When it comes to bluegrass music, post-industrial landscapes don’t typically come to mind. But old factory buildings have proved to be an evocative accompaniment for MASS MoCA’s annual FreshGrass Bluegrass Festival.
The sound of banjos, fiddles, Dobros, and more echoes through the pathways and courtyards of the worn-brick complex that was once Sprague Electric Company in North Adams and is now home to a major music festival in New England. The crowds have grown so thick that Emmylou Harris — for many, the spiritual mother of bluegrass — is the festival’s featured headliner this year.
FreshGrass was conceived in 2011 by former Williams College music-major-turned-venture-capitalist Chris Wadsworth, whose talent is business but whose heart is filled with bluegrass music. Wadsworth approached MASS MoCA director Joe Thompson with his idea for holding a progressive bluegrass festival in the contemporary-art museum’s setting. He was looking for something different, and he found it.
“Chris suggested a festival devoted to the cutting edge of bluegrass, something of ambition and scope,” Thompson says. “But he proposed doing it in September of that same year, which was slightly crazed, given that most festivals are a year in the making. We jumped at it anyhow.”
“I thought about it as a space that would provide a unique atmosphere for playing unique music,” Wadsworth says. “What I didn’t appreciate enough at the time was the fact that the musicians are just as much artists as the artists presenting in MASS MoCA. There was a really interesting, positive feedback for the musicians themselves.”
Performers appreciated the unique venue, with the industrial ambiance of the museum campus and the immediate North Adams neighborhoods surrounding it, as well as the big sky and Berkshire Mountains. It was all so different from the rural fields that typically host such festivals, and the energy was something special, too.
“When you’re at a festival in a field surrounded by trees, that’s an automatic kind of ambiance you’ve got there. But this energy was created by people there, the way it was run,” says Rhiannon Giddens, who brings her Grammy-winning band, the Carolina Chocolate Drops, for a return performance this year. The first FreshGrass was a small success where, according to Thompson, “musicians threatened to outnumber audience.” A few hundred attendees were enough for the museum to see the festival’s potential and move forward with it. “We figured it was a good experiment to track interest, to learn, to hone our idea of what FreshGrass might be,” says Sue Killam, the museum’s managing director for the performing arts and film.
The festival quadrupled attendance in 2012 and doubled again in 2013. The expectation of 5,000 attendees for this year’s festival, held September 19–21, is proof that the investment has paid off. FreshGrass has a recognizable identity, no longer a secondary notion for music fans looking for a different kind of festival experience.
It was important to MASS MoCA that FreshGrass be not just audiences and stages, and wide participation has been a major goal. A partnership with the Berklee College of Music brings in a number of musical workshops. This year, for example, No Depression, the indie-alternative-country online community, will offer a seminar on music writing, something for non-musicians who want to participate.
North Adams–based guitar craftsman and luthier Steve Sauvé previously participated in a festival workshop, and he’ll return again this year. “It’s really a pretty amazing thing for North Adams, to see that upper echelon of the acoustic music world in town and also that influx of people,” Sauvé says.
The festival also reaches out to developing musicians with a trio of competitions for its FreshGrass Award. The band competition was first offered in 2013 and has now been expanded to include duo and solo-banjo contests. A coveted prize is a spot in next year’s festival, a major opportunity for an unknown musician.
“There aren’t a lot of contests at this level,” Wadsworth says. “The idea was if we could produce a contest with a good purse that also had the requirement of bringing some new, original music, that we might get some really interesting new acts. Help them, help us; everyone learns at the same time.”
“Years ago the contest circuit was an invaluable way for young players to get experience playing in front of an audience and gain exposure,” regular festival performer, bluegrass musician Alison Brown says. “I’m really glad FreshGrass has brought this tradition back.”
The festival features numerous pop-up concerts throughout the museum as well as impromptu performances by attendees, many of them local, who bring along their instruments. It’s all a part of making the festival as interactive as possible. Says MASS MoCA’s deputy director Larry Smallwood, “Even if bluegrass isn’t your thing, you’ll still have a great time.”