Scottown, Ohio —
The progessive bluegrass ensemble Punch Brothers closed out the 11th edition of the Appalachian Uprising Saturday night by paying tribute to a recently departed music legend.
The five-member group, headed by former Nickel Creek mandolinist/singer Chris Thile, played a sprited version of the Band’s “Ophelia” as its second encore. Prior to launching into the song, Thile dedicated it to the “tremendously great” Band singer/drummer Levon Helm, who succumbed to cancer in April.
Helm was by no means the only recently deceased musican honored during the course of the three-day festival.
During his headlining set on Friday with his band, Kentucky Thunder, Blaine native Ricky Skaggs sang a soul-stirring a capella gospel number that he dedicated to flatpicker Doc Watson, who died on May 29.
“One thing we know is that when Doc got to heaven, the first thing the Lord did was give him a new set of eyes,” Skaggs said of Watson, who lost his sight before his first birthday due to an eye infection. “Can you imagine the sights he’s seeing right now?”
Skaggs also told the crowd one of the highlights of his long and illustrious career was recording a 2003 album called “Three Pickers” with Wason and banjoist Earl Scruggs.
With more than a trace of sadness in his voice, Skaggs, 57, told the audience that it felt empty to be the only one of those three pickers still surviving. Scruggs died in March at the age of 88.
“We’re losing a lot of our elders,” Skaggs said. “That means it’s up to us to step up and be the elders.”
While the Appalachian Uprising itself may be getting on a bit in years, it show no signs of slowing down. In fact, this year’s event was the biggest ever, said Steve Cielec, whose family stages the three-day festival in a verdant valley deep in the Lawrence County countryside.
While billed as a bluegrass festival, one of the keys to the Uprising’s success is that it’s by no means strictly bluegrass. Organizers draw the circle wide when booking acts for the event, which draws a broader cross-section of music lovers. It also results in displays of musical diversity like one on Saturday, where the Nashville-based group The Vespers took the stag to perform their brand of darkness-tinged mountain folk minutes after the dyed-in-the-wool bluegrass sounds of Elliott County resident Don Rigsby and his group, Midnight Call, had echoed through the valley.
“We always try to keep it eclectic,” Cielec said.
It was Rigsby’s first time performing at the Uprising. He said afterward that it appeared the event was getting more traditional as the years went on.
Initially, he said, the Uprising’s lineup seemed to consist mostly of newgrass-type acts. But, for the past several years, he said if seemed there’d been a definite shift in the opposite direction.
“It’s good to see them going back and giving respect to the greats,” he said.
When Rigsby was 6, his parents took him to the Paramount Arts Center to see his idol, Ralph Stanley, and the Clinch Mountain Boys. The late Keith Whitley, who was with the group at the time, plucked the youngster out of the audience and whisked him backstage for a meeting with Stanley.
He said he had recently completed a tribute CD to Stanley, and, for the packaging, he returned to the Paramount for a photo shoot, even attempting to locate the exact seat in which he was sitting when that encounter — which he said essentially destined him to become a bluegrass musician — took place.
While the composition of the Uprising’s lineup changes from year to year, one constant is Boyd County resident Melvin Goins, who helped start the event and who’s played at every one. This year, Goins and his group, Windy Mountain, turned in Thursday and Friday sets and Goins also did a bit of MC work on Saturday.
“I always look forward to playing here,” Goins said. “It’s just like coming home for Christmas.”
Two budding performers with northeastern Kentucky ties made their Uprising debuts this year. Johnson County native Tyler Childers performed on Thursday with his group, Small Batch, and Sasha Collete and the Magnolias played Friday. One of the highlights of Colette’s set was guitarist Jeremy Short’s scorching version of “My Old Kentucky Home,” played in the same style that Jimi Hendrix played the national anthem at Woodstock.
One of the most non-traditional acts to play at this year’s festival was Cincinnati’s Rumpke Mountain Boys. With their cascading dreadlocks and dressed-down senses of style, the group’s members hardly looked the parts of bluegrass musicians. And, group member Ben Gourley said the most bluegrass thing about the band was its instrumentation.
“It’s basically whatever music we feel like playing, played on bluegrass instruments,” he said.
One of the band’s t-shirts describes its music as “infamous trashgrass,” which is hardly surprising, considering the group took its name from a massive trash pile in a Cincinnati landfill, guitarist and singer Adam Copeland said. According to Copeland, that trash mountain is the highest geographical point in Cincinnati.
One of the most electrifying performances of the weekend came from North Carolina singer-guitarist David Mayfield and his band, the David Mayfield Parade. A wildman onstage, Mayfield drove the crowd insane with antics, which included exaggerated rock-god posing, jumping offstage to dance in the crowd and lacing his between-songs patter with humor.
For example, when introducing mandolinist Carly Booher, he referred to her as “lovely and promiscuous.
“Promiscuous — that means you can use both your left and your right hand, right?” he said.
In a backstage interview, Mayfield said he likes to inject humor into his act because it keeps him from taking himself too seriously.
“It reminds me of what my purpose is, and that’s to entertain people,” he said.
KENNETH HART can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (606) 326-2654.