when you can just go six minutes down Route 2 to our place, where you’re already part of the family?”