Dispatch from Gettysburg, where festival season north of the Mason Dixon line had a surprising start

If you were to pick one song from the 82nd edition of the Gettysburg Bluegrass Festival to serve as the soundtrack for a for the entire weekend, the choice would be easy. It came during Saturday night’s headlining set by Appalachian Road Show, who led the crowd in a raucous sing along on a cover of Pokey LaFarge’s “La La Blues.”

Jason Carter, center, filled in with Appalachian Road Show at Gettysburg

When Barry Abernathy invited the audience to echo the chorus, there was no hesitation. “I’m so happy I’m singing la la la” they roared. It was not just the beer singing. It was an honest joint explosion of joy, a celebration of what turned out to be an outstanding weekend of musical surprises.

That Appalachian Road Show set was an example of the sort of surprises we’re talking about. With the band’s regular fiddler, Jim VanCleve, accompanying his wife on a trip to Ireland, five-time IBMA Fiddle Player of the Year Jason Carter filled in admirably.

More than admirably, truth be told. We have not listened to enough Appalachian Road Show to know how true Carter’s playing matched the way VanCleve sounds on the records. But without a doubt his performance belied the fact that he’d only had a one hour run through with the band that afternoon to prepare.

“Well I did listen to some of their music on the way up here,” he said with a wry smile.

Carter even picked up one song on the fly, on stage, between songs. As Abernathy introduced the song — an audible that was not on the set list — mandolin player Darrell Webb should be seen conferring with Carter at the back of the stage. From the photo pit you could hear Webb running through the chords — his mandolin unamplified for the moment – and humming the melody. Seconds later Carter actually kicked off the song on the fiddle.

It was, in a way, more than just a memorable musical moment. It was also somehow emblematic of what was a mad scramble of last minute bookings to fill out a lineup reportedly hit by a few Covid-related cancellations.

At least two bands were added to the lineup less than two weeks before Thursday’s first day of the festival, including Pennsylvania based Serene Green, who opened the event and helped fill out the slate by playing a pair of workshop tent showcases on Friday and Saturday in addition to their regular two sets on Thursday.

Locals Colebrook Road made their fifth Gettysburg appearance

Local boys Colebrook Road were also a later addition and Songs From the Road Band was added about three days before they played Thursday. Larry Keel was an even later addition. Keel, who played Sunday afternoon, didn’t appear on the schedule on the festival web site until sometime Friday after he was booked that morning.

We’re not sure most festivals could have pulled off what Gettysburg promoter Rich Winkelmann was able to do. A lot of it was made possible by the combination of reverence for the event, one of the oldest bluegrass festivals in the nation, and relationships Winkelmann has built with the artists over the years.

Charles Humphrey III, bass man for Songs From the Road Band, said his band had been expecting to play the August edition of Gettysburg, but when Winkelmann called needing a band because someone else had canceled, Humphrey was happy to help.

Songs From the Road Band was one of the fine late additions to the Gettysburg May 20222 lineup

“We were headed to West Virginia on Friday, so it was easy for us to add a Gettysburg appearance,” said Humphrey, who also “volunteered” some of his bandmates to lead workshops to help Winkelmann fill that portion of the schedule, too.

“Rich has always been good to me,” said Humphrey, whose relationship with Gettysburg dates back more than a decade. “I hope he remembers and invites us back again in August,” he added with a smile.

“What an unexpected treat it was to play such a legendary event,” said Larry Keel Experience bassist Jenny Keel in an e-mail after the show.

Larry Keel said when he got the call, he quickly checked to make sure the rest of his band was available, then quickly accepted. Another mild surprise, banjo picker Will Lee, who had not toured with Larry for several years following an illness, was along, making it a four piece outfit with Jared Pool on mandolin.

Will Lee, on banjo, was back at Larry Keel’s side for Gettysburg May 2022

We say mild surprise because Will was with the band when they played the Charm City festival last month. We forgot to ask if his return is permanent. His banjo certainly was a welcome addition at Gettysburg, where Keel turned it down maybe a notch, notch-and-a-half, for the crowd, which includes a healthy portion of Flatt Earth Society traditionalists.

It was not unlike a few years ago when the Steep Canyon Rangers opted to have Mike Ashcroft use a cajon kit rather than a full drum set. Keel’s picking was stellar as always, though perhaps with a few less pedal effects. Pool just keeps getting hotter on the mandolin, As Larry says, “he fits (Keel’s) style.” Lee’s banjo shows no signs of any time off. Like Pool, he fits Keel’s style and his vocals add some depth to the harmony and give Keel some breaks from handling all the singing. And of course Miss Jenny holds it all together on bass.

What was different from those used to Keel’s “freaky bluegrass” was the set list, which was heavier on covers off old, traditional songs and lighter on Keel originals. It was a good choice, perfect for a sunny Sunday afternoon, with those who had not already packed up and headed out nursing hangovers or just plain tired from a big weekend.

COMING ATTRACTION — For those who prefer the freakier side of Larry Keel, dark your calendars for June 11. That is when he will be hosting a special event at B Chord Brewing in Round Hill, Va.

According to Jenny Keel, the event will include Larry solo, Larry and Jenny as a duo, the full band Larry Keel Experience, and some special guests are expected. B Chord is expected to brew a special beer for the day and sepal exhibitors are going to be on hand. More to come . . .

BAND WITH A PLAN — A patient, well conceived, five-year plan is not what you expect to hear from a young band. But then Serene Green is not just any young band. These fellas, who are based in the Lehigh Valley part of Pa. (And Paris, France … more in a moment) have already charted an unexpected course.

Pa. band Serene Green played a total of four sets during the May 2022 edition of the Gettysburg Bluegrass Festival

A few years back, as Serene Green started to become popular in Northeastern Pa,, to a certain extent it was on the coattails of the band Cabinet, which at the time was playing about as close to bluegrass as you can get with drums.

When Cabinet unexpectedly decided to take a hiatus, many expected Serene Green to sort of inherit the mantle. But while they did, and still do, share much of the same local fan base, Serene Green never did follow in Cabinet’s jamgrass path.

Instead, the band actually turned more traditional, deciding to follow their own musical tastes. The old tunes they cover, often instead of playing their own fine originals, are not often a song you have heard elsewhere. Many of them come from mandolin player Quentin Fisher, who we joking like to call “The Professor” because of his encyclopedia like knowledge of the music and its history.

“This is what we like. It’s what we listen to, what we want to play,” said Fisher.

If you want to catch Serene Green, something we highly suggest, be sure to do it during festival season. Come fall they will once again return to their annual winter hiatus, something that began when bass player and vocalist Shane McGeehan fell in love with, and married, a young lady from France.

In order to obtain dual citizenship, McGeehan must live in France six months out of the year for five years. Once he completes that process he will able to travel freely back and forth. In the interim, the band will continue as it did last winter, with founders Michael Johnson and Fisher playing occasional sun gigs and Steve Leonard living as a banjo picking snowbird in Florida.

The band is planning to travel to France for McGeehan’’s French wedding celebration and hopes to tour in Europe occasionally while McGeehan fulfills those residency requirements.

That summer only schedule is convenient for fiddle player Katelynn Casper, who just finished her first year at the Berklee College of Music in Boston. Casper started touring with the band last summer. While her status as a band member is still “unofficial,” she will be touring with them all summer and the band members say they think of her as “one of us.” 

The legendary Larry Sparks co-headlined Friday’s lineup with Rhonda Vincent

ABOUT THAT HISTORY — The history and tradition of the Gettysburg festival is not just known from reading stories. Throughout the weekend artists talked about the reverence for the festival and their personal history playing there.

We remember what we think was Sideline bassist Kyle Windbeck’s first appearance at Gettysburg. Back in 2016 we wrote about our first visit to Gettysburg, when Kyle played mandolin with his father’s band, Headwaters, which had won a slot by capturing the Deer Creek Fiddlers competition.

Casper practically grew up at the Gettysburg festival, according to Fisher. Colebrook Road’s Jesse Eisenbise said the first time mandolin player Wade Brooks Yankey invited him along to what was his first bluegrass festival, his first reaction on being invited was to say “what’s that.” 

Colebrook Road’s weekend, its fifth appearance at Gettysburg, was highlighted by getting called back for a very rare first set encore on Saturday afternoon. Typically encores are not played until after the band’s final set of the festival, but the fans demanded more after birth Colebrook’s Sterling Pavilion sets. The only other band to get an encore after an early set was the Seldom Scene, also Saturday afternoon.

Speaking of Seldom Scene, dobro player Fred Travers was another who related a Gettysburg history that long predated his becoming a performer. “I’ve been coming here since I was a kid,” Travers said. “The first time I came, it was my first bluegrass festival and the fish was on the hook.”

ROAD WARRIORS — Another band who went out of its way to help Winkelmann solve his scheduling woes was Sideline. The band played a set on Friday, loaded up the bus and drove eight hours to Kentucky, played there Saturday, then drove back to Gettysburg to close out the festival in the rain on Sunday afternoon.

Steve Dilling and his band Sideline closed out the festival on Sunday afternoon

Sideline is a lot like Songs From the Road Band in a way. Both started as side projects, jamming with other musicians in town when they were not on the road playing their regular gigs. Also like Songs From the Road, these guys know how to rock bluegrass without losing touch with the origins of the music. And both bands put on a helluva show.

Guitarist Skip Cherryholmes’ prowling style often includes a foray into the crowd with his guitar miced wirelessly. But technical woes on Friday and the weather on Sunday kept him tethered to the stage. No matter, he still was his usual animated self, still one of the most underrated flat pickers in bluegrass music. Suffice to say Cherryholmes’ play is on par with all of the bigger name gunslingers you might be more familiar with.

The band featured three new members since its last appearance at Gettysburg, in 2021. Zack Arnold played his last gig with Sideline at Gettysburg last May before joining Rhonda Vincent’s The Rage. Nick Goad now plays mandolin and shares singing chores with new rhythm guitarist Andy Buckner. Windbeck joined the band following the untimely death last year of founding member Jason Moore.

Steve Dilling, Cherryholmes’ father-in-law, provides Sideline with a hard driving banjo base. Jamie Harper holds down the fiddle and serves as Dilling’s verbal sparring partner for some genuinely funny cornpone banter.

A special round of applause for these guys, who were absolute troopers. By the time their set ended Sunday, the rain soaked crowd had dwindled to 20 or so diehard enthusiasts who braved the elements, and maybe another 25 taking shelter in the shade tent atop the hill.

It didn’t seem to matter a bit. At that point, after all they’d been through, they had every right to mail it in. Instead they not only played with the same intensity they had on Friday, but never hesitated to respond to the dozen fans left calling for an encore.

It was a fitting ending to a memorable festival. From the Steeldrivers and their Thursday night hits parade to Rhonda Vincent’s always so polished, Grand Ole Opry professional sets on Friday, to that, as the kids might say, amaze balls Appalachian Road Show set on Saturday, the headliners were sublime. The support lineup, filled with fun surprises, was outstanding even by Gettysburg’s usual high standards.