Mount Airy Bluegrass Festival

Interview by Lindley Estes
Issue 64 • June 2018 • Warsaw

When the music’s in your blood, you’ve got to keep the party going. For this Northern Neck couple, that meant bringing the show to their own backyard.

Some things simply go together: Biscuits and gravy, honeybees and Black-eyed Susan's in the hot summertime, a bird and a nest.

Add to that list Mount Airy Farm and bluegrass.

“Old homes and old music go together naturally,” said John Tayloe Emery. He owns the Warsaw farm and is co-director of the Mount Airy Bluegrass Festival with his wife Catherine. He feels like the kind of history that pervades the property is just the kind of subject matter for that high, lonesome sound.

He’s the tenth generation to live there. The land has been in his family since 1682 and the house was completed there in 1764. “Music has always been a part of life here,” he said.

Emery is continuing that tradition with the festival on June 30, now in its second year. It's a whole day of music beginning at 3 PM with local pickers Josh Grigsby and County Line. Emery called them “local bluegrass heroes” and said they have helped promote the show in the area to their friends and families.

Following them are the up-and-coming North Carolina band The Trailblazers, who have been gaining acclaim across the South for awards like their recent 2017 Best Band at Merlefest.

They will be joined onstage by virtuoso fiddle player Ivy Phillips from Nashville. She took first prize last year at the Galax Old Fiddlers' Convention. Not being satisfied with mastering just one instrument, she can play nearly any string instrument in a bluegrass band.

“These kids are kind of a big deal and have a bright future,” Emery said.

Around 5 PM, Ralph Stanley II & The Clinch Mountain Boys will play. Son of the legendary Dr. Ralph Stanley of Stanley Brothers fame, Ralph Stanley II has earned his own place in history as a Grammy Award Winner. The band’s recently released eponymous album enjoyed time on the Billboard Top Ten Bluegrass charts.

The Seldom Scene

Headlining the festival are The Seldom Scene. The band has been active, and a local favorite, since 1971. After the departure of the final original member Ben Eldridge in 2016, the band was in need of a new banjo player. Dudley Connell, guitarist and singer who has been with the band for 22 years, said they tried out a handful of players before they found something really special with new bandmate Ron Stewart. Stewart also plays the fiddle and will sometimes switch instruments, which “gives a new texture to the group,” Connell said.

Even after all this time, The Seldom Scene is still breaking new ground. They put the finishing touches on a new album with Rounder Records in May. This recording focuses more on singer-songwriter styles and makes inroads to Americana, Connell said. While making it, the band listened to inspirational material from the late 1960s and early 1970s, which Connell called “beautifully deep.” He said the songs on the new album “tell a great story.” It's their first in four years and is due out this fall. Until then, the band will be touring extensively this summer.

Connell said their live show balances the old and new. “Certain songs, like ‘Wait A Minute’ have impacted different parts of people's lives,” he said. “[At the Mount Airy show] we hope to touch some hearts and send people away with a little joy. We have fun, and we hope they do, too.” He said playing in Warsaw for the Mount Airy Bluegrass Festival is extra fun since they have such a large local following.

The Trailblazers | Photo by Tate Finley

That large following also happens to include the members of The Trailblazers. Singer and guitar player Daniel Thrailkill said they credit The Seldom Scene as a big influence and that they’re excited to play on the same stage with them.

The Trailblazers put out their first record in 2016 entitled A Place To Call My Own and are currently working on new material. Thrailkill called their style progressive bluegrass, with its background in deeply traditional modes of music, but also taking cues from 1970s pop and jazz. All of The Trailblazer's members are from the foothills of North Carolina. They formed in late 2015 after getting to know each other through festivals like this one. “We just clicked as friends and musicians,” Thrailkill said. The festival will be the farthest point north the band has played. “We're just excited to play for new people,” Thrailkill said. “We love to do what we do.”

This is the second year Emery has hosted a bluegrass show at Mount Airy Farm and he said the lineup for this iteration reflects “some of America's top bluegrass musicians.” He and Catherine also produced the similar Menokin Bluegrass Festival from 2004 to 2007 as a fundraiser to preserve nearby historic home Menokin.

“We enjoy seeing quality bluegrass music ourselves and we like bringing these artists to the Northern Neck,” he said. “In the past we've brought respected musical artists Tony Rice, John Starling, Ben Eldridge, Dr. Ralph Stanley and Jesse Harper to Warsaw and we're excited about another great event coming up,” he said.

Recalling last year's event, Emery said, “It was an incredible afternoon focused on the music of the legendary John Starling. His son Jay and some of his fellow musician friends backed him up. Wasn’t a dry eye in the place.”

The festival will continue to be an annual event, though the lineup may change to reflect different folkways in country music. As long as there's a house and Emery is keeping it up, a guitar, fiddle, and banjo can't be far away.

Ivy Phillips | Photo by Tate Finley

The Mount Airy Bluegrass Festival will be held on Saturday, June 30 at Mount Airy Farm (361 Mill Pond Road, Warsaw). General admission $45, portion of funds go to Friends of the Rappahannock. Gates open at 2 PM, music from 3–8 PM. Tickets and full lineup available at mountairy.farm/bluegrass.

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