Mountaingrass Festival 2019

we review this year’s event

The Willing Ponies – Photo: Kimberley Wheeler

Mountaingrass Festival 2019

Beechworth, Victoria, Australia

8 to 10 November

By Kimberley Wheeler

Some would say that a former asylum is the perfect place for people to be running around with banjos and fiddles, playing and singing bluegrass music.

Asylum or not, the beautiful gardens and rustic majesty of the buildings of the former May Day Hill Mental Hospital complex in Beechworth were the perfect location for these traditional musical arts to shine, at Australia’s peak festival for bluegrass and Appalachian music – Mountaingrass.

One interesting and very welcome change in this, the second year at this location, was the inclusion of the Bijou Theatre to the list of venues. This space has an old-world charm of the 1860’s, yet with couches, a raised stage and theatre curtaining which transform the old Recreation Hall to its new calling. It was this reviewer’s favourite venue for comfort and sound. A fitting space to see the old-school Crooked Road and the Gillian Welch/ David Rawlings-inspired Slim Dime.

South Carolina Broadcasters – Photo: Kimberley Wheeler

Festival headliner Midnight Skyracer (UK) had the jaws of punters dropping left, right and centre. This was not just in response to Tabitha ‘Crazy Fingers’ Agnew’s banjo passages. They mixed it up with originals like “Shadow On The Moon”, adding old standards such as Bill Monroe’s “Blue Night” (that featured Leanne’s powerhouse vocals) and a version of “I Still Miss Someone” which was so understated and sweet but sung like they wrote it. A band that owned the hard-hitting tracks equally with the gentler ones, often displaying breath-taking levels of subtlety and restraint not often seen in the genre.

The duo Mike and Ruthy, from upstate New York, surfed the edges of old time and folk, drawing repertoire from Dave Von Ronk, Etta James, Woody Guthrie, as well as their own material. The protest song “My Baby Drinks Water”, about protecting our water sources in the era of fracking was performed a capella by Ruth and highlighted her exceptional singing talents. I imagined Pete Seeger smiling down on her at that moment. A real treat was the unfinished Guthrie song, refurbished and completed by the pair, “My New York City”. They are coming back to Australia next year with their band, The Mammals. (Ed: review our review of their album Sunshiner HERE).

The South Carolina Broadcasters’ (US) ‘primitive bluegrass’ kept the connection to the real old days of bluegrass, also accompanied by Ivy Shepard’s delightful commentary. The Sonoran Dogs were mostly keeping it straight, in form and match fit. In a similar head-space and feel, The Cherry Pickers presented thoughtful bluegrass interpretations of songs we all know, but sourced from outside the genre. They reminded me of the space that renowned outfit Uncle Bill once filled.

Whoa Mule (Sydney) is an enterprising old time band with double and sometimes triple fiddles and three-part harmonies. Their set included, “Big Sky Country”, an original song about Urella, NSW by Sujata Allan aka Dr. Mule. They paid homage to Alice Gerard with “Calling Me Home”, keeping it sparse and spacious but including ghostly yodels (perfect in the asylum setting) and ending with a banjo-whacking (literally) standard tune “Garfield’s Blackberry Blossom”!

Whoa Mule – Photo: Kimberley Wheeler

The Willing Ponies (Sydney) showcase the old bluegrass style into the modern with materials from lead singer and songwriter Ricky Pannowitz. Their set included gems such as “Gotta Move On” about losing his dad and “You’ve Fallen For Another One”, amongst others. The band had a stellar line-up including Nigel Lever on mandolin, banjoist Ben Thomas and Quentin Fraser (2017 winner at the Old Fiddlers Convention in Galax Virginia) on dobro.

The Willing Ponies – Photo: Kimberley Wheeler

The Stetson Family (Melbourne) brought some solid, new Aussie songwriting to the bluegrass form. Highlights include the heart-tugger, “Every Second Beat of My Heart” and the harmony intense gospel style “O Winding River”.

As the festival program comes to a close, the pickers come out to play.  There is an Appalachian Old Time ensemble in the corridor in a trance-style session and a bluegrass gathering in every other nook and corner.  Together, it makes for an overture so raucous it might even drown out the voices in your head. 

If music is the insanity, perhaps bluegrass is the medicine or is it the obsession?  Whatever the case, I will see you here at Mountaingrass next year, 20 to 22 November, for another dose.


Ed: Kimberley Wheeler is a prominent songwriter, singer and multi-instrumentalist.  As well as solo work, she has been a member of highly-regarded bands such as Uncle Bill, Little Rabbit and the Appalachian Heaven Stringband.  She is a former President of the Australasian Bluegrass and Old Time Music Association (ABOTMA).  Her latest project, Kimberley Wheeler’s Roadside Holiday will see a new release early in 2020.  Kimberley also manages an IT consultancy, Madam PC Networking and Computing.

Photo: Kimberley Wheeler

we review this year’s event

we review this year’s event

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