Bluegrass music still alive at Pickin’ in the Pines


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Concertgoers view a performance at the 2011 Pickin' in the Pines festival in Flagstaff. (Photo courtesy of Cassie Strauss)

The aromatic scent of pine wafted through the grassy field, whisking unkempt hair from the nape of the spectator’s necks. Children weaved in between lawn chairs, their bare feet leaving faint sweat marks in the pavement.

On stage, the incessant twang of the banjo synchronized with the cacophony. The children’s laughter, and the vocalists’ southern drawls accented one another, yielding the heart-wrenching, love-struck scene of a bluegrass song.

The Annual Pickin’ in the Pines Bluegrass & Acoustic Music Festival in Flagstaff, Ariz. took place this past Friday, Saturday and Sunday. The event was host to revered artists, up-and-coming groups and the precocious dreamers of the folksy, rock mixture of bluegrass music.

Set on the Coconino County Fairgrounds, fans from much of the southwest flocked to the three-day event and camped on the nearby grounds for a weekend of music and living amongst the roots.

Throughout much of the day, the sun warmed the skin and mandolins skirted from one hand to another as bluegrass musicians monopolized their fair share of the stage. As a small instrument, the mandolin is designed for quick, easy strumming. Their pitch is much higher, and is one of the most beloved instruments of Sam Bush, a headlining artist at Pickin’ in the Pines.

A jack-of-all-trades, Sam Bush is the King of Telluride Music Festival, what bluegrass connoisseurs believe to be the Olympics of Bluegrass.  He also played a large hand in the Newgrass revival, a fusion of country music, pop, rock and jazz.

On Saturday night, the 57-year-old Bush lackadaisically moved from one end of the stage to the other, beckoning to fans and “shredding” on his mandolin, simultaneously. Switching from one instrument to another, playing the fiddle in front of over 1,000 fans was much of the same. A bluegrass performance was as easy for him as sleeping.

Although he was sure in his movements and his playing, the revelry of performing has not lost its vigor, but has intensified.

“It only gets better. I get to play music every night and I’ve never enjoyed it more than I do now,” Bush said after his much-awaited performance.

During much of his set, the spectators — much like Bush on stage — couldn’t sit still. Rather, they congregated on either side of the stage areas were roped off for dancers. If you were lucky, you were given enough legroom to execute a simple two-step. Otherwise, the artist’s fans were pleasantly satisfied with swaying to the music.

On the flip side, the crowd also revered bands already well on their way to stardom. Although not nearly as well known, The HillBenders were a hot commodity at the festival after winning the Telluride Festival in 2009.

A host of local female bluegrass artists flocked to the stage of the young artists and held on much like a child would his most prized toy.

The HillBenders, composed of Mark Cassidy on banjo and vocals and other members on mandolin, guitar and dobro, are recording their second album in Nashville, Tenn. Cassidy has decided to make bluegrass his present, and future. “I want to be the bee’s knees of banjo players,” he said.

Featured in the horde of females that clamored over Cassidy and Bush was Marisa Korth, the lead vocalist of the New Mexico founded band Backwater Opera. The group clinched first prize in the band competition at Pickin’ in the Pines.

“There are no words. I’m excited and nervous, focused and so thankful,” Korth said after the results had been announced. Her giddiness was apparent as she bounced from one cowgirl boot to the next. Her husband and band mate Robert Sherwood basked in what he termed “the glorious Flagstaff weather.”

“I’m just happy to be here,” he said.

All humble, the band gave credit to their competitors, and noted that they had been worried about the results.

Zar, a local Flagstaff family band, consisted of a father, and his 12-year-old son Zane, and Miles, age 8. The bass Miles played was nearly as large as he was, and yet, being on stage was easy for him. After the announcement that Zar had placed second, Zane and Miles entertained the crowed with their tangible excitement. To them, this victory was the first of many.

The festival had a fair balance of young and old, male and female. Fans of all regions claimed a patch of grass. Any differences were easily bridged because each and every attendee fostered the same love for bluegrass.

As the festival came to a close, the sweet scent of kettle corn, fresh pine and the lingering melody of a fiddle remained. Children begrudgingly re-laced their shoes and mothers packed picnic baskets with empty tupperware. Sun-kissed and fulfilled, bluegrass fans of all ages bid adieu to the annual Pickin’ in the Pines Bluegrass Festival for another year.


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