Read our take on the 2018 Oklahoma International Bluegrass Festival
Guthrie Oklahoma October 4-6 2018
Images – Jim Jacob
Words – Rob Dickens
Oklahoma’s International Bluegrass Festival (OIBF) is into its twenty-second year. The event has been bringing bluegrass, traditional, western swing, Americana and variations of those music forms to Guthrie, a historic town in the heart of Central Oklahoma, since 1996.
Set in Cottonwood Flats with plenty of room for camping and multiple jam sessions, the first full weekend of each October has brought entertainers from the U.S.A and around the world for a weekend of great music. In addition to camping, jamming and all the great stage performances, festival-goers can enjoy workshops, chow down at the food trucks, shop for a new instrument or event shirt or hat in the merchandise tent, or bid for a fine instrument at the auction, where all proceeds go to youth scholarships.
Over the years OIBF has presented some very big names – Earl Scruggs, Ricky Skaggs & Kentucky Thunder, Vince Gill, Rhonda Vincent & The Rage, Tommy Emmanuel, Asleep at the Wheel, Willie Nelson, Suzy Boggus, California, Hot Club of Cowtown, Kathy Mattea, The Kruger Brothers, The Byron Berline Band and The Turnpike Troubadours. There have also been outstanding international bluegrass bands from around the world – Japan, Austria, Italy, The Czech Republic, Belgium, Canada, Switzerland, England. Diversity and engagement is very welcome here.
The 2018 event runs from Thursday 4 October to Saturday 6 October. Day one is dedicated to local musicians. Over the second and third days, the OIBF line-up includes twenty noted acts – Tommy Emmanuel (ex-Australia, now Nashville), April Verch Band (Canada), Blueside of Lonesome (Japan) and The Kruger Brothers (ex-Switzerland, now North Carolina).
American entertainers are: Bluegrass Martins, Starkey & Clark, The Byron Berline Band, Choctaw Line, Barry “Bones” Patton, The Neverly Hillbillies, Steelwind, Cowboy Jim Garling, The Red Dirt Rangers, Bret Graham, Hunt Family Band, Mountain Smoke, RussellClan, The Baker Family, The Foust Family and The Bonhams.
One of the main goals of OIBF since the festival’s inception is to provide a heavy involvement for youth – music scholarships, workshops, instrument contests, youth band contests and a Kid’s Music Tent where young performers and family bands are showcased for the hundreds of local school children who are brought to the event each year. OIBF also sends bands out to the local schools to do performances while they are here for the festival.
Workshops and Jams
This is where a wonderful sense of community comes in and a love of the music requires passing down the skills, tips and traditions of songwriting and playing. There are mandolin & guitar workshops with Andrew Hunt, Starkey & Clark, Sam Grounds, Thomas Trapp, David Bonham, Masuo Sasabe, Uwe Kruger and Yasuhisa Katoh. Learn fiddle & banjo with Byron Berline, Greg Burgess, April Verch, Ryukichi Hayakawa, Billy Perry, Jonathan Hunt, Andrew Hunt and Jens Kruger. You can also put your name down for an open mic at the Cottonwood Creek Stage.
Saturday was mid 20sC/70sF. The air currents moved from breezy to gusty.
The clouds jostled with the sun for overall supremacy but neither won that contest.
The festival seemed to have more RVs than people at the start of the day. The main, Land Run Stage, faces the road east, the grassy area has plenty of room for the audience, sprawled in chairs, who were peacefully soaking up the scene which was the most relaxing for us during the Listening Through The Lens music travels over the past four weeks in the USA. We lapped the beauty and the serenity up. The MC was inviting and gloriously corny.
A toddler sidled up to me as I sat down on the grass, fascinated with something about me – the badges on the hat maybe, the bright blue poncho/mat perhaps? Her mother said: “Wow, she doesn’t go near any people, you must be special”. The spell was broken when she studied me further, her lip dropped and her eyes closed as if to shut out the terrible vision. A large bumble bee was a more loyal companion.
Sunday was cold. The clouds were a sheet of grey and moisture therefrom loomed all day. But luckily a few spots at the end of the night were all they could manage which meant no performance disruption.
The RussellClan are a Guthrie OK family band, seven members ranging from ages 10 to 23. Winners of a nationally-recognised Youth In Bluegrass competition, they provided a likable mix of classic bluegrass, English folk, Irish jigs and hymns.
Blueside of Lonesome – from Japan and named after a Jim Reeves’ song – have been ambassadors for bluegrass since the 1970’s and are the subject of a documentary Far Western. Lead by Masuo Sasabe who was struck by the similarity between Japanese and American folk music. One of the most successful Americans acts in Japan, they have just come off a show at the iconic Station Inn.
Bluegrass Martins hail from Jefferson Missouri (where the prairie meets the Ozark Mountains). A five or six piece family outfit, brothers and sisters Martin all, Larita’s dobro was a soaring, welcome sound, drifting through trees and ears. The lively “Doodle Bug” was fun and the set exhibited the sharp musicianship of this talented bunch.
Hunt Family Bluegrass was the final act we captured on the Saturday (the remaining bands on the day’s bill were all playing on Saturday night as a lead-up to the single appearance of headliner Tommy Emmanuel). They were a cut above. Husband, wife and two sons had been jamming for so long that the notion of being in a band crept up on them to an inevitable conclusion. Terry (guitar), Leanne (bass), sons Andrew (fiddle, mandolin) and Jonathan (banjo, guitar) combine beautifully. Six albums under their belt – they delivered some bluegrass gospel, ripping long instrumentals, a stirring go at John Denver’s “Country Roads”, a jazzed-up “Sweet Georgia Brown” and a lightning “Bluegrass Breakdown” were highlights.
April Verch Band is fronted by a fiddler, singer and step dancer. April Verch has always had music around her – her father’s country band, the lively music at church and community dances. She started to dance at three and took up the fiddle at six which had led to more than twenty years of recording and performing her traditional fiddle tunes from her native Ottawa Valley Canada and its lumber camps, where step dancing has developed its unique style, borrowing from Irish jigs, clogging and tap dancing. It was a pleasurable blend of traditional fiddle styles and Appalachian tunes. The trio included Alex Rubin on guitar and husband Cody Walters on bass and banjo.
The delight of day three was hearing and discovering the Byron Berline Band. A gentleman* back stage told me that Berline was the “best traditional fiddle player in the world”. His background is indeed impressive – he came to attention when he performed an impromptu audition for the Missouri-based The Dillards. He has since played with the likes of Bill Monroe, Elton John, Rod Stewart, The Rolling Stones, The Flying Burrito Brothers and Bob Dylan (Pat Garrett and Billy The Kid). Berline made his home in Guthrie OK in 1995, establishing the notable Double Stop Fiddle Stop and founded this festival. The eight-piece band tonight had two award-winning percussionists, a ‘bones’ player and a drummer, so the sound was deliciously full – bluegrass, western swing, early rock n roll and their closing “Orange Blossom Special” was sensational.
The day was about to get even better. The Kruger Brothers have established a formidable reputation since settling in Wilkesboro North Carolina from Switzerland. From a young age, the two brothers Jens (banjo and vocals) and Uwe (guitar, vocals) were introduced to music and by the ages of eleven and twelve they were busking. The pair teamed up with New York bassist Joel Landsberg and they have together since 1995. Their sound is striking as they blend traditional bluegrass and ballads (they were friends with the late Doc Watson) with classical arrangements. Jens has been commissioned to write classical pieces and in 2017 they collaborated with the Kontras Quartet further explores the musical wedding of Appalachian and classical music. Heady.
Australian ex-pat Tommy Emmanuel and his brother Phil taught themselves to play guitar at a very early age. A meeting turned jam session with his guitar hero Chet Atkins bolstered his confidence. By the mid-1980’s, he went it alone, making instrumental guitar records, a move that was bold and against trends of the time (and since). His CV now stretches over twenty albums, two Grammy nominations, two ARIA awards (Australia), Guitar Player awards, numerous magazine polls naming him the greatest acoustic guitarist alive, he’s played with Atkins, Eric Clapton, Doc Watson and John Denver. Tonight his skills were evident, a darting “Deep River Blues” and jazzy “Blue Moon” were two that stood out. So did the cover of “Classical Gas” which was nod to Mason Williams who, it turns out, was the gentleman* I was speaking to back stage.
That was a nice touch to finish up an event which was full of many musical highlights, in a quiet and serene park setting, friendly and neighborly and a stone’s throw from an interesting and historic ‘red-brick’ town.
Read our take on the 2018 Oklahoma International Bluegrass Festival