The day after the tragedy in Charlottesville, Rhiannon Giddens stood alone with her banjo in front of 3,000 pretty homogeneous Western folks at the base of a ski hill in Wyoming and sang her heart out. She sang “At the Purchaser’s Option,” a song taken from an 1850’s newspaper ad in which the last line advised potential purchasers of a female slave that her nine month-old baby was also available – or not – at the purchaser’s option.
People cried. Though many of the campers festival-goers were not fully aware yet of what had transpired the day before in Virginia, they shed their tears for her and ultimately for us all.
The power of live music was never more evident, as a force for healing, for change, for understanding of others and most especially for its transcendent ability to unite, to bring people of disparate generations, backgrounds and experiences together in unison and love. That moment was sublime, one of the most memorable festival experiences I’ve ever shared.
The 30th anniversary of the Targhee Bluegrass Festival was all about transcendent experiences, about traversing a mountain of music from past to present. It was about remembering 30 years of musical heroes who had graced the Targhee stage, and celebrating new ones no doubt inspired by the shredding of bluegrass strings from those who made epic runs before them. Some transcendent examples:
- Ronnie McCoury playing “Bluegrass Breakdown” after explaining that it was the first song his dad taught him, one that Del had learned from Bill Monroe that became the first bluegrass song Monroe ever recorded (with Lester Flatt on the banjo).
- The Sam Bush Band singing “Up On the Hill Where They Do the Boogie,” in remembrance of John Hartford, who performed at Targhee many times.
- Peter Rowan – accompanied by Jefferson Airplane bass guitarist Jack Casady, banjoist extraordinaire Danny Barnes and drummer Jim Acklin – recalling all the years he played The Trap, the slope side bar/venue that served as the inspiration of the festival (and still serves as the late night venue, where The Travelin’ McCourys played a blazing set until 1:45 a.m.)
- The Infamous Stringdusters – with dobro institution and current IBMA nominee for Dobro player of the Year, Andy Hall sporting an Iron Maiden t-shirt – segueing from a get-the-young-girls-screaming cover of Daft Punk’s “Get Lucky” into a totally traditional rendition of “Uncle Pen.” Talk about transcending generations and genres while inspiring hope for the future of bluegrass!
- Rhiannon Giddens singing Patsy Cline’s “She’s Got You” on the heels of her nephew Justin Harrington’s stinging rap was a jaw-dropping juxtaposition – made all the more eloquent by bandmate Dirk Powell’s Cajun tribute to his father-in-law Dewey Balfa on the accordion.
- Saturday night’s closing jam, led by Sam Bush with Tim O’Brien chiming in on the verses, featured a sometimes rowdy, sometimes soulful version of “Gentle On My Mind,” written by John Hartford and made famous by recently deceased legend Glen Campbell.
- Greensky Bluegrass eschewing the many challenges they had getting to the festival and playing a very relaxed, anything-goes, shout-out-your-requests set of music, ending with Paul Hoffman telling us to be good to each other and celebrate diversity.
- Finally, with the clock ticking, many a hobo watched the backstage area, searching for a glimpse of the band that would close the 2017 Targhee Bluegrass Festival. Prior to their arrival, rumors circulated through the crowd with attendees noting “I heard that they made it to Jackson, now they just have to get here.” Indulging in the old axiom ‘the show must go on,’ the post-GSBG stage was then expertly and efficiently prepared for RRE’s set. Shrugging off any weariness and showing no worse for the wear, the band launched into a breakneck “Cold Water.” Later in the set the sing-along “Won’t You Come and Sing For Me” showed; highlights included “Lordy, Lordy,” Bread and Water” and “Raven’s > Forecast.” An extended “Head” finished up the set, and the band was called back on stage for an appropriate “Railroad Earth” encore.
From an Easterner’s perspective, I’d describe Targhee as a “Festy West” in terms of size and the easy-going, Jamily/Campers/Hobos camping vibe. A solid late-night picking scene in the campground was made all the better by the students who had just spent the 4 days before the festival at Targhee Music Camp. Definitely one to put on the “must-do” list of Western events, Targhee Resort is just an hour north west of Jackson, Wyoming on the grounds of one of the country’s best ski and mountain biking resorts. There’s nothing that can compare to hiking three miles up the precarious Bannon trail amongst the wildflowers to the top of the Dreamcatcher lift overlooking the Grand Tetons – and then descending via chair lift into the festival serenaded by the music wafting up from the stage below.
And, oh my are those Western folks friendly! I wore a “Keep Asheville Weird” tee one day and must have had 50 people come chat about the music and beers and in general about bluegrass back East – including a great group of music lovers from Virginia!
Written by Chuck Flournoy, Kasie Kubilius and Bill Kubilius
Photographs by Kathy Kilcher