Festival fever

Shannon McNally

by Seth Rogovoy

(GREAT BARRINGTON, Mass., July 17, 2002) -- The festival season gets into high gear this weekend with two of the summer’s biggest – the Green River Festival in Greenfield on Friday and Saturday, and the Grey Fox Bluegrass Festival in Ancramdale, N.Y., starting today and running through Sunday.

For 16 years, the Franklin County Chamber of Commerce has staged the Green River Festival at Greenfield Community College (413-773-5463, In addition to music, the festival includes food, crafts, dancing, children’s activities, fireworks and the ever-popular hot-air balloons.

But Green River has also become one of the region’s premiere Americana music festivals, with acts ranging the gamut from Steve Riley’s Cajun to Chris Ardoin’s zydeco, from Chris Smither’s acoustic blues to Little Feat’s country-funk, from Tim O’Brien’s bluegrass/Celtic fusion to Dave Alvin’s roots-rock. Also on hand are folk-rocker Peter Case, Canadian country-rocker Fred Eaglesmith, folk duo Dave Carter and Tracy Grammer, singer-songwriter Mary Gauthier, and a Pioneer Valley supergroup featuring Mark Erelli, Jim Henry and Pete Nelson.

For as long as anyone can remember, the Dry Branch Fire Squad has been hosting the annual bluegrass festival that takes place at the Rothvoss Farm each year. Led by singer/mandolinist Ron Thomason and as heard on its most recent CD, “Hand Hewn” (Rounder), Dry Branch favors a rootsy blend of old-time country and folk tunes, spirituals, gospel and bluegrass breakdowns. With songs by Ralph Stanley and Hazel Dickens also in its repertoire, Dry Branch will also appeal to fans of the “O Brother, Where Art Thou?” soundtrack, as will many of the acts at Grey Fox, including young bluegrass sensations Nickel Creek, the classic bluegrass-soul sounds of the Del McCoury Band, Cape Breton fiddler Natalie MacMaster, Tim O’Brien, the legendary Seldom Scene, bluegrass jam-band Yonder Mountain, the Gibson Brothers, the Lonesome River Band, and the legendary Hazel Dickens herself.

Grey Fox headliners also include newgrass pioneer Sam Bush, the supergroup Rice, Rice, Hillman and Pedersen -- featuring Tony Rice, Chris Hillman of the Byrds and the Flying Burrito Brothers fame, and Herb Pedersen of the Dillards – and eight-time Grammy Award-winner Ricky Skaggs with his group Kentucky Thunder.

Skaggs first performed bluegrass on stage with Bill Monroe at age 5. Two years later, he performed on TV with Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs. As a teen-ager, he toiled in Ralph Stanley’s band, the Clinch Mountain Boys, before working with the likes of J.D. Crowe and the New South, the Country Gentlemen, and Emmylou Harris in the 1970s and ‘80s. In the 1980s, Skaggs enjoyed a successful career playing commercial country music, but in the ‘90s he turned his back on the country charts in favor of roots music. With Kentucky Thunder, he continues gently to push the boundaries of traditional bluegrass and country music, and on his upcoming album, “History of the Future” (Skaggs Family), he showcases his lightning-fast mandolin skills and songwriting talent, as well as his interpretation of classics by Carter Stanley and Bill Monroe.

For Grey Fox information and tickets, call 1-888-946-8495 or visit

Thomas Mapfumo’s musical struggle

His music is banned from public broadcast in his homeland, yet it’s no exaggeration to call Thomas Mapfumo the Bob Dylan and Bruce Springsteen of Zimbabwe all wrapped up in one. Maybe it was inevitable – Mapfumo’s music goes by the name of “chimurenga,” which means struggle. And ever since Mapfumo started singing professionally in 1965, his has been the voice of political struggle in his homeland – first against the colonial oppressors of Rhodesia, these days against the corrupt oligarchs of Zimbabwe. As world-music maven Banning Eyre has written, “No African musician…has had a greater hand in changing political realities than Thomas Mapfumo of Zimbabwe, who once worked to put Robert Mugabe in power and now roundly condemns his rule.”

Along the way he’s been spat upon, harassed by police, jailed and even temporarily exiled, yet he is also an international star, a pioneer of so-called Afro-pop – in his case, a fusion of American rock and soul with township grooves and traditional mbira music, characterized by swirling melodic lines played on hand-piano and electric guitar – and revered worldwide on a level approaching that of the late Bob Marley, to whom he has often been compared. Mapfumo, who has a brand-new double-CD scheduled for release next week, performs with his 10-piece band, Blacks Unlimited, tonight at Club Helsinki (528-3394) in Great Barrington.

Shannon McNally’s soul-pop blues

Audiences for John Mellencamp’s summer-shed tour – which stops at the Tweeter Center in Mansfield, Mass., tonight -- will be treated to one of the summer’s hottest newcomers in opening act Shannon McNally. On her debut album, “Jukebox Sparrows” (Capitol), the twentysomething pop-rock singer-songwriter combines the bluesy maturity of Bonnie Raitt with the folk-rock instincts of Sheryl Crow.

The Long Island native and anthropology major who now calls New Orleans home offers 11 carefully observed character portraits and emotional scenarios, several with political, feminist and environmental-minded messages, all couched in radio-ready, classic-rock style ballads and soul-infused anthems that would already have made her a star at any time between 1972 and 1992. Fans will also have a rare chance to catch McNally in an intimate venue when on a night off from Mellencamp’s tour she performs at the Colony Café in Woodstock, N.Y. (845-679-8639) on Friday night.

The Mammals evolve

Talk about to the manor born – the Mammals are veritably dripping with folk-music DNA. Tao Rodriguez-Seeger has a folksinging grandfather, and Ruth Ungar is the spawn of folk musicians Jay Ungar and Lyn Hardy. I don’t know from where Michael Merenda, who rounds out the trio, descends, but clearly music runs through his veins – he’s a singer-songwriter who plays banjo, guitar, bass, drums and something called the “ronrroco.”

The group’s new CD, “Evolver” (Humble Abode), is really its first full-fledged studio effort, and in addition to being a family affair – all the parents, grandparents and step-parents lend a hand, as well as friends including Sarah Lee Guthrie and Johnny Irion, the latter of whom will join the Mammals onstage on Friday night at the Guthrie Center in Great Barrington (528-1955) – it’s the fulfillment of the promise the group has shown in its many shows in the region over the past year. From traditional string-band numbers to rollicking folk songs – like the Weavers on steroids – to haunting, original songs, the mostly acoustic effort is undoubtedly what Woody Guthrie, Leadbelly and Pete Seeger would have sounded like today if they were born around 1980 or so. If you can’t catch them on Friday night, the Mammals return to the Berkshires on July 26, at the Dream Away Lodge in Becket.


Chuck Prophet

“No Other Love” (New West)

On his sixth solo album, the San Francisco-based former member of Green on Red delivers 11 songs of alternative roots-rock and pop, from the Jimmy Webb-like “After the Rain” to the faux-bossa nova “I Bow Down and Pray to Every Woman I See” to “Run Primo, Run,” a nod to Dylan’s “Subterranean Homesick Blues” both musically and in its surreal, cinematic narration. If Tom Waits was the frontman for Wilco the result might sound like Chuck Prophet. [7/21/02]

Chuck Prophet performs with his band on Sunday, July 21, at Club Helsinki at 9.

The Byrds

“The Byrds Play Dylan” (Columbia/Legacy)

Originally formed as a stateside answer to the Beatles, the Byrds wound up as one of the great American folk- and country-rock bands of the Sixties, not the least for their interpretations of Bob Dylan songs. Few artists have ever figured out how to cover Dylan; for the Byrds, who in some small but significant way helped shape Dylan’s own sound, this was never a problem. Partly it was Roger McGuinn’s vocal affinity with Dylan, but ultimately, as this compilation of 20 Dylan tracks, including several live ones show, it was because Dylan’s writing pushed them to their greatest achievements.[7/21/02]

Radio Beat

Another in our series of periodic tallies of the most-played recordings -- most new, some old – on our imaginary radio station:

1. David Bowie, “Heathen” (ISO/Columbia)
2. Bang on a Can, “Renegade Heaven” (Cantaloupe)
3. Ray Mason, “Three Dollar Man” (Captivating Music)
4. Shea Seger, “The May Street Project” (RCA)
5. Elvis Costello, “When I Was Cruel” (Island)
6. Jen Chapin/Stephan Crump, “Open Wide” (Purple Chair Music)
7. Shannon McNally, “Jukebox Sparrows” (Capitol)
8. Chuck Prophet, “No Other Love” (New West)
9. Gogol Bordello, “Voi-La Intruder” (Rubric)
10. Rosey, “Dirty Child” (Island)
Updated July 17, 2002

[This column originally appeared in the Berkshire Eagle on July 18, 2002. Copyright Seth Rogovoy 2002. All rights reserved.]

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