While many of the biggest names in the business, such as Alison Krauss, Del McCoury, the Nashville Bluegrass Band, Doyle Lawson, and Jim and Jesse, gave the roster its requisite grassy glamour, it was the less famous artists who created many of the highlights for the 20,000 people in attendance. One of the most appealing ways to experience the finest of these pickers was in the intimate setting of the festival "workshops."
Ostensibly, these sessions allow amateurs the opportunity to ask their heroes questions and receive pointers. But most of the time they function as mini-concerts, with lineups that usually exist only in the fantasies of aficionados.
One such workshop found mandolinist Sam Bush flanked by Adam Steffey (Krauss' mandolin player) and 14-year-old mandolin phenom Chris Thile. To hear this triumvirate spar was to appreciate the overwhelming influence that reigning king Bush, with his bluesy soul and charismatic energy, has had on all who have since come to the instrument.
Bush also was part of an all-star sextet that included Bela Fleck, Tim O'Brien, Tony Rice, Jerry Douglas and Mark Schatz.
Whether storming through classic material like "Paddy on the Turnpike," or winding around their own brand of newgrass on finger-twisters like "Whitewater" and "Manzanita," the ensemble interplay and astounding solos raised the collective endorphin level of a crowd already saturated by nine hours of non-stop music.
The Grass Is Greener band, fronted by fiddler Richard Greene, offered a program that was grounded in tradition, performed by players who have had a hand in creating the modern branch of those traditions. Chromatic banjo revolutionary Bill Keith appeared to revel in the opportunity to trade licks with mandolinist Butch Baldassari and David Grier, the 1995 IBMA Guitarist of the Year.
Between banjoist Sammy Shelor and vocalist/bassist Ronnie Bowman, the up-and-coming Lonesome River Band accounted for four of this year's "best of" awards, and their set left no questions as to why they fared so well.
Led by Shelor's hard-as-nails, jet-propelled picking and the band's spectacular lead and harmony singing, the LRB personified the ultimate in hard-driving, contemporary bluegrass.
Equally intriguing was the set by the youthful
With the five members' ages adding up to approximately the years of bluegrass patriarch Bill Monroe, String Fever represents the future of bluegrass-and a bright future it will be when kids such as these already are playing and singing with such expertise and commanding authority